August Dunkin traversed the rocky face of a granite cliff on private land near Taos Ski Valley on Friday (June 10), looking for a place to grip the rock with his hands and feet. It was a perfect sunny mountain day. Recent moisture had encouraged the high country wildflowers to bloom, and there were birds soaring near the cliffs. But for Dunkin, 9, the moment was all about finding the next hold so he can continue to move up the cliff.
He is part of a group of local Taos kids who learned to climb with Jay Foley of Mountain Skills Rock Climbing Adventures all that week.
From the bottom of the rock wall, the other kids called out advice and encouragement. Foley suggested places for Dunkin to step, reminding him that even if he can’t find a hand hold, his feet can keep him safe by “smearing shoes,” which involves pressing the balls of your feet into the rock and using friction to move upward. “Trust your feet; it’s more about balance,” Foley called out. At times, Foley suggested Dunkin swing out from the rock by sitting back in his harness to reach a new place on the rock face that offers an easier route.
Avoiding the slippery moss on the rocks, Dunkin made his way slowly to the top of the 70-foot cliff. Looking down, he seemed happy and a little relieved. After getting congratulations from below, he made his way back down the rock. Foley reminded him to lean back and sit in the harness so that his classmate, holding the rope below, could lower him down the rock face.
Foley’s philosophy is to start low and slow. He explained, “We always start everyone very slow, just send them up 5 feet or less at first to swing around on the ropes and gain confidence in the equipment and themselves before going any higher. Then we increase the height a little at a time as we see their body language become more confident. With this method, typically by the end, most people feel confident going to the top.” Foley has operated Mountain Skills Rock Climbing Adventures for 28 years and is the author of “Taos Rock: Climbs and Boulders of Northern New Mexico.” He said, “I love teaching local kids. I’m super motivated to keep climbing alive for Taos locals.”
He is planning a similar program for kids from the Zuni Pueblo and a one-day class for kids from Taos Pueblo.
This month's session of rock climbing was organized by Foley at the request of local parents MacLaren Scott and Tracy Miller, who wanted their kids to get outdoors and experience the sport for themselves. The parents of the eleven kids, ages 9 to 15, have been sharing the role of getting young people up to the climbing location and being there to observe and act as chaperones.
Because they are kids, the whole experience is like play, but they are mindful of the need for safety and ask Foley to check their equipment before they begin. For each climb, there is a climber, who is tied into a rope and wears a harness, and a belayer, who uses a belay device attached to their harness to navigate the rope to lower the climber back to the ground. The belayer also prevents the climber from falling and getting injured if they slip. Because everyone is learning, there is a backup belayer as well as a further safeguard in case anything goes wrong. The young climbers are learning how to rappel (lowering oneself down the cliff using the rope), in this case, with the assistance of a guide up above. All the participants also wear helmets to protect against rocks that might come loose and tumble down the cliff.
The system of rating climbing difficulty used in the U.S. is known as the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). The cliff for this class ranges between 5.3 and 5.8, a beginner to intermediate technical climb.
But even at a young age, some of the kids in the June class had serious skills.
For example, Milan Vega-Carp, 10, is an experienced climber already. He started climbing inside when he was 4 years old and has been learning outdoors since he was 8. “It’s fun,” said Milan. “I’ve been wanting to learn to belay and rappel for a long time.”
Another young climber, Larka Schultz had hiked up the back side of the cliff and then practiced rappelling down to the ground with a guide’s assistance. As she came down, she said with relief “The ground is right there! It was fun but terrifying.”
This week was the first time that Jazmin Noble, 13, has ever climbed. “I was really scared to do the little climbs at the beginning. Now I feel confident to do the bigger cliffs,” she said.
As the last class of the session ended, the kids and parents are already thinking about the next time that they can get out in the mountains to climb. Within a few days of the last class, the parent organizers had already called to plan the next trip.
Although many favorite climbing locations are not accessible even as the Carson National Forest begins to reopen in light of significant progress on the Calf Canyon–Hermits Peak Fire, Foley points out that there are still many great places to climb elsewhere, including on the basalt cliffs near the Rio Grande.
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