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Coming back to rock climbing: Yes, geezers (and geezers-to-be) can still scale a wall

By on May 31, 2017 in Outdoor Fun with 0 Comments
Who’s afraid of heights? Molly gets up the wall after a little practice.

Who’s afraid of heights? Molly gets up the wall after a little practice.

By Molly Steere

I grew up backpacking with my family, but high school introduced new and unwholesome ways to spend my time and I stopped hiking.

After college, I took the Mountaineers Basic Alpine Climbing Course, renewing my love for the mountains, and went on to climb Washington’s five prominent volcanoes: Rainier, Glacier Peak, Mount Adams, Mount Saint Helens and Mount Baker.

I enjoyed the occasional easy rock climb, but found myself more suited for long glacier slogs. I can plod forever; clawing my way up the side of a rock slab was much more difficult.

After more than a decade off the rope I decided to visit the new Riverfront Rock Gym to give rock climbing another go.

The first blow to my ego came when I pulled out my old climbing harness. What once fit over layers upon layers of cold weather gear now barely slid over my tights. I had even grown out of my rock shoes. Luckily, the gym has rental gear and a retail store.

Nervous about my initial trip to the gym, I brought my seven-year-old son, Roper, as a distraction and potential excuse.

First, though, I had to pass a belay test — where one climber runs the rope through a safety device that prevents long falls by her partner, and can be used to lower the second climber down at the end of a route.

Fortunately, I passed my belay certification test on the first try so I could belay Roper.

Unfortunately, I had forgotten that I gave birth to a mountain goat who didn’t inherit my crippling fear of heights. He scampered up the walls, testing out various routes, and hanging from one hand flashed me the peace sign at the top. Show off.

I made Roper (more aptly named than ever) practice his knots while I climbed the routes with auto-belays — devices you can clip in to that allow you to climb without a belay certified partner — attempting to propel myself up the routes without too much of a scene.

Roper laughed hysterically at my terror of being more than a few feet off the ground, and my initial distrust of the auto-belay system. Over and over, I’d climb part way up the route, close my eyes, say a quick prayer, and drop from the wall. Each time, I descended safely and smoothly to the ground where my son helpfully informed me that he could do that route much faster. Thanks, buddy.

Bringing a kid as a decoy obviously didn’t pan out, so I looked into other options. Riverfront Rock Gym offers a variety of courses, from Intro to Climbing to Advanced Technique. I was leaning toward a women’s climbing course when I happened upon a class called The Geezer Gathering for old and rusty climbers who want to learn techniques to stay young and avoid injury. Bingo!

A slow motion race ensues between Molly and her dad, Charlie Cooper. Charlie pulls off the win.

A slow motion race ensues between Molly and her dad, Charlie Cooper. Charlie pulls off the win.

Not wanting to hog the opportunity for public humiliation, I decided to bring my dad as my decoy this time. Dad’s a card-carrying, certified geezer, but I felt like I had to prove my geezer status, and over-explained to anyone who would listen, “I’ve had two neck surgeries! I’m in need of a knee replacement! Behold my grey hair!” I may have even offered to procure a note from my doctor, verifying my geezerness. They let me in.

The Geezer Gatherings are led by Mark Shipman and Jeanna Perrotta. Mark is a retired ER doctor, consummate outdoor fanatic, and part owner of Riverfront Rock Gym. Jeanna is an accomplished climber, well-known route setter, and patient instructor. I was relieved to see that dad and I were the only students for the first class, as I was going to require a lot of extra attention.

Class began with stretching led by Jeanna, and training tips with kinesiology background from Mark. Climbing is a full-body strength training exercise, which is important because at age 35-40 you start losing muscle mass.

The good news, Mark informed us, is that we can build up muscle mass in a matter of months. Unfortunately, it can take up to six years for the connective tissue to catch up to that strength. This is why it’s so critical to learn good climbing technique to avoid injury.

Entering the first class, I was feeling pretty cool in my proper climbing attire, complete with a brand new harness (one size up, harrumph), new climbing shoes and all the right lingo.

Dad showed up in jeans and his Saturday socks, and proceeded to handily out climb me. There’s something to be said for Old Man Strength. That, and I forgot he has a lot of past climbing experience. I can’t catch a break with my so-called decoys.

As we tried different routes, Mark and Jeanna demonstrated techniques that would keep us from overstraining our upper bodies. They showed us how to use our legs as much as possible and how to stem, or push our body weight up instead of pulling.

I watched and nodded, noting that it looked pretty straightforward. When it was my turn, I approached the wall with confidence, started up the route and promptly forgot everything I was taught.

Several times, I’d finish a route and ask if I correctly used the new technique they just showed us. “Um, maybe I should demonstrate it again.”

For those of you who aren’t fluent in extreme kindness, that’s code for “no.” However, with more practice, Dad and I were able to put the new techniques to use.

Both Mark and Jeanna are very generous, not only with their collective knowledge, but with compliments and encouragement.

When I have an audience watching me flail and claw (not the proper technique, incidentally) my way up the wall, and my fear of heights is making my leg tap like the needle of a sewing machine, and I’ve thought of all the ways equipment can fail because I’m an engineer and that’s just what I do — generous compliments and encouragement are very much appreciated.

Toward the end of the first class I was drenched in sweat and my forearms were so tired I could barely make a fist, but I was elated.

It felt amazing to challenge both my body and my mind.

Dad and I immediately signed up for more humiliation the following week.

By the end of the second class, after learning more techniques to haul my carcass up the wall, I was able to tamp down my fear of heights and finish more challenging routes.

With growing confidence, or perhaps because we’re gluttons for punishment, we signed up for a third class, where we practiced bouldering and learned to conserve energy while climbing.

With the encouraging atmosphere and excellent instruction, I’m now comfortable entering the gym without a decoy. It’s satisfying to know that even as my body gets a little creaky and ornery, there are still plenty of fun activities I can do.

This honorary geezer can’t wait to get back into the gym.

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