Rock climber brings a lifetime of experience to his sport

Sunday, August 8, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Darryl Rhodes rapels down a cliff Thursday at Capen Park. Rhodes, 49, has been rock climbing since he was 17 years old. Over the years, he has climbed rock and ice in 20 states and Canada. The boulders he climbs shaped his outlook on life. In return, Rhodes gives back, teaching safe and responsible climbing to anyone who wants to learn.

COLUMBIA — A family seeking an escape from Thursday’s heat finds relief by wading into Hinkson Creek. They splash and play with their dog, oblivious to Darryl Rhodes, the man standing 60 feet above them. The height of the bluff at Capen Park would make some nauseous, but Rhodes is in his element.

“It’s the exploring spirit,” Rhodes said. "I’ve got to check it out. I’ve got to find out what’s up there.”


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Rhodes, 49, has been rock climbing since he was 17 years old. His passion bloomed during his years as a boy scout in Jefferson City. Over the years, he has climbed rock and ice in 20 states and Canada. Rhodes’ life revolves around the rocks. The boulders he climbs shaped his outlook on life. In return, Rhodes gives back, teaching safe and responsible climbing to anyone who wants to learn.

On the topic of climbing, Rhodes is an encyclopedia. He teaches while he talks. Answers are long, often veering off to explain the detailed purpose of a piece of gear, or to tell the story of a memorable climb. It’s not that he is absent-minded, it’s that he has so much to tell.

“The thoughts start pouring in, the memories,” Rhodes said.

He tells of when he met Lynn Hill, a well-known rock climber, in Spokane, Wash. It was 1987 and Rhodes didn’t know who she was at the time. He was on his way to a party and passed on the opportunity to climb with her, a decision he still regrets.

Rhodes works while he talks. Wearing grey North Face pants and a rusted orange T-shirt from a past climb in Leavenworth, Wash., he begins setting his anchors. He finds an invisible crack in the rock and threads through a gray strap, making sure to secure alternate anchors as well. 

“The rule is three pieces of gear make up a single anchor. I don’t wonder, I always back everything up. I run it through my mind, and if it results in a ground fall, I’m dead,” Rhodes said.

The attention to detail can be the difference between life and death. In almost 30 years of climbing, Rhodes has never suffered a serious injury, but he has known some who were not as lucky.

“I’ve had climbing acquaintances, three of them who have died,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes says he has rescued climbers who got stuck halfway up rocks on multiple occasions. For those who try their luck without a rope, he has a message.

“Might as well grab a gun and play Russian roulette, because that’s what they’re doing every day,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes begins to sweat as the sun beats down on Thursday. A purple bandanna holds back his long hair and keeps the sweat out of his eyes. With the anchors set, he is ready to climb.

“Rope!” he yells out. “That means look out it’s coming down.”

The coil of orange and purple nylon free falls, coming to rest with a thud beside Rhodes’ friend and climbing partner, Ellen Turner. The two have been climbing together for more than a year, but met five years ago working the overnight shift at a Jefferson City Wal-Mart.

In 1992, Turner broke her right femur in a motorcycle accident. Complications from the injury resulted in two damaged knees. Two years ago, Turner underwent gastric bypass surgery. Soon after, she began climbing with Rhodes. Through climbing, Turner has found a way to rehabilitate her knees while continuing to shed weight. Her climbing has improved, and she has lost half of her body weight since the surgery.

“I’ve tried therapy and all the other things,” Turner said. “Climbing has helped the most.”

Rhodes taught Turner how to belay to spot a climber as well as how to use different holds and techniques to increase her climbing ability. The two try to climb together three times a week. Capen Park is a regular stop, but the two also travel throughout Missouri. They have even made trips to climb in Washington state and at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. 

The climbing lessons are free because the two are friends, but also because teaching allows Rhodes to give back to his sport. He reflects on his climbing start. There was no teacher; his only instruction came from turning pages. 

“I definitely remember when I was coming up. There was nobody. I had to teach myself from a book. If anybody needs somebody, I’m here,” he said.

Rhodes now joins Turner and the bottom of the wall of rock. Before he straps his harness he stops to blow his nose, carefully tucking the used tissue into a pocket of his bag to keep it from blowing into the woods.

“I always have heavy-duty trash bags, and I’m always cleaning up any rocks that I go to,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes says he is currently working with the landowners of Earthquake Hollow, a popular climbing spot near Holt’s Summit that was closed to climbers after it became cluttered with garbage. Rhodes is trying to come up with a resolution that will allow climbing to occur. He doesn’t blame any landowners who shut down rocks because of irresponsible climbers.

“He’s good to have around,” Walt’s Bike Shop employee Tim Martin said. “He advocates for keeping up with environmental climbing.”

Walt’s, as well as the Alpine Shop, are regular stops for Rhodes when he comes to Columbia to climb. He buys climbing gear at both locations, and also uses the shops’ bulletin boards to post pictures and announcements for the Columbia climbing community.

Rhodes hooks his harness to the rope and finally, it is time to climb. “Climb on,” he says, simultaneously clapping his hands. He scampers up the wall, injecting his fingers into holds that previously appeared unreachable above his head. Meanwhile, his legs push, propelling him upward. The rope hooked to the harness at his waist appears unnecessary. It shows no tension. Turner belays her friend, safeguarding him if an accident were to occur. Within minutes, Rhodes is at the top.

The two climbers’ bags rest on the trail leading to the rock. Clips and cams of different colors and strengths are stuffed inside. Turner’s bag is home to some of Rhode’s previously owned equipment he sold her as her interest grew.

“It’s a rich man’s sport,” Rhodes said.

But, Rhodes isn’t rich. His collection has grown one piece at a time.

“I have to save my money and buy a piece or two at a time,” Rhodes said. “Now I’ve got enough that any climb around I can make.”

The financial sacrifices are worth it.

“I live by my own standards and my own goals. Money is helpful, but I’m not gonna let my life be defined by how much I have,” Rhodes said.

One of his goals is to one day own a rock climbing gym, an ideal outlet for Rhodes to teach. It is his dream, but he is realistic.

“I don’t know if it will ever happen,” Rhodes said. “I hope it does some day.”

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