The Height of Adventure


You're 35 feet above the ground, trying to hug the side of a gigantic rock while gripping tiny crevices with the tips of your toes and wedging your fingertips into meager cracks.

Glancing up, the climb ahead looks unreachable although it's only 5 more feet, and you feel a bit dizzy and fatigued.

Looking down isn't the least bit comforting, even if it's a measure of what you've accomplished so far--how high you've managed to climb without slipping. It's a terrifying scene and suddenly you feel yourself go pale, eyes wide open with fear.

Your fingers are sore, your toes numb. You fantasize about touching the ground, standing flat on your feet and giving the old toes a much-needed break.

Wishful thinking. Now back to clinging to that huge rock from hell! Panic has set in and you're feeling nauseated.

And this is supposed to be fun?

Well, if you thought climbing up was tough, wait until it's time to come down. When you finally reach the top or refuse to climb any farther, it's time to let go and rappel.

"Just lean back like you're sitting on a couch and let go of the rock!" your patient instructor yells from below. "Just let go!"

You get the point, but hold on even tighter, despite the pain in your fingers and your passionate desire to reunite with the ground.

But when exhaustion and nerves--plus the pressure of onlookers--finally force you to let go, nothing happens. You don't plunge down the rock's wall to a gruesome death.

The harness around your waist and thick nylon rope attached to it prevent disaster. Before you know it, you're safely back. You never loved dirt so much.

Welcome to a beginners' course in rock climbing. It can be a fun hobby once you deal with the trust issues regarding the rope, harness and instructor and overcome the fear of heights. Climbing a 40-foot rock can give one a definite sense of confidence and empowerment, but it can also be a scary experience. Did we forget to mention physically trying? It definitely requires agility, strength and plenty of finesse.

"We have people of all shapes and sizes do it and, for most, letting go is the hardest thing," said Matt Polk, a rock-climbing instructor from Tarzana. "It's a huge trust issue. Most of our students have problems with it."

Polk and his friend, Eric Trevore, own a business in Tarzana called Natural High Adventures, and each month they teach about 50 beginners the basics of rock climbing at Stoney Point in Chatsworth.

The eight-hour course begins at 7 a.m. Saturday at the picturesque, 22-acre park near the top of Topanga Canyon Boulevard. It covers safety, equipment use and technique. By the end of the day you get to climb a 40-foot rock. All equipment except shoes--about $6 a day to rent--is provided. The course costs $75.

Shana Berger, a 29-year-old chiropractor from Westlake Village, took the course about a year ago and has been climbing ever since.

"A lot of my friends ask, 'What are you, crazy?' But it's such a personal challenge," Berger said. "For a moment when I got all the way up I was a little freaked out, but it's such a fabulous view and such a sense of accomplishment."

There are three types of rock climbing: top-rope climbing (the most popular kind for beginners), lead climbing and bouldering.

The first two require two climbers--the person scaling the wall and the belayer--who stands below and manages the rope to safeguard against a fall.

In top-rope climbing, a rope suspends in a U-shape from a metal ring at the top of the rock. As the lead climber scales the rock, the belayer protects him by holding the other end of the rope. If the lead climber begins to fall, the belayer acts as a lever by pulling the rope.

In lead climbing, the lead climber paves the way for the belayer, who climbs from below. Bouldering is climbing without ropes or other safety equipment, relying solely on muscle strength. It's the most dangerous, says Polk.

Stoney Point, the Rock Pool at Malibu Creek State Park near Calabasas and Mugu Rock on Pacific Coast Highway are favorite local climbing spots.

For those who want to try it in a safer, confined surrounding, there's the 30-foot wall at REI retail store in Northridge. It's the only indoor climbing wall in the Valley and it's free.

The three-sided wall is open from 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Thursdays and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.

That's about the only freebie available in climbing, which is not a cheap hobby. Basic equipment includes a nylon harness, special shoes, a nylon rope and belay and rappel devices for an average of $500.


* Natural High Adventures conducts rock-climbing courses for beginners on Saturdays at Stoney Point park in Chatsworth. The eight-hour class costs $75 and all equipment except shoes is provided. Individual day trips to favorite local climbing spots are also available for $40. For reservations and information call: (818) 709-5021.

* In Ventura County, there are several locations with natural rock, but beginners might want to try the artificial wall at the end of Kalorama Street in Ventura. There is also an indoor wall at the Ventura County Athletic Club, in Ventura, which is available to members only. 644-9561.

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