Getting a grip on climbing Sierra granite and boulders

While scenic views surrounding Lake Tahoe may help most people to relax, the eyes of the vertically inclined see never-ending challenges etched into the abundant cracks and faces of the basin's granite slabs.

"The thing about rock climbing is there are so many ways to go about the same thing. It's really just about having fun," said Greg Dennis, a manager at Sports LTD in South Lake Tahoe, which sells climbing equipment and rents climbing shoes for kids and adults. The Sporting Rage in Carson City also offers a full line of climbing gear.

Areas surrounding the basin offer climbing for every skill level, including plenty of opportunities for bouldering, climbing on relatively small rocks where a fall probably would not result in serious injury. This low-equipment activity often acts as training, or a non-equipment intensive introduction, to the sport.

Bouldering requires no harnesses or ropes, although a sticky pair of climbing shoes is helpful to grip the tiny outcroppings of rock that count as footholds and handholds in the climbing world.

For those looking to take on bigger climbs with ropes and harnesses, Dennis recommended climbing classes or guide services, like Lover's Leap Guides in Strawberry.

He also encouraged beginners to watch experienced climbers to learn a sport that can be physically and mentally engaging.

"For me it's like problem solving. I try to figure out what the trick to a line is, and then do it," said Kelly Sieg, while climbing the 90-Foot Wall near Emerald Bay. "There's some brainwork involved, although some people brute force it up."

Whether relying on brains, brawn or both, trust is a huge element for a sport with a high degree of perceived risk. Rock climbing is reportedly less dangerous than many popular Alpine sports, like skiing and mountain cycling. Equipment maintenance and wearing a safety helmet are important aspects of keeping the climber safe.

"You get better quicker once you trust your equipment," said Soku Abdykeev, a relative newcomer to the sport, after a climb at 90-Foot Wall.

Trust in one's belayer, the climbers' counterpart on the ground who keeps them from falling very far, is also essential. The belayer handles lines that can keep the climber from a tumble.

Not only are belayers charged with the life of the climber, but also they are provide motivation and navigation, shouting encouragement and calling out hidden toe holds and overlooked cracks for chalked-up fingers to explore.

Belayers also can also provide rest during climbs by using one of several types of braking mechanisms, the key to safe climbs outside the bouldering realm.

Pushing to climb higher, longer and harder routes is a common aspect of the sport, but taking climbing to the extremes isn't a necessity.

"For me, part of the joy is working hard at it. I know a lot of people who are perfectly content at a certain level," said Tahoe climber Doug Englekirk at 90-Foot Wall.

Englekirk's desire to push himself can be seen in his first-place finishes in the Sport Climbing National Championships from 1992-94. On a day when Englekirk was instructing a group of students, whose efforts were revealed by sweaty brows and grimaces on 90-Foot Wall's near vertical pitches, Englekirk's mission in teaching climbing was clear.

While rock climbing can be quite strenuous, much of the tension seems to fade away when climbers reach the end of a pitch, signaled by as many different expressions as there are styles of climbing, from hoots and hollers to silent satisfaction.

What's up with the Cave Rock lawsuit?

Climbing at the popular spot on Highway 50 West on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe remains under a U.S. Forest Service ban pending a decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

On Feb. 15, the court heard arguments from lawyers representing the Access Fund and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service.

USDA attorneys argued the ban provides appropriate access to the public, while protecting a historic resource.

Cave Rock has cultural significance to the Washoe Tribe and is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the Forest Service.

The Access Fund, an organization dedicated to keeping climbing areas open, argued that banning climbing while allowing hiking, picnicking, boating and fishing is illegal and could set a dangerous precedent for other federal lands with sites of cultural importance.

Climbing at the rock has been banned since August 2003 and the issue has been in the federal court system since December of that year.

While the site boasts "probably the hardest, steepest climbing in Tahoe," according to local climber Corey Rich, the area is not alone.

"Certainly Cave Rock is one very small climbing area in the grand scheme of things," Rich said. "There is an enormous amount of rock in this area."

A decision on the appeal is expected "sometime later this year," according to the Access Fund Web site.

Where to Climb around Tahoe

• Lover's Leap: Located off Highway 50 near Strawberry and opposite Horse Tail Falls, Lover's Leap is a classic Tahoe climbing area. Royal Robbins, who gained international fame for climbing exploits in Yosemite, put up routes at Lover's Leap 40 years ago. Those same routes still draw climbers from all over, and this area is well known for its challenge. There are single and multiple pitch routes, with lots of variety for everyone.

• 90-Foot Wall: In Eagle Creek Canyon near Emerald Bay, the wall is actually only 75 feet, but this is the preferred place for novice climbers to gain experience. The variety this wall offers guarantees beginning climbers will not be without a challenge.

• Pie Shop: This popular spot offers some is one of the closest climbing to South Lake Tahoe and excellent bouldering. Turn right onto Sawmill Pond Road just south of South Lake Tahoe Airport. The trail is located across from the dirt parking lot about a quarter mile down the road.

• D.L. Bliss State Park: Along with fine views of the lake, D.L. Bliss State Park offers a scattering of boulders off of Highway 89. The majority of bouldering is of advanced difficulty, so if a warm-up on large holds is more appealing, drive into the park for cleaner pieces of granite full of ample deck problems and traverses in a quiet, forested setting.

• Donner Summit: The largest climbing area in the region is Donner Summit, located off old Highway 40 west of Truckee. With about 400 different routes and more being added all the time, this area has virtually endless possibilities for any climber.

- Greyson Howard of the Nevada Appeal News Service contributed to this report.

Climbing classes at Kahle

Not ready to scale El Capitan? Kahle Community Center offers a bouldering wall great for beginner climbers. Just $6 gains access to the wall as well as the rest of the center's facilities. The center is located at 236 Kingsbury Grade in Stateline. Current hours are 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday and 8 a.m.-8 p.m. on Saturday.

Reasons to go bouldering

• It's a highly social activity allowing groups of climbers to enjoy each other's highs and lows.

• Unlike other climbing disciplines, bouldering promotes interaction between climbers of all abilities, as there are often many types of terrain in the same area.

• Bouldering incorporates all aspects of climbing, both the physical and the mental.

• Some see bouldering as the purest form of climbing, without the restriction (or aid) of a rope or any other equipment.

• You can just go out either alone or in a large group.


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