How I Got Hooked

How I Got Hooked

Page Type Page Type: Article
Activities Activities: Trad Climbing

How I got hooked.

You folks are climbing remarkable mountains and rock faces, using superior technical ability, sporting years of experience, traveling to some of the most remote, beautiful, and dangerous places on earth. So what can I contribute to such an impressive community?
SlacklineSlackline in Charleston, SC Battery Park
High in the Tree

I realized as a newbie on Summitpost that I am somewhat unique. I started climbing at 13, never worked with a guide, lived on the east coast of the United States all my life, and until recently did not own or have much access to any gear. Even facing these challenges, I still found a way to get a wide range of experiences on a zero dollar budget.

Now, I do not claim to be like Bradford Washburn, who 60 years ago achieved some impressive first ascents in Alaska as a college student. He was merely a few years older than I am now. And, I am way behind the young phenoms, like Ashima Shiraishi, who learned to climb at 6 years old at Rat Rocks in Central Park, and at 11 could become one of the best young competition climbers in the world. Wow, she has corporate sponsorship.

However, I have noticed that as a fairly average guy, I am most often the youngest kid on the crag or on the glacier. So how does an ordinary teen get into all this? If you are a young kid wanting to get out of your house, or for you folks who are older than me; if the article entertains you, or reminds you of your earliest desires, your first climbs, or perhaps inspires your kids to follow you into cold, windy high places, then possibly I have given you something of value.

What possesses a person like me to climb?

Are you kidding? Every fledgling adventurer is looking for a challenge, for something new, raw, scary, and exhilarating. Motivation will NOT be an issue. Look for these characteristics:
First High PlacesA desire to climb stuff

No Rock Climbing on Pilot KnobDoing things which are restricted, prohibited, or discouraged
Friends that like to climb An urge to do daring things with friends

Jumping from high placeslooking for adventure in high places
Mount TownsendWanting to always get to the top
Crossing The Delaware RiverAnd to solve problems using gear like ropes

If this sounds like every adventurous boy and girl you know, then, well… you understand.

The First Years

My First Crevasse. As a boy, my dad top roped and rappelled in the Boy Scouts. When I was 4 years old, he learned multi-pitch rock and ice climbing in New Hampshire. He would occasionally go climbing in Pennsylvania, though I was too young to come along.
Pilot Mountain NCDad at Pilot Knob
Blue GlacierOur first trip to the Blue Glacier
My First and only (as yet) ice climbFirst Crevasse
He did not set out to teach me to climb. However, after a Boy Scout outing to Washington State, we added a father-son trip to the Olympics to visit the Blue Glacier when I was 13. We borrowed a rope and some gear, and rented crampons and axes so we could spend the day on the glacier. My Dad had brought ice screws, some slings and biners, so since we had the equipment, we took the opportunity to try ice climbing in a small crevasse.

It was then I was HOOKED, seriously, no cure, ruined for life.

Beginning Rock Climbing. Still at 13 years of age, my first rock climbing was at a local crag near the Delaware River in eastern PA, Ralph Stover State Park. The climbing wall is called High Rocks. The rock is really red sedimentary shale (argillite clay), not the best climbing, but within an hour’s drive of our house. This was where I first top roped with my family and the Boy Scouts.
High RocksHigh Rocks, Ralph Stover State Park, PA
High Rocks Practice WallHigh Rocks, Practice Wall

Birthday and Christmas gifts yielded me a rope using a deep discount sale at REI (58 rather than 60 meters – you know that green one), and a small trad rack, stoppers and tri-cams. I think I only had one active cam. I already had a harness, a few slings and cordelettes. First, I learned to set up top anchors, using our gear, rather than bolts.

Freedom of the Hills is the standard for climbing technique. We have an old edition. We read as many books on mountaineering and climbing as we could. The internet has good videos on method and is more visual than sketches and illustrations in books.

