Pushing to new heights

By James O?Donoghue, Staff Writer

If you haven’t yet visited the local crags here in the Wasatch, or anywhere for that matter, take time this summer and learn a great sport.

Rock climbing is a sport that gets you outside and helps you appreciate the detail and texture of different rocks. It’s not complicated and it’s not about competition between people, but rather an internal struggle8212;or a puzzle if you will. It’s you and a hearty block of rock. Arranging the fingers of your hand, the thoughts in your head, the rhythm of your heart and the weight on your toes. It’s just about you and the unique experience of being 30 feet up on a rock that seemed like a blind stretch minutes ago, and now you’re there at some point that we call the end8212;the chains. When you touch the ground after belaying back down, you can rearrange yourself into your normal composure and worry about tomorrow.

Climbing has been around for a long time, and the past always deserves respect, but we’ll cut this chat short and just say that one day, someone tied a rope to themselves and climbed a rock face that everyone else thought previously impossible. So there is the past, present and future of climbing. For a beginning climber to tie into this sport is simple, but you’ll need a few things: a climbing harness, a dynamic rope, a belay device with a carabineer, a helmet and a friend8212;or stranger8212;who will lead climb and who you trust with your life. The rest is extra. Most climbers wear rock climbing shoes, which are tight-fitting shoes with shaped rubber on their sole. There are some that are more specialized for different types of climbing but beginners can wear tennis shoes if they want; some climbers don’t wear any shoes. You’ll also see climbers wearing a bag on the small of their back. This is their chalk bag. The chalk is to keep your hands from slipping off the rock because of sweat. Whether chalk is necessary is up for debate8212;on some routes it’s absolutely necessary, but most can be done without it. Some climbers chalk up after every move.
A beginner has to learn to belay. This is an action that stops someone on rope from falling to his or her death. This will take some practice, but the physics of it is friction. You make a bend in the rope across your belay device and it takes very little force to stop a falling climber. When you want to lower a climber, you reduce the amount of friction8212;preferably slowly.

What the rock offers, you have to conform to. Climbers do this by different handholds and footholds. There are also different grips that can be used. Open grip is used when your hand has found a big or a rounded hold, also called a “sloper.” A crimp is used on smaller holds with a flat top; your second knuckle will bend inward. A pinch grip is where your hand has found a hold that protrudes from the face and you can pinch it with your thumb. The thumb is much stronger than your fingers, so any way you can utilize it will help will make it easier on yourself. There is also the pocket grip and the vertical grip, which you’ll only get to know if you can support your weight on one to three fingers in a pocket hole or if you can support your body weight on your fingertips with the first part of your finger joints. Your feet will be in an edge where your shoe is using its edge to stand on the hold, or a smear where you’re pushing the flat part of the shoe onto the rock.

A few general rules: keep your weight over your feet8212;on less than vertical, this means your hips will be out from the rock. The smaller the angle that the rock has to the ground, the closer your hips will need to be to the rock in order to keep your feet on the holds. Once you place a foot, leave it be. Testing doesn’t work. People will constantly tell you to trust your feet because it’s hard to feel confident with some holds. If you find your legs fatiguing in what’s called a “sewer’s leg,” a rapid movement of the heel like you’re running a sewing machine, just lower your heel and it will magically fade. If you feel really comfortable in a spot, take a moment to rest. Good things to look for are areas where you think you’ll be able to rest.

In the end it’s intuition8212;your belayer can try to direct you to a hold, but ultimately, it’s how you’re able to arrange yourself to the rock. Also, you will have a Gumby moment. Gumby is usually a reference to a beginner and I can only guess it’s because Gumby is green and a beginner is “green.” Either that or because you cross your body up in a way that makes finding the next hold impossible. Either way, everyone has a very dumb moment when they are outdoors. It’s how some of us learn.

Paul Petzoldt, a famous mountain climber and founder of National Outdoor Leadership School, a school that teaches you how to not get into trouble in the outdoors, related in his book The New Wilderness Handbook the account of his first ascent of the Grand Teton with a buddy in cotton jeans and jacket with a pocket knife and a can of beans. They almost froze to death on the mountain. If the concept existed back then, that would’ve been a Gumby moment. Beginning stumbles can be deadly, but if it turns out to be a harmless mistake, just learn from it. There are different inlets and coves to this sport that you’ll eventually discover by yourself when you’re ready and you’ll soon call this sport your own.

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