What’s to Love: Around 1987/88, I walked into an indoor climbing gym called “Inside Moves” in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was a college student looking for something different to do in my free time. On my first visit, I climbed up a 15 foot wall wearing hiking boots and feeling terrified that my belayer would never be able to catch my fall. When I got to the top, it took me awhile to actually let go of the holds. I was literally frozen with fear. I felt like if I let go, I might free fall quickly to the floor.
Minutes later and safely on the ground, I had that feeling of true love. I knew that climbing would be a part of my life for as long as I’m able to physically do it. I was 19 years old during that first experience, I’m now 44 years and climbing is even a bigger part of my life now.
While the indoor experience gave me an initial love for climbing, I still yearned to climb actual rock – I wanted to call myself a “rock climber.” I became a voracious reader of magazines like Climbing and Rock and Ice carefully examining the beautiful pictures. While I was captivated by dangling climbers holding onto practically nothing, it was actually the scenery that captured my imagination.
I not only wanted to be a climber, I wanted to visit all those incredible climbing locations: Joshua Tree, New River Gorge, Seneca Rocks, Red River Gorge, Moab, etc. In pictures, everything seemed so magical to me. To this day, climbing outside in a beautiful location with special friends or family continues to be one of the most powerful experiences in my life.
However, for many people, climbing outdoors is not a reality due to lack of gear and/or experience. Reading a book about climbing, buying the gear, heading out to a local rock climbing area, and hanging a rope without instruction is NEVER a good idea. Portland Rock Gym offers plenty of programs to help get you started in a safe and friendly environment.
Learning indoors is how many young kids are getting introduced to rock climbing now. It’s never too late to learn as an adult as well! However, just like me, eventually you’ll probably want to feel what it’s like to move over real rock. Trust me, there is nothing like it!
When it’s time to learn outside, do you really want to learn from your neighbor or friends? They could be legitimate, safe, and knowledgeable climbers. However, if you’re not very experienced, how can you be so sure? Do you know the condition of their gear? You don’t want to hear something like, “Sure, I can take you out climbing! I still have the same rope I learned on 20 years ago. I’ve taken some huge whippers on that rope, but it’s still in great shape.”
This is a sport where your life is literally in someone’s hands. Therefore, when it’s time to transition to outdoor climbing, I HIGHLY recommend climbing with an American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) certified guide. I did this early on in my climbing career, and I make it a regular practice. AMGA guides are put through rigorous training, and they understand how to handle all types of climbing situations: rescue, anchor setups, rope handling, managing risk, handling anxious climbers, top rope management, etc.
Luckily for you, Portland Rock Gym has an five AMGA guides on their staff. Every Tuesday throughout the summer, one of their guides hosts “Gym to Crag” class at a local outdoor crag. Everything is so easy for you as a client. You pay a VERY reasonable fee, show up at 6PM at the designated location, and your guide does all the hard and technical work of setting up the climbs. Bring your harness and your shoes, and you’ll be on a climb in no time!
On Tuesday, July 16th, 2013, my son Rhys (age 9) and I had the pleasure of climbing with guide Sean Harris and a couple of other climbers at Broughton Bluffs. We had such a great experience! I found Sean to be an extremely competent guide who understands way beyond just throwing up ropes for people. He used his time efficiently and maximized climbing for all involved. He had to deal with a young child and parent, diverse climbing backgrounds, and folks who had never climbed outside.
With this diverse group, he kept everyone on task, motivated, and psyched to climb! When necessary, Sean offered instruction and any technical information (e.g., crack climbing techniques) that helped clients succeed. The “Gym to Crag” is clearly one of the best ways to get started with outdoor climbing, and I highly recommend it as a way to get started outdoors.
Caveats: If you don’t have a harness and/or shoes, you will need to rent them. You’ll need to drive yourself to the designated crag during rush hour traffic, which can be a problem when heading out 84 East to Broughton Bluffs (Troutdale, OR). Make sure you give yourself plenty of time, and make sure you have an alternate route ready to go.
Website: Gym to Crag
Distance from Portland: The Gym to Crag is held at local crags. When you register, you’ll be told the destination that week. The climbing will always be within 30 miles of Portland.
Recommended Ages: Portland Rock Gym states that climbers will have to be at least six years old to participate. If you have concerns, it’s not a bad idea to check with the staff before bringing younger children. Outdoor climbing is more difficult, and it’s a bit more of a challenge to find quality lower-grade (5.3 – 5.6) climbs to setup.
Parental Stress Factor: If you’re climbing with your kids, there will be stress – it’s just inherent with climbing and children. While kids are waiting for their turn, you might want to bring some snacks to eat or books to read.
If you’re climbing, you’ll want to make sure your child doesn’t roam around and get himself/herself into trouble around the crag. Guides will explain the rules, but you’ll want to make sure you’re the person who enforces them. Guides need to avoid distractions, so it’s better to let the guides keep a close eye on the climbing while you keep a close eye on your kid/s.
Physical Difficulty: If you and/or your kids are ready for outdoor climbing, I’m sure you’re well aware of the physical challenges. Getting prepared by doing routes indoors is a great idea. A 5.6 or 5.7 climb sounds easy, but if it’s an “old school” crack or off-width crack, you will immediately notice that it’s WAY HARDER than you ever thought possible. When climbing outdoors, holds are not clearly marked like in a gym. Often times, the holds are “blocky,” chunky, dirty, and seem to have no positive edges whatsoever. You’ll have to constantly feel around with your hands to make sure you find the best hold.
Family Fun Factor: If you’re a family who regularly climbs together, you’ll have a blast! Of course, you’ll have to deal with normal family chaos, but if that’s manageable, this is definitely something to consider for the whole family.
Pet Friendly: To keep distractions to a minimum, it’s best to keep your dog at home for this particular program.
Weather Considerations: Best for a nice sunny day that’s not too hot, but if it rains, you should be prepared! Many of the crags have trees that help protect the climbing during light rain. If the weather looks bad and you’ve reserved a spot, the gym will notify you if, and/or when they decide to cancel. At that time, you can reschedule with no additional costs.
Insider Info: Probably one of the first things your guide will talk about is poison oak, what it looks like, and how to avoid it. This is another reason to keep a close eye on your child, if you’re climbing with your family.
Save some time at the crag and do the paperwork (waiver) at Portland Rock Gym. If the climbing is going to be at Carver Bridge Cliff, you’ll need to become a member of the Carver Climbing Club, which is a one-time-fee of $9.00. Learn more about Carver Bridge Cliff.
Kids will definitely need snacks while climbing.
Other Posts of Interest...
Rock Climbing at Smith Rock! on August 8th, 2009
Interview: Portland Rock Gym's Anna Rymill on February 7th, 2013
Beacon Rock State Park on August 11th, 2012