School of rock

The Reno-Tahoe area offers ample opportunities for aspiring rock climbers

Recommended Reading:
Locals’ Guide to Rock Climbs of North Tahoe, John Jackson, Camp4 Press (2011).
Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 8th ed., edited by Ronald C. Eng, The Mountaineers Books (2010).

Catherine Schmid-Maybach is afraid of heights.

That’s why she’s enrolled in the introductory rock climbing class with Alpine Skills International (ASI), a mountaineering school at Donner Pass. It’s a bright Saturday morning at Nursery School Slab, a 40-foot granite cliff near the top of the old Donner Highway. Schmid-Maybach takes an apprehensive look at Hannah Darling, a blond kid in her mid-teens who’s holding the other end of the rope that will, in theory, keep Catherine safe as she climbs the steep rock face.

“OK, Catherine,” ASI climbing instructor Chris Baumann says gently. And with that small bit of encouragement, Schmid-Maybach sets off. She smears the rubber toe of a climbing shoe against the glittering gray rock, reaches a hand up, and pulls herself from the safety of the ground.

During her climb, Schmid-Maybach seems to focus on the hand- and footholds directly in front of her, rather than looking back at Darling and the rest of the folks waiting at the bottom of the cliff or admiring the view of Donner Lake, a thousand feet below. She’s moving quickly, purposefully. Five minutes later, Darling lowers Schmid-Maybach slowly from the top of the route back to the flat area below where Baumann and the rest of the class wait.

Schmid-Maybach’s fear of heights had been so bad that she often would have to turn back even from steep hikes, but as she unties the climbing rope from her harness she seems calm, energized.

“I just put it all out of my mind, just like he said,” she says, nodding toward Baumann, who’s explaining the mechanics of a belay device to another student.

If climbing seems inherently dangerous, that’s because it is.

“We have a natural instinct of being fearful of a dangerous situation,” says Bela Vadasz, co-founder of ASI. Vadasz started ASI in 1979 with the goal of providing comprehensive mountaineering education, from first time climbers like the four students in Baumann’s class to rigorous guide education and certification. But a fear of heights is no barrier to learning how to rock climb for someone in moderately good shape.

“We’ve had people climb their first time ever in their 70s, and we’ve had climbers at 18 months [climbing] with their parents,” says Vadasz.

Many climbers first begin climbing with friends who have some experience with the sport, but there are also several options that allow aspiring rock climbers to begin climbing on their own. Full-day introductory classes like the one Chris Baumann is leading at Nursery School Slab can give new climbers a basic understanding of outdoor climbing in a single day, and for a reasonable price as well. The intro class at ASI runs $139, which includes equipment rental. According to Vadasz, after a full day of instruction, a climber should be able to read a guidebook, find experience-appropriate routes, and safely climb easier top rope routes on their own. Top roping is the simplest and safest way of protecting a fellow climber from a fall.

Vadasz points out that the Tahoe-Donner area is an ideal place to be a beginning climber with a solid understanding of basic climbing safety.

“[Donner] is probably one of the most unique climbing areas maybe in the world in that there’s such a variety of climbs in close proximity to each other,” he says, pointing out that beginning and advanced routes are often just a short walk away from each other.

The great indoors

Even though world-class outdoor climbing is just a 40-minute drive from Reno, aspiring climbers can get off the ground right here in town. Two local venues offer rock climbing on manmade walls: Base Camp, located in CommRow in downtown Reno, which bills itself as “the tallest man-made climbing wall in the world, and Rocksport, in Sparks.

Rocksport, an indoor climbing gym on Silverada Boulevard, has been open since 1995 and offers 7,500 square feet of climbing terrain. On a recent Wednesday evening, Harris Talsky took five rookie climbers through a one-hour intro class designed to get new climbers familiar with basic safety techniques. Talsky looks the part of the climbing instructor—a fit, longhaired guy in his 20s, he cracks a few well-used climbing jokes to put his five students at ease. The class is made up of two girls, Danielle and Daniella, a 20-something ex-Army soldier named Tyler Hoffman, as well as Craig Manning of Reno and his nephew Drew Davis, a college student visiting from Kansas. Talsky says this is a pretty good sample of the people that come to the intro to climbing night, which also costs $25 and also includes the rental of climbing shoes and a harness. The class seems designed to get new climbers on the artificial wall as quickly as possible, and though basic safety is Talsky’s primary concern, the controlled environment of an indoor climbing wall allows for a much shorter class than the full-day instruction offered at Donner Pass.

There’s a relaxed atmosphere at Rocksport as Talsky takes his class through basic rope belay techniques that will allow his students to safely control each other’s falls. Stoney alt-rock plays in the background while a middle-aged couple and their daughter climb a route marked with neon pink tape on one of the gym’s 35-foot walls. At one point Craig Manning, suspended at roof-level, tries to kill time while Talksy instructs his nephew on the best way to lower a climber.

“Is he checking his phone?” says Talksy. The class looks up to find Manning, leaned back comfortably in his harness, thumb-typing onto his smart phone.

Within the hour Talksy has checked to make sure each of the students can safely climb on their own, and the class is let loose to climb the gym. Manning, Hoffman and Davis have grouped up and are taking turns trying to climb a route that’s just a little outside their pay grade, getting stuck before they’re 10 feet off the ground, while Danielle and Daniella take turns scampering to the top of another route nearby.

As the intro classes at both ASI and Rocksport suggest, it’s not difficult to learn the basics of rock climbing. And considering that in a quick trip to REI you can pick up a rope, harness, and climbing shoes for around $325, getting geared up doesn’t require a huge initial investment. But both Talksy and Vadasz warn that rock climbing is most dangerous for beginning climbers with a false sense of confidence. Talsky suggests that bouldering—climbing on small rocks and cliffs without ropes—is a good way to learn technique and build strength without having to worry about catastrophic consequences for a mistake.

“You see a lot of rolled or broken ankles, a lot of tendon injuries” in bouldering, says Talsky. But, as opposed to roped climbing, you’re not reliant on a partner who might not know how to belay you safely. There are several bouldering areas in the Reno area, including the Washoe Boulders in Washoe Valley, the Saddle Boulders at Donner Lake, and a small boulder on the west side of Keystone Canyon in northwest Reno.

Vadasz also warns against climbers who are in their first years with the sport, though he suggests that a greater danger to new climbers is often the sense of complacency that comes after the initial learning period. “Watch out for the two-year man,” he says ominously. “They know just enough to go further and get into trouble. It’s not [just]