WHEN YOUR nerve hits rock bottom, you wonder if your imminent demise can be postponed.

"Now just lean back on the rope at a comfortable angle, flex your knees, and start walking slowly, looking over your shoulder to see where you are going," says Mike Carlisle of the Outdoor School.

Where he'd like me to go is straight down a cliff, 125 feet above the Rocky Island Rapids stretch of the Potomac River at Great Falls, Va. The setting sun is playing on the rocks and on the kayakers who twirl in lazy circles far below. I smile. I feel close to passing out.

"What if I fall?" I ask my rock-climbing instructor.

"Rappelling is a controlled fall," Carlisle says. "You won't go screaming off the cliff. And I will come down right after you and help you climb back up."

Carlisle has tied blue and orange nylon ropes from my harness to his harness and then around two ancient juniper trees embedded in the glittering quartzite at the top of the cliff. Two fellow classmates and instructor Rod Hansen are huddled up here with me. We talk about our fears. Everybody is afraid of heights. I get nervous climbing to the top of a slide at the park.


Splendid autumn weather is high season for the sport of rock climbing. A growing cadre of enthusiasts hang around the mica schist cliffs of Maryland's Carderock and along the river trail on the Virginia side of Great Falls on the Potomac. Both sites are crowded this time of year. Climbers hit the rocks on their lunch hours for 30 or 40 minutes of "flash climbing," with colorful gear and myriad personal climbing styles. High-speed rock jocks cling perilously beneath overhangs, cranking down on really small holds. Climb and punishment.

Rock climbing is an outgrowth of mountaineering, but in climbing enthusiasts attempt climbs to "conquer" a specific short route, rather than to reach the summit of a mountain. The first to complete a climb has the honor of naming it, a tradition that has infused the sport with rich and funny folklore. Some well-known area climbs, for example, are named Fat Man's Fantasy, Death Nerve and Madmen Only.

It was a rocky start for the sport as a discipline of its own. In the 1930s, what little equipment there was came from Austria and Switzerland. After World War II, the sport really took off, with much of the credit due to the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division and its zealous approach to rock-climbing techniques. The supply officer of this division invented a lot of rock-climbing equipment for the group, much of which is still in use. The development of all-important nylon rope also came at this time.

After the war, the high-quality Army gear was surplused, and rock climbers scooped it up, grateful to find it stateside at reasonable cost.

Things progressed very slowly for several decades -- until the environmental movement of the 1970s brought baby boomers out for weekend strolls along river paths and mountain outcroppings.

"A lot of people became intrigued by the pastime then and stuck with it because it requires only a casual commitment of time," says John Gregory, the unofficial mayor of Carderock and author of "Rock Sport" and "A Climber's Guide to Carderock."

The sport has one major advantage: The rocks are always free. Though if you enjoy it, you'll probably want to invest in some equipment: ropes, good climbing shoes and harness.

The major disadvantage is emblazoned on a T-shirt often seen on climbers: IF YOU DIE, WE SPLIT YOUR GEAR. John Gregory says he was killed in 1980 while rock climbing, but recovered nicely. He points to a scar on his forehead.

"My friend was climbing above me and a piece of rock about the size of your average Yellow Pages hit a ledge, broke and hit me. I fell to the ground. An emergency medical technician happened to be behind me. She said 'I know dead and you were it.' She gave me a precordial thump and started my heart again."

None of this stops Gregory from climbing nearly every nice day of the year, but he stresses safety habits and technique. It isn't a good idea to be in a hurry because you're thinking about the apres-climb pizza and beer.


The towering sandstone peaks of Seneca Rocks, W. Va., are a mecca for climbers on the East Coast. A four-hour drive from Washington, they're the places to watch high-quality climbing.

Seneca Rocks stands as a dramatic knife-edge ridge 960 feet high, with a peak only 15 feet wide at the top. The Tuscarora sandstone rock cliffs (the product of erosion) cry out to be climbed. Tuscarora sandstone is almost pure silica, which is very hard and virtually insoluble. It weathers very slowly, so it normally holds climbers' protective hardware without crumbling. In the autumn, the birds use these ridges as landmarks on their southward migration.

Tom Marshall, 52, is 40 feet high on a cliff at Seneca. He draws one hand gently across the rock, probing its secrets with his fingertips like a blind man stroking a page of Braille. He does this again and again until he grazes something he has missed -- a nubbin of quartz high and right. A reach and a grasp, then Marshall toes up desperately into a blackened depression with his right foot, slapping and grunting and slipping until he's secure for a moment and can rest, rock steady. He makes it look like fun.


