Adventure #19–Rock Climbing, Part 1



One fabulous thing about doing my 40 for 40 project is that now people suggest adventures to me. The suggestions range from the easily doable (like a painting night, which I’ll be doing soon) to the more exotic (like a class in how to swim like a mermaid in the Philippines, which sounds AMAZING, but which unfortunately is not going to happen unless I suddenly inherit a lot of money from an unknown benefactor).


My friends and family also get me adventures as gifts, something that I absolutely love, especially when I get to share the adventures with them. So I was very excited when a friend of mine gave me an introductory rock climbing course for my birthday.


I had never been rock climbing before, although it was on my list of possible things to try. I’d seen rock climbing walls in some sporting goods stores and gyms, and it looked like my kind of fun: physical and challenging but also safe, since you would be attached to a harness the whole time. The walls had colored plastic “ledges” for your hands and feet, and the idea seemed to be that you started from the bottom and used these plastic grips to climb up to the top of the wall.


This is what I was imagining.

The class my friend found was not an indoor rock climbing class, however, but an outdoor one, where you would be scaling actual rocks instead of plastic ones. That wasn’t the way I’d imagined trying rock climbing for the first time, but I didn’t mind. We’d still have harnesses and safety equipment, there would still be an instructor, and the class was for beginners, so it couldn’t be too scary, right? Added to that, we’d be out in nature, so we’d have the added bonus of beautiful scenery while we climbed.


I’ve been hiking almost as long as I’ve been walking, and in my time I’ve done a lot of scrambling around boulders. When my friend Matt and I used to go hiking every weekend in college, we’d sometimes go off trail and climb up some pretty interesting rock formations. We didn’t have any harnesses or other equipment, and neither of us had any experience in technical climbing, so we only climbed up rocks that we could handle easily with our hands and feet while wearing backpacks. But I had a lot of fun doing that. I imagined that the introductory rock climbing course would be similar to that, except a level or two more difficult.


The class was taking place at Garden of the Gods, a public park and National Natural Landmark located west of Colorado Springs. I had never been there before (Ray and I tried to go in early May but were stopped by a torrential downpour), so that was an added bonus.


According to the park’s website (, the area got its name when two surveyors were exploring the area. One of them said that the beautiful red sandstone formations of the park would make “a capital place for a beer garden.” His “young and poetic” companion was outraged, and retorted, “Beer garden! Why, it is a fit place for the gods to assemble! We will call it the Garden of the Gods.” And the name stuck.


The area was purchased by railroad magnate Charles Elliott Perkins in 1879, and, in 1909, after Perkins’ death, his children gave the property to the city of Colorado Springs. In accordance with their father’s wishes, the terms of the gift were these: the Garden of the Gods would be made into a park, “where it shall remain free to the public, where no intoxicating liquors shall be manufactured, sold, or dispensed, where no building or structure shall be erected except those necessary to properly care for, protect, and maintain the area as a public park.”


I especially love the part about “no intoxicating liquors.”


Every visitor to the park should thank the spirit of Mr. Perkins for preserving the Garden for posterity. It’s awesome—and I use that word in its original sense, “inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence [and] admiration” ( For all that (as a child of the 80’s) I misuse “awesome” all the time, it’s the only word that really describes the Garden.


From Interstate 25, heading south from Denver, you can see the foothills off to the west, covered in scrub and evergreen trees, with the majesty of Pike’s Peak rising above them. It’s a beautiful view in itself. You can’t see the Garden from the highway, though, not even when you exit from 25 onto Garden of the Gods Road.


It’s not until you enter the park itself that you suddenly see, rearing up over the trees, an enormous cliff of bright red rock. It appeared so unexpectedly, so amazingly, that I gasped out loud. How could that possibly have been hidden from the road?


Then we came around a curve on the one-way loop that encircles the park, and a whole valley opened up to our left, like a curtain being drawn back from the main act on a stage. The valley was filled with row upon row of towering rock formations, red titanic slabs stabbing up through the sandy earth. It was incredible. My face was glued to the window as we pulled into the main parking lot and stopped the car.


We were early, so we spent twenty minutes just wandering around the paths closest to the parking lot, our heads tilted all the way back and our mouths hanging open. The day was hot and sunny, but clouds were starting to roll in for an afternoon shower, and the light that fell on the towers of rock was very dramatic.


The park was full of visitors from all over the country, as we could see from the license plates of the different cars. There were couples, small families, extended families, and groups of friends. There were hikers, bikers, and rock climbers. We saw a family who looked like they were from India, and we saw a Mennonite family, with the women all in white caps and dresses. There was even a tour bus parked along one edge of the lot, and we could see the tour group bunched up on one of the paved walks, taking pictures of the nearest rock formation (called The Tower of Babel, we found out).


