Climb On, Vashon!
Vashon Island is not exactly the epicenter of rock climbing in the Puget Sound. It is, in many ways, a bit of an ironic place for me to live – as a professional mountain guide. But it is beautiful, peaceful, and makes for an excellent home between all of my travels. For some reason, it just keeps working.
And it has worked even better since the Recess Lab Bouldering Wall opened.
Strolling through downtown a little over a year ago, I spied some brightly colored, oddly shaped blobs on a wall through the windows of a new fitness studio. I climbed up on the window sill to peer over the curtains, and there it was! A bouldering wall! Right here on Vashon!
“Would you like to look at the wall?” A woman opened the door as I awkwardly crimped my fingers on the window sill and flagged my left foot out for balance.
“Are you a climber?” She asked.
“Yes. I work as a mountain guide, too.”
“Oh! Can you work here?” We both laughed.
And thus it began.
Last fall, I started offering workshops and multi-week classes teaching kids to climb, as well as a Conditioning for Climbing class for adults and advanced climbers. The classes filled up. Climbers came out of the woodwork. And we found a community enthusiastic for new ways of moving.
I watched skill levels skyrocket, and finger- and core-strength soar. The next logical step was to take it all outside.
With summer approaching, classes would stop, as I make room for my busy summer guiding season. And Vashon residents are hard to keep inside during the blissful island summers anyway. A few of my adults were interested in climbing outdoors with their kids, who were all around age 6 and had also been in my climbing classes. What a perfect idea!
We set up a day of rock climbing at Exit 38 through Mountain Madness at the beginning of July: three moms, and their three kids.
In the mountains, when we wake early in the morning for a big climbing objective, we call that an “alpine start.” To go rock climbing on a busy summer weekend in Seattle, we required what I will call an “island start.” Kind of like an alpine start for rock climbing – or any other adventure that involves getting off island early to beat traffic.
We met at 7am in Bellevue, and carpooled up to the Far Side crag of Exit 38, headed for the excellent Gritscone crag – a short but very high quality wall with a range of climbs to keep the kids happy and still challenge their well-trained moms.
We were the first to arrive at the crag, so we started on the easiest climbs. They ranged from 5.5 to 5.7, and were about 25 feet tall.
Since a bouldering wall requires no ropes, our first order of business was to learn how all the equipment worked. Quinn, the Mountain Madness Outreach Coordinator, joined us to help belay the kids while I taught the adults to belay. We wrangled the kids into their tiny harnesses, tied them in, and up they went.
Truth be told, I wasn’t sure how quickly these youngsters would take to real rock, with smooth, slabby footholds and no brightly colored hand holds. I turned to grab my belay device from the back of my harness, and when I looked up again, one of the kids was already at the top of the first climb, sitting back on the rope and ready to be lowered – in perfect form. I guess it’s true that at a certain age, kids don’t learn, they absorb.
I used to guide rock climbing in Yosemite, and even there, in the world’s rock climbing Mecca, I had never seen kids of this age take so naturally and quickly to the rock. Perhaps, I selfishly hoped, it had been all the confidence and movement skills they had gained while bouldering around the Recess Lab…
With the kids happily occupied, I turned back to the moms, and we got to work learning how to belay. The moms also picked up the new skills very quickly, and soon I had them all working together to belay each other and the kids. We were cranking out laps well before lunchtime.
Soon the warm up climbs were getting too easy. Two of the kids even managed to get up the steep, edgy 5.7. The third discovered a minor fear of heights but an aptitude for belaying.
Quinn belayed me up a 5.9 to the left, and I dropped another top rope. This proved to be a more adequate challenge, with some technical moves and tricky sequences. The kids were over their heads, but the moms were all about it. And by this time, the kids were getting tired and found a really exciting patch of dirt to dig around in.
Wow, we laughed, this is working out perfectly! With the kids distracted by the dirt, the moms got some time to push themselves. After the 5.9, it was time for one more challenge – a 5.9+ just to the left. This one had even more technical challenges, and proved to be a great way to end the day – tired, thrilled, and stoked for more.
And with three 6 year olds completely covered in dirt.
Fortunately, there is a charming swimming hole on the walk back to the car. Since we had started so early, we were done by the heat of the day, and psyched for a refreshing wade into the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River.
Summers in the Pacific Northwest are hard to beat – especially when you are strong and well trained to take full advantage of a new and exciting outdoor activity!
I hope this will be the first of many more family climbing days, from the islands or anywhere else!
Climb on, Vashon!
~ MM Guide Lyra Pierotti, words and photos