In the spirit of "new things keep you young," I decided to give this popular pastime a whirl. I'm told it's gotten increasingly popular. So I traveled to New Paltz, New York, to a famous climbing area called "The Gunks" (which somehow, did not sound very appealing…is that the residue your body leaves after a traumatic fall?) Actually according to their website, "it's an ecosystem of pitch pine barrens, dwarf pine plains, quartz conglomerate cliffs, slabrock (huh?) and virgin hemlock forests. The area is home to many rare and endangered species…" (like, say, an anchorwoman who thinks she can be Spiderwoman for a day?)
In 1994 the Nature Conservancy designated the Shawangunks (their official name) as one of the 75 "Last Great Places" in the world. People come here to hike, cross country ski, mountain bike and, yes, ROCK CLIMB! As we made our way to New Paltz on the 4th of July, I couldn't help but wonder…what am I doing?
Experts say it's a sport that requires endurance, strength and mental discipline. (Gee, none of those is my strong suit…) And there are two kinds: free climbing and aid climbing. Needless to say, I went for the "aid climbing," which meant I had to wear a harness and a helmet, along with special climbing shoes that allow you to "smear," which means scale a façade, even when there are no nooks or crannies (somehow, I doubt that's climb-speak) in which you can place your toes.
My guide was hilarious -- something that helps you when you want to "laugh in the face of danger!" His name is Nick Farley, and he taught me all about climbing, the equipment (which makes you feel like the coolest handyman--or woman—ever) and the terms you use when you're doing a climb. "Belay?," the climber asks the person who is on the ground controlling their fate with a rope and tool called a belay device attached to their harness. "Belay on," he or she responds. "Climbing!" is said when you want to start moving. "Climb on" is the response from the person on the ground. When you make your way up the mountain, and particularly when you're ready to come down, and are prepared to lean back with your feet on the face of the rock, you say, "Tension." When you want more slack, you say – shockingly -- "Slack!," and proceed to make your way down, your back more or less parallel to the ground.
I did a beginner's Level Five climb. It was a bit chilly that day, but soon I was sweating and my heart was racing. Putting my toes in a tiny crack and grabbing a small natural nob in the rock was not easy, but ultimately it was exhilarating! I can't wait to go back, especially in the fall.
I'm never going to be a free climber…one of those guys who walks around with a mattress which they put on the ground and little webs seem to shoot out of their fingers as they scale the cliffs. But climbing with someone I trust, like Nick, and surrounded by beautiful vistas, it's a great way to challenge yourself, bond with others and commune with nature.
I realized afterwards I no longer had rocks in my head -- just my head in the rocks -- and I loved every minute of it.