Early in his career, Santa Claus mustered the courage to wiggle his plump red self down a 25-foot tower of bricks and mortar and licking flames, managing to land a perfect, fireside 10.
But how he made it back up was the question on my mind as I drove my girlfriend, Mariah, and daughter, Maeve, toward Chimney Rock Park a few weeks ago. Somehow I’d managed to convince them to join me on a climbing trip. Honestly, I was feeling a bit like Santa myself, having gained 15 pounds of blubber since my last climb.
We parked at the top of the mountain and sat for a moment, gazing over the profile of the park’s namesake rock. “What part of the mountain are we climbing?” Mariah asked. I was silent, anxious. My fingers were curled around the steering wheel.
“I can’t believe you’re making me do this,” she said.
“It’ll be fine,” I told her, summoning my most confident voice. “It’s probably a beginner climb anyway.”
Our guide, Todd Mahle, was waiting for us at the far end of the parking lot. A climbing veteran of 14 years and an instructor for a dozen of those, Mahle has wrangled rock faces all over North America, the Middle East and South America. Apparently, we were in good hands.
After we signed waivers, Mahle presented us with all of the gear we would need: helmets, harnesses and climbing shoes. We suited up and Mahle made his rounds, pulling and tugging at our harnesses to make sure we were in tight. Above us loomed Vista Rock, a 100-foot climb. As we stood there pondering it, a groundhog scurried out of its hole, looked up and dove back in as if to say, “To hell with this climbing business!” It didn’t bode well.
Vista Rock rates a modest 5.7 on the Yosemite Decimal System, with 5.1 being the equivalent of climbing a step ladder and 5.12 akin to gripping lines of floss scattered across a glass ceiling. And while Mahle assured us that we were in “a really safe area,” he encouraged us to pay close attention. “If I say ‘rock,’” he told us, “don’t look up.” Hikers above, he added, have been known to occasionally toss things down from the trail. “We have to be honest with people that we can’t take all of the risk out of climbing,” he said.
Mariah tied in first. It had been 11 years since her last climb, which had taken place during camping trip to Yosemite. She sized the rock up like she was recalling part of her past, summoning some long-forgotten skills.
As she tackled the rock face, Mahle shouted instructions to her. “Don’t lean into rock,” he ordered. “Tilt back enough for your shoes to grip.” There were places where she had to more or less run in place to get to the next level, and other spots where Mahle suggested she “mantel,” or push herself up and across overhangs as if she were climbing out of a pool.
My own courage was slowly trickling back as I saw how easy she made it look. Mariah was a tiny figure above us now, trying to send us a message. Her voice barely made it down the granite slab, but it finally reached us. “Can I come down now?” the small voice asked.
Mahle, who had no problem bellowing orders, said, “Lie back and walk down. Take small steps and keep your stance wide. Feet up.” When she finally reached earth, Mariah explained that climbing up was the easy part. “I felt like I was moving fast,” she said. “But when I got to the top and stopped to look out, I didn’t realize how high it would look. That was tough!”
Maeve was ready to climb. Previously, the highest she’d climbed was about 15 feet, on one of the indoor walls at Climbmax, Asheville’s downtown climbing gym. Still, she knew the routine.
“On belay?” Maeve asked.
“Belay on,” answered Mahle.
“Climbing,” Maeve shouted over her shoulder.
“Climb on,” Mahle said.
After a fairly easy ladder-like climb to the 10-foot mark, Maeve eyed the next section with obvious apprehension, wondering how to move forward using a vertical crack as both a handhold and foothold. She hopped and made several desperate attempts to gain traction. Mahle shouted some directions to her. “Don’t climb the rope, climb the mountain,” he said. “See the big crack on the left. Put your hands in the crack. Walk your feet toward your hands. Lean back. Move your hands up. Now your feet.”
The technique was working, and before she knew it, she was about 50 feet up. But a look down told her it was time to descend. I knew that rappelling down into a crowd of clapping onlookers would have this little girl climbing everything around her for at least the next few months.
For me, the climb wasn’t as easy as both Mariah and Maeve made it look. But I hauled myself to the top without looking back once. Then, as if I owed it to myself, I took in surrounding panoramic views of blue sky, vibrant fall-colored leaves and the smooth waters of Lake Lure.
Coming down was a different matter. I’ve never quite learned to trust the harness’s thin nylon webbing, and I wanted to cling to the rope in front of me with one hand and the rock face with the other. The ground rose up to meet me quickly, and it felt good under my feet.
Maeve, though, wasn’t ready for it to be over. As we left the park, she begged to climb Vista Rock “just one more time.”
[Jonathan Poston can be reached at www.prnut.com]
With a park entrance fee of $14 for adults ($6/youth) and $15 per person to climb, it’s worth the 45-minute trip from Asheville to experience the “Vista” at Chimney Rock Park. To learn more, visit www.chimneyrockpark.com or contact the guide service, Fox Mountain Guides (www.foxmountainguides.com).