My father is passionate about safety. For example, as a condition to teach me to climb, I made a lifelong promise to never rappel without a prussic backup - never. Each climbing set up (beside the rope) is redundant and then double checked, using the same procedure, every time.

So, practice. We tied several sling anchors high in the sturdiest limbs of our post oak in our backyard and practiced some more intermediate methods needed for progressing into multi-pitch climbing and mountaineering. We worked on things like prussic rope climbing, freeing from the belay, 3:1 hoists, etc.

Back at High Rocks, I tried a few leads, up some very easy and familiar lines, working on good placements. Then I was itching to move on.

My first multi-pitch serious trad leads were at the Shawangunks, NY. The drive was about four hours from our house in Bucks County, PA. I was 14. We went for a four day climbing trip. The rock there is quartzite, which was a big improvement on High Rocks. Plus the Gunks attracts the finest climbers in the world and has a range of climbing; easy and exposed, cracks, and some of the toughest problems on the east coast. Just a short drive west of Manhattan, the small town of New Paltz is classic Catskills with great restaurants and climbing hang-outs. At the crag, the lines are mostly in close proximity, accessed off a carriage trail, so beginning climbers get to watch and interact with the very experienced old guard. The climbs there are known all over the world.

Stair Master The Stair Master, The Shawangunks
Gunks, NYThe ledge leading to the rap station on Three Pines
Second pitch of Three Pines - Gunks, NYThe view up the Uberfall Wall
Belly RollThe Famous Belly Roll Crack

My first line was Belly Roll (2 pitch 5.4) which has an interesting diagonal crack, low in the climb, where onlookers can watch. The climb is called Belly Roll because most newbie climbers (me included) choose to wedge themselves in the crack, a full body jam. Then after inching up, roll from stomach to back to catch the next hold, an exhausting and clumsy move. Actually the more elegant, but obscure, method is a layback, staying out of and working up the crack, catching a heel for additional purchase. However, you will not get this beta from the community there, unless you ask a specific question or chance to see a better climber warming up on this easier ascent.

The second pitch is very exposed and vertical, with plenty of pro. The P2 crux is the first two moves off the wide ledge, just above the P1 belay station, a 7 foot high smear with good hand holds. It is then all jugs and small ledges up from there. Near the upper part of P2, on a bit of a run-out, I clipped into an ancient rusted piton (I would not recommend it, but it made me feel better). At the moment, I remembered thinking that the piece could have been set by Fritz Wiessner, who spent twenty years climbing there. Actually, I found out later the FA was in 1955, so Fritz was probably long gone when that piton was driven. Anyway, being part of a long tradition of climbing was such fun, and the feeling at the top was exhilarating.

Climbing in the Southeastern United States

Central NC. Two years ago we moved to Winston Salem, NC. Not anywhere near the Cascades, or the Alps, or the Andes, however, one of the surprising advantages to central NC is that it offers some excellent climbing. Our favorite areas are Hanging Rock State Park, where Moore’s Wall at Moore’s Knob has good multi-pitch trad climbing, and Pilot Mountain, a top-rope mecca. Pilot Mountain is great because a top anchor can be set quickly (especially at Three Bears Gully) and the focus is on lots of climbing.
Pilot Mountain, NC Three Bears GulleyClimbing an arete at Three Bears Gulley
Faking it at PilotFaking it at Pilot. Note the low budget bike helmet and work gloves

Climbing a chimney at Pilot Mountain, NCA Chimney at Pilot

In sharp contrast to Pilot, Hanging Rock is characteristically trad. I only know of one set of bolts and the face offers easy, to the near impossible, with everything very exposed.
Mom is my biggest supporterMom is my biggest supporter
Moore s Wall, NCMoore's Wall - Sentinel Buttress in the middle
Sentinel ButtressP2 of Sentinel Buttress
Top of Moores Knob, NCPulling the rope at sunset

A great first lead is the Sentinel Buttress Direct (5.5, I think easier). P1 is up a series of sloping shelves and one short crack (crux), ascending to an almost vertical face with all jugs. Pro on the top of the pitch is a bit sketchy, but the climb is surprisingly easy above the crack. The belay station is called the Crow’s Nest, kind of a large “bathtub” ledge with small trees and boulders, so that the feel there is very secure, kind of like well.. a nest. The view is amazing to the west across the Sauratown Mountains toward Pilot Mountain. P2 is from the right side of the Crow’s Nest up a left facing corner. The rappel off two bolts is left at the top and requires every bit of a 60M rope.

