Built to scale: Rock climbing tests body, mind

Isaiah Webb, a guide and instructor at Wilderness Voyageurs, climbs a rock at the Meadow Run climbing area in Ohiopyle, Pa., on  June 30.  

OHIOPYLE, Pa. — There is a rock surface at Ohiopyle State Park called “the crack.”

Made of sandstone, it is divided by a fissure that leads to a landing about 25 or so feet off the ground and then to a wider opening that provides access to the top of the outcropping.

Rachel Chidlow, a guide with Wilderness Voyageurs, describes it as a “vanilla milkshake” place for beginners to learn climbing, as opposed to nearby rocks that she would classify as “chocolate” and ultimately “cookies and cream” — to provide a perspective on the difficulty levels.

“The rock itself — I’m a geologist, so I really like this rock — it is super hard,” said Chidlow, a geology student at West Virginia University. “It’s got really nice grips. Honestly, it’s a blast. You can make it as easy as climbing up a ladder or you can make it as hard as going over a roof.

“It’s very beautiful. You can see all the rhododendron, all the mountain laurel. It’s a great way to get people outside and just experience something new.”

Chidlow and fellow guide Isaiah Webb take visitors — often scouting groups or families — to “the crack” to teach them the rock-climbing basics.

“It’s relatively simple — not easy, but simple — climbing,” said Webb, who studied parks and recreation at Slippery Rock University. “It’s kind of easy to instruct Boy Scouts on how to climb up it, and give them just a general knowledge of how to climb, what they’re looking for when they climb, different hand holds, foot holds, and trying to teach them to use their whole body instead of just trying to use their arms.

“It’s a really, really good intro to climbing for them. Hopefully it will get them into climbing themselves, and getting out there and getting active.”

 Mental, physical challenge

Ohiopyle, a 25,000-acre park in southwestern Pennsylvania’s Fayette County, offers about a half-dozen spots for top roping — where climbers are harnessed to cables that are anchored to trees at the top — or bouldering, which involves covering shorter, trickier, lower distances in brief spurts with safety mats placed on the ground for protection.

Climbers can go on their own or with guides from companies such as Wilderness Voyageurs, which, founded in 1964, bills itself as the oldest adventure outfitter east of the Mississippi River.

Starting on the ground, a climber looks for positions to establish footing and small ledges to grip. Then the ascent begins, with the climber finding a new spot to grab and then bringing a foot up to a higher ledge – over and over again, inch by inch, to the top.

“It’s challenging,” Webb said.

Eric Martin, owner of Wilderness Voyageurs, said the sport not only offers physical challenges but mental ones as well, which can include getting out of personal comfort zones, perhaps even overcoming a fear of heights.

“I think rock climbing gives people that opportunity for real, personal, individual satisfaction — goal-setting, achievements — because it’s pretty much up to them,” Martin said. “Most of the time, it’s as much about being mentally strong as it is probably being physically strong. It’s about solving a problem. It’s about determining you can do it and then making it happen.”

Joel Brady, president of Southwestern Pennsylvania Climbers Coalition, likewise said the sport can appeal to participants in a variety of ways.

“I think, for everyone, they feel climbing is a little bit different,” Brady said. “The things you hear the most often are the challenges, the connection with the outdoors. Some people prefer the somewhat individualistic nature of the challenge.

“Even though you might climb in a social group, when you are climbing on a route, it’s primarily about your skill level and your level of challenge as an individual. But then, on the other hand, people enjoy the social dimension of it as well. Especially with the proliferation of climbing gyms, that social aspect has become key for a lot of people.”

‘Keep doing this sport’

 Some other regional climbing spots are Breakneck Rocks, Casparis, Coll’s Cove, Lost Crag and White Rocks — all located within about a 20-mile radius of Ohiopyle, along with Beam Rocks in Forbes State Forest.

McConnells Mill State Park, in Lawrence County, has two climbing areas — Rim Road and Breakneck Bridge.

“(McConnells Mill) lends itself to rock climbing because the Slippery Rock Gorge is there,” Dustin Drew, manager at the park, said. “It’s a national natural landmark where the Slippery Rock Creek carved out a gorge a long time ago after the glaciers sort of receded, and there were large lakes from the glaciers melting, and then those lakes gave way and carved out the gorge, so there are a lot of big rock outcroppings and big boulders where everything else was sort of washed away. It left the biggest stones behind.”

Guidelines are posted at the sites that provide climbers with information about how to “protect anyone who is coming there and protect the resource at the same time,” according to Drew.

“Obviously rock climbing can be a very dangerous recreational interest,” Drew said. “If done properly, it can be done very safely. But, if not, there’s an element of danger there, certainly. I think, with that in mind, we don’t necessarily over-promote it, because we don’t want a novice going there or someone that’s not experienced and trained with the gear, and getting injured.”

Individuals and organizations, including Southwestern Pennsylvania Climbers Coalition and ASCEND Pittsburgh, work to create interest in climbing at McConnells Mill and other locations throughout the region.

ASCEND holds classes at the park.

SWPACC’s mission is to promote the sport, disseminate information and gain access to climbing areas.

“We collectively try to make sure that we can keep doing this sport that we love,” Brady said.

 Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.

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