By Barbara Brotman Tribune staff reporter
Published April 17, 2005 in Chicago Tribune Magazine

The sights on a family rock-climbing trip in Utah will astonish you, unless you have traveled extensively to other planets. But the sounds are pretty amazing too. This is what we heard on our trip: "You did it! I'm so proud of you." This was said, not by parent to child, but by child to parent. And this: "Thank you so, so much for taking us here." This from a teenager. 'Nuff said.

Rappelling in Lomatium Canyon
Robin Berman, 16, prepares to drop into Lomatium Canyon

And those sights? That amazingly weird landscape, of course, but more than that. We saw ourselves differently. We saw each other differently. We saw that sometimes what looks impossible just takes perseverance. And there wasn't a parental lecture in sight.

My husband, Tribune photographer Chuck Berman, and I hatched the rock-climbing plan last summer when we drove through Moab sans kids. As we were taking in the incredible scenery and reattaching our mandibles, we realized that the gorgeous landscape was a family bonding opportunity made out of red rock.

Moab is adventure-vacation central. Mountain biking, rafting, canyoneering, which I don't think is an official word but involves rappelling as much as 120 feet down into a canyon-the possibilities are copious and only mildly dangerous. It was the climbing that drew us. Expert climbers come from around the world to test themselves on southern Utah's walls and towers. But for ordinary humans, climbing is an ideal family adventure.

At its basic levels, pretty much any active person can do it. But the harder climbs get you and your kids to that intriguing point where you're not sure you can do it and are maybe a little scared to try. That's when the fun begins. Besides, the Utah scenery is dramatic enough to pull a kid right out of her iPod.

So we returned to Moab last November, this time with daughters Robin, 16, Nina, then 13, and honorary family member Eric Wilson, 15--Robin's friend since kindergarten.

We met our guides--Dave Medara, president of Moab Desert Adventures, and Lisa Hathaway, who guides for Desert Adventures, at our hotel. A word about guides. You will want them, unless you are already an expert technical climber. And because Moab attracts the best of a low-profile sport, you can end up with guides vastly overqualified to lead the urban likes of you.

For example, Lisa, who is 39, tall, lean and partial to animal-print climbing accessories, is a wildlife biologist and semi-professional climber who runs climbing clinics around the country. That's her on the September page of the 2005 "Rock & Ice" calendar, clinging to a wall face like a human spider. We, on the other hand, had merely visited an indoor climbing gym several times, though Eric was also climbing in his physical education class. But Lisa and Dave cheerfully and literally showed us the ropes, and regularly do so for people who have never climbed anything beyond stairs.

Fiery Furnace Towers
The "Flames" of the Fiery Furnace

After signing fear-inducing legal waivers, we headed out to Moab's famed Wall Street-Potash Road, which runs along the Colorado River just outside town and a few miles from Arches National Park. It is a veritable climbing school. A stretch of sheer rock cliffs rises 500 feet above the road, offering hundreds of possible climbs. Even on a chilly day in the off-season, a few cars had already pulled off the road and people were climbing. Lisa and Dave outfitted us with harnesses, helmets and climbing shoes, and gave us The Talk.

"This rock isn't like Yosemite," said Lisa, as if we would know what Yosemite rock was like. "It can pull loose. So when you're reaching for a handhold, you have to watch out.

"We are in the desert. There are plants and animals that are spiky, bitey and poisonous. You could turn over a rock and see a scorpion. You could go around a corner and see a black widow spider."

The children were listening intently. "And then we ask to be lowered as soon as humanly possible," Nina said firmly.

But spiders aren't the real danger in climbing. Careless knot-tying is one, but 90 percent of climbing injuries, Dave said, are the result of poor communication. It is crucial to use the sport's cool verbal code, in which the climber says, "Ready to climb" and the belayer (the person on the ground manning the safety rope attached to the climber's harness) responds, "On belay" (as in, "I have you on belay").

"When everything is done safely, climbing is safer than mountain biking," Lisa said.

So how do you climb? Not the way you might think, we learned. Acknowledging that some of their directions "may seem like they're from outer space," Lisa explained that while your instinct is to lean in and hug the wall, you should instead lean out and put your weight on your feet. After a brief discourse on why the figure-eight retrace knot is safer for tying in to the harness than the also-popular bowline, we were ready to climb.

Fiery Furnace Hiking
Hiking within the Fiery Furnace

"Good luck, Dad," Nina called out as Chuck prepared to climb 40 feet to join Dave, who had climbed first to set the top-anchor rope. Lisa was belaying Chuck from the ground; if he fell, the rope would catch him within a few feet.

