Climb Higher

WORDS and IMAGES Bob Robinson

Dec 1, 2023 | Featured, Travel

Remember when you were a kid and how much fun it was to play on the jungle gym at the park? The challenge of the monkey bars where the interconnection of the vertical and horizontal bars offered unlimited options for scrambling across the structure. You gripped your small hands around one of the lower bars to get started, then pulled yourself up to clamber across the complex configuration. Reaching the summit, panting heavily, you paused for a moment to enjoy the lofty view and bask in the feeling of accomplishment. Then you climbed to the ground to repeat the process over and over, because no two routes were ever the same.

Did you know there is an adult equivalent to the jungle gym? It’s known as rock climbing. And, as a bonus, now there are no grownups telling you what you can and cannot do.

Mention rock climbing to most people, and they picture someone hanging by one arm from a sheer rock face hundreds of feet off the ground. That is the extreme upper tier of the activity. Never fear, there are many levels to the sport, each of which offers a unique, physical outlet for all to enjoy. Each level helps build a strong mind-body connection, as you seek a solution to the vertical puzzle of a climb.

If the idea of revisiting the playground days appeals to you, a good place to begin your adventure is to visit a climbing gym. Vertical Horizons Climbing Gym, located in Fort Smith, offers a climbing playground for all ages. Owner, Jerry Barnett, has programs to meet the needs of every skill level, from beginner to expert. He also provides the needed equipment for newbies to try climbing before investing in the purchase of their own.

When visiting Vertical Horizons, Jerry or one of his skilled assistants will set you up with the basics and have you climbing within minutes. Whether it is bouldering or rope climbing, you’ll receive the necessary information and safety procedures to make it a memorable experience on your first day of climbing. If you would like to advance beyond entry-level, they offer one-on-one training and classes to “show you the ropes.” From first-time climbers to seasoned vets, they will help you advance to the next level.

Climbing is all about community, especially in a gym environment. Organized birthday parties, summer camps, and scheduled competitions offer opportunities to gather and make new friends, all while getting a full-body workout. Many never go beyond the climbing gym with the sport. With the constantly changing routes, they find enough challenges to keep them returning to the gym. For others, the gym is a convenient environment to hone their skills for their next excursion to the rock.

Tell someone you are planning a multi-day rock climbing adventure, and some will instantly think you are taking a road trip, with Nevada, California, Utah, or other western states normally thought of as the climbing mecca. However, many Arkansans are unaware of the plethora of great climbing environments in our state. There are enough established climbing destinations within the Natural State to fill a book! As a matter of fact, there is a book listing these rock-climbing destinations, Rock Climbing Arkansas, by Cole Fennel, and I highly recommend it to anyone who plans to expand climbing beyond the gym.

The undisputed flagship for climbing in the state is Horseshoe Canyon Ranch (HCR) near Jasper. The Ranch, as many refer to it, is a fully functioning dude ranch. It just so happens to include over 450 established climbing routes on the sheer rock bluffs that enclose this picturesque canyon. Offering camping and rental cabins it makes for an inviting vacation destination. HCR also hosts one of the country’s premier endurance rock climbing events in late September, 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell, which has attracted climbers from across the globe, including celebrity climbers such as Alex Honnold, the subject of the movie Free Solo, which documented the first-ever free solo climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan’.

No doubt about it, HCR is a great place to climb. However, climbers in the River Valley don’t have to make the nearly three-hour drive to reach a fun climbing scene. Cole’s book lists half a dozen climbing venues within an hour’s drive of Fort Smith. Of those listed, Fern is by far my favorite destination.

Cole believes what sets Fern apart from other areas is the excellent selection of well-bolted moderate climbing routes. With routes being only thirty to forty feet in height, Fern is the perfect next step for climbers wanting to expand their adventure beyond the gym. For those who are not quite ready to lead a climb, the peak for several routes can be reached via a short hike. You can then set anchors at the top and run a rope through them back down to the climber. This method of top roping provides a safe, secure process for beginners that guards against a fall. Climbing routes are featured on both bluffs of the scenic narrow gorge that created the gulley. During the hot summer months, climbers seek shaded eastern walls to avoid the heat. In the fall and winter, they welcome the warmth of the sun, climbing on the western bluff.

Vertical Horizon’s owner Jerry Barnett is the person to thank for Fern’s over 150 well-bolted climbs. Keep an eye out for the book he has in the works with maps and information on climbing in Fern. Until the book is published, you can go to his website,, for details on the area.

Rock climbing is just one more reason that I am thankful to be living in the Natural State. Rock climbing may not be for everyone, but that may only be because not everyone has tried it!

Vertical Horizons Gym
3625 S. 91st, Fort Smith

Do South Magazine

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