If you're a rock climber, what could be better than a Granite State?The White Mountains are rock climbing heaven. Cannon Cliffs tower in the west, North Conway has its storied walls in the east, while the alpine ridges of Mount Washington are in the north. New Hampshire is the Granite State for a reason and rock jocks test their mettle on granite cliffs, crags and broad walls, making them like Spiderman above a vast scenic patchwork of farm, field and forest.North Conway is learn-to-climb central with its climbing schools and easy access to classic routes on Cathedral and Whitehorse Ledges."We go out with every type of person imaginable, from Girl Scouts to Navy SEALs, couples to corporate groups, disabled folks to elite athletes," says Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School guide Charlie Townsend. "Families are especially popular, and it's a great way to spend a day outdoors with kids of whatever age, as each person in the family can climb as little or as much as they'd like."Gear is basic: helmet, harness, tight climbing shoes, ropes and technical equipment like carabiners. In a class, neophytes learn the safety, ethics and potential dangers - like loose rock - of climbing. They are taught how to properly tie themselves into a harness and go on belay, a way to secure a fellow rock climber against a potential fall.A basic group introductory experience generally costs between $95-$185 per person depending on the number of people.So, ready for rock?Impressive FactNorth Conway's 500-foot high Cathedral Ledge was first climbed in 1931 by Robert Underhill, Leland Pollock and Payson Newton.Gear BoxFancy yourself like Spiderman? Climbing shoes provide durability and grip for getting your feet into the cracks of rock. Evolv Defy VTR Climbing Shoes ($89) should be a snug fit and help on those multi-pitch routes.The lightweight and vented Petzl Elios Climbing Helmet (www.petzl.com, $65.95) has a dial system that allows adjustments while the helmet is on your head.The Black Diamond Momentum AL Climbing Harness ($49.95) is a comfortable entry-level piece of gear that's fairly easy on the wallet.Expert AdviceCharlie Townsend is a White Mountain climbing guide luminary, working some 27 years with the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School. A climber since high school, he has led rock, ice and winter mountaineering courses in the White Mountains and has climbed on three continents. He is an American Mountain Guides Association-certified instructor, N.H. Mountain Rescue Service director and wilderness first responder. He lives in Tamworth with his family.How should I learn to rock climb? Many current climbers will recall how they picked up the fundamentals of climbing safety, systems and techniques by joining more experienced companions on informal outings to local cliffs. However, that approach has its limitations. The process is accelerated more often today by hiring a qualified instructor. By doing so all the details can be covered in a cohesive and comprehensive manner, and everybody gets out there climbing sooner, with more confidence and security.What makes rock climbing unique in North Conway and the White Mountains? When it comes to rock climbing in the Whites, we have four major advantages over a lot of other areas: high-quality rock, a variety of terrain from which to choose, easy accessibility and unsurpassed scenery.Do I have to get in shape before going climbing? Everyone seems to think that rock climbers need to be paragons of strength and fitness. I figure that if you can go up stairs two at a time and pull the car door closed without using both hands, you're good to go. A little flexibility and some reasonably developed problem-solving skills will get you up more cliffs than 18-inch biceps will.What happens if I fall? Sensible climbers bring a few things out to the cliff with them, like a rope and a partner to hold that rope. We employ simple systems to protect ourselves and our partners in the event of a fall, and those systems work so well that rock climbing has become very mainstream and no longer solely the realm of thrill-seeking daredevils.How do the ropes get to the top of the cliffs? There are two primary means of getting the rope to the top of a climb in order to protect our partners: One way is to hike up the back of a cliff and drop a rope from above, but more often in this area we use a guide or a leader to climb the route first (while protecting themselves, of course) and then anchor the rope at the top. By using one of those two systems, beginning climbers can enjoy the challenges of climbing while remaining secured from above by a rope.What usually causes climbing mishaps? Climbing mishaps are remarkably rare. When they do occur, they usually are associated with less-experienced leaders failing to identify and mitigate some of the same hazards that exist in all types of outdoor activity. Remember, we hear about plane crashes now and then, but the thousands of normal flights that take off and land safely every day obviously don't make the nightly news. It's the same with rock climbing.Is climbing expensive? There are some costs associated with gearing up for rock climbing, but not much. You'll want a pair of climbing shoes, a harness and a helmet, but since you need to go with a partner, you might as well choose one who already has a rope and all the other gear. Similarly, most guides and climbing schools will provide all that is necessary for your day out.
This article appears in the August 2011 issue of New Hampshire Magazine