Chuck began. He reached up for handholds in the red rock. He stepped onto the tiniest outcropping of rock; his foot slipped, again and again. Lisa called up to him, "Stick your butt out and run your feet up!" He stuck, he ran, he got a compliment-"You've got some good natural technique," Lisa told him, as he was to remind us frequently throughout the weekend. And he got to the top.

Then it was Nina's turn. Lisa talked her up-"You see that fissure, about 6 inches to your left?" "Don't snug in as much." "Get your fingers into that crack"-and by the time she had finished and been lowered to earth, she was ecstatic.

"That was so cool!" she crowed.

Robin climbed, and turned out to have an impressive high-step technique. Eric climbed, pushing down against the wall with his hands in a movement that became his very effective signature technique.

"The scariest part is coming down," he said. "You're leaning back and you're going so fast. You're like, 'I'm dead.' "

And then it was my turn. Even with a harness and no fear of heights, it was scary. You reach spots where you can't see a thing to grab or step on. But that strange advice to lean back worked, partly because climbing shoes seem to be made out of spider juice. You smear your shoe into the wall and stand up, and somehow, your foot sticks.

I got to the top and looked down at the Colorado River flowing around a narrow island. The trees were mossy green in the low autumn light. It looked as good as I felt.

We climbed for hours. A little community grew at the base of the wall, us and a bunch of University of Wyoming students, some of them tie-dyed and all of them willing to share their important climbing accessory, cookies. Robin swaggered among them in her climbing shoes, and I could swear I saw her future.

Then we headed to a more challenging part of the wall, 60 feet high. Robin picked the hardest climb. Partway up, she became stuck. Her foot slipped repeatedly. "Darn," she said, only she didn't say darn. "You have to be really calm," said Dave, who was belaying her. "If you move too quickly, the Navajo sandstone becomes like ball bearings. . . . You've got to be a bit of a Zen warrior here."

She resumed, this time more deliberately. She worked her feet into cracks; she shoved her fingers into fissures. She got smaller and smaller as we tilted our heads up to watch. When she got to the top, we cheered.

Something wonderful was happening to the kids. Not just the growth of confidence, though that would have been enough, but the generosity with which they began to offer their support. "I can't tell you how much you need to rely on your feet," Eric told Nina. "Dad, don't give up," Robin called to Chuck. "When your feet are slipping, just try to make it a few more feet. Come on, Dad, stay with it!"

We were so giddy at the end of the afternoon that we couldn't imagine how the trip could get better. But the next morning, we went canyoneering.

Tunneling through boulders
Tunneling through the boulders

Our guide was Matt Moore, owner of Desert Highlights. Moore, 34, grew up in Columbus, Ohio, but was so drawn to the West's world of skiing, mountaineering and climbing frozen waterfalls that he got a degree in commercial recreation ("My dad keeps asking, 'What's that again?' ") from the University of Utah and ended up as an adventure outfitter in Moab.

At Arches National Park, we watched a video before we were allowed into the Fiery Furnace area. "Slickrock is well-named," it warned. "And a rescue can take four hours." But who could be worried on a day of glorious sun? The temperature was in the 40s, but the red rock was glowing.

We drove past Arches' strange, massive towers to the Fiery Furnace. "Named because in summer it gets hot as hell and you die?" Chuck inquired. "Despite its name, it's actually the coolest place in the park because of all that shade," Matt said. "It gets its name because, especially at sunset, it looks like flames." "It looks like Looney Tunes here," Robin said. "I expect to see Road Runner at any minute," Nina said.

We parked, put on our Acme backpacks, into which each of us had put a harness, carabiners and a rappel rack, and walked toward a field of huge red fins. We walked in and up. It wasn't so much hiking as climbing up narrow cracks, only without belaying lines.We stopped in front of a narrow, almost vertical crack.

"We're not going up that, are we?" I said. We were. Robin nudged Eric. "Eric, look back at my mom. Her mouth is still open."

We went up it, Matt talking us through the proper technique, which involved practically gluing our hips to the wall to get traction. "Wow, I'm so proud of you guys," Robin said to me and her father. "Half this stuff we're doing I think you can't do, but then you do it." Yesss! "I love this stuff," Chuck declared. "This is my new career. I want to be a guide."

The view was OK, if you like snow-dusted rocks undulating out for miles. We had been climbing for almost three hours. Matt spread an assortment of turkey, cheese, hummus and wraps for lunch.

"How much longer is this trip?" Robin asked sleepily, resting her helmeted head on the ground. Why, it had just begun.

Now came the technical part, Matt told us. I followed in his footsteps as he leaped lightly onto a rock. I leaped after-and a killing pain knifed through my calf, which I had just stretched beyond its limit. I thought about that four-hour rescue. But I could walk if I didn't mind the pain, which under the circumstances I didn't.