I think Mr. Perkins would be happy.


He would not, however, be happy about the graffiti carved into this rock.

When it was time for us to meet our guide for our class, we went back to the parking lot and followed the directions he’d given us over the phone the night before: “Look for a green Subaru with the hatch open.” That seemed uncomfortably vague to me, especially since the parking lot was very full, but it turned out to be easy. We got back to the parking lot and there was the green Subaru, with hatch open as advertised.


Two people were standing near the car, a man and a woman who could have posed for a matching set of rock-climber-themed salt and pepper shakers. They were both slim, athletic, and brown-skinned from the sun, with dark hair that was crewcut-short underneath and long on top. The man was shirtless, and the woman wore a brightly-colored racer-back tank top. Both of them were pulling off a complicated series of straps that I guessed to be their harnesses.


“Hello,” I said, as we got closer. “Is this where we check in for our rock climbing class?”


It was indeed. The woman finished stowing her gear in the back of the car and left while the man, whose name was Dakota, introduced himself.


This is Dakota, wearing his UPS-style rock climbing guide uniform and his usual stoic expression.

“I’ll be your guide,” he said. “Don’t worry—I’ll put a shirt on before we leave.”


I wondered, from the way he said that, if his company had a policy that said guides should all wear shirts while on the job. Given the heat of the day, going shirtless actually seemed to be the better way to go, and I certainly didn’t care.


“We went on a climb over on the south end of the park,” he continued, “and we’re getting back just a little later than I meant to. Here’s some paperwork for you to fill out while I finish getting out of my gear.”


He handed us some forms and a couple of pens, and, since there weren’t any clipboards or anything, we moved around to write on the hood of the car. One of the forms was a waiver, where we agreed that we understood that bad things could happen while rock climbing, including death and dismemberment, and we promised not to sue the pants off the climbing company if we fell and broke our arms. It was phrased in legalese, of course, and without any sense of humor, but that was the gist. The other form was a rock climbing license for the county, good for a year. Apparently you needed a license in order to climb in the park.


By the time we had finished filling out these forms, Dakota had finished changing. He was now wearing a short-sleeved, button-up brown shirt with a company logo on the pocket, and the long top part of his hair had been pulled back into a neat ponytail. It made him look a little bit like a UPS driver.


Now it was time for gear. He asked us what shoe size we wore, and then handed us climbing shoes from a row inside the back of his car, like the mobile version of the shoe counter at a bowling alley. The climbing shoes looked a little bit like bowling shoes, too. They had uppers of red suede, crisscrossed with white stitching, and they laced up the front with striped nylon shoelaces that had about a foot of extra lace left over when you finished tying them.


Since these were rental shoes, they had a kind of unisex, one-size-fits-most shape to them, which meant that my heels didn’t actually fill out the whole back of the shoe; there was a pouchy bit of empty red leather hanging off the back. My toes fit snugly, however, which seemed to be the important thing.


You can’t really tell from this picture of the outside, but there is no actual heel inside the heel of this shoe.

The whole sole of the climbing shoe was one solid piece of smooth black rubber, like the surface of the tires in car racing. I read on some climbing websites afterward that the sole of the shoe is designed to give the climber really good grip on the rock faces so that you get a secure foothold.


While we were trying the shoes on to make sure that they fit, the other two students in our class arrived. They were a thirteen-year-old boy and his fortysomething dad. The dad was wearing a homemade t-shirt that said “World’s Best Dad, Hands Down,” with two small red handprints right in the middle, which I assumed had been made by his son at some earlier period in life. Aww. It was both cute and dorky, which turned out to be a good description for the two of them, too.


Sadly, I forgot to take a picture of the boy and his dad, so you get a picture of this greeting card instead.

Dakota gave the newcomers the paperwork and then told us to go ahead and change back into our regular shoes for now. We would put the climbing shoes on once we got to our destination. In the meantime, we should put on our harnesses.


The harness he handed me looked like a random jumble of straps and buckles, as though a beginner crafter had been trying to macramé a giant hat out of nylon webbing.


This picture makes it more like a giant macrame cupholder.

“Put this red loop in the front,” Dakota said, demonstrating on his own harness, “and then step into the leg straps. Pull the waist strap up over your hips and tighten all the buckles. Then you’re all set.”


Easy, right? It was for my friend, who had worn Capri-length leggings, and who simply stepped into the harness and pulled it into place. Ta-da!


