Rock climbers strike a balance of fear and fun

Rocky Butte proves to be popular spot for urban thrill seekers

Doreen Cannon clings to a chunk of rock halfway up a 30-foot vertical wall, pawing the air for footholds. Her arms ache, and she's just hoping not to fall. She came to Rocky Butte to face her fears, and they've found her.

Welcome to the world of urban climbing, where those courageous enough to leave solid ground can experience outside adventure inside the city limits.

More than a billion years ago, lava oozed from the top of Rocky Butte, leaving behind a cinder cone volcano that rises 609 feet above the city. As day turns to dusk, the red taillights of cars stretch like a line of insects swarming down Interstates 84 and 205 below.

Half a mile from the freeways, Cannon and her fellow rock climbers are using cars, too, as anchors to fasten their climbing ropes. Two dozen members of the Mazamas climbing group dangle from sturdy ropes hanging over the man-made retaining wall that encircles the summit.

'It looks easier from the ground,' says Paul McPhail of Clackamas after his first assault on the rocks. 'When you start climbing, those cracks suddenly get smaller. As soon as you get on the wall, you realize gravity is working Ñ against you!'

Group organizer John Godino says interest in rock climbing keeps going up.

'We started the summer rock series so people would have a place to put their climbing skills to use in practice on real rock,' he says.

Indoor rock gyms have made climbing safer and more accessible, increasing participation in the sport. But climbing indoors is different. The walls at rock gyms are marked with brightly colored plastic hand and footholds. Outside, there is no road map, and the vertigo is genuine.

'Here, it's like problem-solving,' Cannon says.

Climbers have been scaling the walls at the butte since the 1970s, drawn by its convenience and accessible climbing routes. The vertical world of rock climbing attracts a worldly crowd. On this night, climbers from Switzerland, Canada and France share the wall and the ropes.

Patricia RenŽ is climbing outside on rock for the first time. RenŽ came to Portland eight months ago from France to do neuroscience research at Oregon Health & Science University's Vollum Institute. She was drawn to Rocky Butte by the short drive and the unique chance to climb without leaving the city.

Why would anyone want to leave the security of solid ground and hang their fate by only a rope?

'Somebody took me out climbing and it was É wow! It took me back to my tree-climbing days,' recalls Ray Belt of Portland.

Godino says the thrill is being on the edge.

'I like the fear,' he says. 'Anyone doing climbing that's worthwhile faces that edge of fear. It's the realization that 'I could die right now!' To overcome that, that's exciting!'

Focus is what enables climbers to manage the fear.

'There's no thinking about 'what am I going to do at the office tomorrow?' ' Godino says. 'Your entire existence is laser-focused on what you are doing right now.'

That focus, and the chance to escape the distractions of daily life, is what draws climbers to this urban oasis. Surrounded by the sounds of the city, they ascend into a world of their own.

'When you're climbing, that's all you're thinking about,' Belt says.

Back at the base of the wall, Cannon is beaming. She is back on firm footing after solving the puzzle of the rock and making it to the top.

'It's about overcoming my fears Ñ overcoming my fear of falling. I do it as a confidence builder,' she says. 'If I can do this, and live, I can do anything!'