If you’ve ever dreamt of—but still feared—dangling from ropes and a harness a thousand feet above Yosemite National Park, it’s easier than you think. You won’t start on the sheer face of Half Dome, one of the park’s fabled features, but the sport of rock climbing is accessible to a range of people that extends far beyond fitness-obsessive physical specimens. And opportunities may be closer than you think.
“I took a four-year-old climbing on Monday and I’ve taken 70-year-olds,” says Carolyn Riccardi, an experienced rock-climbing instructor in the Shawangunks, a ridge of bedrock about 90 minutes north of New York City that offers some of the best rock climbing available in the United States. “I’ve taken people who look like football players and ballet dancers.”
AMGA-accredited rock climbing schools (that’s the American Mountain Guides Association) offer introductory one- and two-day courses in the $175-to-$300 range. But many climbers make their first ascent at gyms on rock climbing walls. “These days the majority start indoors,” explains Matthew Matera, a 23-year-old rock climber and one of the founders of Stanford University’s competitive climbing team.
Rock climbing varies depending on where in the country you’re pursuing it. The West Coast has larger “more aggressive” peaks, some as high as 14,000 feet. Utah is known for its sandstone climbing. My challenge began at the Shawangunks, a.k.a. “the Gunks.” I donned climbing shoes, a helmet and harness, while my instructor ran a rope from an anchor at the summit of the modest cliff I was supposed to climb. He then threaded it through my harness. The 30-foot ascent was intimidating, nonetheless.
Because the rope functions as a safety device, not a hoist, I was expected to accomplish the climb using my own questionable strength. Nevertheless, with experience, you come to rely less on sheer physical power. You also get a sense, however fleeting, of how profoundly engaging the sport can be—and not just because you have a vested interest in returning to your friends and family alive. It’s as much about sightseeing as testing your strength and endurance. And perhaps also about putting things in a larger perspective.
“As a sport it’s allowed me to get to some incredible places,” Matera says. “It’s a humbling experience.”