Angela Avery makes her way up the face. Photo by Traci Hukill.

We gather in the parking lot at Castle Rock State Park, six people ranging in age from mid-twenties to mid-forties, here to learn the art and science of rock climbing courtesy Santa Cruz–based Treks and Tracks. Before we set off on the 20-minute hike to the site, our guide Daniel Laggner, who has a shock of curly sun-streaked hair and forearms like Popeye’s, warns us about what may be the greatest actual threat we face all day: poison oak. “Leaves of three, let it be,” he instructs us. Got it.

After a short walk through mixed forest we arrive at our classroom, a small patch of level ground at the base of a sandstone cliff. Two groups are already here. Five ropes, including the one we’ll be using, snake over the top of the rock 60 feet above us and coil loosely on the ground. Laggner assures us that he has secured our rope earlier this morning to bolts and trees in such a way that failure is virtually impossible. “You could hang a bus off this rope,” he says with a grin.

We don our helmets and our funny-looking harnesses, which fit around the waist and each thigh, and get our basic lesson in belaying. The belayer’s job is to take up the slack in the rope so that if and when the climber on the other end of it falls, he or she won’t a) crash into the rock and get hurt or b) put undue strain on the rope and equipment by “shock loading” it.

Belaying, we are shocked to learn, is actually strenuous, what with the responsibility for a human life and all, plus the constant pulling on the rope and the peering up. It makes your neck hurt.

But it’s real nice to have a belayer backing you up when it’s your turn to climb.  Two by two we approach the rock, one belaying while the other starts climbing. Between the nubby surface of the rock and a big crack running up the first 15 feet, it’s pretty good going at first. The grippy climbing shoes help. But after the crack ends, hand and footholds are harder to come by. I find myself scanning the surface of the rock in every direction, looking for cracks or protuberances of any kind. Laggner calls out advice and encouragement, but no one else but you can move your left foot to an infinitesimal bulge in the rock and then make you put all your weight on it and lunge for a handhold you can’t quite see. Muscles strain from awkward positions. If the fatigue doesn’t get you, the fear of heights will.

The students cheer each other on. It’s hard to watch another human being suffer, but that seems to be a big part of rock climbing: standing helplessly by while, far overhead, a sweating companion clings to the granite, scratching for a way out of a jam. That’s all of us suckers eventually, on the rock or in life. In fact that’s the draw, Laggner says.

“There’s a cycle of getting stuck, either physically or mentally, and then breaking through the barrier,” he says. “It keeps you coming back.” 

Rock Climbing Lessons

Treks and Tracks, 650.557.4893; Four-hour lesson at Castle Rock or Pinnacles $89.

Adventure Out, 800.509.3954; Four-hour lesson at Castle Rock $95.

Pacific Edge Climbing Gym, 831.454.9254; Climbing 101 class $168.

Castle Rock Climbing School, 877.686.7625; Four-hour lesson at Castle Rock $100.