I, on the other hand, had worn a pair of loose-fitting gym shorts, since the email we’d received ahead of time just said to wear comfortable exercise-type clothes. Also, I appeared to be awkwardly shaped as far as these loaner harnesses were concerned, since I have a slender waist but proportionately gigantic thighs (they’re Irish dancer legs, augmented by Crossfit, and I love them—they just sometimes make it challenging to find jeans that fit. Or harnesses, apparently).


Holding onto the larger waist loop, I stepped into the smaller leg loops and tried to pull the whole contraption up. 1st problem: the loops got stuck halfway up my legs, right above my knee. I tried to shimmy the straps up my thighs, thinking that maybe the gallon of sunscreen I’d applied would help them glide along, but no dice.


Meanwhile, to my embarrassment, Dakota was standing there watching my struggles. He was what you’d call phlegmatic, if you like fancy words, or chill, if you don’t. There was no telling from the look on his face, for instance, whether he was inwardly laughing at my harness dance or cursing me for my stupidity. “I’d suggest loosening the buckle on the front of the leg loops all the way,” he said.


This was the look.

Huh? I looked down and noticed, for the first time, the buckles that controlled the size of the straps. Oh. My friend very nicely loosened them up for me, and I continued to pull on the harness. It still didn’t lift easily into place, as it had for my friend, but at least my harness shimmy was now causing the straps to inch up my legs.


2nd problem: even with the leg loops loosened up as far as they would go, they were still a tight fit, and the loops wanted to creep up under my baggy gym shorts instead of going on top of them.


3rd problem: I didn’t notice the 2nd problem until the loops had dragged my shorts all the way up to my hips, exposing my polka-dot underwear for the whole world to see.


FORTUNATELY, Dakota was helping the boy and his dad get their shoes and harnesses on right at that moment, so I don’t think any of them saw my embarrassing predicament (or my polka-dot underwear).




Here I am celebrating finally getting my harness on.

My friend, giggling the whole time, helped me disentangle my shorts from the leg loops and slide everything into the right place, and then I was finally decent—although my shorts still had a distressing tendency to ride up, and the whole rig looked like I was wearing a giant g-string outside of my clothes.


And the back view–after I’d tugged my shorts back down.

When everybody was ready, we all set out towards the place where we would be climbing. The massive rock formation closest to the parking lot was so big that it had three different names for different sections of it: The Tower of Babel, North Gateway Rock, and Signature Rock. Dakota told us about the formations as we passed them. On top of Gateway Rock was the Kissing Camels, a strange set of eroded rocks that looked like, well, two camels kissing. Dakota told us that the rocks in the Kissing Camels weren’t very stable, so workers had used cement and epoxy to hold them in place.


You can just see the Kissing Camels rock formation at the top.

While we walked, Dakota also asked us questions about ourselves. He asked us what we did for a living, and my friend told him that she was about to leave for grad school, where she would be going for her master’s degree in baroque violin performance. They talked about that for a while, and then Dakota asked the dad, “And what do you do for a living?”


“I do math,” he said. We all waited for him to elaborate on that, but he didn’t.


Later on, Dakota tried again, asking if he was a teacher, but he said that no, he was a private contractor. I got the feeling that he thought it wasn’t worth explaining further because we wouldn’t understand what he actually did.


There were little wooden fences around the perimeter of the rocks, with signs saying that only licensed rock climbers were allowed on the rocks themselves. I felt kind of privileged when we got to a gate in the fence with one of these signs and Dakota opened it for us to go through. Wow! I was a licensed rock climber!


Once we got through the fence, we could see the back side of North Gateway Rock (or possibly Signature Rock) looming above us, looking ominously sheer. At the foot of the cliff was a pile of boulders and smaller rocks that at least looked approachable.

rockwall1webIf you squint, you can see the back side of the Kissing Camels up at the top.

“Go ahead and climb up these boulders to that flat rock above,” Dakota said. “I’ll meet you up there and we’ll get started.”


So we scrambled up the boulders, which was exactly like what I used to do while hiking in college. The climb wasn’t super hard, but the boulders were steep, and you definitely had to use both hands and feet to get to the top. I started to have a slightly uneasy feeling. Dakota had climbed up ahead of us, and he hadn’t even looked back to make sure we were all right. Clearly, he thought that this first scramble wasn’t anything to be concerned about; a casual walk in the park. And my friend and I made it just fine…but it made me wonder exactly how much harder the rock climbing itself was going to be.


Uh-oh! Stay tuned for Part 2!