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Mountain Madness Climber

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.

Oh! Yes!”

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