At the top of the boulders we’d just scrambled up, there was a large flat space butted up against the rock formation itself. Dakota told us to go ahead and put on our climbing shoes while he set up the belaying rope. Then he took off up the cliff face, using no equipment (which showed that for an expert like him, anyway, this cliff face was no big deal), threading the rope we were going to use through some carabiners that were anchored to the rock.
While he was doing that, my friend and I introduced ourselves to the dad, telling him our names. “Glad to meet you,” he said. “We’re both Deans.”
It took me a minute to figure out what he meant. Were they both administrators at a college? Was their last name Dean? Oh, no, I realized; he meant that they were Dean Senior and Dean Junior. Aha!
Dean Sr. told us that he’d done some climbing in his youth, and that Dean Jr. took bouldering classes in Colorado Springs. Bouldering, which I hadn’t heard of before, is a specific kind of rock climbing. You don’t use ropes (although you do put mats down at the bottom in case you fall), and the climbs are usually less than 20 feet off the ground. This might make bouldering sound easier than rock climbing, but it’s not. Bouldering problems (the name given to different kinds of climbs) are graded, with V0 being a simple climb that beginners can do, and V16 being an insanely hard climb that only an expert of many years’ standing would even attempt. So it can be very technical and very difficult.
What I got out of this was that my friend and I, as raw beginners, were definitely the weak links in our climbing group.
Dakota finished threading the rope through the carabiners and then rappelled back down the cliff, making it look easy (which, for him, it probably was).
“All right,” he said, pointing up at a place above our heads where some boulders jutted out from the rest of the cliff face. “So this rock formation here is called the Cowboy Boot, because some people think it looks like a boot.”
“I can’t see it,” said my friend, squinting.
The Cowboy Boot is the rock sticking out here in the middle of the bottom of the picture. Does it look like a boot to you? I sure couldn’t see it.
“Yeah…well, the boot would have a really short toe. Anyway, that’s its name. We’re going to start with an easy climb up the right side of the boot. You’re going to work your way up all those holes you see in the rock, and then you’re going to climb up on the flat space on top of the boot. Next, you’ll have a little leap of faith onto the rock face itself, and you’ll climb another ten feet or so and touch the carabiner.”
The Deans were nodding. I was staring up at the right side of the Cowboy Boot, thinking, “That’s an EASY climb?” It looked really high and uncomfortably straight up and down. My stomach was starting to feel a little queasy.
At least the boot was, as Dakota said, pockmarked with erosion holes; they ought to make good handholds and footholds. Right? I gulped a little and tried to focus on what Dakota was saying.
“Once you’ve touched the carabiner, you’ll grab hold of the rope with both hands and sit back, like you’re sitting on a chair, with your legs straight out in front. Then you’ll just walk backward down the rock.”
Oh, sure. Piece of cake. I’m not scared of heights, but all of a sudden, I really wished my friend and I were taking a knitting class instead.
Dakota then gave us some tips on how to climb:
- We were supposed to point the tip of our big toe at the place we wanted to put our foot on the rock. Once our toes were on the rock, we were supposed to drop our heel down as far as possible. That would help give us a stable foothold.
- Our instinct would be to try to hug the rock, putting our weight over our toes, but, actually, our weight should be back over our heels. That would give us a more stable grip on the rock with our feet.
- Three points of contact should be on the rock face at all times. For instance, if you were moving one foot to try to find a new foothold, your other foot and your two hands should be firmly gripping their holds.
And that, I was a little surprised to learn, was the end of the lesson. “Okay,” Dakota said. “Who wants to go first?”
Dean Jr. volunteered, and Dakota showed him how to thread the rope through a loop on the front of his harness and tie a secure knot. I gathered, from things that the Deans and Dakota said, that Dean Jr. was a Boy Scout working on his Climbing merit badge. He already knew a lot about knots, so Dakota just told him how this knot worked and then let him tie it.
When the rope was secure, Dean Jr. started to climb up the right side of the Cowboy Boot, with Dakota holding on to the free end of the rope to catch him if he fell (which is called belaying). I was impressed right away by how fast and confident Dean looked; he didn’t look like he was having panicky second thoughts and having to wipe his sweaty palms on his shorts like I was. He made it to the top of the Cowboy Boot with no problem, and only when he was trying to go from the ledge there to the rock face above did he ask for help.
Wait, unstable rock formations? Maybe I don’t want to climb up those…
“I don’t know what to do next,” he said, but in a matter-of-fact tone of voice (not like he was terrified like me). “I don’t see anywhere to put my hands or feet.”
“Yeah,” said Dakota, in his unexcitable way. “That’s the part where I told you it’s a leap of faith. Reach up above your head with your right hand and find the biggest ledge you can with your fingers, and then put your right foot up on the rock near where your knee is right now.”
Dean Jr. did that.
“Now drop your right heel and put all your weight on it, then lift yourself up.”
“Where does my left hand go?”
“It’s just going to hang out on the rock for a second.”
But if Dean was scared of letting his left hand just “hang out” in space with nothing to hold on to, he didn’t really show it. He spent a minute or so looking around for the best grip for his right hand, and then he heaved himself up on his right foot. Miraculously, he did not slide down the cliff face.
The rest of the climb up to the carabiner looked easy, and then it was time for him to sit back in his harness and walk his way back down. Interestingly, he had a lot more trouble with this part than he had with the climbing, mostly because he was having trouble putting his weight back far enough and trusting the rope. He got it eventually, with coaching from Dakota and Dean Sr., and then it was a quick trip back to our rocky base camp—a much quicker trip on the way back down.
My friend then volunteered to go next.
Here’s my friend getting last-minute instructions from Dakota
She was slower than Dean Jr. had been, and more cautious, but she made steady progress up the boot. Watching her from the ground, I was still nervous, but I thought that if she could make it up, I probably could, too. She asked for advice more often than Dean had, and Dakota would point out places that she could put her hands and feet, but she didn’t sound scared at all.
Okay, I thought. I could do this.
The trickiest part, again, seemed to be getting from the top of the boot to the climb up the rock face itself. Just like Dean, my friend stopped there and said, “I don’t see where to put my hands.”
And then she and Dakota had pretty much the same conversation that he’d had with Dean.
Check. That was the scary bit. I tried not to think about it too much.
My friend spent several minutes checking out handholds and tentatively trying them out, but eventually she got herself up on the rock face, climbed up to the carabiner, and touched it. Woo-hoo! We all clapped and cheered, as we had for Dean.
She sat back into her harness and walked herself down the cliff (she had a much easier time with this than Dean had), and then it was my turn.
Uh-oh! Stay tuned for Part 3…