New heights: Climbers explore outdoors at Donation Rocks

Eric Wagner scales the rock face as Jason Erdman belays during a beginner rock climbing session through Allegheny Outdoor Institute on Sunday, June 8, 2014, at Donation Rocks.
Eric Wagner scales the rock face as Jason Erdman belays during a beginner rock climbing session through Allegheny Outdoor Institute on Sunday, June 8, 2014, at Donation Rocks. CDT photo

“Belay is an old French word,” said Jason Erdman, who stood below a 45-foot sheer face of rock in his rock climbing harness and helmet on Sunday at Donation Rocks, located between State College and Huntingdon. “It means to hold fast, so it will hold you and prevent you from falling.”

Erdman, founder and director of the Allegheny Outdoor Institute — a nonprofit seeking to provide outdoor adventures to those who would not otherwise have a chance to enjoy them — was illustrating how the rock climbing harness, knots and rigging are “over-engineered” to hold much more weight than that of a human body.

Dave Gantz, institute lead instructor, assisted Erdman as he intentionally fell back and dangled in the air on his way up the vertical wall of rock.

For Florence Matthews, of Bellefonte, and Eric Wagner, of State College, the day was not about holding fast, but about doing something different and getting out of their comfort zone.

It was their inaugural experience donning the helmets and harnesses required for protection while rock climbing and attempting to scale cliffs of stone.

“It looks very intimidating,” Matthews said, looking upward as she watched Wagner climb. “That cliff looks very intimidating.”

Wagner, who handily made it to the top after a few challenges along the way, looked down at the cliff he scaled and yelled, “Woo hoo!”

Afterward, he put his trust in the belay rigging and in Gantz, who helped guide him as he rappelled back down.

“It’s up there,” Wagner said, looking up at where he had been. “It feels like a sense of accomplishment. It’s a little crack space that looks really intimidating here. But as you get up there, you get a closer look at it and you are able to break it down and take it on.”

Wagner said he did not fear for his safety.

“It was a little rush of adrenaline here and there, but it wasn’t scary because I felt like I was safe and that things have been done right,” he said.

“I’ve always wanted to do this, but none of my friends do. You need to get with someone who is professional and who is trained, and that’s what this opportunity gives us.”

Matthews then took her turn at climbing.

“You want to put your right foot on the big ledge down there, and move to the right a little bit,” Erdman said as Matthews worked her way up the rocky surface.

“This one?” she asked, putting her foot on a small rocky outcrop.

“Yeah, that’s the one,” Erdman said. “Now try to get your right foot a little farther on that ledge so you have a place to put your left foot.”

For Matthews, a Kohl’s employee who moved to the area from Canada, the experience was one of many she had been craving to try.

“I am looking for a sense of adventure, and I am just looking to try everything that the area has to offer,” she said.

“I’m a late bloomer. And I thought if I don’t have the opportunity now, then I might not have one in a couple of years.”

Matthews, a member of the Centre County Women’s Adventure Club, learned of the rock climbing experience while going overnight backpacking — another activity offered by the Allegheny Outdoor Institute.

The institute charges those interested in backpacking and rock climbing a rate that is variable depending upon the number of participants, and all proceeds go to the nonprofit in support of programming for those who don’t normally get to enjoy outdoor activity, Erdman said.

Both Matthews and Wagner paid $40 for the experience.

“It is so worth it,” Wagner said. “Just to invest in the equipment alone would be a lot of money. And to know the money goes to help a nonprofit feels really good.”

Erdman said that a recent beneficiary of the institute’s services was the Youth Service Bureau.

“When working with Youth Service Bureau, we took them inside climbing twice at the YMCA,” Erdman said.

“It was a nice introductory experience because they were younger kids and we wanted them to be comfortable. So then when we came out to the real rock last weekend, they weren’t as intimidated.”

For both young and old, Erdman said, rock climbing is an enjoyable experience.

“We take people out who are from a wide variety of age ranges. Our age range yesterday on our program was from 9 to 63,” he said.

“Anyone can do it, and I know climbers who are climbing well into their 80s. Having these kinds of adventures — not just climbing — can take you to some really great places. I’ve been all over the country backpacking, and it is a good way to see the country and experience nature. Our goal is to get people outside to experience this.”

Upcoming events hosted by the Allegheny Outdoor Institute include an introduction to backpacking on June 28, and a course on how to set up rock climbing anchors on June 29.