Article by Charlie Hickenbottom. Photos by Jocelyn Flitton.
The “School of Rock” met for the third consecutive year recently. The “School..” was born as an opportunity for some of my elementary school teaching partners to try out the sport of rock climbing. Wenatchee Outdoors editor Andy Dappen was on the inaugural trip in 2008 and posted a report called School of Rock worth reading. My wife, Janet, and I have hosted this event now about half a dozen times over three summers. A core group seems to come back each year while others try climbing just once to see what it’s all about.
This year’s group were all back from previous years and it was gratifying to see how everyone has gradually improved their skill and confidence level. A bonus for me was that this year’s group needed minimal help on my part to locate gear from climbing buddies that assist with loans of equipment when asked.
Typically we climb at “The Feathers” at Frenchman Coulee, a climbing destination not far from Quincy. Busy on weekends in the spring and fall with climbers from both sides of the Cascades, the place is often empty on weekdays during the summer. This is perfect for teachers with summer weekdays at their disposal. The climbs offer ample shade for hot summer days and a large group can spread out on several climbs without impacting others. The climbs there offer beginner routes on lower angle slabs to more difficult vertical to overhanging faces, something for nearly every skill level.
This group meshed well and supported each other with safety reminders, encouragement, and inevitably, some “teacher talk.” Janet knows that when she goes climbing with my climbing friends and I, she will often be the only woman along. However, when the focus is elementary school teachers, she is enthused to know that most of the participants will be of her gender. On this day, Janet completed a climb, “The Uprising” with no “takes” (hanging from the rope) that she has worked on for many years to master the moves.
Charlie used to visit with Jocelyn and her son John at the climbing wall at the YMCA, already knowing Jocelyn as a school district elementary teacher. When the “School of Rock” was born during a break at a third-grade teacher training meeting, Jocelyn was eager to be “in” as a participant. She has recently transitioned from a classroom teacher to a P.E. teacher. Her participation in rock climbing models to her students that anyone can challenge themselves to try a new sport and gain some self-confidence. Her elementary-school-aged son John just continues to get stronger and more focused each year that he climbs. He’s close to outgrowing his first climbing harness as he continues to grow.
Jamie was an unexpected participant on the inaugural event two years ago. We all met at Jocelyn’s house that morning and I was a little nervous knowing that most of the people were raw beginners. There weren’t many experienced belayers that day to support the others. Unbeknownst to me, Jamie lived next door to Jocelyn and already had some experience leading sport climbs. This I didn’t know, although she was a familiar face as another elementary school teacher. She shyly asked that morning if she could come along and she didn’t mind doing mostly belaying.
Jamie’s sister Kade wasn’t on the inaugural trip, but now is somewhat of a regular with the group. She teaches college in Omak, and shares the teacher lifestyle of having summer’s off. Since Jamie and Kade climb on their own sometimes, they are valuable members that can belay any beginner. Jamie continues to gain confidence by leading climbs during our outings.
Teresa has been somewhat of an inspiration to our group, entering the rock climbing scene in her early 60s, at an age that most rock climbers have already hung up their harnesses for good.
A few others not part of our group arrived during the day and by sheer coincidence I looked over at other climbers nearby and noticed that it was Drew and Kathy, who are also local area teachers. Climbers often show respect and courtesy for others by sharing topropes, a technique that allows others not part of a group to share in a climb that someone has led. This gave Drew and Kathy an opportunity to try a few of the climbs that we had set, while most of our party climbed on their rope on one particular climb that gave most of the group a challenge that looked daunting, but actually was within their abilities.
We usually have several ropes along and the set up often involves me climbing to the top of a route, lowering off the anchors at the top, thereby setting the rope on the route so that others can try climbing with minimal risk. I begin by leading a climb that fits the other climbers’ skill level, then belay while others get their chance to climb. In between belaying others, I lead additional climbs so that others have a variety of climbs to choose from. Some climbs come into and out of the shade at different hours of the day, with the aspect of each wall affecting which shady climbs we choose at what time of day.
Early afternoon when the shade was right, I climbed “Satan’s Wagon,” an overhanging climb (steeper than 90 degrees), as I have each year, somewhat to satisfy my own desire to lead a “5.10” route each time I’m out on the rock. In past years, most of the group was satisfied to just watch this endeavor and stick to climbing easier routes.
A testament to the higher skill set and increased confidence of the group was that this time most of the participants took a turn on this route, knowing that their first attempt would be “exploratory” and not result in “getting to the top.”
When the initial conversations about some teachers getting to rock climb began two years ago, I had uncertain thoughts about leading this type of group. I have 30+ years into the sport, but have mostly done it for my own personal satisfaction of “completing difficult tasks” (kind of a “outdoor gymnastics” thing) while being a part of the outdoor scenery that I so enjoy. It’s also been great to participate in this sport with my two brothers, each of us avid climbers now for decades.
While I’m not transitioning to being a professional guide, there has been a lot of satisfaction in helping others to sample rock climbing and seeing how some have thrived within that setting.
This post was originally published on 7/20/10.