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MailTribune.com
  • Magical Rocks

    A crowded weekend at Smith Rock State Park turns into a giant climbing community of friendly faces
  • For decades, Smith Rock has been considered a climbing mecca. It's a favorite among world-class climbers and is where modern sport climbing originated. Oregon climbers should not take for granted that such a significant place is only 30 minutes outside of Bend — less than a four-hour drive from the Rogue Valley.
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      The Mail Tribune wants to share your story and photos — and video if you have it. Email an account of your memorable outdoor experience to features editor David Smigelski at adventure@mailtri...
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      Share your adventure
      The Mail Tribune wants to share your story and photos — and video if you have it. Email an account of your memorable outdoor experience to features editor David Smigelski at adventure@mailtribune.com.

      See our online archive of My Adventure stories at OregonOutdoors.com.
  • For decades, Smith Rock has been considered a climbing mecca. It's a favorite among world-class climbers and is where modern sport climbing originated. Oregon climbers should not take for granted that such a significant place is only 30 minutes outside of Bend — less than a four-hour drive from the Rogue Valley.
    I paid my first homage to the site during spring break on a weekend when many people were out for the season's first outdoor climb. Within minutes of unloading the car and setting up camp at the Smith Rock State Park bivouac, a group of friends huddled along the canyon's edge to observe a bald eagle in its nest. I let my eyes wander and was stunned by what I saw. This great bird somehow paled in comparison to the sky-high walls of Smith Rock. The massive stone was a scene of serenity. The Crooked River wrapped around the rock like an outline, framing a picture of rugged crags, sheer walls, rays of sunlight streaming through breaks in the formation and windows revealing the snow-capped peaks of the Cascades.
    Down in the canyon, I could make out hikers, dog-walkers and families having picnics. Whether there to rock climb or simply enjoy the beauty, every visitor would agree that Smith Rock State Park is magical.
    From that first moment, Smith Rock cast a spell on us. We hiked down the steep, but brief, trail from the parking lot to the base of the rock. Guidebook in hand, we decided to start things off with an easy climb. With more than 1,800 routes at our fingertips, our options were greatly reduced by the crowds of climbers — if there was an empty space on the wall, we rushed to claim it. But what I initially considered a crowded weekend at the park became a giant community of generous and friendly faces.
    Climbers on the wall would offer encouragement to the person on an adjacent route; belayers on the ground would strike up conversations; pet owners allowed me to cuddle with their dogs when I needed comfort after taking a fall; other groups offered to take our rope up a route so that we could top-rope a more difficult climb instead of leading it; people willingly shared their stick clips, instruments that allow climbers to place the first piece of protection while still on the ground; climbers honored each other by taking any stray gear back to the lost-and-found at the bivouac.
    The climbing itself was excellent. The volcanic tuff and basalt, types of igneous rock, seem to be designed just for the sport. The types of routes vary, with selections of slab (anything less than vertical), overhangs, crack climbs and Smith's signature sheer walls. Climbers of all levels were present, from novice to expert. Sometimes I would stand back and watch those with advanced skill ascend seemingly impossible routes. Even though I was climbing at a much lower level, it never made me feel discouraged or frustrated. Smith Rock has something for everyone. The easier routes were just as enjoyable for me as the extreme routes were for the advanced climbers.
    The majority of the climbs we encountered were sport-climbing routes. Sport climbing refers to climbing with bolts permanently placed into the rock, and as the climber ascends, he or she places protection into the bolts. When climbers attach a rope to protection as they ascend, it is called lead climbing. In lead climbing, the person on belay feeds slack to the climber. In top roping, the rope is already anchored at the top of the route, and the belayer (the person on the ground) takes out slack as the climber ascends. Top roping offers a reassuring alternative for routes that stretch a climber's ability. If the climber falls on top rope, there is little risk of injury. If the climber takes a fall on lead, she drops to the last piece of protection she placed, in addition to any slack already present in the rope. When the rock is jagged or uneven, falling on lead could easily result in injury. In contrast, falling on a sheer wall eliminates most of the risk altogether.
    I experienced my first outdoor fall on lead from Smith Rock's Morning Glory Wall. Thankfully, it is a vertical wall. It was a smooth, clean drop that left me shocked, but pain-free. It was my last climb of the day, and because I was unable to finish the route, I headed back to camp determined to conquer it the following day.
    When I awoke the next morning and poked my head out of my sleeping bag, the first light was streaming through the crags, illuminating the canyon. I felt only joy. It was another beautiful day in Smith Rock State Park. Another chance to push past my fears and frustrations. I climbed my heart out that day, and when it was time to head back home, I took one last moment to absorb the beauty around me. It was enchanting. Whatever spell I had fallen under, it was one that continues to call me back to that magical place.
    Sophie Stiles lives in Medford.
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