LAS VEGAS — The morning air was unseasonably cold as my groggy husband and I debated what to wear for the rock-climbing class we were taking as our first wedding anniversary gift to one another.
Analyzing the attributes of Spandex versus denim was a good way to hide my anxiety and forget I was sacrificing a chance to sleep in on a Saturday.
Upon arrival at Red Rock Canyon, a colorful national recreation area 20 miles west of Las Vegas, we discovered the other registrants had chickened out. Suddenly, I was acutely aware of how closely my struggles would be watched.
The instructor was a slender, long-haired man named Scott Olsen, who seemed to possess an unending amount of patience and humor--along with a good supply of ropes.
Rock climbing's popularity has grown in recent years as indoor climbing gyms have popped up all across the country. Some climbing experts attribute the trend to the low cost and accessibility of rock climbing--unlike snow skiing--while others say there's a new nationwide mentality of "thrill seeking."
We spent much of the morning tying knots, learning how to cram our feet into climbing shoes and putting on a "harness"--a system of straps and hooks that seemed to be a cross between a tool belt and a diaper. A good harness is vital to a climber's safety, I soon learned.
Our first demonstration came from Andy Fernandez, the coordinator of the city-sponsored class. The 75-foot-high rust-colored rock face looked rugged and accessible as Fernandez scampered up and Olsen controlled the ropes.
His climb seemed so effortless that I began to think maybe we were tackling too easy a climb and started looking at several steeper ones nearby.
My husband volunteered to climb next as Olsen showed me how to take up the slack. My husband struggled along the rock, crying out at times that he couldn't find any cracks or crevices.
"Aw, come on. You can do it. Just a little farther," I bellowed from the bottom, thinking he must not have paid attention to Olsen's instructions. It all looked so easy.
After my husband completed his climb and rappelled down to the bottom, we traded places and I began my ascent.
The first few steps seemed OK, but as the rock face smoothed out I began panicking in search of places for my hands and feet. How on earth was I supposed to cling to a giant piece of sandstone with ridges no bigger than a dime for support?
"There's no place for me to hold on," I yelled down, realizing the words sounded very familiar.
"Don't worry, you can do it. Take your time," Olsen responded.
Climbing shoes, which average about $100, and a harness, priced at $50, are the two pieces of equipment beginning climbers need, said Timothy Ward, co-owner of Desert Rock Sports in Las Vegas. Once novices have taken a class, they should find experienced climbers with complete support gear that can be shared in a group, he said.
I began formulating the responses I would give my friends when they asked how the climb went and I'd have to say I didn't make it to the top. Failing to come up with anything good, I looked up again and began searching for places to hold on.
There was a little ridge for my right hand, and an even tinier ledge for my left foot, and--oh, there was a great opening for my left hand and immediately my other foot followed.
What do you know--I was actually climbing.
And then I stopped.
"There's no place for me to hold on," I yelled again.
"You just did great," Olsen yelled. "We've got plenty of time. Go ahead and look where you'll put your feet next."
That's easy for him to say, I thought. He's not balancing up here against a flat rock with his leg shaking so badly that he looks like a dog with fleas. (I later learned that that phenomenon is what's called "sewing machine" and happens when climbers forget to breathe.)
As I looked down, I thanked the heavens I'd never had a fear of heights. As I looked up, I realized I wasn't very high yet.
I stopped panting and started my ascent again, this time with a renewed determination and a realization that my limbs seemed to know where to go before my brain did.
Although it's impossible to know how many people rock climb, the recent rise in popularity is evidenced by circulation figures at Climbing Magazine, based in Carbondale, Colo., which have nearly doubled in the last five years, said Byron Freney, general manager of the publication.
Ward, who has had his store for nearly nine years, said his business has grown 10% to 20% every year. He plans to break ground soon on a more than $1-million climbing gym.
Both Olsen and Freney said climbing gyms are drawing people who might otherwise not try climbing, driving up the number of climbers.
I came to understand that it wasn't the completion of the climb that climbers love, but the techniques they use to get there that thrill them. I felt a certain kinship with the climbers who have scaled rocks from South Dakota to Yosemite National Park this summer.