Hard-core rock climbers don't let winter stand in their way

Posted: Friday, March 11, 2005

BEND, Ore. — A little snow has never bothered rock climbers Ian Caldwell and Darryn Meade. If necessary, the Redmond couple will dig out snow at the base of a climb. But what about all that snow falling on their faces as they ascend the rock?

"If the rock is vertical and overhanging, it stays dry," Caldwell explains. "We've been climbing during snowstorms. If it overhangs, it'll keep the snow off you — until you get to the top."

That hasn't been much of a problem this winter, as sunny skies and unseasonably warm temperatures have brought hordes of climbers to Central Oregon's Smith Rock State Park — in the depths of winter.

While outdoor climbers must normally wait until spring for ideal conditions, this year they came early.

"It was probably some of the best climbing conditions this time of year at Smith Rock in the last 10 years," sys Larry Brumwell, an avid climber and owner of INCLIMB, an outdoor rock climbing gym in Bend. "It's just amazing. Usually people are indoors and there aren't a lot of options."

But there is always a chance the snow and cold temperatures will return to blast central Oregon before warm weather takes hold. If that happens, then outdoor climbing will be left to the most hard core, like Caldwell and Meade.

"Last winter, we had to dig through a few inches of snow," Meade recalls. "But as long as it's sunny and warm enough to actually climb, we'll do it. We're pretty dedicated."

In cold weather, if a climber's hands go numb, it becomes extremely difficult to grip the hand holds. Caldwell and Meade often use a propane heater to warm their hands in between climbs.

"In wintertime, pretty much all that stops us is fog, rain or really high winds," Caldwell says.

He adds that he was able to redpoint (climb in one attempt without falling) the climb "To Bolt or Not to Be" — one of the most challenging routes at Smith Rock State Park — last spring.

"I wouldn't have been able to do that without training all winter long," he says.

While Caldwell, 34, and Meade, 36 — who plan to get married at Smith Rock in May — can thrive in frigid conditions, not all climbers are as hardy. This time of year climbers have a choice between indoor and outdoor rock climbing, and not surprisingly, weather is usually the determining factor. When the weather is sunny and somewhat warm, Smith Rock is a realistic option for most climbers.

"If it's at least 40 degrees and sunny, it's perfect," says Carol Simpson, co-owner of Redpoint Climbers Supply, climbing stores in Bend and Terrebonne.

While that "perfect" weather does sometimes exist this time of year, outdoor climbing is still considered more dangerous during the winter, even during unseasonably warm days.

Because of freezing and thawing, rocks and handholds are more prone to breaking off during the winter season, according to Brumwell and Simpson.

"It's not that common, but it does happen," says Simpson. "To avoid pulling off a hold you can climb cracks, but it (breaking rocks) doesn't really influence anyone's climbing. They just go for it."

It's nearly impossible for climbers to anticipate breaking rocks anyway.

"You can be aware of it, but there's not much you can do," Brumwell warns. "It just pops. But if you stay in the main area and mainstream routes that have heavy traffic, there's a lot greater chance that the loose stuff has already been pulled off. If you do the less-frequented routes, you'll run into loose rock in any season, but especially after a freeze-thaw."

Dress is also a crucial element in winter climbing. Both Brumwell and Simpson recommend wearing many layers, from shorts and a tank top to fleece and down jackets, wool hats and gloves.

But for those who can't wait to go shirtless, there's always indoor climbing.

Brumwell has owned and operated INCLIMB since 1996. The gym, with 8,000 square feet of rock wall, is dedicated to helping youngsters get started in climbing. Brumwell notes that while many climbers use the gym to train for the outdoors, some are solely indoor climbers.

"Most people, you hope, while indoor climbing are thinking about how to apply it to the outdoors," Brumwell said.

But indoor climbing has become a sport in its own right.

Caldwell and Meade, who say they climb indoors on occasion, will continue battling the elements at Smith Rock throughout the winter.

"I like the way it makes you focus," Meade says of climbing. "It's very relaxing but very physical at the same time. It keeps your mind active, and it keeps you feeling good."

Even in a snowstorm.

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