The City Magazine Since 1975

Vertical Horizon

Vertical Horizon
May 2010
Learning the ropes at the James Island County Park climbing wall

I am a veteran climber. As a toddler, I climbed up a towering chest with sizable drawer pulls (great footholds), and after crying when the whole thing fell, I did it again. And again. When I graduated to trees, Mom decreed that the only way I could climb them was if I did it myself (no “one, two, three, boost me to that branch” business). I soon adopted a front yard gum as my favorite and would hide high up in its boughs trying to trick passersby with bird whistles. 

My history with shimmying up this and that has long made me think the James Island County Park climbing wall would be great fun. I’ve been invited on such an outing before, but vanity got in the way—the horror of someone belaying me as my derriere eclipsed the sun. (This wasn’t on my radar as a toddler or tween; thankfully, as I approach 40, it’s fallen off my radar again.) 

So recently, I made the short trek through the woods to the climbing wall. All 50 towering feet of it. All four stories high of it. I immediately needed to pee and entertained thoughts of hightailing it out of there. But I was stuck: instructor Robert Lavarnway, who heads the climbing program, was waiting on me, alongside photographer Kelly Bozard. Climbing trees had been solitary, but this? There wasn’t a single leaf to hide behind.

Tossing her camera over one shoulder, Kelly quickly slipped into her harness, scooted up about a story and a half, then turned her back to the wall while perched on two footholds. Apparently Spider-Girl is teaching at a wilderness camp this summer.

When it was my turn, Robert walked me through the harness, knots, commands, protocol. I stalled, asking inane questions and a few relevant ones. All ages, sizes, and weights can do this, he assured. No serious injuries here ever, he reported. Yes, there are climbing clubs, school programs, and competitions here. The stickers next to the holds indicate a set path, each one named and numbered according to difficulty, he explained. There are 14 routes up, and mine was the easiest one on the easier side. “Ready?” he firmly concluded.

The thing is, it wasn’t so bad. Robert coached me to climb with my legs (rather than pulling up with my arms). And unless I stopped and stared below, I wasn’t aware of the height. I anticipated taking in the view à la the Mission Impossible II opener, hanging there by my fingertips. Not so. At treetop level, all I could think about was how the heck to get down. Thankfully, with the aid of Robert and the ropes, I simply wall-walked my way to terra firma. It was fun enough to try a second, tougher climb, but I tired in moments. A newbie mistake: my drivers-ed death grip had worn my little forearms out. 

Driving home, I considered how wall climbs compare to tree time. I missed the organic nature of the former but am not ready to call it one way or the other. I do live close enough to some supreme magnolias and live oaks that I might just have to test it out. 

James Island County Park climbing wall, 871 Riverland Dr. 9 a.m.-8 p.m. weekends; noon-8 p.m. weekdays (May-August). Day pass: $12, $10 Charleston County resident; $3 harness rental; $1 park entry. (843) 795-4386,