Nearby States.
Seneca Rocks, WVEvan at Seneca
Climbing Humphrey s Head....Humphrey's Head,Seneca Rocks. Looking down from the P1 belay station on Old Ladies' Route. Pic by Jerry L on SP

When we travel for a long weekend we go to Seneca Rocks, West Virginia, because it is a 600 foot vertical fin of Tuscarora quartzite. This is the same rock as the Gunks, but oriented vertically, instead of horizontally. This part of West Virginia is so remote there is no cell service and the community there is all about the outdoors – fishing, backpacking, and of course climbing. Most of the climbers are from DC or Pittsburgh.

Our first ascent to the top of the South Summit was the Old Ladies' Route from the Luncheon Ledge on the west face (3 Pitch 5.2 and then a scramble to the top). The route crosses over a small notch in the fin to a long traverse of the east face. There is an absolutely cool airy down climb from the P1 belay station with what the Seneca Guidebook calls a “sporty” move in front of a bulge. The ledge is broken there and the hand holds need to be explored a bit while you arch your back 100 feet above mostly nothing. Actually it is a very secure position before the move. Anyway, I could not figure it out, so I backtracked and smeared the top of the bulge with no way to exit down. There is a tree there at the top of the bulge and it was tempting to try and sling it and use the aid to get down to the ledge on the other side. But this was a 5.2 right? So working my way back to my original position, I contemplated a short dyno jump down and to the right as the ledge gets a bit wider after the bulge, (that would have been a mistake) but hung in for another few minutes to work the problem to a very simple solution. Your five year old sister could do it.

That experience taught me how great it is to on-sight a lead. Once you know the resolution it takes some of the adventure away. You get the same problems that the first guys solved. Of course those “Old Ladies” were probably much smarter than me.

My favorite climb at Seneca is Skyline Traverse (3 pitch, 5.3 although I think it is a couple ticks tougher since the ratings at Seneca are believed to be sandbagged). P1 is a chimney to a wide ledge and then a layback off a flake to a belay station right on the face of the south nose of the fin. P2 is a very exposed traverse across the south nose, with (I say again) really big exposure, to reach a chimney/ gully. Boys bring your cojones.

The Climbing Community. I have found that some of the greatest support comes from people you meet while you are waiting for a line to clear, or at the pizza joint, or at the campground, or the local climbing store. Most everyone is helpful and interested in helping me be safe and improve.
The Front Porch, Seneca Rocks, WVThe Front Porch Restaurant at Seneca

I met all sorts; off duty army rangers, EMS qualified, who carried a full medical kit, just in case anyone got hurt; the fellow living in his van at the Trapps parking lot, he ascended the Stair Master trail early to avoid the climbing “tax”; a young female attorney in a large New York law firm teaching her New Zealand visitor to climb; a Catskills local who was scouting the Uberfall face with binoculars early one morning for “booty”, because “some people are wealthy enough just to leave pro behind rather than complete their climbs”.

One of my favorite tales involves my Dad at Seneca Rocks. After a long day with me, he was looking for a beer, and not knowing the little village of Seneca Rocks, we walked into what he thought was a bar at an outdoor deck. It turned out it was a private party for the guides at one of the climbing schools. When he stepped up to the counter and ordered a Corona, the fellow who organized the event, smiled and found out we were visiting from NC. He asked the crowd who had brought Corona and someone produced one from the fridge, no charge. We ate wings and ribs that night and listened to the band, while chatting up the local legends and young hard bodies. This turned out to be much better than the meal we had planned back at the campsite.

