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Saturday, February 2, 2013 - Page updated at 10:30 a.m.

Fit For Life
Climbing class offers a rocky high

By Nicole Tsong
Special to The Seattle Times

THERE IS no zoning out while clinging to a wall 40 feet in the air. There are only sweaty palms gripping climbing holds, feet searching for places to hang on, and a lot of adrenaline.

At least you have equipment like ropes, harnesses and belayers below to keep things from going awry.

I went to a rock-climbing class in college, and my take-away was that climbing is a cool sport resembling chess on a wall. After I arrived at Stone Gardens in Bellevue for a Climbing 101 class and saw people scaling 45-foot walls, I remembered the height part.

We had three in our intro class, led by instructor Nick, who guides on Mount Rainier and said he summited 16 times last summer. That may explain why he didn't seem to think the 20-foot wall we were practicing on was a big deal.

He started off the 2 ½-hour class with the basics of climbing gear, going over harnesses, rope and carabiners step-by-step and quizzing us to ensure we knew what to do to keep ourselves and our climbing partners safe. We learned to tie the rewoven figure eight used by climbers, to set ourselves up to belay and how to keep someone safe on the wall. We learned partner checks, commands and a lot of technical details. The level of detail felt comforting ... and scary.

Then he made us climb.

The 20-foot wall was easier than it looked. The climb — rated low in difficulty — went fast, and I felt triumphant at the top.

Belaying someone else was more worrisome. I didn't know if my fellow student should put her life in my hands, even with Nick as backup. My belay technique wasn't pretty, but I got her down the wall safely.

Nick wasn't done. Next, he made us practice falling, surprising the belayer to teach us how to keep someone up on the wall. I'm happy to report (and I'm sure Stone Gardens is, too) that no one got hurt.

After a few rounds, we all felt more comfortable, and Nick declared it was time to move out to the main part of the gym where the walls were at least twice as high. Gulp.

He gave us a quick rundown on how the gym labeled routes, then told us to climb, with a couple of practice falls along the way.

Once I started climbing, the wall felt three times as long as the one we practiced on. Halfway up felt pretty dang high, and my arms and legs were shaking a little — whether from effort or from adrenaline, I could not tell. There also was occasional panic when the next move wasn't obvious, and me reminding myself to calm down, look around and find another way up.

Top-rope climbing in a gym is the safest way to climb, Nick reassured us. A little fear of heights is healthy; it makes you double-check your gear and remember safety. Nick, my man, I am unlikely to forget.

Climbing was exhilarating and worked my shoulders, legs and core in new ways, though my fear of heights is a potential impediment to my climbing career.

But I have some friends determined to get me on the wall again; we'll see which side wins.

Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Read her blog at Email: Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.

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