The names alone draw you in: Fastest Gun. Catharsis. Seven Ounces. They sound like heavy metal bands or old Tarantino movies. Any rock climber will tell you, with a sparkle in his eye, the lore behind a route’s name. For example, one day a guy is putting anchors into a rock, setting a new route. People driving by and shout at him from their car windows, telling him to get a job, apparently annoyed that someone is having fun on a weekday afternoon. Today, thanks to his hecklers, climbers can enjoy climbing a route called Get a Job, located on Poke-O-Moon-Shine Mountain in Adirondack Park.
My brother lives near Poke-O, which is about two hours north of Albany, NY. A few years ago I promised him, with a solid sibling handshake, that I would give rock climbing a go, first to try and understand his devotion to what seems like a harrowing sport, and second because it sounded like the last thing on earth I wanted to do.
I love hiking, with solid ground under my feet and a short distance to fall if I trip over a rock or a root. I’m also afraid of heights at a debilitating level, but that phobia had begun to annoy me lately. Maybe that meant I was over my fear, or possibly I was just sick of giving in to it. Saying “no” had become an easy habit, and it controlled certain decisions involving heights. This one time, I wanted to follow my fear, instead of shrinking away from it.
When we got to Poke-O, we hiked about 10 minutes in to a route called Snake, an 80-foot high cliff that’s known as a good beginner’s route because of its low angle and its many good hand and foot holds. When I heard that, I pictured nice firm slabs jutting out of the rock, almost like stair steps that would aid my climb. But in rock climbing lingo, a foothold can be the tiniest notch where you can nestle maybe the tip of your big toe for leverage. According to my brother, that’s more than enough.
I stared up at the cliff and imagined myself climbing to the top. The ground, muddy from an earlier light rain, smelled like damp earth. Mosquitoes buzzed by my ear. A brave one bit me on the cheek. My brother’s climbing gear was laid out on a dry pile of leaves. It was all hooks and clamps and picks and harnesses, vaguely resembling old-timey torture devices. I was definitely outside my element, and I had the same, slightly disorienting sensation I get when I travel to a new country. As with traveling, I had to make believe I fit in until it became a truth.
My brother climbed up Snake, demonstrating how to look for grooves and cracks that I could grab with my hands and feet. His wife was on belay duty. Meanwhile, their six-year-old son stepped into his harness with practiced precision, plunked his helmet on his head, and scoured for interesting rocks and leaves while he waited his turn to climb. Their baby daughter napped in her car seat, which was wedged securely in between two solid knee-high boulders. For my brother, rock climbing is a family affair.
My ultimate goal in this adventure was to climb to a height that felt scary. I wanted to look down to the ground and be afraid, but be able to breathe through the fear and keep going anyways.
It wasn’t easy to find a place to grab onto and propel myself up. The cracks and footholds that my brother pointed out on his ascent had seemed to disappear into smooth rock, but somehow, with everyone’s encouragement from below, I slowly climbed about 20 feet. I looked down from farther up than I’d ever been without a barrier to shield me from the ground. I was scared and a little dizzy, but I felt in control, so I climbed another few feet.
And that was that. Suddenly my entire body stopped following commands, and it pressed up against the rock face as if my harness was a magnet. I tried to peel my torso off the cliff, or take one step higher to another foothold, but the rock pulled me back in like it was trying to save my life. I knew it was time to go down, but I had a moment to figure out what was holding me back. Physically, I felt entirely safe. I was securely fastened in to the ropes, which my brother kept tugging on from the ground to show me how, if I lost my footing and fell, I would dangle safely in the air. Mentally, though, the 60 additional feet to the top was an obstacle I couldn’t overcome.
I touched my feet on the ground to the applause of my family, feeling very happy about my accomplishment. My nephew, waiting patiently for his turn, scurried up the cliff with a child’s fearlessness. When he reached the point where I had frozen in fear, he stopped to look around leisurely, and then turned to all of us on the ground to make casual conversation before finishing his climb to the top. Next up went my sister-in-law, who also made it easily to the top. My niece had woken up, and was looking around quietly. She smiled and pointed to her mom, who waved and then began to repel back down. I suspect the baby will be in full climbing gear as soon as she grows into it.
I was lucky to have an experienced person take me on my first excursion. Rock climbing requires expert guidance of the sport, deep knowledge of the terrain, and lots of expensive equipment, but none of that should hold you back if you love new adventures. Two popular guide services in the North Country are Rock and River and Alpine Adventures.
From Albany, get on I-87 North. Poke-O-Moon-Shine is 3 miles from Exit 33.