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Reaching new heights safely

Amid deaths, Frederick County climber sees sport changing

Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

May 19, 2012

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Ian Yarmus can spot them when he goes down to his favorite indoor climbing gym in Rockville or when he travels to Seneca Rocks in West Virginia, the place after which he named his now 3 -year-old daughter.

"I remember being 100 feet up [at Seneca], and there was a guy up there who was freaking out, he was completely paralyzed with fear," Yarmus recalled. "He was in over his head. He didn't have the skills or the training to be in the situation he was in. I had to tell him everything to do, tell him where to put every piece of equipment and what part of his body to use and where to put it in the rock.A lot of these situations put rescue personnel at risk. People are putting themselves in bad situations."

As adventurous as the 35-year-old high school Spanish teacher is about his athletic pursuits, Yarmus is well aware of the risks involved in climbing. Since he began climbing 15 years ago while living in New Hampshire, Yarmus said he has always been among the more conservative in his group or club.

"I'm not pushing the limits," he said. "I'm dedicated to my family and I want to be there for them. I'm not out there on the cutting edge."

Now the father of three young children — 6 -year-old son Asher, 5-year-old Tegan and the aforementioned Seneca —Yarmus has good reason for safe returns to his wife Cari, a former climber herself, and their Middletown home.

In fact, when he hears about the mistakes climbers make because they were careless, even reckless, Yarmus jokes that they were "probably young and childless."

A year after scaling the 14,244-foot North Palisade Peak in California to help raise nearly $4,000 for the Big City Mountaineers — which introduces climbing to disadvantaged youth — Yarmus plans to climb 14,300-foot Mount Rainier in Washington State this summer.

Yarmus has no dreams of reaching the summit of Mount Everest. It's not the 20,000-foot or more altitude that concerns Yarmus, but how costly and time-consuming a climbing expedition such as that will likely become.

"It's a funny thing about places like Everest, I talk to my students about climbing and the first thing they ask me, "Have you ever climbed Mount Everest? Are you going to climb Mount Everest?," said Yarmus, who teaches at Clarksburg High in Montgomery County. "Climbing some place like Mount Everest costs between $60,000 and $80,000 and between a two and a half and three months commitment. It's another world in terms of the logistics and the financial [commitment]. I'm physically capable and mentally capable of climbing a place like Mount Everest.

"Most people who climb Everest lack the technical skills and are kind of like ants marching up the line. The way people climb Mount Everest is that the Sherpas do all the work. They haul up the equipment and all the gear and all the food, they fix lines, they put up the ropes where they're needed and the ladders to cross crevices. You or I or any other Joe Schmo with proper physical fitness training, can get up Mount Everest. I'm not saying that it's going to be easy, but with altitude training, they can do something like that. "It's pretty low [in difficulty] in terms of true mountaineers."

Yarmus might be underestimating the difficulty of his climbs. Along with diminishing levels of oxygen the higher you get, climbing takes a certain amount of upper and lower body strength that is quite unlike other more traditional sports, the balance of a gymnast and a fearlessness.

His love for the sport grew out of his years of hiking and his wish to get to higher points on the mountains where he was backpacking. It was a passion he shared with his wife Cari, who he met when they were students at the University of North Carolina. Cari Yarmus recalled when the two were youth counselors at a summer camp in West Virginia , one of the activities was a high-ropes course.

"We didn't really know what we were doing, we were only two or three steps ahead of them," Cari Yarmus said.

When the couple moved to New Hampshire after college, Ian Yarmus wound up taking some classes similar to the ones being taught now at places like Earth Treks and being mentored by older, more experienced climbers.

"They taught me the safety stuff and I've been obsessed every since," he said. "When I started climbing, not many people did it. There was mentorship that kind of happened naturally. With the explosion of these indoor climbing gyms, people are just impatient nowadays, they're going right from the gym from the outdoors without a lot of training."

That kind of evolution is something Yarmus believes might be missing from the sport — and ultimately might impact its future.

In the past couple of years, the Potomac Mountaineering Club, the organization to which Yarmus belongs, has witnessed the deaths of two other members while they were climbing. One person died after slipping on some loose rocks at Long Mountain in West Virginia, a relatively new climbing spot. The other occurred at Seneca Rocks when an experienced climber had their tethering rope sliced on a sharp piece of slate.

"When you climb at less established places, there's always the danger of loose rock," Yarmus said. "The other one was really a freaky thing. Ropes usually don't break, they get snagged on something. It cut it like a knife."

Yarmus, whose bid to start a climbing club at the high school was rejected by school officials because of the liability questions it could generate, said that compared to many he is "super cautious" and "dedicated to taking care of my family."

That's not to say Yarmus is planning on giving up his sport, as his wife was forced to do after experiencing vertigo following the birth of her daughter. He has already taken his two sons to the Earth Treks facility in Rockville several times and expects to do the same with little Seneca as well.

Trying to fit his training into his busy family life can be difficult.

"I do a lot of training at night," Yarmus said. "On the weekend, maybe I can get in a half a day here or there. I also work out daily on my lunch break, a lot of running."

Cari Yarmus is confident that her husband will be careful when he takes on Mount Rainier in July.

"What makes me a little nervous are the freak accidents, which are very rare," Cari Yarmus said. "Ian never tries anything he can't handle."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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