Chicago, IL

Colorado Rock Climbing for Beginners: Yes, You Can Actually Do it

Rene Cizio

Despite being in my mid-forties and embarrassingly out of shape, I learned how to rappel on the North Table Mountain in Colorado. I'm starting to believe we're capable of anything.

I met my instructor, Dan, at the trailhead. It was just him and I and as I signed my waivers in case of death, he gave me a variety of gear to carry up the mountain.

As we started the ascent, he added, “Oh, there are rattlesnakes, so if you see one, yell … and stay back.”

Toto, we’re not in Chicago anymore.

Hiking up

North Table is a 6,500-foot mesa on the Rocky Mountain’s foothills in an old gold rush town aptly named Golden, Colorado. I feared getting up the mountain would be the hardest part. Physically, it wasn’t too difficult, but Dan, bless his heart, pretended to need breaks, so we stopped several times.

While I caught my breath, we sat on big rocks in the sun and talked about our life adventures. Dan was a true badass, having previously done many well-known climbs, some even solo without ropes, skydiving, base jumping and many other things most will never attempt (he really didn’t need that break).

After less than an hour hike, at the top of our 400-foot “practice cliff,” Dan started tying the ropes and moving from cliff to cliff like a Colorado mountain goat while I clung to the side like a barnacle.

I stood on a three-foot section of a cliff, staring out at the mountains and little city below us in awe that I made it to this point and happy enough with just that. Dan had other plans.

Getting ready for the descent

“You can start gearing up,” Dan said. What goes up … must come down.

I put on a sturdy harness, like those used in ziplining, around my legs and waist, a helmet (for falling rocks), climbing shoes, and gloves.

Rappeling, Dan said, is like a trust exercise. You know the one where you let your body fall backward into someone’s arms and trust they will catch you? Except in this version, you’re on a cliff 400 feet in the air, and the only thing to catch you is death (I said that last bit).

We go over the equipment and practice the movements on the cliff ledge with me hooked up to the wall so I won’t fall. It doesn’t seem too difficult and I’m feeling good.

Dan then instructs me to link up to the rope and follow him out to a tiny 1.5-foot ledge. Haha, here we go. I slowly walk toward him while gripping the rope and checking the stability of every metal link embedded into the granite rock as I go. These little iron hooks have a big job to do and I hope they’re up for it.

By the time I make it to him, I’m breathing heavily, not from exertion but panic. He walks me through the equipment again, taking the time to demonstrate how safe I will be.

He has set up two ropes and multiple safety knots. If, on the bizarre chance, one of my ropes failed. I had another one ready to catch me. So, in theory, I wouldn’t die. I might have a heart attack, but I won’t fall to my death.

Then it’s showtime. He instructs me to do exactly like we did when I was practicing: Hold the rope and slowly step backward over the edge of the cliff. One foot after the other, he says.

As I stand there, one foot of ledge between me and a 400-foot drop, I waffle, question, debate, delay.

Dan says, “Just trust the rope.”

Logically, it makes sense, but try getting your brain to understand how safe you are going backward off a cliff. Your brain screams, the Hell I will.

Over the edge

As my ass is hanging over the cliff, Dan says, “OK, here’s what I want you to do, move this foot here … and the other foot here.” He pointed out his directions.

“Dan, I understand what you want, but you need to adjust your expectations for what you’re going to get.”

He laughed, and despite my bad attitude, I took a few more deep breaths and moved one foot a few inches backward, then the other again and again until I was hanging by a rope off the side of a mountain.

“You’re doing it!” Dan yelled proudly. I smiled and, suspended in mid-air, stopped to look around. There was Golden, Colorado, behind me. The sun is shining, and the clouds are lush and full, so close I can almost touch them.

It’s easy to understand why people do this; I thought while hanging there, it’s because they’re crazy also, there’s something unbelievably empowering about conquering a mountain.

Then I keep going, step by step, letting the rope loose, finding places to rest my feet, and trying like Hell not to think about what I’m doing.

Once at the bottom, I consider kissing the ground but settle on jumping for joy. Then I unclench my hands from their death grip, unhook my ropes and climb back up the freaking mountain to do it again.

A bigger mountain awaits

Now confident, after conquering the 400-foot cliff twice, we ventured on to bigger plunder – a 1000-foot cliff.

By the time we hiked to the top of the North Table peak, Dan and I were best buds. I told him how I have a fear of falling, but it’s getting better. He told me about growing up with severe anxiety and beating it with extreme sports.

We stand at the top of the mountain taking in our accomplishment. We are the only people here, just us, the mountain, and probably a few rattlesnakes.

Dan sets up our ropes as I nervously chatter while thinking I shouldn’t distract him from important work. Soon he’s waiting for me to join him on edge.

Somehow, looking out over this much taller cliff, I have to convince myself again. He coaxes me down, and before I know it, I’m hooked up and leaning over the edge. I guess there are worse ways to die.

As I stood there breathing deeply, my Mom showed up. She does that sometimes when I’m in extreme situations. She just popped in my head, and I told Dan, “My Mom died a few years ago. She’d think this is so crazy.” It’s like in Twilight/New Moon when Bella keeps doing dangerous stuff so that Edward will show up. It’s like, there’s a certain way, in the rarest of circumstances, I can get in between worlds.

I pause there for so long I sense Dan is about to start coaching me, but I stop him by moving on my own. I immediately recognize this cliff is going to be a lot harder.

When I moved my feet down, there wasn’t any rock below for me to place my foot. The wall wasn’t flat like the last one; it dipped and curved. I could only get purchase for one foot at a time, or not at all, which meant I had to leap.

“Push away from the wall! Jump!”

Have you ever heard anything so stupid? Stupid is as stupid does, they say, so I did it. Tiny at first, but then bigger. Hanging out, swinging from the cliff like Spiderman. Because I am my own freaking hero.

When Dan came down after me, he literally leaped the entire way and landed at the bottom in about a minute. It took me eight.

“Showoff,” I yelled.

Overcoming fear

I wasn’t going to do it. I’d been talking myself out of it for days. I had no business trying something like rock climbing or rappelling at my age and physical fitness level.

On the drive to the mountain, I had a stern talk with myself. “You’ve done other hard things … What else are you going to do drive around Colorado and look at the pretty views while eating French fries in the car? (uh, yes).”

Finally, I decide I will try, and if I can’t do any part of it, I’d stop. It wasn’t like he was going to force me. Sure, I’d be embarrassed, but at least I’d have tried something.

That, I realized, is exactly how I’ve ever accomplished anything, just by trying. I always think I’m going to fail or embarrass myself (I often do embarrass myself), but somehow I’m always able to do more than expected.

Fear has only one tune: “No, don’t, scary, stop.” My fear is the most boring thing about me. Fear would have me sitting comfortably on the couch alone until I died there.

How many experiences and opportunities would have passed me by if I didn’t push myself to just try? A lot.

Every time I push past my comfort, I find that I’m capable of so much more than I ever thought possible. I never promise myself to be good, or even to like it, but just to know I tried.

Edmund Hillary“It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”

I don’t make bold declarations or set high expectations. My only expectation is that I try, and that has made all the difference. Life is for living, and I plan to live until I die.

Now I have more pride than I thought possible when I say: I learned how to rappel on the North Table Mountain in Colorado.

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Digital nomad, solo road tripping through the USA in my van. I write about travel, adventure, culture, and self-improvement. Pictures on Instagram @renecizio

Chicago, IL

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