Maybe the hardest part is picking up the phone. "Tell me about the rock-climbing class," I ask Jesse Reynolds, owner of the Outdoor School, trying to sound like a jock.

He takes me seriously. "Women are generally better than men at rock climbing," he assures me. "I've seen it a lot of times; a big, well-built guy in good shape will come out and really burn himself out on the first try. A woman knows she can't muscle her way up, so she starts out relying on what the man has to learn to rely on -- a good sense of balance and confidence in her feet and legs."

My size-9 feet being the only part of me that I have confidence in, I start to relax.

"You need determination and a sense of adventure. But you don't have to be a conditioned athlete."

The day of my class dawns clear and bright. We gather at the visitors center at Great Falls, where our instructors launch into a safety talk that begins with the location of the park's emergency facilities and telephones. Then we hike the 3/4-mile to the cliffs along the river, coming to a stop high above Mather Gorge. The view of the falls from here is spectacular; the woodsy smell makes me want to slip away and break out a picnic lunch.

Instructor Mike Carlisle passes around liability waivers for each person to sign. The phrase "spinal cord injury resulting in death" gets my attention.

"This is mostly to imbue you with a sense of responsibility," he explains, adding that the school has never had an injury that required more than a small bandage.

The next couple of hours are spent on safety procedures, including how to approach the cliff edge safely. My personal method of approaching the edge is to scoot gingerly over on my butt while digging my fingernails into the instructor's calves.

This day's class covers top-rope climbing. A special nylon climbing rope is attached to the climber's harness, then travels to the top of the cliff through a well-anchored carabiner and back down to a teammate who is responsible for taking in the slack as the climber travels up the rock. As we are already up, we will have to rappel down the cliff on a rope and be belayed from above.

"Belay" means "to secure with ropes." In rock climbing, the person who belays you has your life in his hands. He or she also wears a harness that is anchored to a rock or tree. When the climber slips, the belayer stops the fall by pulling the rope tightly against an aluminum brake device on the harness. The physics of this are complex, but basically, a small person can safely belay a big one.

More technical info from Carlisle follows. Buckle your harness properly. Have your classmates and the instructors check yours; work as a team; generally be conscious and aware of the safety systems of those around you. Carlisle sets up my harness and checks it no fewer than three times before he walks away. I check it another 326 times for practice.

We watch as the teachers rig up a climb site. Rock climbs are assigned a difficulty rating that ranges from 1.0 (walking out the door to get the newspaper) to 6.9. This climb is in the 5.8 class.

Carlisle explains, "We're here to provide an experience for people to climb, and decide if they want to go on. It would take two intensive days to get people rigging a climb and belaying properly."

Before we start, Rod Hansen reassures the group. "Relax. Enjoy the view. And don't be embarrassed if you don't want to do it. It's a rare day that you don't have someone panic, get a little too jazzed. I've had people leave for lunch and not come back."

Most everyone admits to fear, but one by one, with the guidance of the instructors, they take a turn at this climb called Rest in Peace. Each person steps to the cliff's edge, puts his back to the river and lowers himself down on the rope. After reaching the bottom, the climber is coached to the top, emerging sweat-soaked and thrilled.

Finally, it is my turn. One thing is clear: Those who have climbed want me to feel what they feel. They can't find the words, but they want me to know. They sit with me in supportive silence while the wind blows across the bluffs.

I sit near the edge and make several attempts to leave the security of the cedar tree to which I am clinging. "You're overanalyzing this," counsels a young man who is watching us. I gather my courage and start toward the edge.

"Lean back," coaches Carlisle. "Drop your right hand to hip level, and hold the blue rope. Guide the rope out of the fastener as you go down. Great! You got it!"

I got it! I rappel down the cliff edge, leaning out at a comfortable 45-degree angle. When I come to an outcropping in the cliff, the instructors call to me to swing left around its corner. "Can you see me?" I holler, preferring to be in their field of vision in case of unforeseen complications such as my legs suddenly falling off.

"We can't see you until you go around it!" they shout back. I don't push off hard enough, and lose my footing. My left shoulder hits the rock and I dangle in the harness, thrashing about and hoping that no one is watching this particular scene. The sun glistens on the rapids.

