We Only Live Once!
Updated: Apr 15, 2021
In this new day and age of staying home, social distancing and playing it "safe" I was reminded of a time when I went out on a ledge (literally!) for my first time rock climbing.
I miss that feeling of freedom and risk taking! On the dawn of another rotation around the sun, I am making a point to seek out thrilling and exciting experiences like this one again.
"You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough." ~ Mae West
By Alison Burmeister
In my personal vacuum of time and space, I hug the rock tight, arms stretched as far as they will reach, my dirt and chalk-stained fingers searching for crevices and cracks on the other side of the sandstone wall. I get a secure hold with my right hand, shift the weight to my right foot and traverse sideways around the curve of the rock. For the first time since my feet left the earth below, I approach a ledge wider than six inches. I sigh with a sense of relief, pull myself up and pause in a moment of uncertain stillness. “Now what?” I think to myself, when an assuring yet direct voice from hundreds of feet below reminds me there is life beyond the rock, “Don’t forget to look around! Look up, look down, take in the view!” It’s in this moment that I realize rock climbing is a lot like life . . . if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.
Literally, you might miss it. Although I’ve driven up and down Palisades Drive at least a thousand times, I had no idea there was a climbing rock 30 feet from the side of the road. Known to climbers all over Los Angeles as “Tick Rock” (because apparently, there are a lot of ticks there), it’s not a secret in the rock climbing community. Tick Rock is nestled in the middle of Pacific Palisades, just on the downside of Palisades Drive, about a mile and a half from Sunset. According to Mountain Project (MountainProject.com-a great source for all your Mountain climbing info), it’s an “urban crag” made of fine-grained sandstone. Shaded in the early morning and early afternoon, climbing at Tick Rock, makes a perfect half-day outing . . . which is exactly what Jeffrey Constine, a long-time climber and as far as I’m concerned, the “Honorary Mayor of Tick Rock,” and I agreed to do.
On the morning we scheduled to meet, a text from Jeffrey reads:
“I’m at the ‘Rock’ parked in the pine trees on the downhill side of the road. I get no cell reception, just look for my truck.”
My heart beats strongly in my chest and my hands start to sweat as I scroll through the text. I’ve done some indoor climbing before and am a great lover of the outdoors, but have a feeling this climb might present a higher degree of difficulty. Two hours later, I pull behind Jeffrey's truck.
Off in the distance I see Jeffrey who is already wearing his harness and climbing gear strapped across his chest. He waves from atop the rocks that lead to the steep, short trail up to the climbing area. He signals me to climb up and then a moment later, he scampers like a deer out of sight. I gather my climbing shoes (rented from Adventure 16 just for the occasion), grab my backpack filled with baby wipes, jackets and four different beverages (green tea, water, Gatorade and a protein smoothie) because I'm not sure what climbers drink. I follow his direction up the rocky trail, my knees suddenly feeling a little weaker, and am careful not to slip or fall in fear of revealing my nervousness and newbie status.
Once up top, I focus on the grey sturdy wall in front of us. Unlike the colorful hand holds and obvious routes I am used to seeing in the indoor climbing gyms, this wall is “au natural,” wide and flat with jagged edges, narrow cracks and small ledges. There is a terraced pathway of stairs leading up the base of the right side of the rock, giving access to many of the climbing routes. I notice small bolts anchored into the rock, which Jeffrey eventually will use to run the top rope for my first climb. In an attempt to put off the inevitable, I ask Jeffrey if it would be okay to do the interview first. He agrees, and I get to know him and the rock I’m about to climb.
