My fingers were cramping but my legs weren’t shaking … yet. I had a solid foothold but a somewhat questionable grip on a quarter-inch ledge of limestone about 25 feet above the ground. I repeated the words “don’t look down” in my head, afraid of what a momentary lapse in focus might do to my already struggling strength.
Reimers RancH Park is at 23610 Hamilton Pool Rd. in Dripping Springs. Call 512/264-1923.
“How you doing up there?” my buddy Branndon yelled from below, holding the other end of my rope (and consequently my life) in his hands. Branndon had convinced me to attempt this climb; one well beyond my previous experience. “I blame you for everything!” I yelled back. He laughed.
Branndon and I were rock climbing in the Texas Hill Country about 30 miles west of Austin at Milton Reimers Ranch Park, a 2,427-acre park purchased by Travis County in the largest private-land acquisition in county history. This oasis of limestone, cedar, and Texas sunshine along the Pedernales River is a beautiful part of Texas, where scrubby brush and limestone trails collide with flowing water and natural springs. Just upriver are two of the most spectacular grottos in America, one the centerpiece of the Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center and the other the famed Hamilton Pool Preserve, a natural oasis that’s part of the federal Balcones Canyonlands Preserve system.
The park is truly an outdoorsman’s paradise, attracting visitors looking to disappear for the day into the calming vibe of the Texas Hill Country. The ranch offers more than five miles of hiking trails, 18 miles of mountain-biking trails, and three miles of river frontage for swimming or paddling. Birders come for a chance to spot the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, while anglers try their luck casting for white bass and perch. As I hung on for dear life to the side of an unforgiving limestone cliff, I realized that some activities are more difficult than others.
While rock climbing can be intimidating, an experienced guide or organized climbing group can help you learn the ropes. Reimers doesn’t offer classes or guides, but a quick Google search will reveal rock-climbing gyms and clubs you can join. Reimers Ranch has dozens of different climbing routes, meaning there is a challenge for all skill levels.
Most routes have unsettling names like “Crankenstein,” “House of Pain Buttress,” and “Dark Side.” I’m glad for that, because there wouldn’t be much to brag about if they had names like “Pretty Princess” or “Cupcake’s Delight.” Luckily, all routes are also numbered (on a scale of 5.0-5.15) to help climbers gauge their difficulty. A climb rated between 5.0 and 5.4 is a steep incline requiring the climber to use both feet and hands. Climbs between 5.5 and 5.8 require a rope and a relatively high level of skill, and climbs progress in difficulty from there. Anything 5.11 and above is, in my opinion, for crazy people capable of clinging to overhanging rocks like spider monkeys and crushing cars with the strength of their mere fingertips.
To complicate things a bit, there are also different methods of climbing. The most popular at Reimers is called “sport climbing,” where climbers secure themselves as they move up the wall by clicking carabiners into bolts permanently affixed to the climbing surface. Each reassuring “click” means you’re one step closer to the top and have less distance to fall if you lose your grip.
While I’ve gone on a handful of organized climbs, my experience is minimal compared with Branndon’s. His fearlessness and expertise convinced me to attempt a “sport climb” on “Dead Cats” wall, which is rated 5.9 in difficulty. The first 20 feet had gone pretty well, but everything changed when I reached the most difficult part of the climb, called the “crux.”
Two feet above my head was the last bolt. If I could reach it, I would not only “kill the cats” so to speak, but also conquer my most difficult climb to date. However, seeing the bolt and making it to the bolt are two entirely different matters.
My cheek pushed against the stone as my right foot scraped back and forth, scanning the wall by feel for another foothold. “I can come up and give you a boost if you need it,” Branndon jabbed. His joke wasn’t funny. Besides, I needed him on the ground to hold the rope in case my herculean climbing attempt failed and gravity took over.
Finally, my toes found something I thought could suffice as a foothold. I couldn’t look down to know for sure. But with a deep breath, I gripped the rock as tightly as I could and slowly shifted my weight onto my right foot. It would hold, but not for long. I felt my toes slipping from the edge as my hands scrambled for another grip. I found one, and in a last-gasp effort, I thrust my carabiner toward the bolt. Click! I felt overcome by a calming sense of relief.
“Yeehaw!” Branndon yelled. “I knew you could do it.”
“Yeah, me too!” I hollered back, feigning confidence.
As I rappelled back down, my accomplishment sunk in. In the classic rock-climbing battle of man versus rock, man won … at least for today. And this is the beauty of a day at Reimers Ranch. Every trip here offers new opportunities, challenges, and adventures as unpredictable as nature itself.