My Start to Mountaineering

Traversing the Blue GlacierAscending the Blue Glacier
Mount Olympus in panoramaMount Olympus chain in panorama by Petter Bjørstad used by permission
Mount Olympus - Summit BlockMount Olympus Summit Block

When we went to the Blue Glacier in 2009, we desperately wanted to climb Mount Olympus, the highest peak in the Olympics. However, we were sorely lacking in equipment and experience to make the attempt. Mount Olympus massif has one of the largest glacier systems in the United States and is listed as one of the 5 highest ultra-prominence peaks in the United States. It offers a great climb, because it requires a long access hike, crossing the Blue Glacier and ascending an interesting feature called the snow dome, leading finally to a short rock climb on the summit block. In 2012 we returned to repeat our backpacking trip on the High Divide and climb Mount Olympus. see our trip report

On our hit list for the future is a return to Washington State to visit the North Cascades to do a similar climb there or perhaps the glaciers in Banff National Park in Canada. When I get to college I am definitely going to Alaska. I am saving the cash now.

So What Do You Think?

Four years of climbing has me more smitten every day. If you are a kid stuck in the desert – find a canyon, or better yet a cave. Ok and have someone along who really knows their stuff. If you happen to be near some mountains – take your book bag with some water, a rain shell, a lighter, a knife, find a map and compass, and go exploring. If you are in the Caribbean - well OK sailing and scuba sound good. Still, I would bet there might be something worth crawling up.

Join the Boy Scouts. They are famous for their knots. Seriously, find a troop that focuses on outdoor adventures. The great thing about that organization is that each boy learns something valuable and then is responsible to teach that skill to the younger boys, all in an outdoor “laboratory”. I play several sports, but in comparison, leadership is developed intentionally and rapidly in the Scouts. If your Scoutmaster is worth his salt, he will let you make mistakes and suffer a bit, to really understand the lesson. I learned the hard way that a ground pad is important in snow to stay dry and warm. Without a pad I shivered the night through. I learned that to cook for my hungry patrol in a blinding rain requires a small light tarp. I tried without the covering and I got soaked. Minor failures and discomfort are not oft forgotten.

The green uniforms can be tolerated in exchange for all the great advantages. The Scouts took me to the top of Mount Washington, Mount Townsend, the Knife Edge on the Appalachian Trail, and a dozen wilderness places. I learned to shoot skeet, sail, organize a safe climb, and canoe in the rapids.

If not the Scouts, then sign up for some classes at the YMCA where they take you to the nearest state park or a see if there is a local outdoor organization that sponsors young people to get out of the burbs.

And when you can, do travel. If you make it to North Carolina, look me up. I would be glad to introduce you to some high places and a rope. See you out there.
On the top at Pilot with Evan


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-13 of 13

ericvola - Jan 18, 2013 3:10 am - Voted 10/10


you seem to have learned very early (thanks to your dad) that 'the greatest dare makes the smallest careers'. A very sound base to go quite far. You got to learn now that 'there are no bad rocks, there are just bad climbers'.

Keep the flame and never forget: 'better one more peg than one man less... particularly if that man is you!'


pookster1127 - Jan 23, 2013 2:32 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Learning

Thank you. I have read a number of your articles and I love the history of climbing. I long to go to Chamonix and climb. If so it would be a real honor to meet you. - John


Redwic - Jan 27, 2013 8:49 pm - Voted 10/10


I really enjoyed reading this article.

I was just a regular trail hiker back in my teenage days, and did not go rock climbing or peakbagging until much later. You have had experiences that a lot of people only dream about.

I agree with your comments regards Seneca Rocks. When I went to nearby Spruce Knob (the West Virginia highpoint) a few years ago, I stopped to take several photos of Seneca Rocks. It is a very impressive rocky feature/area of the Appalachians.

I'm glad you went back for Mount Olympus. That peak is worth it.


pookster1127 - Jan 30, 2013 5:22 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Enjoyable

Thanks for your kind words. I have logged many trail miles in the Scouts.

