* TAKING THE HIGH WAY: A few weeks ago I got the chance to hike around Chamonix, France, long a climbers' center (James Salter's "Solo Faces" captures the draw of the place perfectly). There was much to take in but too little time, so one day I chose to speed-hike up the dirt-and-rock zigzag trail that leads from the gondola station to the peak of Le Brevent, which spikes high above the valley. Eventually my pace flagged and I had to rest midway on a granite slab. While there I heard voices coming from the enormous rock face to the right. At first there was no one, but looking closer I could see one, then two tiny helmets attached to the bodies of climbers stuck, far from each other, to the side of the vertical face. It was impossible to tell if they were using safety ropes. They were dots and were still on the wall, albeit higher, when I hiked down later that day. It was the first time I'd seen big-wall climbing and it was stunning in scale. It also is something I'm close to sure I'll never do.

However, climbing on a more modest scale can be a blast, as long as it's done safely and with those with experience. With that in mind, Sportrock Climbing Centers will offer a "New Climber Special" at its Rockville gym on Thursday and Sept. 30 starting at 8 p.m. For $5, non-members can tap into a community of climbers, learn some of the basics and get an idea of the rich possibilities of moving vertically on Sportrock's indoor walls and outside at nearby climbing areas (Carderock, Great Falls, Mather Gorge, Sugarloaf, Seneca Rocks, W. Va., among others). For more information, visit www.sportrock.com. Also, Earth Treks Climbing Center (www.earthtreksclimbing.com), which regularly sends climbers to the biggest of the big walls in the Himalayas, continues to host its "Climber Rendezvous" on Mondays at 6 p.m. at its gyms in Columbia and Timonium, Md. Moreover, Nelson Laur, Earth Treks' director of the outdoor climbing school, is posting journal entries of his climb of Tibet's Cho Oyu at www.earthtreksclimbing.com/

journals04/cho_oyu/index.html. He's headed to Mount Everest next year. And not least, the Blue Ridge Section of the American Alpine Club (http://brs.alpineclub.org) has bolstered its Web presence with a comprehensive regional events page.

* A REAL RUSH: "You going to the Gauley?" I've heard this, which is shorthand for the Gauley River Festival, more than once when on the Potomac, but have yet to get there. This year's Gauley Fest, an extravaganza on river and off (more than 5,000 showed up last year), will be held Sept. 24-26 in Summersville, W. Va. For directions, camping, entertainment and, not least, river-running information, visit www.americanwhitewater.org.

-- John Mullen

mullenj@washpost.com