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Climbers tackle cliffs on Barton Creek Greenbelt

Climbing group gathers Tuesdays, Thursdays to test skills

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com

Left hand straight to the chicken head," Nate Biggs calls out to the Spiderman-in-training inching his way up a limestone escarpment on the Barton Creek greenbelt. The chicken head, or poultry-shaped knob, juts out from New Wall, a popular climbing spot where about 30 people are gathered on a balmy winter afternoon. Cookies and elephant ears also make good hand holds for climbers scampering up the 50-foot escarpment.

"Come on man, you're almost there," Biggs coaches. In a few minutes, the climber reaches the top of the cliff. He pumps his fist and nods down at Biggs, 29, a part-time teacher at an Austin charter high school who offered up the beta, or climbing tips, that helped the climber conquer the wall.

Austin is known for its friendly climbing community. Besides New Wall and the adjacent Great Wall, located a half-mile hike from the Spyglass Drive entrance of the greenbelt, climbers flock to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, McKinney Falls State Park and Milton Reimers Ranch Park. But the greenbelt is unique because it's so close to downtown Austin.

Every Tuesday and Thursday that the weather cooperates, climbers gather here starting at about 2:30 p.m. Today, half a dozen climbing ropes dangle from the wall, alongside routes with names like Flintstones, Walk the Dog and Mr. Slate. Bolts are permanently attached to the wall, so climbers can clip to them as they make their way up.

"Basically the Tuesday/Thursday crowd is a bunch of friendly loudmouths who are always happy to provide belays and beta to anybody that walks down the greenbelt trail and spends more than five seconds watching us climb," says Pete Bishop, 65, who has been climbing here since 1996.

It's an eclectic bunch: Students, college professors, engineers, slackers, waiters, moms with babies, and more than a handful of dogs.

"What makes this place unique is the attitude of the people," says Paul Harvey, 62, a research scientist at the University of Texas. "Other places you can't walk up and say 'Hi, can I climb with you?' "

Climbing here comes with its own soundtrack: The snap of carabiners, which secure the ropes; the babble of nearby Barton Creek spilling over rocks; the rock music someone's playing on a small boom box. The rocks are an amalgam of color: Gray, cream, bluish-green and black. Their texture ranges from smooth like soap to rough as sandpaper.

Today, four people at once are hanging at various heights along New Wall, each paired with a partner on the ground who is holding a belay, or safety, rope. The climbers dip into pouches of chalk clipped to their waists, then reach for the rock.

On the hottest summer days, the stone feels almost greasy. In the winter, fingers nearly freeze against the chill of the limestone. It's the feel of the rock, though, and the challenge of scaling it, that keeps these climbers coming back week after week.

"It's a brain wash," says Bishop, who works for IBM. "You come out here and don't think about anything else, not because it's hard, but because you're outdoors."

For many, it's a way to stay in shape, and a more pleasant alternative to an indoor gym.

Mountain bikers, trail runners and hikers cruise past, crunching along the gravel trail. Many stop to watch. Climbers sometimes lend climbing shoes with grips and harnesses so intrigued passersby can try for themselves.

"There are no rules except get up the wall yourself, without any help," says Matt Hall, an engineering professor at the University of Texas who says he thinks about work and solves problems in his head as he scrambles up the cliff. "I've done all the climbs out here so often I don't have to think about them. I could do them blindfolded."

Queanh Gip , 33, says female climbers have added challenges. Most routes here are set by men, who are generally bigger and can power through climbs. "You have to find short-people beta," she says. "Guys tend to jump. We use more technique versus brute strength."

Diana Gerson, 28, agrees. She likes climbing because it's meditative. When she's climbing, she's focused only on what she's doing. "All I think is 'Oh God, keep breathing,' and 'Where's the next hole?' "

Lori Bergeron, 25, is struggling at the moment on the School Boy route, scanning for a way past the vertical crevice where she's currently wedged. She's above tree top level, trying to plot her next move.

"Get your left foot higher and shove it in the crack," someone far below advises.

"That doesn't help me!" she shouts back, a little crankily. Her muscles quiver. "My arms are not getting a break here!"

It takes tenacity to learn these ropes. That doesn't dissuade Bergeron, who says she'll just keep trying, even if it means falling now and then. That's what the ropes are for — they keep the climbers from dropping more than a few feet, even if they lose their grip.

"It's always about getting stronger and getting a little farther up a route," she says once she's back on the ground, taking a break.

Up on the wall, there's a lot to think about: Can you pull your body closer to the rock? Is there a way to move your feet higher, so your arms can follow?

Bergeron ran out of strength this time, but she's determined.

"When you fall a bunch but finally get to the top, you think 'Good, now let's do it without falling,' " she says.

There's always time for that next week.

For now, clouds are moving in and the wind is picking up.

Time to recess. And maybe head somewhere to share a burger and some beta.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994

To keep up with the climbing group's activities, check the Austin Climbers list serve group on www.yahoogroups.com.