Learning the Ropes 

Rookies explore the do’s— and do “knots”—of rock climbing.

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You know, your mama sent that route.” I’m giving Brad a hard time, but seriously, not 10 minutes ago his 56-year-old mom climbed the route he’s now on, looking solid and confident all the way to the top—in climbing jargon, she “sent” it. Thirty-four-year-old Brad was on a harder route to the left at the time, and though he struggled valiantly to get past the smooth lower section, the lack of positive footholds and thin hands proved just a little beyond his ability. The effort took a lot out of him.

We are in the Dogwoods area, a mile from the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon; the rock is a sharp quartzite that has been polished almost glassy smooth at the lower 12 feet. Several sets of fixed anchors line the top of the cliff, and most of the routes range from easy enough that a beginner won’t get too discouraged, to just a little challenging for the intermediate climber. It’s a popular spot for people just starting to climb.

Both Brad and his mother are on what is referred to as a “top-rope”—a rope that runs up from the climber to anchors at the top of the climb. Popular both outside and in the gym, top-roping is usually considered the best way to get someone comfortable on the end of a rope, moving across stone.

My climbing partner, Nathan, and I have been dragging his older brother Brad out to places such as the Dogwoods—and another popular spot called the Slips a little further up the canyon—for a few weeks now. We’ve been having a blast teaching him how to climb, watching him progress a little more each time. “I like the fact that you are safety paranoid,” Brad told me once, and I’m happy to be that way. Climbing simply isn’t safe to learn without instruction from someone who knows what they are doing, and understands what can happen.

Someone like Travis Corkrum of Rockreation Climbing Gym. Corkrum teaches climbers of all levels, from beginners that have never been in a harness, to the more experienced looking to fine-tune their skills. “We approach it with the knowledge that there are a lot of inhibitions coming in,” Corkrum says. “Also there’s a lot of intimidation, because you see some of the extreme people doing things and you automatically think that’s what you have to be. Our progression is designed to break down some of that, and just make it fun.”

Corkrum points out that women are usually far better beginning climbers, because they have that “inherent grace and finesse,” as he puts it. I agree—the secret to smooth climbing is to climb with the legs and the body core, while men tend to want to just muscle everything. Children do very well, too—smaller hands can hang on to smaller holds, and they have a different muscle-to-weight ratio.

It’s Saturday morning at the gym, and the members of the beginners’ class are getting into their harnesses for the first time. The instructor is going over the basics of how to put on a harness and double back all the buckles—always double back the buckles—and the proper way to tie the rope to the harness with a figure-eight knot.

I start asking people around the room why they are here. “The challenge” and “the adventure” are common responses. “It’s a good way to get away from my kids,” one woman laughs, but you can tell there’s more to it than that by how closely she’s paying attention. Another woman, Jenie, says “I want to get to those other places, places you just can’t get to unless you climb. I want to see things that you can’t see from down here.”

Travis has good things to say about the climbing community in Salt Lake, and how experienced climbers are always happy to share with the people starting out. Several big names in the climbing world come into the gym and work with others. “These people are just great to be around, have no ego,” Corkrum says. “They just want everyone to get better and have fun and climb.”

Beginning climbers are encouraged to check out the Slips and Dogwood, or Lisa Falls in Little Cottonwood, for fun moderate routes, but please bring an experienced climber or two along the first few times—even easy climbing can be dangerous. Routes are rated on the Yosemite decimal system as class 5 (rope required) and a number after the decimal point. 5.6 is probably easy enough for most beginners; a 5.10 (pronounced as “five-ten,” not “five-one-oh”) is considerably harder.

Meanwhile, back at the rock, Brad has found the 5.7 route his mom just climbed to be much more to his liking, and has just sent the route himself. “That was so much easier at the bottom” he smiles, “there were actual feet to stand on, not that slippery crap.” He points to the other route.

“Nice climb” I say, knowing full well we will be back here sometime soon, and he’ll send that one too.

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About The Author

Tom Brennan

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