Few images are as inspiring as a human being scaling a facade of stone. The sight of chalky hands grasping out for the high ground. A tentative knee pointed skyward. A leg measuring the distance through open air. Feet pushing out to safety. Knotted ropes, taut harnesses and clinking carabiners–the tell-tale symbols of a person defying the limits of their earth-bound circumstances, using their tools and willpower to achieve something higher for themselves.
Perseverance. Patience. Endurance. Control. Measured risk, calculated safety. The qualities of a good climber also happen to be the elements of a successful, self-sufficient adult. That’s what I realized watching the young people of Stepping Stones step–quite literally–out of their comfort zones and climb to the highest heights at NH Climbing and Fitness in Concord, NH. The afternoon’s climb came with a proper orientation from manager Mark Vasta; through him, the youth quickly learned the jargon of rock-climbing such as bouldering–climbing in any direction across or along a shallow rock wall–and belaying, which is the essential task of securing the rope attached to the climber. He also taught them that communication with your belaying partner and double-checking ties are the lifeblood of a safe and rewarding climb.
Bouldering proved harder than it looked, as the climbers had to rely entirely on upper-body strength, but Kevin and Stella both gave it their best shots. All of the youth had success with the belay, and tried out both types–the partner belay and the auto belay on walls of varying heights and steepness. In the partner belay, each climber was tied to a rope which crossed a pulley in the ceiling back down to their
partner on the ground; the partner’s job is to secure the rope so that the climber has a slow and steady descent at the end. Program coordinator Rebecca stayed on the ground to be a partner for all of these belays; she even took a training course ahead of the event to ensure that she would be an expert on the figure eight knots necessary for her to be a safe and reliable anchor for the climbers. It was refreshing to see the youth take to climbing on their own so quickly with the auto-belay, a system built directly into the wall. They had some understandable hesitation warming up to the descent, but after the first brave push off the wall, they learned to trust the strength of the belay. Even though they made it to different heights, everyone got down safely.
Of the four climbers from Stepping Stones, only Kevin felt ready to climb before the training started; even though he’d never done anything like this before, he was extremely excited to take on a new challenge. His inexperience did not show; he scaled walls of varying heights a half dozen times and even posed in his best “Spiderman” impression as he touched the ceiling. Stella and Addy hadn’t put much thought into rock climbing before the event and felt nervous once they arrived, so when Stella volunteered to be the first climber, we all cheered for her. She made it to the top on her first try, then repeated that time and again. Despite some persistent nerves, Addy still made it halfway up the tallest wall and felt very proud of this achievement.
Meanwhile, Sam had prior experience, but still felt the butterflies in their stomach once they saw how high they’d need to climb to make it to the top. They put on a brave face for their less experienced peers, and used their belaying experience to assure that the others were comfortable and safe. Sam managed to climb many parts of the wall before taking off their harness early. “It’s been a lot of fun…but I can tell that my anxiety is getting too high, so I decided to stop,” they said. It’s wonderful that they recognized their limits and their decision ensured that they’d continue to have a good time as a spectator.
Wrapping up our time together at NH Climbing and Fitness, we made sure to thank Mark for his generous donation of the day’s admission. He truly went above and beyond, not just in providing insightful, patient training, but by concluding the day with words of encouragement for the youth who felt like they hadn’t done much climbing. To be fair, Rebecca and I would disagree–they all went far higher than either of us would be willing to go! But Mark offered a piece of advice that pointed to the heart of what we try to impart here at Stepping Stones–that stepping out of the familiar and routine, that trying something new is the most important achievement of all. On the surface, rock-climbing might just look like a fun outing, but programs like this provide so much more than that. The youth had been looking forward to this event for weeks, and for a couple of them it was the only bright spot on an otherwise dreary calendar. More than that, they got to learn about and achieve a rewarding goal all in the same hour, which pays dividends for their self confidence and mental health.
On behalf of Stepping Stones, a special thanks to NH Climbing and Fitness. It’s an amazing facility where health and education take precedent over thrills; experienced and inexperienced climbers enjoy it all the same. I also want to give an extra shout-out to Rebecca for planning all of these great programs. Thanks to her, our bulletin board at Stepping Stones is loaded with activities like this in the coming weeks that will help homeless, unaccompanied youth unwind, build trust in teamwork, and challenge their minds and bodies. They can sign up for activities like this any time. When they do, they’ll see a message written in marker that feels particularly powerful after today’s program: “I can do hard things one step at a time.”