- Associated Press - Sunday, July 27, 2014

SMITH ROCK STATE PARK, Ore. (AP) - As Leah May Salerno stood on a narrow perch high above the Crooked River in this Central Oregon state park, preparing to climb a vertical rock wall called “Hello Kitty Cliff,” she said something that didn’t quite add up.

“Oh, I’m scared of heights for sure,” the 31-year-old said.

Wait, what?

Of all the things I’ve heard while reporting on Oregon’s outdoors - and that includes some whoppers - hearing a rock climber say they were scared of heights might take the cake.

But Salerno, who’d hiked into the honeycomb towers of Smith Rock with a group of team members from the Salem-based Chemeketans outdoor club, was quite serious.

“I feel very safe connected to a rope while I’m on the wall,” she said, just before ascending 40 meters of reddish-orange rock. “Climbing has really helped me get over that fear. Rock climbing is a very safe sport.”

Those who’ve visited Smith Rock and seen climbers hanging off cliffs overhead might be skeptical of that statement. Rock climbing, after all, just looks dangerous.

But the Chemeketans specialize in easing that intimidation factor by bringing together people with extensive experience and those just getting started. The right leadership can turn something potentially terrifying, like rock climbing, into something accessible to people in all walks of life.

The group I joined during a weekend at Smith Rock illustrated that diversity.

The leader was Vincent Dunn, a state worker from South Salem who just turned 60 years old and has been leading climbs with the Chemeketans since 1999. He helped guide newer members of his crew, like 22-year-old Ryan Horner, up a new route.

“The best part of being a leader is watching other people do things they didn’t think they could - helping them overcome fears,” Dunn said. “To coach somebody up a rock face they didn’t think they could climb, and to see the smile on their face when they get down, is very rewarding.”

The process for getting to the point where you can join a climbing trip with the Chemeketans isn’t extensive. Many participants get started through the group’s four-day climb school, held each year during April. The course gives a basic understanding of the knots, hand-signals and methods for climbing and repelling.

From that point, it’s a matter of joining a trip and heading into the field. Smith Rock makes a near-perfect place to start for a number of the reasons, mainly because of the sheer number of established routes that range from beginner to advanced.

The sport climbing routes are “bolted” - meaning that harnessed climbers can attach to permanent anchors in the rock as they ascend for an additional level of safety.

Much has been done on how Smith Rock became an international climbing destination - that’s a full story in itself. But next time you visit, consider these eye-popping stats.

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