REI rock climbing class teaches beginners to scale limestone walls

Students conquer fears as they climb at Reimers Ranch Park.

I’m channeling my inner gecko as I inch my way up a limestone wall at Reimers Ranch Park.

Geckos, though, have naturally sticky feet. Mine are just stuffed into extra-tight climbing shoes with gummy soles. Also, my arms are quaking, my palms are sweating and I can’t figure out how to make it to the top of this escarpment when there’s not a hole big enough to hold my big toe.

“Is it OK if I come down now?” I holler down to Cindy Abbott, far below, senior instructor in this Introduction to Outdoor Rock Climbing Class. She’s got me “on belay” with a rope and harness in case I lose my grip — well, any more than I already have.

“You’re almost there,” Abbott yells, ignoring my plea. “Move your foot up.”

And so I run my hand along the pock-marked wall, searching for a place to latch on, and swing my right foot out, fumbling for a foothold. There’s really not one, but I “smear” the wall with my shoe, put some weight on it, and the friction makes it stick.

“The key to rock climbing is standing up and trusting your feet,” Abbott says. “These shoes are made for this.”

Just like a gecko, I hoist myself another foot up the wall, and in a few more minutes, I’ve reached the top. I slap the anchor point victoriously, call down to the others, and — in my mind, because I’m definitely not letting go — give myself a high-five. Then I sit back in the harness and walk back down the wall like Spider-Woman. Despite a little blood trickling down my shin when I reach the bottom, I’m giddy with the accomplishment.

The Austin area is a mecca for rock climbing. Places like Reimers Ranch, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area and the Barton Creek Greenbelt draw climbers who buckle on safety harnesses and helmets and use their wits and muscle to scamper up rocky walls. For those who’ve never tried it, though, climbing can be intimidating. This half-day class, offered by REI, introduces people to basic climbing techniques and gives them a chance to try it under the guidance of professional instructors.

We’re at Middle Earth Wall, a five-minute hike into a canyon from the North Shore parking area of this Travis County park. When we first arrived, Abbott, 27, scampered up the wall, threading a rope through bolts attached to the wall and setting a top anchor. If we misstep today, she explained, we’ll only fall a foot or two, thanks to these ropes and bolts and our harnesses.

“Are there spiders in those holes?” someone asked as she set up the system.

“Sometimes, but you can just brush them away,” she said.

So far, so good.

Part of rock climbing is the mental puzzle it presents. Some climbers don’t want tips about where to put their hands and feet — they want to figure it out on their own. Sometimes rookies need a little help, though, and the white powder marks left on the wall by other climbers provide clues.

Paul Garza, one of five other students in the class, dips into a bag of powdered chalk to dry his hands and launches his first attempt on the wall.

“Nice work. You’re cruising,” REI’s Fabio Grant tells him as he creeps along. When Garza pauses to rest, leaning back in his harness and straightening his arms, Grant offers encouragement. “If you can reach anything good, get your feet higher.”

Garza does, drawing praise.

“We want to climb with our legs more than our upper body,” Abbott says. “Keep your hips close to the wall.”

Women are often naturally better climbers because they have better flexibility and body awareness, Abbott says. “They also have more finesse with the rock. To guys, it’s a muscle thing. When you exert so much in the upper body, it’s exhausting.”

When we’re not climbing, we’re learning the finer points of belaying other climbers, keeping them safe as they try to scale the walls.

Rehgan Avon, 21, an Ohio State University student who is spending the summer in Austin, signed up for the class along with her boyfriend and mother. Kristie Avon, 44, an intensive care nurse, turns out to be sort of the class prodigy, using her muscular, rangy body to slither up the rock like a pro. Rehgan moves more slowly, but likes the sense of accomplishment she gets when she makes it to the top.

“It went pretty well until that ledge,” she says afterward, rubbing a lump on her leg from where she smacked the rock. She’s ready to try again in a few minutes. Kristie Avon says her climb was “empowering and liberating at the same time.”

That’s how I feel, too — proud that I’ve done something I wasn’t sure I could do.

Don’t all geckos feel this way?

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