Outdoor Rock Climbing: The Real Thing

Outdoor rock climbing is one of my personal favorite trips that we offer to our youth for many reasons. The first volunteer to put on a harness, hook up to the rope, and ascend a 40 ft. rock wall has to have a lot of guts, and yet we never have to beg.  Even if the first-timer is a little nervous about it, it is a coveted role to be the first person in the group to try a new activity, especially if you are successful on that first go. On both of our outdoor rock climbing trips this summer, all participants - both the youth and mentors - were beginner climbers. Watching a kid step up to the plate to say “I’ll do it,” is always encouraging and a little nerve-wracking. As instructors, we watch and hope that the kid makes it up the wall (and enjoys doing so) in order to show that it is not only possible, but fun, so that the day may officially begin on a positive note.

My favorite aspect of outdoor climbing is that it allows a group of kids - some who are friends, some who are teammates, and some who are only peers -  to support each other in a very real sense. Rather than just being given a lesson on climbing, the kids were also taught how to belay one another. The role of the belayer is to maintain the tension on the rope as the climber ascends the wall so that in case of a fall, the climber will be suspended in place. The belayer is also in charge of getting the person down from the rock once they finish climbing. This is done by slowly loosening the tension and allowing the climber to descend safely to the ground.  While it was nerve-wracking to think of the kids relying on one another to belay, no kid showed signs of wariness at the thought of their rope being supported by another group member. Under an hour later, the kids proved to be extremely concentrated and committed belayers, and the instructors were always hovering around to offer pointers and lend a hand.

Climbing is special because it is unlike any other sport and unlike anything else these kids have done before in their lives. In any other situation, telling someone to walk up to a horizontal wall and just start climbing would sound crazy, and yet that is exactly what we ask them to do. The best part about it is that after 6 hours of climbing, we had yet to hear the question “but what’s the point?” Instead they were asking us to set up more ropes so they could try out different spots on the wall...they only wanted to climb more. Even though climbing is one of our longest day trips, only a few were ready to head home when the time came to pack up; the rest wanted to stay and continue conquering the rocks.

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Alec Griswold