climbing colorado

My New Affinity for Rock Climbing

The first rock I ever climbed was as tall as some of Bangkok’s skyscrapers, a limestone pillar jutting out of Thailand’s western shore, overlooking the turquoise sea. I was playing tourist after having spent the previous six months teaching English to high schoolers in a local village, and my friend was visiting from the States. We spent the day with two friendly and suave guides, strangers who held our lives in their hands with a single, round rope.

I didn’t think I would like climbing, but Krabi is famous for it’s karst routes and sunny skies. It was one of those things my climber friends back home told me I should try. When I travel, I’m already so far out of my comfort zone that I seek experiences I wouldn’t in the States. I thought that first guided climb would be a one-time adventure; something to say I did to celebrate my 26th birthday while abroad.

But as I ascended, my hands holding onto well-formed jugs, my legs shaking as I rested halfway up, I took a moment to look the other way: down at those below me, cheering me on, out to the wooden boats on shore, and up to the end of my rope. I wanted to finish. I was going to finish. I had to finish, to prove to myself I could. Suddenly I wasn’t doing this to tell others about it. I was doing it for me.

And so I climbed. My upper body weary, my mind determined. I made it to the top, slapped the metal bolt that held me there in victory, and let out a loud, “Woohoo!” I took in the scenery once more, the ocean floor inviting me to fall, before I leaned back in my harness and away from the wall, allowing the woman on the other end of my rope to slowly bring me to the ground. I felt, suddenly, like I could do anything.

climbing colorado

Me climbing at The Palace in Northern Colorado

When I returned to Oregon for a visit, a friend invited me to Smith Rock State Park. Despite having grown up just two hours from one of our nation’s best climbing digs, I had never been. It was hot and difficult. The rock felt different. There were less-defined handholds and I was forced to “trust your shoes!” like he shouted from the ground. I knew I couldn’t give up. It was just me and the wall. I dug the toes of my rented shoes into the rock, put my palm flat and pushed with everything I had to get around the crux – climber speak for the most arduous part of a climb, and something award-winning climbing documentaries often detail well. He was surprised I made it to the top, but I wasn’t. The view was worth every drop of sweat, the feeling of accomplishment unrivaled. It was just as gorgeous as the white sand beaches of Thailand – the Deschutes River carving it’s way through the tuff and basalt, a large mass of rock in the middle of plains as far as the eye can see.

Last year, I moved to Fort Collins, Colorado to study for a master’s degree in writing. On a whim, some of my classmates created a meet-up at the university rock gym and I joined, thinking that perhaps I could find that cohort of climbers to finally make this budding passion a reality. After a few Fridays in the gym, four of us drove 25 miles through the winding Poudre Canyon, packed our shoes and our gear in our backpacks and waded across the crotch-high Cache la Poudre river; a body of water created almost solely from snowmelt in the Rockies. For a second I thought of the bathwater warm sea in Thailand, but the newness of this pending climb washed away the thought.

On the other side of the 15-foot crossing, feet numb, wet pants, we wound along a creek and up a steep rocky incline to the base of The Palace – a combination of granite, gneiss and schist growing from the hills along the river basin. My first time in Colorado’s outdoors was also my first 5.9+ (the difficulty of a climb is based on a ranking system from 5.0 to 5.15, or novice to professional with many points and half points in between), and once again it felt different than the rocks in Thailand and Oregon, and easier than the problems in the gym. My shoes clung to the wall with a security I didn’t believe was possible, my body felt strong and ready. I breezed to the top and looked out over the tips of the jagged edges surrounding me, heard the river roaring below, and my dog, 40 feet down, yelping and wining because he thought we were going for a hike, and I kept going without him.

climbing colorado

Elvis wanting desperately to climb with me on our first trip together.

As much as I love a solo hike, climbing is not something one can do alone. I put trust in whoever holds the other end of my rope, which only heightens that sought-after adrenaline rush of quite literally putting my life on the line. But despite the necessary social aspect, climbing is a personal challenge every time I clip in. There are days when my energy is low, or my arms tire on the first try. There are so many variations of rock to climb, from limestone to granite and beyond, each presenting a new and different challenge. When I’m on the wall, I’m alone and single-minded, contemplating every move, checking in with myself; mind and body must work together. But once at the top, I know I didn’t make it there alone. My team is providing ongoing encouragement from below. My belayer is prepared to catch me when I fall.

This team, unlike my first one in Thailand, is no longer foreign. They are my friends, my support, which is something that comes only with spending enough time in a single corner of the globe. Though I’m still new to Colorado, climbing is what brings me closer to people and nature here, and allows me to see my own backyard with a traveler’s pair of eyes. Each trip to the top is a new and exciting journey.

*An edited version of this essay appeared in the August edition of Horizon Air Magazine, but I felt it was different enough to post the original here. 

Have you ever been climbing? Or tried a new sport you didn’t think you’d like? Do you love the thrill of adventure as much as I do? Let me know in the comments below! 

climbing colorado

My friend, Natalya, climbing at The Palace


  1. Frank says:

    Your tough Jessica! I’ve been to a few gyms where I’ve climbed to the top of the wall. I’m glad I did it – but you know what? I hated it. About 20 ft off the floor I would start getting this funny feeling in my gut. Couldn’t wait to get back down.
    I’ve done it a few times since and although I managed to get up I feel more relief than joy at the accomplishment. I’m afraid I could never be a climber. So I have admiration for those that can do it – and not in a gym but outside in the outdoors. Good for you!

    ‘…my hands holding on to well-formed jugs..” Maybe that’s a climbing-techie thing. Caught my attention though 😉

    Nice post Jessica,
    Frank (bbqboy)

    • jessicajhill says:

      Haha, Frank! I didn’t even realize the innuendo there! Whoops. Good for your for trying to climb multiple times, despite your hatred. It’s always good to try new things and to give them a few chances before making up your mind. Climbing is definitely not for everyone, but I’d encourage you to try it outdoors if you ever get the chance. It’s really a completely different experience than indoors, and I much prefer it. However, if heights simply aren’t your thing, maybe it’s best to stay on the ground 😉

  2. Loved this blog Jessica. My son is out rock climbing in England's Yorkshire Dales today and I visited Krabi in 1996, midway through a world tour. Now I teach in York, England and my class has our own blog. We would love it if you could click on our page as we would get a flag from the States, or wherever you happen to be at the moment. Salt Lake City looks amazing. I drove past whilst delivering a car across country once so was pleased to see your post. Keep on keeping it real! Cathryn J

    • jessicajhill says:

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment, Cathryn. It sounds like we’ve traveled a lot of the same paths! Hopefully next time you’ll get to stop in Salt Lake…and perhaps your son can take is climbing skills to Krabi one day. I’ll definitely check out your site!

  3. travelFREAK says:

    What a fantastic experience, Jessica! So glad you enjoyed it!

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