Just off the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, Hvar is one of the sunniest and greenest islands in all of Europe. And the best view of its crystal-clear, teal-blue waters is reserved for those who can scramble up the 40-foot cliff walls to dangle their legs above the Adriatic Sea.
That’s what 27-year-old Holly Yeary of Boulder, Colo., discovered when she went on a rock-climbing trip to Croatia’s coast in 2012, a few years after learning the sport in Texas. She’s one of 6.9 million Americans now climbing, thanks to the sport’s addictive mix of adventure, physical challenge, and mental focus.
“I’ve never felt in the zone like I do when climbing,” says Yeary, a rep for an outdoor-clothing company. “You chalk up, pull onto the wall, and everything else in your head goes away. When you finish a route, your mind is clear and you’re hyperaware of your body and your surroundings. It makes me feel very present.”
Rock of Ages
Humans have been scaling stones for millennia, but the sport of rock climbing began about 200 years ago. During the second half of the 20th century, the activity underwent numerous developments that made it safer and more accessible to the general public. Today, “climbing” can refer to anything from conquering an indoor wall in full harness to daredevil rope-free cliffclimbing. Here are some of the styles of climbing:
- Indoor climbing: Thousands of artificial-rock walls now populate dedicated climbing gyms, fitness centers, outdoors stores, and even homes. Though you don’t get to interact with the natural world, you don’t need to worry about weather, bugs, or searching for hand-and footholds — they’re marked in bright colors on the walls.
- Bouldering: Starting as a training method, bouldering has become a fun sport of its own. Since there are no ropes or harnesses, you typically climb boulders or rock faces about 20 feet high to “solve a problem” — climbing lingo for choosing the path you take to complete a route.
- Sport climbing: With anchors placed by climbers who have pioneered a route, you can move relatively quickly and safely up a wall by clipping in with carabiners and other equipment.
- Traditional climbing: Using ropes and harnesses, you and your pals place your own anchors on the way up, and remove them on the way down.
- Free solo climbing: Ascending a vertical cliff or wall without ropes. Best enjoyed by the very experienced.
On the Rocks
One still may wonder why any but the most ardent thrill seekers would go out of their way to climb boulders and clamber up cliffs. It’s a rewarding sport on a number of levels, explains Charlie Townsend, a manager for Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School. To start with, you can make great gains in physical strength and endurance. These are coupled with the gratification of reaching otherwise-inaccessible glorious views.
And there are other, more subtle yet sublime payoffs. Climbing teaches you to be more physically efficient as well as creative, like how to reserve your energy during a session or scan a difficult surface for the best hand-or footholds. It also helps increase awareness of your surrounding space and drives you to be more intelligent in navigating it.
“It’s often more gratifying to outsmart the obstacle than it is to overpower it,” Townsend says.
Climbing is also an amazing “equal-opportunity sport,” explains Townsend, because of its mental requirements and range of athletic demand. “The current crop of world-class climbers, for example, includes tiny women and towering guys, preteens and pensioners.”
Most kids are natural climbers. Enter a climbing gym on a weekend, and there’s likely to be a birthday party in full swing: Children love to scale stuff, and specially sized harnesses and helmets now allow even preschoolers to practice the sport.
Older rookies can learn the ropes almost anywhere, at indoor climbing walls or outdoor schools like Seneca Rocks Climbing School in West Virginia or Red Rock Climbing Center in Las Vegas. While the types of rocks, difficulty of routes, and magnificence of vistas at these schools vary, all first-time climbers require only one thing: the guidance of an experienced, certified instructor. Climbing guides will equip you with harnesses and helmets, and they’ll teach you how to use carabiners to clip in and out safely. Venturing out on your own as a beginner is never a good idea; even experts prefer to go with fellow experts. (See “Learning the Ropes,” below.)
How safe is rock climbing? Provided you go with a certified instructor, it can be safer than driving to the grocery store. A guide will teach you how to climb and rappel (lower yourself) in a smooth and comfortable manner. If you lose your hand-or foothold and slip, the instructor or a fellow climber “on belay” (using friction on the rope to control the descent) will prevent you from falling. Still, appreciating the element of risk makes climbers better prepared to handle unforeseen circumstances, especially in the mountains.
“Climbers have many tools and techniques designed to mitigate risks, but the risks can’t be totally eliminated — nor would most climbers wish for that!” says Townsend. “Experienced climbers maintain a serious respect for the situation and use their brain as their primary tool in addressing and avoiding the hazards.”
Climbing is a puzzle for the mind. Over time, you’ll get better at judging the route, evaluating risk, and finding the perfectly balanced “zone” that leads to upward mobility.
Ian Potter, a climbing guide based in Ojai, Calif., has found the zone on dozens of climbs from 45 to 200 feet. He says that yoga is better than pumping iron for climbing preparation. “Yoga is a great companion to rock climbing,” Potter explains. “It helps with core strength, focus, and flexibility.”
Like yoga, climbing helps sharpen mind-body awareness. While scaling a sheer vertical surface and peering down at your mates 60 feet below can be more daunting than performing a downward dog, climbing newbies say it helps calm them.
“It was a life-changing experience,” says Seth Fisher of learning to climb in New Hampshire with an instructor from the International Mountain Climbing School. “I was a little anxious at first. As soon as I got on the rock, though, my nerves settled and I had a great time.”
Now, Fisher, 28, climbs a few times a week around his home in Maine, hooked on the satisfaction of meeting each new challenge. “When I try as hard as I can to send a route [complete a climb] and I can’t, I get a feeling of failure,” he admits. “At the same time, when I keep trying the route and I finally do send it, I get a huge feeling of accomplishment, and it makes it all worthwhile.”
Sarah Tuff writes about outdoor sports, health, and fitness from her home in Vermont. She is the coauthor of 101 Best Outdoor Towns.