Climbing for adventure and fitness
By Linda Freeman
Correspondent | October 07,2012
Vladimir Bobov Photo
Andrew Stephen climbs a freestanding pillar in Vantage, Wash.
Think of climbing, and you generally think of going up. Climbing also takes you over and sometimes down, usually with some element of physical exertion, grasping or clutching, balancing, pulling. Progress is expected to be gradual, step by step, or hand-hold by hand-hold.
Children are drawn to climbing — a jungle gym, a tree, even crawling up stairs. Early on one learns the inherent risk of falling. Climbing is first associated with play, then at work, perhaps rescue, and by some, as a form of fitness and adventure.
Andrew Stephen, 27, grew up in East Montpelier, attended U-32 high school and completed his senior year at Gould Academy, where he connected more enthusiastically with the outdoors through skiing and climbing, learning winter survival skills.
Stephen currently lives in Seattle where he has found his niche as a mountain guide for KAF Adventures (see www.kafadventures.com). From intern to lead guide, Stephen earned certification as a wilderness first responder and single-pitch instructor, the latter through the American Mountain Guide Association accreditation program.
Stephen’s world of climbing is in the mountains where there is opportunity for exhilarating achievement, but little room for error. Careful training is a must. As a WFR, for example, one is “one step below EMT,” Stephen said. “You must learn how to organize a group, to manage people in a way that you can help get everyone into safety.” The focus of this training is management and how to remain calm when challenged with potentially dangerous situations.
Continuing education and training is imperative for a mountain guide as he or she gains experience. Stephen’s next steps may be to become a certified rock instructor or attend the National Outdoor Leadership School. Climbing is about more than hefting oneself up the rocks and daring the elements. It is about skills, composure, coaching, leadership, management — the ability to connect with people in distress, to harness extreme emotions and to work with the physical strength, endurance and skills that each may or may not possess.
“What I like about KAF,” Stephen said, “is that you create a personal connection with each. You teach people while you allow them to think for themselves. This is empowering to them.”
Stephen’s playground and workspace is Mount Rainier. His rewards are plentiful.
“The look on their faces when people accomplish their goal keeps me going,” Stephen said. “I get to share my first climbing experience with people every day.”
Though rock climbing is a growing business, Stephen sees it as “building a community. Instead of just harvesting money, we can be a resource.”
One need not travel to the West Coast to climb. Locally you can log onto crag-vt.org, look for a copy of Travis Peckham’s new book about climbing in Vermont, “Touch Schist,” or check the Falcon Guide for climbing in the New England region.
Indoor rock gyms and climbing walls are growing in popularity. One quickly learns the terms bouldering, multi-pitch and cragging. Individuals and organizations are, as I write this, working diligently to protect Vermont’s climbing environment as areas of Bolton, Groton, Smuggler’s Notch, Mount Abraham and in the Rutland Area are challenged.
The climbing community is friendly and encouraging and now more accessible than ever.
“It’s a great activity,” Stephen said, “poised to mainstream in Vermont in the outdoor community.”
Might climbing be for you? Never say never. I might possibly be the least likely person to climb. Yet, I have done so. I am claustrophobic (no spelunking for me) and am deathly afraid of heights (poor choice of words?). Yet for about a year I participated in an indoor climbing program in a modest gym that culminated in a trip to Bolton to try our newly acquired skills outdoors and see if the team building we had done was effective.
Indoors I learned that modified bouldering was astonishingly efficient as a strength-building fitness practice. I could go to the series of indoor walls without needing someone to belay me, and without more than a foot or two of vertical climb could practice navigating the obstacles, reaches, and holds from one side of the room to the other. To my surprise I quickly gained strength in back, abs, arms and hands.
Like many others, I had thought that climbing relied on brute strength and that guys had a clear advantage over us gals. Not so. Learning to climb with technique over power, developing problem-solving capabilities, is an equal opportunity activity.
Climbing both requires and builds strength, but it is possible to overcome deficiencies with technique. Women are often more flexible, a clear advantage in stepping and reaching for more secure hand or foot holds, or pressing the hips as close to the wall as possible. Using more lower body strength, and keeping body weight over the legs and feet while climbing, is more efficient and stable than relying on the upper body alone.
Rock gyms have become training grounds for the real world of rock climbing. Many gyms are able to replicate unique climbing situations, allowing participants to safely progress physically and mentally. Bouldering, assisted climbing harnessed in with a belayer at the other end of your rope, and simply sharing stories and observing others all create an environment geared to success. For some, this is enough. Fitness gains achieved in the rock gym are quick, convenient and clearly obvious.
Outdoors is where the adventure kicks in.
“Climbing is a full-body workout with a mental component,” Stephen said. “You need to economically work through sections that include fear and fatigue. It is a level of mental testing coupled with high physical challenge. Movement, however, is just a lot of fun.”
Of his guiding experience, Stephen said: “We climb at the edge of our ability, trying to push our boundaries outward. Every trip there’s a chance of disparity and different personalities.”
It is critical for a guide to build trust in each climber, in the guide and the group. It is equally important to encourage individuals to trust their own decisions. Though Stephen tries to “keep things light when appropriate,” tensions can be high.
Perhaps most meaningful, however, is the role the summit plays in one’s climbing experience. On the mountain, as in life, the ultimate goal attained sometimes pales compared to the process or effort. It is the journey itself that one remembers and values.