Justin Lofthouse feels fear every time he climbs rocks.
“That’s part of climbing — that you are pushing yourself,” he said.
Lofthouse is a natural resource interpreter at City of Rocks National Reserve near the Idaho-Utah border. One of his tasks is introducing park visitors to his sport through the Climbing Experience Program.
Guests 10 and older climb rock walls 30-40 feet high with help from a park staff member who operates a rope system for safety (called top roping).
“The idea is we truly give them a taste of the experience,” said Wallace Keck, the park superintendent at City of Rocks. “No one leaves our program ready to be a climber.”
Rock climbing is the top activity at City of Rocks, listed by about half of visitors as the primary draw.
The Climbing Experience Program is designed for the other half — the people attracted to the park by the unique landscape, hiking trails, biking possibilities and wildlife but perhaps intrigued by the daring climbers.
The program was started almost a decade ago and has become so popular that it nearly requires its own staff, Keck said. The usual clients are families who may have a little experience on artificial climbing walls. The cost is $37.50 for adults and $20 for youths (10-17) accompanied by a paid adult.
“In most cases,” Keck said, “it’s as much or more as most people want to do when they realize, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m 10 feet off the ground.’ ... (Routes) can be everything from ‘a little kid can easily scramble up’ to ‘this is challenging — I might not make it.’ But you’re safe. We can lower you right back down when you’re ready to quit.”
I went through the Climbing Experience Program last week with my son, Oliver, and watched as Lofthouse expertly talked my young child through the fears associated with climbing.
We climbed the Five Cracks rock — a spot often used for the program because it has four routes with permanent rope anchors, is about 40 feet tall and has consistent access to footholds. I was able to climb and descend the wall fairly easily, except for a couple spots where the footing was tricky.
Oliver climbed it twice but froze when it was time to descend.
“Some kids, it doesn’t scare them — but it’s always lowering that scares them,” Lofthouse said. “Climbing up, they have no problem.”
He uses his own experience to help customers overcome their fears. He let Oliver know that the climber is in charge — he didn’t have to go down until he was ready. He asked him to relax, look around and trust that he was safe. He could have lowered Oliver to the ground at any time to speed things along but knew that would have left a bad impression in the youngster’s mind.
“I have empathy for him because I’ve experienced it,” Lofthouse said. “If I tell him to just sit there and look around and calm down, that’s exactly what I do. If I went climbing today, which I probably will, I will get nervous and I will have to use those exact techniques.”
Oliver said he “knew from the experience of climbing rock walls how to find spots to put your feet” while going up. But he didn’t like the sensation of going down, even though Lofthouse controlled the rope so that it was basically a slow backpedal down the rock face.
“It just felt like there was nothing between you and the ground, nothing to support you but yourself,” Oliver said. “The person who was helping us was the only reason I made it back down.”
Lofthouse has been helping people climb for years. He introduced his wife, Sarah, to the sport. He got his family involved. He likes to show kids how to climb. Sarah also works at City of Rocks and helps with the Climbing Experience Program.
“The ideology of my wife and I is you can talk someone through it,” Lofthouse said, “and if it takes more work, it takes more work — that’s part of the climbing experience for us. (I need) trust in themselves and trust in me. And just a willingness to push themselves. That’s the biggest thing.”
City of Rocks was acquired by the state of Idaho in 1957 and turned into a state park in 1965. It became a national reserve in 1988 under the National Park Service. It is one of four “national reserves” in the national parks system — so named because of their unique management structures. City of Rocks is operated by Idaho State Parks and Recreation.
“There’s no other partnership like it in the country,” said Wallace Keck, the park superintendent. “Ours is equal to a national park.”
The park covers 14,407 acres, including 4,087 that are privately held. The park has more than 60 campsites nestled among the rocks with limited services. Hunting and grazing are permitted, but those activities can’t surpass their levels in 1988. Wildlife on the property include mule deer, moose and mountain lions.
Castle Rocks State Park, which is just down the road, was purchased by the U.S. government in 2000 and traded to Idaho State Parks and Recreation for land the state held at the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument. Castle Rocks began operations in 2003.
It’s much smaller, with 1,420 acres, and includes a fishing pond, an archery course, a picnic area with disc golf and lodging in an old house and bunkhouse. Parks and Rec also operates Smoky Mountain Campground, which offers paved sites, electric and water hookups and flush toilets.
“(Castle Rocks) is more of an intimate park,” said Keck, who manages both parks. “City of Rocks is far larger and more spread out and more primitive in its services.”
City of Rocks gets 110,000-120,000 visits per year. Castle Rocks gets 100,000-110,000. Visits are up about 15 percent this year, Keck said.
▪ Getting there: It’s a three-hour drive from Boise. Take I-84 east just past Burley, turn south on Idaho 77 and take a right on the Elba-Almo Road. The town of Almo sits between the two park entrances.