Waves erupt in white foam at the base of Acadia National Park’s Otter Cliffs. Hanging on the immense rock wall is Leah Taylor. The Waldo County General Hospital nurse’s blue rental helmet is a speck against pink granite. “Just lean back,” instructs Jon Tierney looking down upon Taylor from the top of the clifftop. He lowers her slowly through a belay device called a Grigri. The small, metal contraption helps holding and control Taylor’s climbing rope to prevent her from falling. The emergency room nurse looks up when she reaches the wet rocks at the cliffs’ base, smiling in awe of her hospital colleague’s other life.
Tierney and Taylor work together in the emergency room at Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast. While Taylor works full time in the medical field Jon has “more or less always had two careers.” The outdoors and medicine go hand and hand for the expert rock climber and co-founder of Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School in Bar Harbor.
In 1993, after serving as a backcountry climbing ranger and paramedic in the Rocky Mountains, Tierney and a few of his peers opened the Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School. Now in its 29th year, the year-round school provides rock and ice climbing and back country ski instruction, summer kids adventure camps, wilderness medicine courses and avalanche safety education. From winter ascents of Mount Katahdin in western Maine to summer climbing sessions in Camden, Tierney and staff are able to meet the needs of every climber and their families.
Nealy 30 years since starting the school, Tierney is still driven by the goal of “getting people to appreciate the world we live in” and having them realize “this is an endeavor that anyone can do, there is something everybody can do.”
Tierney also owns Alpen Glow Adventure Sports on Main Street in Bar Harbor, which serves as home base for guided AMGCS excursions and supplies a variety of climbing and camping gear for rent and purchase.
Whether on a half- or full-day session, climbing clients get to learn and understand the various tools, knots and systems that make the activity safe and fun.
“The rope is your lifeline, but it also allows you to try things you’re not sure you can do,” explains the guide as he demonstrates the proper way a climber should tie into their belay rope. Holding it in his hand he says, “This can hold your entire family car and everyone in it.”
Climbing gear and technology has evolved greatly over the course of Tierney’s career, allowing both riskier ascents and greater levels of safety.
While one may think the more experienced the better, Tierney says complacency is the biggest risk. There are many moving parts to manage while climbing outdoors and it’s easy to get distracted.
“A lot of accidents can be prevented by just checking each other. A lot of people will have a conversation while tying in and just forget to finish tying their knot” Tierney says.
At Otter Cliffs, the instructor watches closely as Taylor ascends Yellow Wall, a designated climbing path or in climbing terms, “route” up the rock face. Just below Taylor, black and white guillemots float in the cold, choppy waters.
“Those are the birds the route we just climbed is named for,” says Tierney. Guillemot Crack is a route where two rock faces meet. The crack in the center was home to nesting guillemot for years.
Though Acadia Mountain Guides have been leading trips out to Otter Cliffs for decades, Tierney never tires of the environment.
“Just the other day I saw two otters swimming down there,” he said, “I had never seen them that close here before.”
The ocean views and wildlife are not the only thing that makes coastal Acadia such a unique climbing spot. Unlike other places, the seaside cliffs often require climbers to repel down to the bottom before climbing while their belayer, or the person controlling the safety rope, stays up top. Tierney regularly has experienced climbers come to the school seeking training specific that situation.
Other clients have never climbed before. As beginners, they start from scratch, unsure even of how their hard, rubber-toed climbing shoes should fit.
“With a good climbing shoe, you should be able to stand on an edge the width of a quarter,” Tierney explains. Climbers often take off the cramped and pointed shoes in between climbs or while belaying.
In half or full-day session, climbing students are often able to climb multiple different routes and rock faces. Moving from one route to another Tierney must coil and uncoil his 60-meter rope.
“Another name for a guide is a rope stacker or rope coiler,” he jokes, “flaking out” the rope by the top of the Wonder Corner route. Flaking rope means running the whole length of rope through one’s hands and letting it fall in a loose pile to ensure that there are no knots, kinks or damaged sections.
Whether you just want a rope stacker to belay you as you conquer overhanging cliffs or are interested in learning a whole new sport, Acadia Mountain Guides will ensure there are no kinks in your rope or in your plans.
Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School is located at 228 Main St. in Bar Harbor. For more information, call 288-8186, email [email protected] and visit acadiamountainguides.com.