Smith Rock climbing experts help jittery novices

Chemeketans outdoor club offers four-day climb school, for starters

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Hiking and mountain biking at Smith Rock

Rock climbing isn't the only thing you can do at Smith Rock State Park.

Hiking among these orange skyscrapers rising from the desert — following the aptly named Crooked River swimming through the center — is also very popular.

The 4 miles that loop through the heart of the park offers one of Oregon's most scenic trail networks.

Start at the main trailhead, cross the Crooked River Bridge and then tackle the hike's toughest section — Misery Ridge Trail — by climbing uphill 700 feet to viewpoints that take in the Cascade Range on a clear day. After passing the iconic (and unmistakable) landmark of Monkey Face, follow Mesa Verde Trial to River Trail to complete the loop.

Pick up a map at the trailhead for information on trails that can be enjoyed via mountain bike.

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.

Wait, what?

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.

But Salerno, who'd hiked into the honeycomb towers of Smith Rock with a group of team members from the Salem-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, like 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 when they get down, 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 year during April. The course gives a basic understanding of the knots, hand-signals and methods for climbing and repelling.

Then 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 number of established routes that range from beginner to advanced.

The sport climbing routes are "bolted" — so harnessed climbers can attach to permanent anchors in the rock as they ascend for an additional level of safety.

Much has been done 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, a whopping 261,600, came for climbing. Not only that, while 48 percent of visitors come from Oregon (and 21 percent from the Pacific Northwest), an incredible 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," said Oregon Parks and Recreation Department spokesman Chris Havel in an email.

One myth the Chemeketans certainly put to rest is that an activity like rock climbing is solely, or even mostly, for men in their 20s.

Dunn said most people he brings out are in their late 30s, 40s and up; "once they get their children off to college, a lot of people start pursuing more active weekends."

"It turns out women are really good at this," Salerno 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."