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Between a Rock and a Long Fall

Like a fish, hungry for outdoor sports, I eagerly took the bait when he offered to take me rock climbing.  He’d been climbing for decades and it seemed foolish to pass up the lesson he was offering me.  Having only a few climbing experiences under my belt, I wanted to learn more about this bizarre sport.

We prepared for the challenge with ropes and mock belays in the backyard.  He challenged my braking reflexes with bursts of, “Falling!” when he’d try to pull me off my feet.  Knots in my stomach formed when the thought of a real fall crossed my mind.  I learned the basic communication phrases, I felt prepared technically and physically -- little did I know what a mind game rock climbing was.

My car teetered on the highway to Leavenworth from the taunting side wind.  If this wind could provoke my 3000 pound car to a sway, what power would it have over me when I was perched in thin air over Highway 2 and the swollen river raging through the Tumwater Canyon?  On my maiden voyage of rock climbing would I be swinging helplessly to and fro, scraping over coarse granite like cheese through a grater? I wasn’t even on the rock and my imagination had turned gory. 

We reached our destination up the Tumwater Canyon.  Castle Rock towered above us, like a grey tombstone.  We trekked up the narrow trail to the upper wall and prepared for battle.  Here, like an angel descending from heaven, Tina Duffey appeared out of nowhere to tag along behind me on the climb.  Her moral support, I was about to discover, was going to be needed. 

With a few final exchanges and safety checks we were off.  He led the way, making it look more like a delicate dance than a stomach wrenching, risk-filled sport.  Soon I was following him into guaranteed danger.               

A secure rope from above, four points of contact with the rock before me, moral support from Tina climbing behind me -- it shouldn’t have been difficult except for… the exposure.  The exposure over the road and river so far below in the bowels of the Tumwater Canyon played with my sanity and confidence. 

Two thirds of the way up the first pitch I found myself stuck as I struggled to map out my next move.  My hip was cramping, my calf was shaking incessantly, and my brain imagined gruesome possibilities that had my heart hammering.  My confidence waned and I felt like giving up.  I glanced down to scope out possible escape routes, only to see how miniscule our backpacks looked from up high.  “Alright,” I thought, “There’s no choice but to keep climbing.”  Tunnel vision kicked in, I wedged my toe into an unlikely looking divot, and pushed up with all my might to reach a ledge. 

All that angst had me hating rock climbing. I was positive this was not my sport. But upon reaching the end of the first pitch and clipping into the anchor, my body surged with euphoric mix relief, accomplishment and dopamine.   

On the belay ledge I reconnected with my misplaced confidence and, following my leader up the second pitch, I climbed with a smile rather than a grimace.     

Completing what seemed like the longest climb ever attacked by man or woman, I stood on the top of Castle Rock as the sun slipped off the rim of the canyon high above and dusk darkened the churning river waters far below. Victory! I was feeling pretty darn pompous.  I was also awash with profound insights I lacked just a few hours earlier like: ‘Rock climbing is HARD.’

Other insights have me puzzled. The sport really packs a powerful high – I’ve sensed the possibility of addiction. Now he’s talking about what we might climb next week and I’m not sure whether to follow or run. Is he a friend or a pusher?    


Rock Climbing:  Getting Going 


--For local professional climbing instruction, see the NW Mountain School.  

--Bouldering is a good way to learn climbing movement.  Check this article for the perks of bouldering and a few local routes.

--Central Washington Bouldering, written by Kelly Sheridan, $25 available at Leavenworth Mountain Sports.

--Central Washington lacks a local climbing club, but The Mountaineers offer helpful classes and outings for all skill levels.  

--Climbing-Chatter Group. Local climbers with intermediate and advanced skills use this email list to communicate each week and to find out who is climbing where. During the spring and summer, a group often coalesces one evening a week to climb at a particular crag around Leavenworth or Vantage. Contact Charlie Hickenbottom (hickenbottom.c@flymail.net) to be included in the weekly emails. 

--For free route information of climbs around Central Washington, check our on-line rock climbing guidebooks. 

--For the Castle Rock route, visit our guide book.

--Considered the Bible of mountaineering and climbing theory, check out The Freedom of the Hills.  

--For the most complete listing of climbs around Leavenworth climbs, see Leavenworth Rock, by Viktor Kramar.