By Patrice Kohl
Searching for places to climb high, Natalie and Nic Larson found what they were looking for in a place that is down low. So low, it is sometimes submerged by water — Captain Cook State Recreation Area beach.
The park is north of Nikiski, about a 35-minute drive from Kenai, and when the tide retreats large boulders emerge, towering over the park’s beach. Nic and Natalie would like to see more people not just admire the boulders, but claw their way up onto them.
“It’s just phenomenal out there. It really is,” Natalie said. “Each (boulder) has its own characteristics. So it never gets boring.”
Since they moved from Fairbanks to Soldotna in June, Natalie and Nic have been sharing their favorite Captain Cook bouldering routes on two online rock-climbing forums — mountainproject.com and rockclimbing.com. Bouldering is distinct from another kind of rock climbing — wall climbing — in that it focuses on technical skill rather than gaining elevation. It’s about doing the hardest moves that you can.
Natalie and Nic are passionate about bouldering and wall climbing and hope that as more people in Kenai and Soldotna discover they have a bouldering playground close to home, climbing will gain a stronger foothold among central peninsula outdoors enthusiasts.
“I really like sharing it,” Natalie said. “It’s a healthy sport and really develops confidence in people. And you see it. You see the change, they get stronger mentally, physically and they feel good.”
On mountainproject.com alone, Natalie and Nic’s Captain Cook posts generated more than 2,000 hits in just two months. Some climbers have even tracked Natalie down where she works at Wilderness Way in Soldotna.
“When I put these things online, people started coming into the store and saying, ‘Is Natalie here?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m over here,’ and they’re like, ‘Tell me about the Cook, because I usually have to drive all the way to Homer or I have to go all the way to Anchorage to boulder, and you have a lot of insight on this. Tell me about the rock. Tell me about where you’re going.’”
The routes provide climbing opportunities for many skill levels, in a place where someone living on the central peninsula area can make a trip after work.
“There’s a big variance in the routes,” Nic said. “So you can cover the full spectrum from beginner, to intermediate, to more advanced. And just in that one area that’s not that far of a drive.”
Natalie and Nic have posted 21 routes up four boulders. The Ziggurat is a pyramidlike, sloped boulder. The Seed of Redoubt a dark, heavily pitted conglomerate boulder that looks like lava rock. Crescent Moon is boulder about the size of a small house. The House Boulder actually has a corner of a small house perched on it.
The best climbing strategy varies depending on the problem — the term climbers use to refer to a bouldering route. On a visit to Captain Cook in late August, Natalie and Nic demonstrated strategies to ascend varying rock composition, pitch and facial features.
While climbing the face of the Ziggurat, a route without cracks and few rock ledges to provide hand- or footholds, Nic relied on palming the boulder’s surface and friction between the rock and his climbing shoes. But while climbing the heavily pitted Seed of Redoubt, Nic and Natalie clawed at it with hands hooked like eagle talons.
On her final climb of the day, Natalie inched her way up a curved corner on Crescent Moon while squeezing the rock tightly with her legs. She reached the top with a big exhale, a broad grin and uttered a few triumphant yelps before descending back to the beach.
“My legs were like, ‘Ugh!’” she said, squeezing an imaginary rock with her arms and with a grunt that sounded like she was growling defiantly while getting socked in the gut.
Nic said that bouldering is great for anyone seeking a full-body workout while active outdoors.
“Even if you work out on a regular basis, you go climbing and you’re like, ‘I didn’t even know I had that muscle there at all,’” he said.
When they’re not on the rock, Natalie and Nic train by exercising nearly every muscle group, including core, leg, arm and hand muscles. To strengthen their hands, Nic squeezes a handgrip while he drives, and Natalie does pull-ups using only the tips of her fingers.
As they climbed the boulders at Cook Inlet, Nic and Natalie executed maneuvers that were simply gymnastic — fluidly swinging an arm or leg from one hold to the next.
“Part of the challenge of it is to get up and over and into those positions,” Natalie said. “In bouldering, you’re using so many different parts of your body in the weirdest ways.”
Ben Schmitt, author of a Colorado guide titled “Eleven Miles to Freedom: The Rock Climbers Guide to Elevenmile Canyon,” and developer of what is regarded as one of Alaska’s most difficult wall climbs, says bouldering has come into its own as a sport since the 1970s. And while Schmitt prefers wall climbing, he says that bouldering opens climbing up to more participants
“The good thing about bouldering is it’s a lot more accessible to people,” he said. “You don’t have to have a bunch of equipment. I’ve got friend that, that’s all they do.”
Since bouldering involves short ascents, you can climb without ropes or a harness. Minimally, you need a chalk ball and chalk bag for your hands, and climbing shoes for your feet. All of which can be purchased for less than $100, and far less if you find shoes in the $60 dollar range. Natalie and Nic recommend climbing with a partner to act as your spotter and guide you back down if you run into trouble. If you choose to boulder alone, you should also purchase a ground pad for protection in case you fall.
For beginners, Natalie and Nic also recommend adhesive first-aid tape to protect fingertips until they develop calluses. When climbing at Captain Cook, Natalie and Nic also bring an old towel to remove beach sand from their shoes before they begin a climb.
Natalie has been climbing since she was 6, when her uncle made her a climbing harness out of rope. Today, Natalie and Nic have three daughters who are learning to play around on boulders at an early age. Their oldest daughter, 10, has become particularly appreciative of the rewards of climbing.
Natalie would like to eventually offer climbing classes for children at Captain Cook. She has a climbing teaching certificate and experience teaching climbing in California and Fairbanks.
“It’s really cool to see kids get excited about it. It’s definitely a confidence-builder. It’s looking at a problem and solving it,” she said. “If we could get people interested, that would be really fun. It’s just one more awesome activity that the peninsula has to offer.”
As an additional climbing area to explore on weekends, Natalie and Nic highly recommend the Byron Glacier area. And advanced climbers hungry for a serious challenge can attempt Schmitt’s Seven Felonies wall climb, which overlooks Skilak Lake and can be accessed by boat.
Climbing information about the Byron Glacier area and Schmitt’s Seven Felonies is available on mountainproject.com. Parents interested in bouldering classes for children can contact Natalie at firstname.lastname@example.org.