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Robert Shields' job? Playing for a living

Ricardo Gandara
From left, Luis Villareal, Jason Hicks and John McNeff go over some rock-climbing literature with Natalia Nevarez, a business partner with Robert Shields.

Jason Hicks looks straight up the face of Seismic Wall about 35 feet high on the Barton Creek Greenbelt and ponders how he is going to climb it. This is new to him. "You can. You can do it," Robert Shields encourages Hicks.

Hicks, 27, looks the part, all geared up with harness and helmet. But on the inside, the first-time rock climber lacks confidence, and almost backs out. He is curious how much upper-body strength he needs to scale the rock wall. And how is this rope that is threaded through bolts hammered into the wall going to hold him up? "It's more leg strength," Shields says. "And trust the gear."

"OK, I'll go for it," says Hicks.

"If you start to fall, Jason, just sit into it. Trust the gear, and the wall is your floor. You've got this. Go, buddy," says Shields, an experienced climber.

As Hicks begins to climb, Shields yells out: "You're solid. Nice. Now touch the roof of the wall. Sweet."

Three or four minutes later, Hicks reaches the top of the wall and pumps his fist. Below, Shields, owner of Hill Country Bob Recreation, is his biggest cheerleader. Applause breaks out from other participants in Shields' rock-climbing outing. When Hicks comes back down, his heavy breathing looks like his last. "That was awesome. It's exhausting. I need a drink. I loved it. I'm ready for the next route, a more difficult one," he says. Later, Hicks would post his feat on Facebook.

"I love to see fear dissipate," says Shields. His Hill Country Bob Recreation business offers outdoor adventures such as rock climbing, canoeing, mountain biking, tubing and caving. "And tree camping," Shields says. "That's camping up in trees using a hammock." An all-day outing in the Austin area, which includes rock climbing and caving for a group of four, costs about $400.

His job is all play. The son of a father who is an outdoor enthusiast, 27-year-old Shields was immersed in the outdoors as a child. "My dad took me caving, fishing, bike riding and taught me bike maintenance. I remember as a kid climbing big pipes at construction sites and exploring storm sewers underground," he says.

It stands to reason that Shields, who went to high school at Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, has a degree in recreation administration from Texas State University. "I started out in criminal justice but switched to recreation. People told me I was never going to play for a living, but here I am," he says. During the day, he's a senior guide with Cypress Valley Canopy Tours in Spicewood, an eco-adventure company that offers zip lining through the canopy of old-growth cypress trees.

On his days off and weekends, he and business partner Natalia Nevarez, 26, run their own outdoor adventures company. Recently, rock-climbing newbies Hicks and Jamie Cox joined them on an outing to the Barton Creek greenbelt.

About 9 a.m. at the base on Seismic Wall, Shields begins quashing the idea that rock climbing is difficult. "I've taught kids as young as 2 and people as old as 89," he says. "We've taken people who can't see or are missing a limb. My philosophy is that all people want to experience the outdoors in the Texas Hill Country, and they should."

He outlines the route by pointing where his climbers will climb. Next, he scales the wall with the ease of a spider, with a climbing rope in hand, and he anchors steel clips to bolts that are embedded into the rock. On the ground is a harnessed Luis Villareal, 27, who is attached to Shields with a rope in a belay system.

"This is so easy for him because he knows the routes on the wall," says Nevarez, who is outfitting climbers with harnesses, shoes and helmets.

Seismic Wall is a climber's paradise, with more than 20 routes to go up.

On this outing, Hicks isn't the only one with reservations at the start. "I'm nervous," says Cox, 24. I've never climbed before. This is going to be a challenge."

This is music to Shields' ears. "No fear," he says. "Trust the gear. This is rock climbing. It's safer than our drive here."

As important as it is to teach first-timers how to approach a rock climb and find the right places to place fingers and feet, Shields spends as much time helping clients overcome the two biggest anxieties about rock climbing: fear of falling and fear of heights.

"That's why we start people on low walls. Then we talk how gear will work, because that's what will hold their life as they climb," he says. Especially important to communicate is the "give" of the "dynamic rope" that he uses to climb. "It's the lifeline, and this rope is a little like a bungee cord, because they can take a fall and the rope will not fail them. They will be safe," he says.

Safety is paramount in rock climbing, and Shields emphasizes it all morning. "My goal is that no bad habits are taught here," he says. He points to his helmet. "A rock fell 85 feet and hit me on the head." It's his way of reminding climbers that the proper equipment can save their lives.

Shields lives and breathes the outdoors. His hard body is evidence. On outings, he will talk about edible plants in the wilderness. CPR and lifeguard certified, and certified as a wilderness first responder by the American Red Cross, he plans to get the same credentials as a wilderness paramedic. He's helped build hiking and mountain-biking trails around Central Texas. On any outing, he will encourage participants to pick up trash. "We want to leave a place better than we found it," he says.

A former Boy Scout, Shields lives on the edge. It's nothing for him to talk about the risks of being outdoors. "All our guided trips are epic and unpredictable. A few Sundays ago. I had an adrenaline rush when I met up to a water moccasin that opened its mouth and was ready to strike. I stepped back slowly and got away."

rgandara@statesman.com; 445-3632

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A modern-day town crier. An inspector with an eye for tortillas. A knife sharpener who doubles as a knife-throwing instructor. We're profiling Central Texans on the job. If you'd like to nominate someone for Austin at Work, send your suggestion to Ricardo Gándara at rgandara@statesman.com.