THE FOOL ON THE HILL

Corey learns to rock climb

 

BY COREY LEVITAN

      It stands mighty and arrogant, jutting out of the skyline from all points in the South Bay, daring to be tamed like Robert Downey Jr. on a lunch break from the "Ally MacBeal" set in Manhattan Beach.

      Yet jaded residents don't seem to notice this 1500-foot peak -- only the added accelerator pressure required as Crenshaw Boulevard winds by the gated communities in Palos Verdes Estates.

      I have decided to climb this mountain not only because it's there, but to PROVE that it is. 

      Climbing is the fastest-growing extreme sport, enticing half a million participants every year. There are now 750 climbing gyms in the U.S., up from only 3 in 1989. That includes the L.A. Rock Gym in Hawthorne, where Brandon Hyatt, 24, teaches basic climbing safety. 

      He's the guy hollering from 15 feet above me, "No, don't pull on the rope!"

      Hyatt and I have begun to scale the west face of the South Bay mountain, on a coastal bluff above Hawthorne Blvd. in Rancho Palos Verdes. I am strapped into a harness, which is tied into a rope that leads to Hyatt and then a tree above us.

      "You have to get YOURSELF up!" Hyatt insists. "The rope is only if you fall!"

       I have never climbed before, with the exception of stairs and swimming-pool ladders. Oh yeah, and there was that rope-climbing incident in junior high school, where I got about seven feet off the ground before making the mistake of looking straight up.

      "You're pathetic, Levitan!" barked my coach, Mr. Playa. The scar has yet to heal.

      I establish a foothold, then feel Hyatt begin to loosen the rope. He is cutting me no slack by cutting me too much of it.

      "Don't pull on the rope, because you'll fall the distance of the slack," Hyatt warns.

      I am about to put his theory to the test. Thanks to a dew-slicked shrub, my feet slowly lose their claim on the landscape. I grab for a hand hold, trying to remember the different varieties Hyatt showed me back at sweet ground level. 

      I look for a "three-finger pocket" but manage only to dislodge muddy sand. I attempt an "undercling" (a hold with thumb on the outside and four fingers inside) but manage only to dislodge muddy sand. I am now furiously dislodging muddy sand, transforming it into clumps of airborne filth like a Rottweiler afteranswering the call of nature.

      I am the weakest link. Goodbye!

      "Whoa!" is the only noise I can think to make during the harrowing one-foot plummet. I hang by my rope-tied harness 20 feet above the street, poundingagainst the side of the mountain then bouncing off, like a wrecking ball made of rubber. 

      "You can't impose your own will on the rock," advises Hyatt, who's been climbing for three years. "The rock dictates the movement that you do."

      Before your very first climb, I recommend being on the same page as your instructor as to what type of climbing you're about to do. I envisioned what I later learned is called "aid" climbing, in which ropes and pulleys are used to directly support the body's weight. Hyatt, however, is an advocate of "free" climbing, in which gear is used only as protection against falling.

      Hyatt didn't much like my idea from its inception. The Redondo Beach resident suggested we climb in Malibu Creek or at Chatsworth's Stony Point instead.

      "The cliffs here are just dirt," he says. "They break off and crumble."

      In fact, a 60-foot chunk of the same bluff broke away above Christmas Cove recently, mere blocks from our expedition site. The realization causes me to question the stability of the tree Hyatt has entrusted our lives to. An anchor can only be as good as what it's anchored to, and ours appears to be anchored to a giant sand bag.

      "Don't worry, the tree's gonna hold," Hyatt says. Earlier, however, he also mentioned that proper anchoring requires three points.

      "And you're supposed to equalize all three points," he said. "But there aren't three points here."

      Now would be a good time to point out that 30 people die, and 150 are injured, in climbing accidents each year. 

      "Save time," I remember reading on the L.A. Rock Gym's Web site, "by printing out and completing our liability release form now."

      The Big Splat isn't the only danger inherent in climbing. Exceed 26,000 feet above sea level and the underpressurized atmosphere forces your lungs to slowly fill with thick fluid. Before you choke to death, the good news is that you'll probably pass out from hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain). 

      Peeking back at the sea over my shoulder, I'd say we have about 25,900 feet to go before the vertical limit of human survival. However, I already feel winded. Hyatt suggests this may be because I make a habit of holding my breath when I concentrate.

      "That's one of the biggest mistakes novice climbers make," he says. "You fatigue a lot quicker if you don't breathe normally. 

      "Also, you're not using your legs enough," he adds. "It's mostly in your legs. You want to push yourself up instead of pulling yourself up. Always try and be conscious of where your feet are."

      It would be hard not to be conscious of where my feet are now -- in a patch of cactus. I have eaten prickly pear before. It tastes like asparagus. Today, the plant has discovered what I taste like.

      But the summit is now in sight, and I find the strength to endure. A few more strategic foists and I arrive at the plateau up top.

      "Yes!" I exclaim, grabbing hold of Hyatt'soutstretched hand.

      The cactus needles have scraped my shoes silly and opened a hole in my sweatpants. My fingernails are each tattooed black inside from all the dirt I dislodged, a good percentage of which then landed in the space between my shoes and socks. 

      Yet I am ecstatic. After all these years, I can finally call myself a rock journalist.

      "Did you fellows enjoy yourselves?" asks 73-year-old homemaker Rosa Vanesian. For the past half hour, we have been climbing what is actually her backyard.

      With Vanesian's approval, I proclaim the peak "Mount P.V." Naming a mountain is the traditional right of whoever makes first ascension. My only regret is forgetting to bring a flag. 

      "Oh, you're not the first one up that hill," says Vanesian's son, who does not want his name published.

      "I used to walk up and down it all the time as a kid." 

 

 

 

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