What’s to Love: Smith Rock is the birth place of U.S. Sport Climbing, and certainly one of the premiere climbing areas in the world. The world’s best climbers have created some of the most difficult rock climbing on the jagged spires of Smith Rock. Even if you’re not into climbing, the towering crags create one hell of a sight from the parking area. Just watch your kids’ eyes light-up when they catch a glimpse of these massive rock formations. There is just so much to take in from afar; thus, venturing into the park and walking next to these giant rock pinnacles is a joy in-of-itself. If you think climbing with your family is out of the realm of possibility, think again! Chockstone Guides has Jim Ablao who can make your dream of climbing with kids a reality at Smith Rock. He did it for us, but before I get into our experience, I want to tell you more about how I got into climbing.
When I was in my sophomore year at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I noticed an ad posted to one of the many bulletin boards around campus. I would walk by this same bulletin board, which was pasted full of flyers for local events everyday on my way to various classes. In over a year, I hadn’t noticed a single word on that bulletin board, but one day something caught my eye. It was a rough sketch of a climber dangling by one arm from a cliff edge. I was mesmerized by this image – it drew me in, and I kept walking closer and closer until I could read the print.
The flyer said, “Do You Want to Learn to Rock Climb? Inside Moves is Michigan’s only indoor rock climbing gym.” I immediately checked it out and had a climbing lesson. After my first visit, I was hooked, and I also knew I needed to move to a state where there are plenty of mountains for climbing. So immediately after completing my master’s degree, I moved to Durango, Colorado with hopes of becoming a rock climbing guide. It was hard to give a damn about college when I already knew that I wanted to be a rock climbing guide.
Well, I didn’t end up becoming a mountain guide in Durango. I did get a job as a night-shift janitor at Mercy Medical Center. While I didn’t become a guide, I did log plenty of hours on the rocks having amazing adventures and learning a pretty broad range of outdoor skills. One of the most important things I learned – the profession of guiding people on rock or outdoors was not my calling in life.
Why not? After all, I did have a background in education with a k-8 teaching certification. However, guiding is far more than teaching skills alone, and I learned that while out climbing and carefully watching guides with clients. It was not hard to tell the good guides from the bad guides. The good guides possessed three obvious character traits that I knew were difficult for me in all situations.
1. Whether it’s waiting for clients to show up, hiking them into destinations, fitting harnesses, giving instructions over and over, endlessly belaying while a client moves only 1-2 feet in 10 minutes, or waiting while kids argue over who is going to wear the blue helmet, climbing instructors must have enduring patience. The type of patience that can simply outlast any clients s/he has to work with on a particular day.
2. Climbing guides see it all while out and about with clients. Almost always, they’ll bump into people who simply do not play by the rules (e.g., rudeness, bad climbing etiquette, illegal bolting, top-roping too many climbs, etc.) or other “climbers” who have NO CLUE how to climb safely. Rule abiding climbers count on local climbers and guides to help keep a lot of these undesirable behaviors from dominating an area. Confronting climbers is not an easy task, and guides must challenge people using excellent communication skills and a low ego.
3. How would you like to top-rope the same 5.2 for years on end? Or, watch group dysfunction unfold right before your eyes again and again? Yes…being a rock climbing guide sounds like one of the most thrilling jobs on the planet, but in reality (as with our group), it might just be three kids all under the age of 6 just trying outdoor climbing for fun, which brings me to the most important trait of climbing guides.
Our guide Jim Ablao has been a professional guide for 18 years, and I’m sure he is a phenomenal climber in his own right. I’m also sure that he takes select clients on some of the most difficult climbs at Smith Rock State Park. Even though he has probably seen it all in his 18 years, I couldn’t help but get a bit choked-up watching and listening to his sincere interest and encouragement while guiding our 3 young climbers. Jim Ablao possesses the “beginner’s mind” when guiding, and I bet he still has that same mindset while climbing with his own friends. So many people come and go in climbing, but it’s obvious to me that it was never a passing fad for Jim. He possesses all of these traits and much more. More importantly, he puts his skills together in a marvelous display of teaching ability and sound technical skills.
When we were climbing, we put Jim’s 18 years of experience to the test, and he passed with flying colors. If you’re going to climb with your family, there is no doubt that Jim is your man. He is a father of two kids (ages 9 and 11), and he understands just how to keep kids on task and motivated to climb without being pushy or demanding in any way. He knows how to communicate with children – exactly what to say, and when to say it.
After meeting Jim in the parking lot, we signed some waivers and were climbing at the Northern Point within 15-20 minutes. He worked quickly at setting up the top-ropes, and he led us down to the base of two easy climbs. When we arrived at the climbs, he patiently suited our first child up with a harness and talked him through tying his climbing knot. He was very careful to explain the language of climbing and how it directly correlates to climbing safety. I enjoyed listening to these thoughtful explanations, and I learned a thing or two myself!
Our kids moved well on the rock and Jim was impressed with their climbing prowess. When they needed help, Jim was there with encouraging words using language that kids understand. He let them take a break and weight the rope to move to different areas of the rock without dragging them up the climb. This helped their confidence to push onward and upward. Jim was respectful of our climbing needs. He knew exactly what climbs to setup for our kids and did not waste time at all. After our kids ran up both climbs, we called it a day. Here is a clip of our experience.
