As published in the Ventura County Star, circulation 100,000, June, 2005:
A first-time climber tackles an 80-foot wall of rock and pure terror.
By Lisa Snider, Correspondent
June 20, 2005
"You want ME to climb THAT?" I moaned as I stared up the 80-foot vertical incline.
I thought I had been exceedingly honest with Ian -- to the point of near humiliation -- about my abysmal lack of skill and experience at a sport where the advice "don't fall" takes on new meaning when you're teetering this close to the edge of exhilaration and insanity.
I had never done this before but, having been infected with a burning desire to know Ojai's innermost secrets, I unwittingly set out on a rock-climbing expedition and ended up in this predicament.
I found Ian Potter purely by accident on the Internet. He guides a variety of adventures in Ojai, including trail hikes,
mountain biking and rock climbing. I dared myself to contact him, and the next thing I knew I was signed up for a climb at Foothill Crag.
Now, I'm all for adventure and intrigue, as long as it is seen on the TV from the safety and comfort of my cushy couch.
Sure, I go to the gym the obligatory three times a week, but this was just a tad out of my league. I mean, the biggest thing I've climbed is the tower of papers I had to conquer this tax season.
OK, I'll admit I rushed out and bought Aron Ralston's book following his TV special with Tom Brokaw on "Dateline." You remember Ralston; he's the lone climber who got trapped under a rock and had to cut off his own arm to avoid dying there. You'd think that would have served as a significant deterrent to my self-imposed challenge, but I'm apparently not that astute. Besides, I had no designs on having that grand a tale to tell, no siree; I charged my cell phone before I put it in my fanny pack and hydrated with a few swigs of Gatorade (right after cutting my finger trying to open the bottle).
I met Ian, his wife, Stacy, and their dogs Max and Luey at the Starr Market parking lot. I gave Ian a once-over to make sure he wasn't the kind of guide who would get us into a limb-losing situation. He explained that women are typically better rock climbers than men, particularly tall women. Though he had keenly observed my Amazon-like stature, he would soon find out he had missed the mark on any perceived athleticism. This occurs to me as I still feel the sting on my finger from the earlier Gatorade incident.
Goodbye, solid ground
From the parking lot, we ventured up Foothill to the Pratt Trail, and soon I had a 30-pound pack on my back. It felt like 100. Stacy and Luey bid us farewell and we set out on our hike to Foothill Crag with Max, outfitted with his own rope and carabiner, in tow.
I was quickly presented with my first obstacle. A usually dry creekbed was now swollen with a shallow tide of water delivered by the recent rains.
I made an embarrassing attempt at rock hopping and several near misses as Max looked on impatiently and Ian steadied me with a helping hand. Ian said it would be a short hike, but I'm pretty sure it was longer.
We arrived at the bottom of Foothill Crag and that's when reality hit me. I was face to face with a cold gray monolith of sandstone looming overhead.
This rock was so tall it had created its own microclimate; it was at least 10 degrees cooler at the rock's shady base.
Ian took us around the "easy" way to the top of the cliff. While he set the gear, I caught my breath from the treacherous hike and peered out over the edge to take in the spectacular view of the valley below. And then I looked down!
What's the first rule in rock climbing? Don't look down. What's the second rule in rock climbing? Don't look down. Everyone knows that. Well, I blew that one out of the water. Max was curled up under a tree several hundred feet below (Ian corrects me to say it's only 80 feet) and our backpacks looked like coin purses.
Ian took a stab at taking my mind off the dizzying height and showed me several different knots, none of which I can remember, although I recall one knot involved a rabbit going down the hole. Maybe it was a Clover Hitch, or was it a Bowline? Good thing this is not "Survivor: Ojai," or I would definitely be voted off.
Teetering over the abyss
"Rope below," Ian bellowed out to no one in particular. Max was unfazed and continued napping. I think this meant I was in for a rappel.
Sure enough, Ian had clipped the rope to my harness and I was soon teetering over the abyss.
The technique he showed me absolutely defied all logic and reason. Step backward with a rope around your waist and rest your heels on the edge while your butt juts out over the unknown. Now just lean back. Right!
Ian obviously sensed my unease and, to ensure I didn't look down again, he demanded, "Look at my eyes!" And it worked.
I just focused and leaned back until gravity took over. Surely my pace was painstaking, but Ian was patient. I inched and scooted, inched and scooted.
There were some interesting little caves I had not seen from below. One looked like the perfect den for a critter to hide and lunge out at me, which fortunately didn't happen. Ian said I could stop and explore if I wanted, but I had my eye on the prize: terra firma.
Inch, scoot, inch, scoot. I already had a routine I was comfortable with. Another inch, another scoot and I landed. I unhooked and hollered up, "I'm safe," which is rock climber lingo for, "I did not splatter myself all over the rock."
Ian followed, looking like a Special Forces commando. His technique was more of a step-hop-jump-fly style. I guess inch-scoot was too amateurish for him.
So now that I was familiar with the rock, it was time for a climb. Ian had rigged a toprope; he was harnessed to one end, the middle of the rope was rigged to a series of pulleylike thingies at the top (more rock climber lingo), and I was clipped in at the other end. He was standing right next to me which I thought was odd. I mean how was he going to pull me up from here?
The path is clear
Clearly I was going to have to, uh, climb up. The climb started much like a straight up and down wall. There was no place to grab hold or put my foot. I whimpered pathetically, but instead of saying, "Lisa, the tribe has spoken," and extinguishing my torch, he continued to encourage me.
He pointed to a 1 mm bump in the rock I could certainly grab onto, but I just wasn't seeing it. Then he demonstrated in Spiderman-like fashion. He chalked my hands up and said, "Go for it!"
I wanted to grab onto the rope and pull myself up, which he advised against, so naturally I did it anyway and went into a tumultuous spin.
After I bounced off the side of the rock (I'm still on solid ground at this point, mind you), I dusted myself off and tried again.
This time, Ian gave me a boost up, and I was climbing. I used the crag to get my holds, which worked out great until I got halfway up. There was a little tree growing out of the rock above me.
If I lunged at it, I could grab hold and continue on. What if I miss? I looked down. I know, I know, what's the first rule in rock climbing, yada, yada, yada. I'm not what you might call the "conquering type." I don't have a "need to triumph over adversity" or any of that sort of ambitious hoopla. I'm mostly interested in maintaining a death-free existence. So at 40 feet up, I began a midair mini-meltdown.
Ian kept up the cheerleading charade and rather than deliver stereotypical macho rhetoric, he kindly let me off the hook.
Maybe it was the fact that I was dropping expletives at this point, or that I was quivering like a bejeweled Chihuahua that had been separated from its Prada tote, but he said I didn't have to go all the way to the top if I didn't want to.
I talked myself into the fact that 40 feet was a noteworthy accomplishment. That's like a three- or four-story building, right?
I looked up and thought, "What's the worst that could happen? I can't fall." But soon I found myself creeping backward down the crag.
When I landed, Ian praised my effort and suggested we have a cup of tea up top.
We spent an hour or so waxing philosophical on everything from healthcare to family to politics. It turns out we both left well-paying corporate jobs -- he was an engineer, I was in hotel management -- to pursue more meaningful endeavors.
I then made a second rappel; this time I was a bit more confident.
Before dropping me back at the Starr Market parking lot, Ian predicted I'd be back to climb to the top.
I think he's right.
So, for about $65, you too can climb a rock. Ian is an expert outdoorsman with extensive wilderness first responder training. He guides all levels.