The sport of rock climbing began as a component of the Victorian craze for mountaineering. In the process of climbing a mountain, there was inevitably a few rough spots to get over that required more than a boost from your climbing mate. Various techniques developed to handle these vertical obstacles and for some climbers, the rough bits became the main objective of a climb.
It’s a unique sport which combines physical prowess, strategic thinking, and high risk with serious consequences for mistakes. Consequently, there aren’t too many bad rock climbers. Mistakes are not trivial when you are clinging to a rock high above the horizontal Earth with gravity trying to pull you back down.
I like sports that involve strategy, so rock climbing is something I have always wanted to check out. And I certainly could have easily booked some time on an indoor wall. But the outdoor aspect of the sport is part of the charm for me, and not being in proximity of any of the major climbing areas (like the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, Acadia National Park in Maine or Grand Teton National park in Wyoming) has kept me from getting introduced to the sport.
Adding to my list of excuses, I suffer a bit from vertigo. Not as severe as some, but still enough to require some additional help in transitioning from the horizontal world to the vertical.
This is all preamble to my story which started when I recently decided to make a visit to Ojai, California. In researching the activities that surround this picturesque valley I noticed that nearby is one of the foundational climbing spots in the development of the sport in California. A wall of rock tilted at just the right angle so the natural traction between rock and climber is a bit higher than many of the other rock climbing areas. You would think that rock faces would form at all different angles, but it is apparently not so common to find a nice-sized wall of rock with a slight angle. For some reason, the rock faces of sufficient area for a good climb tend to be absolutely vertical or with a slight overhang, neither of which is conducive to a beginner climber with a slight case of vertigo.
To pursue this further I met up with local Ojai Climbing instructor, Alex Bury. Born and raised in Ojai, Alex is a certified climbing guide and the perfect go-to person if you want to give rock climbing a try and are a bit on the timid side, like me.
From the moment we met, he was super enthusiastic, not only to help us discover Ojai’s abundance of natural beauty but to share his insight on the art of rock climbing. We had arranged to meet at a local coffee shop and from there we would follow Alex up into the mountains. Over coffee, Alex sized us up to see what kind of a climb he should take us on to give us the best first climbing experience, and he answered our questions. Then we were off on the thirty-minute drive from Ojai up into the mountains. It was overcast that day but once we reached the higher altitudes, the sun broke through, and we got to enjoy magnificent vistas of Ojai from above.
We arrived at the base of the large sheer rock wall, and already several climbers were ascending it. As we put on our climbing shoes Alex shared some more of this location’s history. The wall was discovered as a climbing destination in the 1950s and was quickly notable as a place free climbers could practice their skills. Back then, Converse sneakers were the footwear of choice, as most of today’s specialty equipment was yet to be invented. Looking at the climbing shoes Alex has outfitted us with, with all their high tech materials, I tried to imagine facing this climb with nothing but a pair of Converse sneakers. Wow!
Alex shoulders our gear as we make our way down a small footpath along a creek, and set up our base below a small vertical stretch of wall to the side of the main face. We don shoes and helmets, dust our hands with chalk and step into our harnesses. As you might imagine, the idea of weakest link is critical in this sport and Alex give us a thorough run down on the strategy for how to make sure you are securely connected to the safety rope, and, since this is a companion sport, how to check that your partner’s connections are all correctly tied.
Alex free climbs the small wall and secures the rope for our first climb. He makes it look so easy, but we are not fooled, we know the challenge that’s in store.
Now it is our turn. Mustering all my courage I find my first toe and finger hold and haul myself up a few feet. Trying to find small crevices and protrusions in the rock to hold on to, and finding where to put my feet, demands the kind coordination that just is not required in everyday life, so it feels very awkward. Getting accustomed where to put my weight, how to hold on and how to move forward takes up most of my energy at first. With much instruction and encouragement from Alex above, after about ten minutes I make it to the top and can take a look around.
Next the descent. This is the first major hurdle for me, to let myself lean back on the rope with my body mostly horizontal. I take my first step and then another. Slowly I walk my way down. All the while Alex is a great support, cheering me on to not give up. I see some of the pro climbers on the main part of the wall to my left just zipping down with ease. I tell myself “that’s what I am shooting for”. Yikes, it took me about five minutes but it felt like an hour to get the hang of it. It’s going to take a bit more practice.
Yeah! Congratulations to me. I tried rock climbing and conquered my fear of height. That’s another item off my bucket list.
Hmmm, not so fast, Alex has more in store for us. I was a bit too convincing with my brave front. I guess he thinks we are ready to “play with the big boys”. Looking at the new goal, about 100 feet up, my courage took a tumble. But I thought, “I’ve come this far, why not give it a try?” Alex assured me that at any point I can just come down. So with Alex’s encouragement, up I went.
On the first push, I made it about half way, found a comfortable spot and took a short break. Taking in the view I accidentally glanced down, WAY down, all the way to the bottom of the mountain. Vertigo kicked in and I froze. My stress shot up and my breathing went out of control. Alex recognized what was going on and immediately took action. Within a few seconds he shot up the rock face right to my spot and we had a chat about what to do next. With some support from Alex, I decided it was better to keep going up. And with Alex pointing me in the direction of some good handholds and a tip to always plant my feet slightly ahead, off I went! I struggled a bit but slowly made my way up. At the top, I stopped to enjoy my accomplishment, and the view from my little perch 100 feet up. This time, I carefully avoided the view down.
The descent was much easier this time and I sailed down like a pro, albeit a slow one. With the sun setting, the mountains around us glowed in the twilight. Thanking Alex for guiding us through the experience, we packed up and headed back down to the Ojai Valley.
As you can see from my brief encounter with the mountain, the challenge of the rock face initially seemed physical but in the process of trying to conquer it, the mental barriers proved more of an obstacle. I found the most appealing part of my rock climbing experience was that mastering it required conquering challenges both physical and mental.
So plan a trip to Ojai and make a climbing adventure part of your stay. Whether a day trip or several days to really master your climbing skills, Alex can help you achieve your goals. Alex can work with any age to make this a whole family outing.
Planning a trip to Ojai? Here is the current weather and what to expect for the next few days.34°partly cloudy62% humiditywind: 7mph NNWH 52 • L 3059°Sat63°Sun60°Mon53°Tue55°WedWeather from Yahoo!