It hasn't been a virtuoso performance, but soon I am down, straddling a rock above the water, feeling an adrenaline punch. Rocky Mountain High. I unfasten the end of the blue rope and Hansen pulls it up.

"Mike! Get down here!" I scream. The folks on the cliff are pointing down toward Carlisle and giving me the thumbs up sign.

Soon, my instructor is with me. We will climb the steep (rated 4.6) gully with Carlisle as a guide. "Why can't we just walk along the shoreline until we get to level ground at Harpers Ferry?" I ask.

"This is more fun!" he encourages. "Now don't think about down, think about up, about what's in front of you."

He leads the way, making vertical tiptoe moves across the rocks, pointing out "ledges" when all I see is a smooth rock face. But he is right: Every flat horizontal surface is a place to stand, each rough-textured plane a place to grip. We scuff our way up the rock, Carlisle discovering knobs and cracks to knuckle into. The higher you get, the higher you get!

And then we near the top, clawing over the edge, shaking and exhilarated. The trees and grass and my new friends are all there waiting for me, a future rock star.

There are two kinds of rock climbers, the legend goes. They both set out with fear, but halfway up a cliff, one will say, "Wow, this is great!" and the other will say, "Dear God, if You get me out of this, I promise never to do it again."

And you don't know which one you are until you try.


There are several rock-climbing schools in the area that offer classes and excursions, depending on your interest level and commitment to the sport. After an intro class, it's fairly easy to find climbing buddies; they tend to be a friendly bunch. Most schools will arrange private lessons, which tend to be pricey but offer one-on-one attention.

POTOMAC APPALACHIAN TRAIL CLUB MOUNTAINEERING SECTION -- 1718 N St. NW, Washington, DC 20036. This is an excellent and free way to spend a day on the rocks with serious professionals as guides. "We don't charge a fee because we see this as part of our mandate," says chairman John Yanson. "We try to foster safe climbing as a public service."

Groups go to Carderock or Great Falls for all-day sessions covering safety, basic knots, some climbing technique and hands-on active climbing. By evening, you'll know if you enjoy the sport. "At that point," says Yanson, "{a climber} could join our club and come climb with us."

Call Dusty Wissmath (301/585-7610) to register for climbing excursions, or John Yanson (202/347-1511) for information about the mountaineering section.

OUTDOOR SCHOOL INC. -- P.O. Box 815, Great Falls, VA 22066. 703/759-7413. There are two basic weekend top-roping classes here, held at Carderock and Great Falls: a $70 one-day climbing-intensive course for people who have done little or no climbing, and a two-day outing that includes information on equipment, gear care and proper belaying procedure ($130). There are also advanced-level climber's rescue courses, women's rock-climbing classes and group climbing excursions to Shenandoah National Park, Sugarloaf Mountain and Annapolis Rocks, on the Appalachian Trail north of Frederick, Md. Ask for Mike Carlisle or Jesse Reynolds.

SENECA ROCKS CLIMBING SCHOOL -- At the Gendarme Climbing Store on Route 55 in Seneca Rocks, W. Va. 304/567-2600; if no answer leave message or call 304/567-2254 or 304/567-2085. Classes are limited to three students per instructor. Lessons include background on basic knots, equipment, belaying and rappelling techniques, self rescue, basic anchors for lead climbing, and ethics and philosophy of the sport. If you line up two friends, the cost is $80 per person per day; otherwise it's $85. Classes run Saturday through Monday and Tuesday through Thursday; they book several weeks in advance. The school also offers intermediate classes and private guides and basic instruction.

CITY OF ROCKVILLE RECREATION DEPARTMENT -- Maryland Avenue at Vinson Street, Rockville, MD 20850. 301/424-8000, ext. 344. Instructor Bob Plumb teaches a popular course that covers a progression of top-rope climbing skills, including safety, climbing setups and equipment use, belaying and actual climbing on an indoor climbing wall. If the weather is nice, there may be a trip to Carderock. Three Saturdays and two weeknights of instruction are $55 for Rockville city residents and $63 to nonresidents.

WASHINGTON WOMEN OUTDOORS -- P.O. Box 301, Garrett Park, MD 20896. 301/474-4403. Call for membership information and a list of current activities. Basic membership fee is $30; nominal fee for rocks courses. Instructor Robin Wightman takes groups to Carderock for top roping instruction.

Marianne Kyriakos last wrote for Weekend about a far less dangerous turkey farm.