Climbing Pitches: Trying My Hand at Outdoor Climbing
(Writer’s note: this article is much longer than previous ones. It didn’t make sense to split it up.)
“Man, it’s windy out here,” I think as the wind whips through my ponytail. My friend Andrew, also known as Mack and I are wandering around the parking lot at the top of Mount Scott. Taking in the view in the mid-morning light.
The mountain stands before the Wichita Mountains wildlife refuge, near Medicine Park, Oklahoma. We’re about an hour and a half from Norman or a little over 83 miles away, depending on your preferred unit of distance.
We’re here to try out outdoor climbing. Getting our hands sore and ripped up from sending on real rock. We signed up for a guided Intro to Outdoor Climbing class through Climb UP, our local climbing gym. Our instructor will be Cruz, who by coincidence taught us our first belay class over a year and a half ago.
Cruz and Brian, another participate, greet us as they walk up to the parking lot. We hand Cruz the liability forms for the class so in case something happens, it’s on us. Now it’s onward and upward.
There’s a short hike to the crag where the routes are located. Downclimbing is more like it. The path is through large rocks and I need to watch my step. At one point, I ask Mack if he could hold my backpack so I could scoot down a larger rock without worrying about the weight of it throwing me forward. We make it through and lay our packs down.
Class Starts Now
Cruz gives us an overview of the class and what to expect. We are toproping some of the classic routes on Mount Scott. I’m completely cool with that. He states there are big differences between climbing at the gym and out here. First, anything you can use as a hold, use it. Second, we’ll be on granite which is something we’re not used to. Third, trust yourself. It’s surprising how little one needs to hold on and stabilize.
Atomic Knee Drop
Our first route is Atomic Knee Drop, a 5.6 crack. Mack volunteers to climb first and Brian belays him. What’s different for belaying is we’re not using Grigris. We’ll be using ATCs (link) instead. The technique to use one is about the same as a Grigri, however, you control the friction of the rope on the device, not just the speed. One must make sure he/she’s paying attention when lowering the climber.
After Mack sends the route, Brian goes, then it’s my turn. Awkwardly I start up the rock, grabbing the ends of the crack as best as I can. Somehow poking my toes into the crack. The granite bites into my skin as my hands find enough friction to stick. Hand jamming is the way to go I’m finding out.
I stop to catch my breath and I look to the east. A small wave of fear washes over me as I realize how far up I am. Looking down at the guys I ask, “how high am I?” Cruz says about 25 feet. That’s around the height of the routes at Climb UP. It feels higher than that.
I’ve got to keep going; I’m not wimping out. I turn back to the route and move. There’s a ledge right below Cruz’s anchor where I can topout. I call out “take!” Mack takes up the rope slack as I sit on the edge. “I’m taking a breather,” I yell out so the guys don’t wonder what I’m doing.
As I gaze at the horizon, I’m seizing the view. Blue skies as far as the eye can see. Boats on the waters of Lake Lawtonka down below. Quite the sight if I say so myself. This is so worth it.
After catching my breath, I lower back down to the ground. I watch where my feet are so I don’t accidently hit them on the rocks. Wow, I just completed my first single-pitch route. These routes are somewhere between 60 to 75 feet high. Quite a feat for me.
We take a small break then Cruz asks us if we want to climb Atomic Knee Drop one more time. I volunteer because I want to do it when I didn’t feel so scared. That time goes a lot more smoothly.
We move on to our next route, Yee Haw. This is another 5.6 crack route. However, there’s an off-width crack to start from then it gets narrower from there. Cruz informs us that he’s got to set the anchor up so we could chill for a while until he sets it. He grabs his gear and leaves some for us so we can try them out.
Brian gives us an overview of Cruz’s gear. There are cams and nuts left and he gives us a short demonstration on how to operate them. It’s the first time I ever used one. There were some small cracks in the rock we could test gear on. There’s a short range of how far the cam should go and when it’s not safe enough to use. Which is interesting to know.
Starting the Off-width
Once Cruz gets back, we’re ready to go. I kinda liked climbing the off-width part of Yee-haw because it’s wide enough for me to climb up in comfortably. Just shift sideways and move up as if the crack had stairs. Then comes the fun part.
Fist Jams Work, Sort Of
The crack becomes narrower so I can’t fit but not enough to do hand jams. To solve this, I make a fist and use fist jams to stay in. That seems to work a little better but I’m still struggling to hold on. I’m also having a harder time with my feet. Cruz tells me to trust my feet more and gives me beta for them. I start to do so and luckily find holds that work.
Eventually I climb up to the top. The route is a little more difficult than I expected but still a lot of fun. Another single-pitch under my belt.
Mr. Green Slings
After resting for a bit, Cruz asks us if we’re up for a harder route. “Sure,” we respond. So, we pack up our gear and move to our next route. Mr. Green Slings is a 5.8 crack with a dihedral and short overhang/roof crux. Oh boy, this route spit me out (as the climber saying goes).
I climb up the crack to the dihedral. My right foot keeps slipping on the right face because it’s a lot smoother so stability isn’t great. My left foot is wedged into the crack as best as I can to keep from sliding. I’m leaning back on the dihedral to keep balance but it’s also not good. Multiple times I slip out and restart on that spot.
Eventually, I lean far enough back to reach up to over the roof and find something to grab. Somehow, I hold on to something long enough that I try swinging my left leg over the bulge. Unfortunately, this only lasts a few minutes because I pull up and slide off it. Shit! Mack catches my fall and I fume.
Scrappy or Stubborn One
I hack away at that section of the route enough times I lose count. I can’t seem to hold on long enough to get my leg up. I’m frustrated and feeling pumped. Finally, I tell Mack to lower me because I was done with it. Plus, I’m way over my quota for curse word use for the year. I’m sure whoever heard me was glad not to hear “shit!” a hundred more times.
Once back on the ground, both Mack and Cruz tell me that I fought hard and did a good job. Cruz calls me “scrappy” because I didn’t want to quit. Mack adds in that he would have stopped much sooner than I did. That made me feel better. Shortly after the pep talk, I try to unknot the rope from my harness and fight with the figure 8. Cruz notices and asks me if I need help. I tell him, “I can do it… dammit! (I find out later this was one of the favorite quotes said by me.) At last the knot gives and I can untie myself from the rope.
By the time, we're done with Mr. Green Slings, it’s late in the afternoon. Cruz asks us if we’re up for one more route before ending the day. We are so we pack up and move our gear to another spot to get ready for our last route. The route is Foolish, a 5.7 crack. I think the name’s fitting because only the foolish would want to climb a crack in the rock. I bet I belong in that category.
Foolish was better for me in parts. Overall it was narrower so I could use more finger jams. Left, right, left, right, putting myself in a rhythm. But I find I need to rethink my footwork. My feet keep getting painfully stuck. Cruz’s beta is to figure out if I can just toe-in or wedge the foot far enough to where the rock hits the arch of the foot. I try both and they work in different spots. Just need to experiment with the technique.
Once I find a pattern that works, I make it to the top. I breathe a sigh of relief knowing that I made it. Three routes in one day. That’s damn good.
We grab our stuff and hike back to the cars. While walking, my knees are aching. It hurts to move but I have to get back to the car. At the top, we rest for a bit before driving home. At this point I’m sore all over but fine enough to drive back to Norman.
Despite the pain, getting scraped up, and having my ass kicked on a route, it was a super fun day. One that I hope to have again in the future but also be better prepared. In my next article, I’ll cover more about what I felt and thoughts on my experience trying out outdoor climbing. Until then, happy climbing!