- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 16, 2005

Nine-year-old Thomas Selishev enjoys hanging over the edges of cliffs — wearing a helmet while harnessed to many ropes, of course.

“It feels really dangerous,” the Silver Spring fourth-grader says. “It’s a warm feeling.”

The boy’s father, Andrei, invited his son to try rock climbing after doing it himself this summer.

Rock climbing often is considered the sport of daredevils. Students and instructors say it’s not as unsafe as it seems, however. With proper technique, the activity can be good exercise and a great confidence-builder.

Those interested in learning the sport should seek professional instruction, says Dave Nugent, owner and director of Springfield-based Adventure School. Instructors with the school are certified through the American Mountain Guide Association in Boulder, Colo.

“Lots of people learn from experienced friends, but most people don’t realize that their friends are trying to kill them,” Mr. Nugent says. “Their friends might know how to climb, but not how to teach. There is no substitute for formal instruction.”

In the introductory class for first-time climbers, students spend eight hours covering the basics of the sport, he says. It costs $95 per person and usually is held at Carderock Park in Maryland or Great Falls Park in Virginia.

The class teaches beginners how to climb via the top-roping method, says Pierre Dery, lead instructor with Adventure School. The rope runs from the belayer — the person holding the rope that catches the climber in the event of a fall — through a carabiner connected to an anchor at the top of the cliff, such as trees and rocks, and back to the climber.

“Top roping is the safest form of climbing,” Mr. Dery says. “If you fall, you only fall as far as the rope stretches.”

The class also addresses basic safety and etiquette, how to use the equipment and tie knots, rappelling, and belaying.

“Most of the time, it’s not gear failure, but human error that causes problems,” Mr. Dery says. “A 7/16-inch static line holds about 8,000 pounds.”

While listening to an explanation about climbing is helpful, actually doing it is better for learning, Mr. Dery says.

After securing a helmet and harness, students lace on snug climbing shoes and head over the edge. While rappelling isn’t as scary as it may seem, climbers need to always be aware of what is below them, he says. Climbers also can start from the bottom of a cliff, climb up and then rappel.

When heading up a cliff, leg strength and balance are the most important tools. While upper-body strength may offer some aid, placement of the feet is the biggest component to success, he says. The fingers and hands are often the first body parts to fatigue.

The slightest bump of rock can provide a platform for climbers’ feet, he says. Further, using knees for leverage is a cardinal sin of climbing. Black-and-blue marks and damaged kneecaps can be the result.

Anywhere a knee can be placed, a foot can be placed, Mr. Dery says, and the specialized shoes are much stickier than knees.

Although Nadia Guth of Alexandria, 42, was terrified the first time she went rock climbing, she tried it at the suggestion of her husband, Stephen. Previously, she had exercised by running.

Now, she loves climbing. She says once you get into a rhythm it’s like riding a bike. She is a student of Adventure School.

“I’m hooked,” she says. “It takes your total focus. You focus on a goal, which is getting up the rock.”

As people’s skills improve, they might consider hiring a guide for the day, says Robb MacGregor, director of Nirvana Climbing Guides in Point of Rocks, Md. He completed the American Mountain Guide Association’s rock instructor course.

Although novices often hire him as a guide, he first teaches them the basic skills of climbing. It costs $200 per day for private guiding. He also offers separate instructional classes for $100 per day.

Since all-day climbs usually require multiple rope lengths to scale a wall, he uses the multipitch climbing technique, which differs from top roping.

The leader ascends the rock, placing gear and stopping to anchor to the belay station. The second climber is usually the student. The leader and the second climber take turns belaying for each other.

“It’s like a game of chess,” Mr. MacGregor says. “You have to figure your way off the rock. People like to rock climb to face the challenge.”

Although indoor and outdoor climbing is different, some students benefit from practicing inside before braving Mother Nature, says Bill Kelly, gym director of Sportrock in Sterling, Va.

While some clients simply use the gym as a winter training center, other climbers never leave the gym. The fee for adults per day is $18. Participants 12 and younger pay $7 per day. Gear can be rented for an additional fee.

“They don’t want to worry about bugs, dirt and snakes,” Mr. Kelly says. “Indoors is a more controlled environment. In the gym, it’s air-conditioned. There is padding everywhere.”

Big, bulky people with a poor strength-to-weight ratio probably will have more trouble learning to rock climb, says Jim Taylor, director of Appalachian Climbing School in Fayetteville, W.Va. He is a certified guide of the American Mountain Guide Association.

Although most people can learn solid skills in two days of instruction, lean students usually have an advantage. It costs $225 per day for a private lesson and $130 per day for a group lesson.

“I’ve had several gymnasts come out and climb,” Mr. Taylor says. “They do things on their first day of climbing that it takes people months to learn.”

Climbing is an excellent way to exercise and improve coordination, says Tony Barnes, senior guide with Seneca Rocks Climbing School in Seneca Rocks, W.Va.

It costs $375 per person for three days of basic climbing instruction.

“If you have good flexibility, if you’re fit, it really helps a lot,” Mr. Barnes says. “If climbers start out just liking climbing, pretty soon, they are fit, too. Part of the reason people stay with climbing is they are healthier.”

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