Tahoe emerging as rock climbing destination | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Tahoe emerging as rock climbing destination

Matthew Renda
mrenda@tahoedailytribune.com

Matthew Renda / Tahoe Daily TribuneSean Bunnell, from Carnelian Bay, tops out on a vertical route that runs up the face of the aptly named Split Rock, located near Donner Lake in Truckee.

LAKE TAHOE – The Lake Tahoe Basin and surrounding Sierra Nevada first catapulted into national and international consciousness as a result of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games at Squaw Valley.

Since, the renown surrounding the region most often relates to the unsurpassed natural beauty of the lake and the world-class ski and snowboard terrain offered in the backcountry and at the abundance of resorts throughout the region – both will always be an integral part of the equation in bringing tourists to the region.

Yet, recently, an expanding portfolio of summer recreational activities have helped make the basin a more diversified magnet for visitors, and due attention has been devoted to the emergence of Lake Tahoe as an ideal spot for bicyclists, whether it be of the road or trail variety.

Similarly, the drive to promote and market emergent sports such as stand-up paddleboarding has increased over the past few years.

However, in all the recreation hullabaloo, rock climbing has consistently flown under the radar, which can be surprising considering the sport’s dramatic increase in popularity in recent years combined with the Lake Tahoe Basin’s ability to provide an ideal setting for practitioners of the sport, particularly for beginners.

To the uninitiated, the sport of rock climbing may conjure more myth than actuality, experts say, the most prevalent being that rock climbing is exceedingly dangerous, and scaling a cliff is a death-defying act reserved for the brave (or crazy) few.

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However, conscientious use of the safety equipment associated with the sport renders the enterprise relatively safe.

“I think the injury rate for rock climbers is less than that of mountain bikers and even road bikers,” said Annie Ballard of Alpenglow Sports, an outdoor outfitter shop in Tahoe City that carries a wealth of rock climbing-related equipment and guidebooks.

Yet, Ballard and others recognize that safety is relative to the degree of a climber’s competency. Setting up anchors, tying proper knots, placing protection and finding an attentive partner who you trust are critical components to a safe experience.

Jeff Dostie, also of Alpenglow, said the potential for drastic consequences tends to bring safety into focus.

“When you’re hanging off a cliff hundreds of feet off the ground, you’re saying, ‘If I don’t tie this knot properly I will fall to my death’ – and you tend to tie the knot properly,” he said. “Because the consequences are higher if you make a mistake, there is more of an effort to avoid mistakes.”

Another frequent myth is that rock climbing entails superhuman strength, Ballard said.

“I see plenty of weightlifters struggle to get up a cliff,” she said. “Really, balance, good footwork and all-around strong technique are more important (than strength).”

Getting mileage on a rock and simply practicing is the best way to improve technique, Ballard and Dostie said.

“Everybody starts out the season weak,” Dostie said. “There’s nothing that gets you strong for climbing like climbing. You just have to log hours on the rock.”

There’s debate in the arena of climbing about whether top-roping or bouldering is the best introduction to the sport.

For Ballard, it’s top-roping – a form of climbing which runs from a belayer (a term meaning the securing of a rope on a rock or other projection) at the foot of a climbing route to an anchor system at the top, and then down back to the climber, usually attached to his or her harness.

“I’m interested in vertical climbing,” she said. “But for people who are afraid of heights bouldering might be a better approach. It’ll give you confidence on the rock before starting to get high off the ground.”

Bouldering is more difficult, Dostie notes, as the easiest of routes would be rated as some of the more difficult vertical climbs.

On the other hand, a bouldering setup is significantly less expensive than all the gear associated with top-roping. For bouldering, climbing shoes and a crash pad – essentially a portable gymnastics mat designed to lessen the impact of a fall – are all one needs to begin.

With top-roping, one needs shoes, a rope, a harness, carabiners and a few pieces of protection – the expense can quickly escalate. Furthermore, top-roping requires a technical understanding of how to establish anchor systems, how to properly belay a climber and other facets necessary to ensure safety.

Bouldering requires little technical understanding from an equipment standpoint. To begin top-roping, one must first consult either a guide book or a professional regarding the specifics of setting up an anchor system, tying strong knots and attaching the rope to the harness.

For those who don’t want to begin climbing without the benefit of professional expertise, Alpine Skills International – a comprehensive all-terrain rock and alpine climbing and ski mountaineering guide service based in Truckee – provides a nine-step progression of courses.

Climbing guides at ASI can accommodate a family without equipment looking for a fun day of recreation, or an advanced climber wanting to hone his or her technique or expand abilities, said Bela G. Vadasz, technical director at ASI.

Vadasz said he understands many young athletic individuals get introduced to the sport via bouldering with their more experienced friends, but as a professional service, he strongly believes top-roping is the best option for beginners.

“Beginners get hurt bouldering,” he said. “It’s important to be safe-guarded with a top-rope. Bouldering requires highly gymnastic maneuvers done off the ground.”

Vadasz said Donner Pass is the ideal place to begin learning the tricks of the climbing trade.

“The quality of granite is varied,” he said. “You can climb up cracks or do some traditional face climbing and there is moderate as well as advanced terrain. Climbers from all over the world come to climb at Donner.”

Regardless of how one wants to begin learning the sport, all the individuals interviewed emphasized the great personal responsibility that comes with rock climbing.

Staying within one’s ability level and cultivating a thorough understanding of the safety equipment are essential in avoiding serious injury or fatalities. For those with a technical savvy, there are many books with detailed instructions on how to prevent injury by setting up roping systems on the rock. For those who prefer more hands-on instruction, enlisting a certified professional guide in the early going is highly recommended.

To set up an appointment with Alpine Skills International call 530-582-9170. For further information visit http://www.alpineskills.com.