SMITH ROCK STATE PARK, Ore. — As Leah May Salerno stood on a narrow perch high above the Crooked River in this Central Oregon state park, preparing to climb a vertical rock wall called “Hello Kitty Cliff,” she said something that didn’t quite add up.
“Oh, I’m scared of heights for sure,” the 31-year-old said.
Of all the things I’ve heard while reporting on Oregon’s outdoors — and that includes some whoppers — hearing a rock climber say they were scared of heights might take the cake.
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But Salerno, who’d hiked into the honeycomb towers of Smith Rock with a group of team members from the Salem, Ore.-based Chemeketans outdoor club, was quite serious.
“I feel very safe connected to a rope while I’m on the wall,” she said, just before ascending 40 meters of reddish-orange rock. “Climbing has really helped me get over that fear. Rock climbing is a very safe sport.”
Those who’ve visited Smith Rock and seen climbers hanging off cliffs overhead might be skeptical of that statement. Rock climbing, after all, just looks dangerous.
But the Chemeketans specialize in easing that intimidation factor by bringing together people with extensive experience and those just getting started. The right leadership can turn something potentially terrifying, like rock climbing, into something accessible to people in all walks of life.
The group I joined during a weekend at Smith Rock illustrated that diversity.
The leader was Vincent Dunn, a state worker from South Salem who just turned 60 years old and has been leading climbs with the Chemeketans since 1999. He helped guide newer members of his crew, such as 22-year-old Ryan Horner, up a new route.
“The best part of being a leader is watching other people do things they didn’t think they could — helping them overcome fears,” Dunn said. “To coach somebody up a rock face they didn’t think they could climb, and to see the smile on their face … is very rewarding.”
The process for getting to the point where you can join a climbing trip with the Chemeketans isn’t extensive. Many participants get started through the group’s four-day climb school, held each April. The course gives a basic understanding of the knots, hand-signals and methods for climbing and rappelling.
From that point, it’s a matter of joining a trip and heading into the field. Smith Rock makes a near-perfect place to start for a number of the reasons, mainly because of the sheer number of established routes that range from beginner to advanced.
The sport-climbing routes are “bolted” — meaning that harnessed climbers can attach to permanent anchors in the rock as they ascend for an additional level of safety.
Much has been written on how Smith Rock became an international climbing destination — that’s a full story in itself. But next time you visit, consider these eye-popping stats.
Of the roughly 545,000 visits to Smith Rock in 2013, park officials estimate that around 48 percent came for climbing. That’s 261,600 visits for scaling these orange skyscrapers. While 48 percent of those visitors came from Oregon (and 21 percent from the Pacific Northwest), 31 percent came from “outside the area.”
“That last figure is four times higher than other state parks in the region because of Smith Rock’s power to draw people from other national and international points of origin,” Oregon Parks and Recreation Department spokesman Chris Havel said in an email.
One myth the Chemeketans certainly put to rest is the idea that an activity like rock climbing is solely, or even mostly, an activity for young men in their 20s.
Dunn said the majority of people he brings out are in their late 30s, 40s and up because “once they get their children off to college, a lot of people start pursuing more active weekends.”
Salerno added that rock climbing is a sport well suited to women.
“It turns out women are really good at this,” she said. “They use their legs a lot, don’t try to pull themselves up with arms as much, and I encourage any woman to give it a shot.
“The Chemeketans are really nice people, very encouraging, and will help you get set up on a climb that’s appropriate.”