There were four of us in our late 20s/early 30s plus our guide. Most of us had met for the first time the day before, none of us had ever climbed outdoors, and now we were staring up at a rock wall we were going to climb, trusting these strangers to keep us from plummeting to our deaths, should we fall. Spoiler alert: we all left in (mostly) one piece.
The previous week, my new friend Terra had invited me rock climbing, along with her friend, Omar, and Omar’s friend, Sean. She had booked us on a day-long guided outdoor climb at Smith Rock, a mecca for rock climbers, one of the Seven Wonders of Oregon, and a spot I had personally wanted to revisit ever since my initial bike camping weekend there last September (read the full story about that trip here). So obviously, despite having only known Terra for a couple of weeks and having never met the guys, I said yes to spending a night in a hotel room with three strangers and trusting them for my very first outdoor climb the following day. Luckily, we all got along as if we had known each other for years. Similar senses of humor, easy-going natures, and a fantastic guide made the experience a real pleasure as well as an adventure.
Initially, my concerns were for the weather (fingers crossed it wouldn’t be windy and rainy), and that a heretofore unknown fear of heights would emerge. Luckily, despite the snow we drove through to get to Kah-Nee-Tah the previous evening, the morning dawned clear and bright, with sun shining down on us all day. Perfect climbing weather, and our guide directed us toward climbs in the sun.
As for the fear of heights, I got equally lucky that I never once felt uncertain due to my distance from the ground. Where I felt most uncertain was in trusting my own feet and finger grips – would my toes hold? My fingers? My shoes? Was I really strong enough to stand solely supported on one leg while three of five toes clung to a spit of rock no bigger than the width of my index finger?
Prior to climbing at Smith Rock, I had done some outdoor bouldering at Joshua Tree National Park in California, but it had been years since I had been in a climbing harness or tied a knot in a rope for belaying. I can not speak highly enough of KAF Adventures and especially our guide, Trevor, for leading us through all the steps in a way that was knowledgeable and informative, fun and yet gave us enough practice and self-confidence so that we could soon jump right into climbing. He also was incredibly supportive and encouraging of our own speed of climb and various abilities. The guys scampered up the rocks like mountain goats, or those frogs that have suckers on all four feet, allowing them to latch onto smooth surfaces. Terra wasn’t far behind. I was definitely more timid, again, not because of a fear of falling or dying – that part was actually fun – but because I’m somewhat timid when it comes to doing new things and had trouble trusting in my own ability.
Our first climbing location featured two routes: Lean Cuisine and Jersey Shore. I’m not making that up; those were seriously the climb names. Once I got past that, Trevor explained that these climbs had more hand and foot holds from actual rocks sticking out or small caverns pushing into the rock. We used a process called edging for this type of climb, combined with toeing-in. Edging in when you place the sides of your foot on small ledges; toeing-in is, as you might expect, is sticking your toes onto the available ledge, relying on their strength. While I didn’t summit at either of those locations, getting stuck about 3/4 of the way up on both of them, I did summit on our second climbing location called Rope de Dope. This climb was on a different type of rock; the cliff face was pock-marked with a pitted surface that required you to use a technique called smearing, where the ball of the foot is flat against the rock face so that you rely on the friction between your shoe and the rock to hold you in place. This and toeing-in (and Trevor’s encouragement) finally got me to the top.
The best part for someone not scared of heights or dying is when you get to sit back on your harness and either chill up there for a while, resting arms and toes and fingers and your brain, or else having your belayer (the person on the ground beneath you, hooked to you via your climbing rope) helping you essentially hop your way back down the rock. The worst part of it all, for me, was the adrenaline that built up in my arms and legs and neck and back and fingers and toes so that even weeks later, I still feel a little tense. Thank goodness therapeutic massages exist. And as you can see Terra demonstrating here, we recommend some stretching before, during, and after your climbs.
I also can’t recommend KAF Adventures enough. KAF is apparently a Hebrew word that roughly translates to “act to realize your potential,” and speaks nicely to what the company tries to provide. They have guided climbs for all levels all over the Pacific Northwest, but they also offer guided mountain biking tours, backpacking tours all over the world, mountaineering expeditions, and winter recreation. Basically, if you’re active outdoors, you should check out what they have to offer. They have a new programming beginning in Portland this summer, which I’m pretty excited about, and they will continue to lead tours at Smith, because really, check out these views. Why wouldn’t you want to climb there?