Between a Rock and a Real Hard Place

A 78-foot wall of Brandywine blue gneiss was not so nice to our neophyte climber/intrepid reporter. Disco leg ensued.

I suppose you could call me an experienced rock climber. A long time ago I attempted to scale a treacherous rock wall at Great Falls, Va.—without ropes. When serious climbers do this, it’s called bouldering. When totally inexperienced knuckleheads like me do it, it’s called stupidity.

Anyway, I made it some 20 feet up a nearly vertical wall, froze when I found I couldn’t go forward or backward, developed a panic-induced trembling disorder climbers call “disco leg,” and promptly fell off the mountain. One broken ankle later, my climbing career was over.

But here’s the thing: I have made it my life’s mission not to learn from my mistakes, and lately I’d been hearing the same wild call that led George Mallory to die in his attempt to scale Mt. Everest. My ankle told me to ignore it. My soaring spirit told me to get back out there and prove that painful experience had taught me nothing.

Rock climbing has come a long way since I fell off that rock wall in Great Falls. Here in Delaware you can still do it the old-fashioned way; namely outdoors at the foreboding, 78-foot high wall of Brandywine blue gneiss at Alapocas Run State Park in Wilmington. And you can also do it indoors at the First State’s only facility dedicated solely to rock climbing and bouldering, The Delaware Rock Gym in Bear.

Rockin’ Indoors

Mike Little (orange shorts) and others receive pre-climb instruction from Liz Androskaut. Photo Lindsay duPhily

In short, you have two great ways to get your rock on, and I decided to go the indoor route first. There I learned an amazing thing—you don’t have to break an ankle climbing. Done correctly, i.e., with harness, rope and an experienced belayer below, it’s safe as pasteurized milk. Your belayer will give you just enough rope to climb with but not enough to fall. It’s idiot-proof.

Rock climbing isn’t exclusively for adults in peak physical condition. According to Matt McCorquadale, who opened the state-of-the-art Delaware Rock Gym in 2007, his customers range from near toddlers to nonagenarians. Kids are natural climbers—their strength-to-weight ratio is daunting—and as for seniors, McCorquadale told me about a 90-year-old first-timer who dropped in to celebrate his birthday. That’s what I call spunk.

The first thing that strikes you about the Delaware Rock Gym is its size; we’re talking more than 11,300-plus square feet of climbing walls. But what really gets you is just how high those walls are. Forty-four feet may not mean much in the abstract, but just wait until you’ve taken in the view from the top, which I can liken only to the one you’d get as a window washer hanging outside a fourth-story window.

The gym caters to everyone from beginners to experts, and for the former it’s a real confidence booster. The more experienced make do with limited finger-tip holds, but I made it to the top every time by utilizing some of the simpler color-coded routes. Holds on these routes are both larger and closer together, and the experience, while strenuous and occasionally nerve-wracking, isn’t all that different from climbing a ladder.

The Alapocas Wall

Alas, the self-assurance I gained at the Delaware Rock Gym ebbed away when I showed up at Alapocas Run for a park-sponsored introductory rock-climbing course on a beautiful Saturday morning in early July.

I’d seen photographs of that wall of Wilmington blue rockthe remains of a quarrying operation that ended, according to Liza Androskaut, one of the course’s two instructors/belayers, in the late 1930s or early ‘40s. But it was much more intimidating in person. I can only liken it to seeing a photo of Yao Ming, the 7 ft. 6 in. former center for the NBA’s Houston Rockets, and then actually meeting him—and discovering you only come up to his navel.

But that wasn’t what scared me most. I’d anticipated that climbing at Alapocas Run would be easier than climbing indoors, for the simple reason that the walls at the gym go straight up, whereas most of the climbing routes at the park don’t. But here’s the thing; while the hand- and foot-holds at the rock gym were user-friendly and plentiful, a close look convinced me that such was not the case at Alapocas.

And if that wasn’t enough to put the frighteners to me, the pre-climb safety lecture delivered by Androskaut was. Her brutally blunt lecture on falling rocks (“If somebody shouts ‘Rock!,’ don’t look up, it may hit you in the face. Just do your best to make yourself smaller.”) was sobering. And her equally chilling warnings about copperhead snakes and poison ivy made me wish I were someplace safer, like the Vietnam War.   

But it was too late to turn back, if only because this magazine had sent a photographer along and I didn’t want the only photos taken to be of me fleeing the scene. Nor did I want the other three guys taking the course to think I was chicken. And then there was the registration fee. I was to be reimbursed, but I wasn’t sure that applied in cases of outright desertion.

Mike gamely searches for purchase on the unfriendly wall. Photo Lindsay duPhily

So I donned my harness and helmet, said my prayers, and tried to soothe myself by listening to Christopher Cross’ “Sailing” on the MP3 player that is my brain. Except it kept shuffling tracks to Tom Petty’s “Free Falling.” Very disconcerting.

There were three roped routes to the top. The one on the left was clearly beyond my capacities, while the one to the far right entailed ascending a sheer face of seemingly hold-free rock that would have had Spiderman saying, “Are you kidding me?”

Paid to be Foolhardy

Which left the middle route, which I knew was possible because I’d watched our group’s only teen climber make it up before me. But he’d overcome several treacherous-looking obstacles in the process, and his very real travails ate away a bit more at my already low self-confidence.

But I get paid to do the foolhardy, and I wasn’t about to let the queasy anticipation of imminent doom stand in the way of following through with a dubious life choice. No, I commenced climbing, and, slowly but methodically, I made progress. As expected, good holds were hard to come by, and making headway meant scrambling up steep inclines and hoping my feet didn’t slide out from under me. This was take-your-chances mountain goat climbing, and I’m no mountain goat.

And here’s what I discovered: When you’re trying to shinny up precipitous inclines like an Alpine ibex, and relying on precarious holds or no holds at all, rock climbing seems much more dangerous than it actually is. Sure, your belayer is there should you slip or lose your grip, but just try convincing your frightened inner child of this. I was scared up there to a degree far beyond what I’d experienced at the Delaware Rock Gym.

At the halfway point I found myself marooned on a ledge after my rope snagged on an obstruction above me. There I was, a long way up, unable to move up, down, or even sideways. It was a real predicament and I had to suppress an almost overwhelming urge to shout (you had to shout to be heard below), “I want a search and rescue helicopter piloted by the Rock! And I want it now!”

But I managed to calm myself, untangle the rope, and even ferret out a new route up, which unfortunately involved squeezing nervously through a muddy, copperhead-friendly crevasse. I was beginning to think I’d make it to the top, until I found myself face-to-face with a vertiginous knife edge of nearly vertical rock with nary a hand- or foot-hold.

How had that kid managed it? I had no idea. One thing I did know: My dreams of joining Sir Edmund Hillary in the annals of climbing glory were as dead as George Mallory.

Going down was even less fun than going up. It entailed releasing my death grip on that wall and leaning backward into nothingness, then taking blind and timid backward steps. It was the ultimate in trust-building exercises, and it was made worse by an incipient case of fatigue-induced disco leg.

I’ve never been happier to find myself at the bottom of something in my life. I was bruised, thirsty, and I had a headache—I suspect I adjusted my helmet too tight—but I was alive, and that was cause for celebration. I could have gone up again; everybody else did. But like Bartleby the Scrivener said, “I’d prefer not to.” As I said before, climbing is safe. But why tempt fate?

So, what do you think? Please comment below.