Matt brought us to the top of a chimney. A chimney is a meeting place of two rock walls. You have to brace yourself between the two walls and kind of shimmy down. Did I mention that on this chimney, the walls came together at a wide angle so that you were bracing yourself against a wall that didn't face you directly? Or that it was 50 feet to the bottom?

Matt went first, presumably to break our falls. One by one, we crouched onto one side of the wall and began. The pitch was so sharp that it felt like we were going to hurtle down head first. We inched along, silent in our concentration and fear. "This is the hardest part of the route," Matt said. No one responded. But we made it, each sweating, triumphant one of us.

"Well, that takes care of the crowds," Matt said cheerfully. "I can pretty much guarantee solitude from here on."

I would have congratulated myself, only Matt was tying knots in a thick rope. He tossed it over another ledge. We lowered ourselves down the rope, but then found ourselves facing a large pool of water. Matt suggested wading. "Nope, I've got a way," said Adventure Guide Chuck. There was no room to take a running jump. But Chuck carefully placed his foot against the rock behind him, pushed off and propelled himself across. Robin hesitated. "What do you think, Dad? Can I do it?" she asked. (Another amazing Utah experience: a teenager asking her father for advice.) He thought she could. She did, Chuck catching her, turning and depositing her behind him. Nina and Eric followed. Loath to injure my muscle further, I rolled my pants up over my ankles and waded. Unfortunately, the icy water reached above my knees. Barefoot, freezing and soaking, I walked on, amazing Robin with the passion and variety of my swearing.

And now came the real fun. Matt took us to the edge of a 120-foot canyon, part of Lomatium Canyon. We put on our harnesses, and he began tying our belaying ropes into our harnesses. We would use the rappel racks, assemblages of pipes through which we wound the rope, to control our own rate of descent.

"What kind of knot is that?" Chuck asked. "Bowline," Matt said. There was silence. "I'm gonna die," whispered Robin.

Climbing down the chimney
Climbing down the chimney

We explained about Lisa and Dave's warning about bowline knots. Matt said rappelling into a canyon is different than climbing. When we reached the bottom, we would have to untie the knot so he could pull the rope back up for the next person without it catching. An inattentive climber could remove a figure-eight knot from the harness while still leaving half the knot in the rope, he said, but a bowline must be untied completely. He hadn't killed us yet, so we trusted him.

As expedition photographer, Chuck again went first. "Bye, Daddy," Nina called, with a little more finality than I liked to hear as my husband walked backward over the cliff. After a long silence, broken by an occasional disbelieving, echoing laugh, Chuck called, "OK, I'm down."

We each followed him, and all I can say about lowering yourself on a rope into a gaping canyon is that you must do it. Your kids, too. Matt has taken 10-year-olds on this trip, and experienced climbers as young as 8. "A lot depends on the kid," he said. "We've had 18-year-olds who start crying on us. For that matter, we've had adults who cry."

The only crying I wanted to do was at the sight of the Fiery Furnace as we walked out at sunset, having rappelled down a second canyon. Like they said-flames. When a full moon rose behind the looming rock arches, it was just overkill.

My calf and I sat out our final day of climbing with Lisa and Dave. But an adventure isn't complete without a Revelation About Life. And I had mine when Nina volunteered to be first on our toughest climb of all.

It was a bear-80 feet of what looked like nothing to hold onto. I belayed Nina. She headed up, and soon was fighting for every inch. She slipped and tried again, slipped and tried again, grunting with effort. On the ground, we all fell silent, watching as she doggedly kept at it. I craned my neck, attached to my baby by the umbilical cord of the rope, and felt my own breath grow ragged as I watched her struggle. And I realized that at this point in life, this is how it's going to be. I can watch as my children tackle their challenges, I can hope for them, I can vicariously sweat each slip or cheer each success-but only they can do the climbing.

She made it to the top, as did Robin and Eric. "I wasn't going to leave Utah without doing this," Nina said at the bottom, gleaming with sweat and exhilaration.

The trip would have been a success even if Robin hadn't started climbing regularly at a gym afterward and signed up for Outward Bound's toughest rock-climbing trip this summer. We had entered a new world, we had taken risks, we had tested ourselves and had exhilaratingly passed. Beyond the excitement of what had happened on the rock walls was what had happened to us. We had stepped out of our familiar roles as parents and children, and become simply, thrillingly, climbers.

CLIMBING GOES ON ALL YEAR, including winter, when cool but sunny days can be preferable to broiling August. We went at Thanksgiving, and were only occasionally cold. Locals say a little earlier is ideal. Moab Desert Adventures' half-day of climbing for four people is $75 per person. (877-ROK-MOAB; moabdesertadventures.com.) Desert Highlights charges $120 per person for an all-day trip into Lomatium Canyon, with a discount for groups of three or more. (800-747-1342; deserthighlights.com.)