At Seneca Rocks you should have stopped and climbed the north peak which is a 2 mile access trail and a 3rd class scramble up the north section of the finn. It takes less than 2 hours and gives you a sense of the vertical quartzite and the amazing exposure. Worth the time next time you get through.

Andrew Rankine

Andrew Rankine - Feb 5, 2013 6:14 pm - Voted 10/10

Similar story

Nice work, this story is similar to my own...

I started hiking with my dad when I was little, and we became more focused on peakbagging over time. We travel during the summer, and have climbed a dozen country highpoints over the years. My dad doesn't rock climb, but I do.

Right now I'm about to graduate high school, and then plan to spend a year climbing in Europe and Asia.



pookster1127 - Feb 6, 2013 5:15 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Similar story

Thanks Andrew. I knew there were some other folks out there like me who learned young. I would have loved the climbing opportunities around Phoenix.

Have a great trip to Europe / Asia and some great climbing achieving the country highpoints in Europe. I wish I could come along for Mount Blanc and Mount Rosa. R U actually planning to climb Elbrus or is that on the Asia list not Europe? - John

Andrew Rankine

Andrew Rankine - Feb 6, 2013 9:12 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Similar story

Yeah, Phoenix is a nice place for rock, I guess I grew up a bit 'spoiled.'
I am probably not going to be able to do the country highpoints of Europe for lack of cash, so I am now thinking of spending June in the Czech Republic, heading out to some cheaper mountainous countries like Kyrgyzstan after, then in winter on to SE Asia. I doubt I'll get the chance to do Elbrus, Mont Blanc or Monte Rosa on this trip. One day...
If you ever head out to Phoenix, let me know.


pookster1127 - Feb 8, 2013 12:37 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Similar story

Thanks on the invite to AZ, though I have no plans now to go to the Southwest. Dad tells me 20 years ago he did some bouldering at Pinnacle Peak Park(?)somewhere in Scottsdale.

I would love to try out some canyoneering. I understand that there are some remote canyons within an hours drive of Phoenix.

Andrew Rankine

Andrew Rankine - Feb 11, 2013 11:01 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Similar story

Pinnacle Peak, and the granite in the McDowells of North Scottsdale are some of the best areas in the state. Some areas in here have been closed since your dad climbed there.

Arizona has some excellent canyoneering, like the Salome Jug, West Clear Creek, and Wet Beaver Creek to name a few popular ones... It'll be nice in a couple months, the recent snow and unseasonable heat have led to a huge flow in the last couple weeks (campground floods, bunch of rescues, etc...).


pookster1127 - May 22, 2013 10:00 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Similar story

Just checking in. Are you still headed to E Europe this summer?


mvs - Feb 8, 2013 2:55 am - Voted 10/10

great spirit..

Your enthusiasm and energy for the hills will repay you over and over. Thanks for sharing your journey thus far. Welcome to the tribe :).


pookster1127 - Feb 8, 2013 9:23 am - Hasn't voted

Re: great spirit..

Thanks for the support. Enjoyed your article on reflections on 3rd and 4th class climbing


pookster1127 - Feb 8, 2013 5:55 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Wish I got Started Younger!

Thanks. I am limited in my options for moutaineering because of our home location.

My folks are not too happy when I say I want to live in the northwest and be a climbing bum. Seems most of the really great mountaineers got started early eating beans out of a can for a few years.

I would love to consider schools somewhere out west or at least link up with some friends who are crazy like me and like sleeping on ice. Anyway, I hope in ten years to at least match your list.

BTW - love your article on crack climbing. I am still a bit intimidated by cracks and feel I am missing something very important. I figure I need to follow a good leader or find some top rope cracks somewhere in western NC. There are some good cracks at Seneca Rocks WV, but the exposure gives me pause on new ground. Plus as you said in your article, setting good pro in a crack requires some experience. Best not to screw up there. Anyway appreciate your comments - John

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