Free Solo set me on my rock-climbing journey

I sat at the edge of my seat, watching Alex Honnold hang on precariously to the precipitous wall of El Capitan at Yosemite National Park. Honnold was on his epic quest to climb the face of this mighty cliff without the use of rope or any protective system.  I was immersed in front of a giant screen at IMAX Theater, hooked for the entire duration of this Academy Award-winning documentary, Free Solo. The jaw-dropping visuals of this super-human feat captured my imagination and stirred something in my heart; a part of my brain started to crave a piece of this adventure in the outdoors.

Over the next few days, I found myself reading a lot about rock climbing and watching related documentaries (including the fascinating Valley Uprising,  which chronicles a vivid rock-climbing scene during the ‘60s in Yosemite Valley). California is considered one of the best places on earth for rock climbing, with iconic spots like Bishop, Mammoth Lake, Tahoe, Joshua Tree, and Yosemite for rock climbing. The sport has come a long way from the ‘60s with modern gear now available that make rock climbing an excellent activity to build strength, agility, and focus while enjoying the time in the wild outdoors.

A whole new lexicon

I had heard about indoor rock climbing gyms before and decided to explore one, to begin my journey. One weekend, with enough adrenaline pumping in my veins, I landed at my neighborhood  Planet Granite (now Movement). After spending a couple of hours in the gym, my mind was abuzz trying to come to terms with belaying, bouldering, climbing grades, and techniques like pinching, palming, and back-stepping.

After a few more active sessions, I quickly realized that rock climbing is a full-body workout and engages both the upper body and the core. The power of both the glutes and the calf muscles is required to propel yourself upward against gravity. Mental composure is just as critical- you need to be cool, calm, and collected despite faltering and falling many times during a climb. This becomes especially critical during a difficult climb when you need to stay focused on executing one step at a time and not get overwhelmed by the enormous challenge of reaching the top.

After acclimating myself indoors, I decided to try out an outdoor climbing adventure one weekend. I was told that, unlike an indoor gym, outdoor climbing does not include the reassurance of colorfully marked grips and holds; instead, you have to pretty much chart your route up along the nooks and crevices of the rock faces. The skills required for both indoor and outdoor climbing were similar but the setting couldn’t be more different.  The wild outdoors has multiple risk variables like the wind, inclement weather, or the damp surface of a rock, none of which I had encountered in the gym.

Climbing Castle Rock

This image shows Lalit Kumar working his way up at rock face at Castle Rock State Park in California. (Photo courtesy: Lalit Kumar)
Lalit Kumar at Castle Rock State Park in California. (Photo courtesy: Lalit Kumar)

I signed up with Adventure Out for a climb in Castle Rock State Park, which covers part of the Santa Cruz Mountains with sweeping vistas. The eponymous Castle Rock and Goat Rock provide a challenging setting for beginner to intermediate rock climbing on their Vaqueros sandstone faces. After taking safety instructions from the guide, I put on my rock climbing shoe, helmet, and harness, all ready to begin my ascent up the rock face. The guide stood at the bottom of the rock face as the rope belayer, ready to catch any fall.

I dipped the tip of my fingers in the chalk powder to get some friction going with the rock surface, and hauled myself up the rock face, scrambling to find a toe hold as I climbed up. Rung by rung I climbed, my fingers wrapping around the edges of the rock and shifting my weight gingerly around each of my legs, as the guide occasionally shouted out instructions about techniques or finding the climbing route on the face.

As I ascended tens of feet up the vertical cliff from the narrow ledge of the rock bottom, my arms and legs straining from the ordeal, I felt the rush of adrenaline pumping in my veins. I looked down to my left and realized that the rock face I was climbing was part of the same cliff perched hundreds of feet above the ground! Now that’s what I’d call a ‘cliffhanger’!

Outdoors is the real thing

This is a long shot of Lalit Kumar almost at the top of a rock face at Castle Rock State Park in California. (Photo courtesy: Lalit Kumar)
Almost there! Lalit Kumar at Castle Rock State Park in California. (Photo courtesy: Lalit Kumar)

At the gym, I had become accustomed to the colorful holds guiding me on the way up. But I was in the outdoors now; in the absence of any noticeable holds, I struggled a bit to find my way up. This would need more practice and focus to master.  The thrill of finding your way up adds another dimension to this challenging experience.

A piece of advice to any newbies  – take that first step to enroll in an indoor gym and learn to use your feet. Rock climbing is as much about using your legs as your forearms.

I engrossed myself fully in acing nature’s challenge, zigzagging across the vertical face of Castle Rock, making my way up gradually and steadily.  It was a glorious day in California outdoors, sunlight piercing through the pines and the redwoods, as my feet found their way, one at a time, as if on a self-guided quest to seek a higher echelon of adventure.

With some grit and focus, I ascended to the top of the rock face, my first real rock climb under my belt! I let out a big hurrah and rappelled down the face. A day well spent outdoors.

Lalit Kumar works in the Bay Area's tech sector and enjoys writing prose and poetry. He published “Years Spent : Exploring Poetry in Adventure, Life and Love” in April 2022. Contact Lalit on Instagram...