Climbing wall offers spot to learn the ropes

Virginia A. Jones
Special to The Daily Times
Liza Elsbury climbs in October at the Jacob’s Ladder formation at the Sailing Hawk rock climbing area north of Durango, Colo.

Editor's note: This is part of a series that highlights popular outdoor activities that anyone — from a novice to an expert — can try out. Stories will publish on the last Thursday of the month this year. If you have a story idea, email City Editor Maggie Wegrzyn at mwegrzyn@daily-times.com.

FARMINGTON — Several years ago, a snowstorm chased Liza Elsbury inside, forcing her to trade in the outdoors ropes course for the climbing wall inside San Juan College.

After learning a few things from her fellow climbers, Elsbury got hooked on the sport and signed up for outdoors courses at the college.

Now, she’s a big proponent of rock climbing, an activity that tends to pick up in the Four Corners as the weather warms up. In anticipation of that, the college’s introductory climbing course starts next week.

“Climbing’s for everybody,” said Elsbury, a student in the college’s Outdoor Leadership, Education, and Recreation Program. “In fact, the best climbers I know are afraid of heights.”

And the Four Corners is an ideal spot for climbers, said Chris Strouthopoulos, an instructor who lives in Durango, Colo.

“Some of the best rock climbing in the country is in this area,” he said, citing the outdoors lifestyle and training and coaching opportunities.

Gabe Albillar climbs at the indoor rock wall at San Juan College’s Health and Human Performance Center in Farmington.

The climbing wall at San Juan College’s Health and Human Performance Center is a good place for beginners to learn to climb and advanced climbers to keep in tip-top shape, said Chris Keating, an instructor in the OLER program. And it’s a prime spot to do all of that safely, he added.

“People who take climbing lightly don’t last long,” said Keating, who works as the college’s fitness coordinator, heads the rock climbing club and teaches climbing classes.

He added: “The climbers are a tight-knit community, because as you climb, you are tied to the person who may save your life.”

Elsbury and another student in the OLER program, Rob Pioche, have both had scares while climbing.

Pioche, who was a belayer in the U.S. Army, once fell on belay and was pulled against a wall. Elsbury recounted a time her glove got stuck in a belay device.

Despite the healthy dose of fear that often accompanies rock climbing — especially for newbies — Strouthopoulos stressed the many benefits of the sport.

“Rock climbing is an incredibly rewarding sport — a visceral, tangible way to conquer self-doubt by confronting the perception of danger,” he said. “It is far less dangerous than many other sports and is a triumph over your mental game.”

Virginia A. Jones covers the outdoors for The Daily Times. 

Rob Pioche climbs at Tres Piedras outside Taos in November.


A day pass to the Health and Human Performance Center at San Juan College is $7.

Shoes and chalk bags can be borrowed for free at the climbing wall's rental desk. Shoes help with cushioning and grip, and chalk keeps hands dry and holds secure. 

Chris Keating, a rock climbing instructor, suggests starting climbing indoors at a gym before committing to the sport and buying your own equipment.

Roped climbing — what most people think of when they picture rock climbing — involves the most equipment. In addition to shoes and chalk, there are helmets, harnesses, ropes, carabiners, cams, belay devices, packs, and gear bags. 

But there are five kinds of climbing, Keating pointed out. They include indoor sport climbing, outdoor rock climbing, bouldering, sport climbing and traditional climbing

Rock climbing equipment can be purchased at most sporting goods stores, and it can be rented at the San Juan College Outdoor Equipment Rental Center.

Liza Elsbury and a spotter pose for a photo after bouldering at Tres Piedra outside Taos in November.

Tips for beginners

  • “Start at a climbing wall. Even kids can do this. Take an intro to gym climbing class at (San Juan College). Join the SJC Rock Climbing Club to find other interested folks.” —  Chris Keating, rock climbing instructor
  • “Don’t get frustrated: at first you might not complete a route or get to the top. Don’t give up!” — Liz Elsbury, student in San Juan College Outdoor Leadership, Education and Recreation Program
  • “Even though I was an on-and-off student, I have succeeded in taking intro (classes) all the way to technical rock climbing and others can, too.” — Rob Pioche, student in OLER Program

Rob Pioche climbs at Indian Creek, Utah, in November.

Three places to rock climb

X-Rock: Located just outside Durango, Colo., off U.S. Highway 550, this popular spot is a great place to learn to climb and boulder.

Sailing Hawks: Another popular spot for climbers, this area just outside Durango is located off 25th Street or Junction Creek Road and includes formations like Jacob’s Ladder.

Turtle Lake Rock Garden: This is a nice spot for bouldering, a good introductory activity since it’s low to the ground and the required equipment is a landing pad and a buddy. The area is located off County Road 205 just past Turtle Lake outside Durango.

A little farther away, there’s Tres Piedras outside Taos and Indian Creek in Utah.

For more information, go to mountainproject.com.

Liza Elsbury, a student in San Juan College's Outdoor Leadership, Education and Recreation program, climbs the "Wavy Gravy" route at Indian Creek, Utah, in November.

More resources

Registration is open for “Intro to Gym Climbing 155” at San Juan College. Starting Tuesday, the course will meet from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. The class is a prerequisite for most other rock climbing classes.

For more information, contact Chris Keating at keatingc@sanjuancollege.edu or 505-566-3414. 

The San Juan College Health and Human Performance Center can be reached at hhpc@sanjuancollege.edu and 505-566-3410.