Caveats: Smith Rock has intense heat in the summer. Obviously, you’ll want to climb with the family on a nice day, but here the rock reflects the heat, and it feels like you’re in an oven sometimes. Make sure to bring plenty of water, snacks, hats, and sunscreen.
There will be plenty to do your first time out. If you want variety on your next trip, your options are limited if climbing below 5.8. There are only two top-roping areas in the whole park: Northern Point and Rope-a-Dope boulder. Therefore, if you’re not leading climbs above 5.8, you’ll have to stick to the same areas until you and/or your family members progress.
Watch out for snakes! Our kids found one, but it wasn’t dangerous. However, there are rattlesnakes in the park, and they like to hang out in and around the boulders at the base of climbs. This is another very good reason to keep your kids close by at all times when in the park.
Distance from Portland: Approximately 142 miles from Portland. Here is a Google Map with directions.
Recommended Ages: Our youngest on this trip was 3 1/2 and all kids were under age 6. This is probably a bit young for most kids to get real enjoyment out of the experience. Our kids have a great deal of experience bouldering indoors at “The Circuit Gym” and climbing roped at “Portland Rock Gym” and “Stoneworks Climbing Gym” in Beaverton, Oregon. Climbing indoors is a great way to introduce your kids to climbing.
If you’re concerned about your child’s age, talk it over with Jim Ablao of Chockstone Guides when you’re setting up your trip.
Parental Stress Factor: Relatively high with great rewards! Because your kids will probably read your own anxiety, please try to keep your cool. If you’re new to climbing, you may be a bit freaked-out by all the gear and the sheer size of the rock climbs. Watching your child dangling from a rope is certainly not easy for every parent. However, statistically speaking, the car drive to Smith Rock is probably far more dangerous than rock climbing. Frankly, I was more stressed out watching the kids bouldering underneath the climbs.
Physical Difficulty: Hard! Climbing is physically exhaustive work, if you’re not used to it! Hiking to climbs, setting up ropes, hauling gear, belaying, rappelling, etc…this is not easy to do. It might be a good idea to get in some gym time before heading out to the rocks. Be prepared for your kids to have possible melt-downs while hiking or waiting their turn to climb.
Family Fun Factor: High! If you can get everything clicking, this will be one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll have as a family. Climbing is exciting, and your kids will feel such an incredible sense of accomplishment after “topping-out” on a climb. Sure, you’ll have quite a bit of stress, but if you can focus on the positive experience, I’m sure this is an activity your kids will remember forever.
Pet Friendly: I don’t recommend bringing dogs to Smith Rock, even though they are permitted on a leash. It’s simply too hot with little shade – your dog will be more comfortable at home. Plus, dogs can create stress at the base of climbs.
Weather Considerations: Rain can definitely put a damper on a climbing trip. If you can stand the heat, you’re almost guaranteed a beautiful day during the summer months. If you climb in summer, schedule your day to start early in the morning. Obviously, spring and fall are better times to climb at Smith due to the heat of summer.
Insider Info: Make sure to save some time to hike around the park. If you do, make sure you bring a child carrier with you – preferably a backpack, because the terrain is a bit steep and narrow in parts for a jogging stroller. Your family can literally walk beneath some killer climbs where your kids can observe climbers up close.
The park has a $3 day use fee. Make sure you bring cash! We didn’t have change, and we had to flag someone down to ask for it. You’ll also need cash for the campground fee, if you decide to stay overnight.
Smith Rock campground is first-come-first-served with a $4/night fee. You’ll have to park and walk-in a short distance with your gear. If you cannot secure a campground site, try Skull Hollow campground, which is about 8 miles from the park and only charges $5 per site, even with large groups.
If you’re going to climb without a guide, head to the “Northern Point” for some excellent top-ropes ranging from 5.2 to 5.8 for beginners.
Family Tips: Bring lots of water, snacks, sun hats, sunscreen, and don’t forget your camera! You can avoid some grumpiness in children if you keep them well fed and hydrated. A small portable cooler (with ice pack) is a really good idea.
Be very clear with Jim about your family’s climbing skills. Be careful not to over-exaggerate your own skills that you had 20 years ago on your college climbing trip, or your kid’s climbing ability. Guides are not mind readers, and they often select climbs based-on your ability to articulate your experience and skill set.
The base of the Northern Point climbing area is covered with giant boulders. Our 5 year old kids wanted to practice their bouldering skills. They were constantly pushing the limits of what they were allowed to do. Therefore, I highly recommend keeping an eye on the kids in this area. A fall while fooling around could potentially ruin your day. Jim has to keep a close watch on the climber who is roped-up. Therefore, it’s your job as parents to make sure everyone is safe and listening to Jim’s rules.
Other Posts of Interest...
Lava Lands Visitor Center on August 12th, 2010
Learn to Climb: Chockstone Guides on October 9th, 2012
Sunriver Resort on August 12th, 2010