Jeffrey Constine started climbing when he was 19. Born and raised in Los Angeles, nicknamed “Medusa” for his unwieldy hair and no doubt his affinity for stone, he has been climbing Tick Rock for over 15 years. He believes the first routes were probably set in the 70’s when the road first opened based off of old pitons he found when he first began climbing there. Jeffrey explains, pitons or metal spikes driven into the climbing surface were the original anchor climbers used but are not as popular today because they damage the rock. As we sit under the shade of an oak tree on two wooden planks fashioned as benches, I mention how perfect a day we are having. Jeffrey, whom I notice avoids pleasant small talk, states it can get pretty hot here. In an extreme dry season, he'll come up and water the trees to maintain the shade by his beloved rock. His passion for nature is evident and he isn't afraid to tell you if your outdoor etiquette isn't making the grade. He takes pride in the fact there is no graffiti on Tick Rock and you won't find trash there either. Every time Jeffrey climbs it, he clears the area around the rock with a shovel and broom left on site, encouraging others to do the same. On the bench where I sit, “Pack out your trash” is written in sharpie. And although I’m not certain, I get the sense that Jeffrey may have had a hand in this.
When asked how one gets into climbing, Jeffrey emphasizes, “It’s important to find a qualified guide or very experienced climber to start with when you’re first learning to climb.” For someone just starting out, the climbing walls are classified into a rudimentary scale of difficulty. A 5.0 to 5.7 is considered easy, 5.8 to 5.10 is considered intermediate, 5.11 to 5.12 is hard, and 5.13 to 5.15 is very difficult, reserved for a very elite few. At this point, Jeffrey casually mentions that Tick Rock is not for beginners but for more intermediate to advanced climbers.” I pretend I didn’t hear that and distract myself by asking him about the equipment. He rattles off a list of items he refers to as a “standard rack of gear: ropes, chalk, about a dozen quick draws, the proper climbing shoes and a harness.” Jeffrey stands in order to grab some of his gear, and I can see the reflection of the climbing wall in his glasses as he stares up at it.
Now that our “Climbing 101” is over, Jeffrey invites me to grab my harness and shoes and join him at the face of the rock. There’s only one problem . . . I don't have a harness. In my mind, I’m thinking, maybe this wasn’t meant to be, but Jeffrey seems to have a solution for everything. He takes off down the hillside like a gazelle and grabs his extra rigging harness he uses for stunt work from the back of his truck. I humbly accept his personal harness, step into it, slip the straps around my waist and legs, and tighten down the buckles.
With my harness now in place, I put on my extra snug shoes and tuck the long shoestrings. Climbing shoes bring the toes to a point, which focuses your weight into a smaller area, making it easier to stand on smaller things. Jeffrey grabs the rope like a lasso and proceeds to show me the figure eight knot that secures the rope to the harness. With the rope attached to my harness, Jeffrey shows me how to feed him the rope and tighten it down in the event he were to fall. I listen intently and dig my feet in the dirt as he takes off up the side of the wall. He sets the gear as he climbs all the way to the top and anchors the rope there. In a calculated series of hooking and unhooking the gear, running the ropes up and back down, Jeffrey returns to the bottom of the rock and it’s time for me to climb.
Rock climbing is the perfect balance of physical and mental execution. With the rope attached to my harness, I walk up the side of the steps about halfway to a ledge leading into the wall. I chalk up my hands and take my first steps onto the ledge. The first few steps are confidence building as my mind trusts my feet will cling safely to the hillside. Instinctively, I continue along the ledge and when I question my next move, Jeffrey is there to encourage me and suggest where to go. Before I know it, I’m climbing up the wall. Hands first, feet second, just like a ladder. As I reach closer to the top, I pause to reassess the route up ahead. Jeffrey calls up, telling me to head to the right where the rock is reddish in color. I see the red rock and press on. At this point, the outside world has completely disappeared. 100% in the moment, my fears are replaced with focus as I take my last steps towards the anchor.
“Climbing is living for today, in that moment,” Jeffrey tells me. Climbing outdoors offers a total escape. As I lean back in my harness and spread my arms out wide, I feel as free as the hawks flying overhead. Slowly, Jeffrey guides me down the mountain. I do not kiss the ground when I get there; instead, I prepare to climb three more times. After every climb, I feel more alive and free than I have in years.