Rock Climbing for the Family

Few sports epitomize adventure the way rock climbing does. It's the polar opposite of modern life today — you, your body and brain figuring out a puzzle as primeval as a vertical rock face and gravity, with nary a computer chip in sight.

Ascending a soaring cliff, tree tops seemingly tickling your toes, a stunning natural panorama spread out before you, exhilarates physically, mentally and spiritually.

It's even better with the kids along. Children are hardwired to climb. Just look at the toddler who climbs from chair to counter to refrigerator top. These days, too, many children are sampling climbing in indoor rock gyms, either through school or recreational programs.

Climbing schools that cater to families find that often a child who thinks it looks fun or has tried climbing at a rock gym gets the family interested, although parents can be the driving force, too. Harry Kent, founder of Kent Mountain Adventure Center (www.kmaconline.com), Estes Park, Colo., says that kids enjoy the gyms and then discover they can climb outdoors. And parents usually like the idea of getting the kids outdoors.

Climbing is a sport that flies straight into a fundamental human fear, that of heights, but it is a sport with multiple safety systems that, when demonstrated to novices, shows its safety. Just learning the system often assuages fears of novices.

No Experts Needed

Families don't need to be expert or super jocks to try a climbing vacation, say guides who work with families. Contrary to some misconceptions, it's not a sport based on strength and power.

"The first misperception of non-climbers is that climbing is a super physical activity," says Todd Vogel, an owner of the Sierra Mountain Center (www.sierramountaincenter.com) in Bishop, Calif. Being physically fit helps, because it contributes to endurance and means you can climb longer. But climbing is really more about solving a puzzle, says Vogel, who jokingly describes climbing as a combination of a wrestling match and a chess game. It's a sport in which flexibility and balance are more important than strength, says Marty Molitoris, owner of Alpine Endeavors, www.alpineendeavors.com, in New Paltz, N.Y.

"Sometimes the timid little girl climbs better than the big strong kid," he says. A bulky football player may be at a disadvantage compared to a slim girl because the football player has more weight to swing around, which can be tiring, while the lighter girl has a higher strength-to-weight ratio that's better for climbing.

"People can get into it from any level as a family," says Molitoris. He and his guides will custom design the day for families.

He suggests a half day for families with kids younger than 10 or 12, just in case they lose interest. And, as is typical with any outing involving kids, he frequently adds in other activities. Some of it comes with the territory: Usually you have to hike in to climbing sites (but not always — New York's famous Shawangunks, popularly known as the Gunks, tower above a state highway). In the Adirondacks, an outing might involve canoeing on Lake George, climbing a 500-foot cliff, rappelling down and then going for a picnic and a swim.

"And there's more to it than that, too, you have the wildlife and the plants and geology of it that kids are interested in," Molitoris says. He considers climbing a wonderful opportunity for families to interact with each other.

Top Ropes, to Start

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