Story and Photography by Christian Santelices
We were on an adventure. Our goal was the summit of Bathtub Rock, a large saddle-shaped monolith in Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve. As we ascended the short “via ferrata” section of iron rungs drilled into the golden granite, my two charges, Ben, age seven, and Mariela, age four, were supremely focused on their task. But that would change several times over the course of our two-hundred-foot vertical ascent through rocky cul-de-sacs and along exposed edges. Volkswagen-sized potholes filled with murky water held our attention. We talked about how they might have been formed and who lived in them, and could you really take a bath up here?
On the summit, both kids raised their hands in the shape of a V and whooped it up. “We did it!” they screamed, their voices carrying across the landscape of what has been called the “Goblin City.”
Rock climbing is a magical sport that teaches kids teamwork, decision-making, appreciation for nature, how to use their bodies, and how to manage fear.
Or, as eighteen-year-old Matthew Shlim says, “The level of commitment involved in climbing makes you work to calm yourself down when you’re nervous, by watching your breath and being aware of your body.” Teaching kids these things takes patience and, sometimes, an ability to let go of your intended outcome. Is getting to the top really all that important?
Nancy Johnstone, the mother of three young Jackson rock climbers, says from experience that you never know how much interest kids are going to have in climbing. “Taking the kids climbing does not always work out the way you want it to,” she says. “Most of the time they just love scrambling around and playing in the stream, finding caves, and getting to the top of stuff on their own.” But sometimes it does work out, especially as kids get older. Says fourteen-year-old Anna Tara Shlim: “After I’ve climbed something, I look back to where we were and think ‘I can’t believe I actually climbed that!’ While I’m doing it, I always look forward to the accomplishment.”
Climbing gives children a chance to see the world from a different, higher perspective. Here are some tips for keeping rock climbing rewarding for both you and your kids:
Keep it fun
Climbing is a great avenue for kids to explore their world. Let go of the need to “get to the top.” Set your goals low, and challenges easy to overcome. Let the kids come up with a scenario that they can run with. “Go to places with lots of bugs, snakes, and lizards,” says Johnstone; “and it’s good to have a river nearby they can push themselves into!”
Use the terrain
The best way to teach kids climbing skills is to not “teach” them at all. Climbing comes naturally to kids, given the appropriate terrain. Boulder fields are great places to begin. Kids will use pretty advanced climbing techniques to move through the field while exploring every crack and crevice for animals, trolls, and dragons. Often you don’t need a rope. Attentive spotting (using your hands to stabilize them on the rock, not catch a fall) will allow them the freedom to move around and teach them to rely on their own skills rather than hanging on a rope.
Let kids get used to the equipment off the rock
There are all kinds of ways to use harnesses and rope just for fun. Swinging from an overhanging rock is often the best part of a kid’s “climbing” experience. “Kids love swinging on the rope,” says Johnstone. “One time, I found all three of my kids clipped to the first bolt of a climb. They had figured out how to get up there as a team, then used a daisy chain to suspend themselves.” Make sure they are wearing helmets and let them enjoy the ride. National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) leader Tony Jewell has a swing made of climbing rope hooked to a harness hanging from his living room ceiling. Playing on it helps ensure that his four-year-old son, Logan, feels comfortable when he gets outside.
Go with other kids
Matthew Shlim’s fondest childhood climbing memory was reaching the summit of Baxter’s Pinnacle (grade 5.7) in Grand Teton National Park, at age twelve, with two other young friends. “Climbing with other kids your age is really special,” he says. “We went with George Gardner, my friend Michael’s dad, who was an Exum guide. George was so capable, and really wanted us to succeed. It was awesome sharing that with my friends.”
At the minimum, all you need is a sense of adventure and a helmet. For younger kids (two to five years old), climbing shoes are not really necessary; they can get by fine with a little help from you. For kids older than five, sticky rubber is a tremendous confidence booster as they tackle more difficult terrain.
Once you get into roped climbing, you’ll need a good climbing harness. For kids thirty to seventy pounds, a full-body harness is recommended. Young kids don’t always stay upright when they fall, and the shoulder straps prevent them from sliding out of the harness if they flip upside down. Normal “sit” harnesses (no shoulder straps) are appropriate for older, heavier kids. Get them sized at a local shop and always check the manufacturer’s suggestions and warnings when purchasing and using a harness.
Where to Go
City of Rocks National Reserve in south-central Idaho is the all-around favorite of many local families. There are outstanding campsites, lots of places to explore, and fantastic scrambling for all ages and abilities (not to mention world-class climbing on the beautiful granite domes, fins, and spires).
Indian Creek, Utah, is the favorite spot for the Johnstone brood. Parents can climb cracks in the red sandstone walls while the kids crag around on the boulders and explore caves, looking for critters.
Locally, family-friendly crags include Boulder City near String Lake in Grand Teton National Park, the cliffs at the trailhead to the south fork of Teton Canyon, Darby Canyon at the base of the Aspen Trail, and the Badger Creek Boulders north of Tetonia (watch for ticks in the spring and early summer!) Keep your fingers crossed for the completion of the Teton Boulder Project, a rock climbing park proposed for the base of Snow King Mountain in Jackson.
Exum Mountain Guides offers private family outings at their climbing schools at Hidden Falls in Grand Teton National Park and the “Toilet Bowl” at Teton Village. They also offer day camps and “A Week On Rock” climbing camp for kids seven to ten years old. Kids learn skills like belaying and knot tying, and may even get to go for a swim. Exum is also permitted to guide at City of Rocks. exumguides.com
Jackson Hole Mountain Guide’s programs include a four-day summer camp for kids aged seven to eleven, and “Kids Rock!,” a similar program for less-adventurous climbers accompanied by their parents. Programs are run in Grand Teton National Park and various locations in the Bridger Teton National Forest. For teens, JHMG offers a two-week summer adventure in Montana’s Beartooth Wilderness, where kids learn wilderness camping, rock climbing, and mountaineering skills. jhmg.com
Enclosure Indoor Rock Climbing and Fitness Center offers a myriad of year-round programs at their climbing facility south of Jackson. Programs range from the most basic, like birthday parties where kids are belayed by the Enclosure staff, to weeklong summer camps. Kids can also join a climbing team that travels to competitions around the Intermountain West. enclosureclimbing.com
Aerial Boundaries offers private family outings to Indian Creek in southern Utah where kids and their parents can enjoy rock climbing, hiking, and canyoneering in the red rock desert. Aerial Boundaries also works closely with Teton Valley summer camps (Nikko Judo Academy and Dreamchasers) to offer climbing and natural history hikes for their young athletes. aerialboundaries.com