I'm not even officially on belay—that is, ready to start climbing—when instructor Alex Sargent starts cracking corny jokes. I'm standing at the base of what Sargent and his business partner, Greg Speer, refer to as the Mountain Course Pitch, looking up at what serious rock climbers might refer to as a "baby pitch," or practice pitch.
It's a stunningly beautiful spot tucked just off of the golf course and with glorious west-facing views toward the mountains, but right now, I'm 100 percent focused on learning how to tie the figure eight-shaped knot that's the foundation of safe rock climbing. I can tie a few select knots that come in handy for fishing and camping, but my typical motto — "if you can't tie a knot, tie a lot" — won't fly here. After my third failed attempt, Sargent leans back on his heels and fires off his first joke: "Hey. What did the zero say to the eight?" ... (me): "Ummm..." ... (him):"Nice belt!"
Ha. I roll my eyes, but I get the point: This is supposed to be fun. And if I'm stressing out over whether or not I can tie an unassisted figure-eight, I'm doing it all wrong. With that perspective, everything becomes a little easier, and a lot more enjoyable. And honestly, there's no shame in letting Sargent and Speer take over knot-tying duties.
The lead guides and owners of Stowe-based Sunrise Mountain Guides, they both grew up in Vermont. Speer jokingly describes them as "just a couple of woodchucks who like to climb and ski," but in reality they're highly accomplished guides who have adventured all over the world, before returning to Stowe to help others experience the same joy they get from the outdoors. They're members of the Stowe Mountain Rescue Team (pump them for stories about the wild scenarios people get themselves into sometimes) and Sargent spent 26 years as an instructor and leader in the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School. Okay; I'm in good hands here.
Knowing they have a slew credentials puts my mind at ease, as I've climbed a total of five times in my life (two of those as a preteen at summer camp) and definitely have some trepidation about our excursion today. Luckily, my amateur status doesn't matter. Even people with zero experience can book a guided tour via Spruce Peak Outfitters and spend the day scaling rocks with Sunrise. (They can also take you on hikes, trail runs, all-season mountaineering trips, backcountry and Nordic skiing—pretty much anything that qualifies as an outdoor adventure.)
They typically phone you ahead of time to gauge your skill level and intensity, but don't make the final call on the route until meeting you in person.
"The best first aid starts in the lobby, where you can get a feel for what someone might be up for," Speer says. "You can actually tell a lot about a person just by the shoes they're wearing."
I raise an eyebrow at that and look down at my casual slip-on sneakers, stained with Nordic ski wax and polyurethane from a home-renovation project.
"Yeah," Speer says, ribbing me a little, "we'd look at those shoes and think, 'Nope, not going to hike in very far to a climbing spot with those shoes!'"
Lucky for me, I was able to hitch a ride on a golf cart up to the Mountain Course Pitch. Otherwise, we'd have gone to the other beginner pitch, Barnes Camp at the entrance to Smuggler's Notch. More experienced climbers who want to try multi-pitch climbs or learn how to set their own routes usually head straight up into the Notch. And while Sargent notes that there are some top-roping options (a climbing style that refers to the rope being anchored to a solid object at the top of your climb), you have to be careful up there. "It's more involved and more adventurous," he says.
Here at the Mountain Course Pitch, I'm now solidly attached to the belay rope via a perfect figure-eight knot (thanks, Alex!). The rope runs from my climbing harness to a tree at the top of the pitch, and loops back down to Sargent. He feeds it through his harness and a belay device he'll use to keep it just tight enough so I won’t fall any significant distance if my hands or feet slip off the rock. I take a deep breath. Time to start climbing.
Speer isn't wrong to call this the baby pitch; I've certainly climbed higher than this, but it still takes me a minute to get my bearings. Sargent tells me to dip into the chalk bag hanging off my harness to give myself more grip, and I place both hands, then both feet on the rock.
At first, I'm following Sargent's chalk marks, left behind from a demo-climb he did for me. I'm cautious in my movements, frequently reminding myself to use my legs and not just my arms to scale the rock. Speer and Sargent occasionally call out suggestions or offer a warm "nice job!" when I make a more daring move. Soon I'm clambering up fairly smoothly, remembering to look for foot holds and even planning a few steps ahead.
Before I know it, I'm at the top. I pop up next to the tree where the rope is anchored and allow myself a quick look over my shoulder at the stunning view behind me. I can see the mountains and ridges where I've frequently ridden lifts or backcountry skied, or swooped through the trees on my mountain bike, and I appreciate something Speer said to me back on the ground: "Vermont's a tough place, but it's unique," he'd said. "There's so much to offer here, from skiing and hiking, to trail running and mountaineering. Sure, we're climbing today, but that's only one part of it. We always want to encourage people to step outside of their comfort zones and do more than just ride the lifts."
As a multisport athlete, I get his drift. And, thanks to Speer and Sargent, I've added another sport to my repertoire, too. I've also collected a few new jokes...for better or worse. I'm feeling pretty confident and enjoying myself by the time we move over to the other side of the rock to try a new pitch. But as I'm struggling to retie my figure-eight, Sargent gets a twinkle in his eye that I overlook due to the grave tone he suddenly adopts.
"You really want to stay away from tying a hoo'da if you can," he tells me, sounding serious. Falling right into his trap, I ask, "A hoo'da? What's that?"
"A hoo'da knot. As in 'who da [bleep] tied that?!'" Sargent replies.
Got me again. If it's not fun, you're doing it wrong. But I'm pretty sure I'm finally doing it just right.