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

Generally speaking, guides start families out on a top rope. A climbing rope is slung through an anchor at the top of the climb. Climbers wear rock shoes — tightly fitting shoes, whose textured toes and heel are "sticky" and help climbers grip what can be small toeholds in the rock.

They wear a harness around their waist and legs and clip onto the rope to climb while their partner belays them — that is, holds the rope tight so that, should the climber begin to fall, the rope will stop them. Molitoris says he often sees families out with their children, frequently with one or two top ropes so two people can climb while others on the ground belay them and coach them through their moves.

When working with children, Molitoris has two of them belaying with a guide watching as backup. He frequently works with groups of children, and they have what he calls a "pre-flight" check list they go through.

He finds that some kids enjoy belaying as much as they do climbing, because of the opportunity to coach the climber. It's a responsibility, too.

Climbers don't always stay on top ropes. The next step up is multi-pitch climbing, in which a leader — a more experienced climber — ascends first, placing temporary removable anchors as he or she goes, with the second climber then following. That enables far higher climbs, and Molitoris says some kids take to climbing so quickly that they move from top-roping to multi-pitch climbing the first day out.

Benefits Off the Mountain

Climbing, like many sports, produces benefits that reverberate into other facets of a climber's life.

"The whole thing is about being efficient, use as small amount of force as possible," says Molitoris. "You have to figure out the footholds and trust yourself that you're just going to stand on this. You reach a brain barrier where you can't commit to the move. Until you commit to that move you're not going to get beyond that. If they were to try a lot of times and they get it, it gives confidence. It's a transferable lifelong skill into other aspects of your life other than just climbing."

The sport has a fairly detailed system that rates a climb's difficulty, ranging from 5.0, the easiest, to 5.14, the most extreme (although, as climbers continue to conquer new and more difficult routes, 5.15 may be pending). This is the common rating in the U.S.; other countries use other rating systems. "The U.S. has an amazing variety of climbing," says Vogel. There are the obvious — Western mountain states like California, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and others. But the East Coast has excellent climbing in Maine, New Hampshire, and New York. There are climbing areas in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and in the Southeast as well.

A few sites that offer ideas of where to climb include Climbing magazine's site, www.climbing.com along with supertopo.com and www.thecrag.com (this requires you to sign up but is free).

The American Mountain Guide Association (www.amga.com) is an important resource. Both Vogel and Molitoris are AMGA-certified guides and instructors. It's the place to go when searching for guides.

Fees can vary from $100 or $200 per person per day, so do your research.

And there may be consequences. Molitoris says families may find themselves enamored of a whole new sport.

"It's an addictive sport," he says.