Veteran mountain guides show the right way to go up

By Will Slater

I am stuck, enclosed by two granite walls, 5 feet apart. The rock faces run down about 15 feet into the whirling Atlantic Ocean and up what looks like an eternity to the top. I grab around looking for a hold to pull myself up with, but just feel flat rock. I have a hand and foot pinned against the wall on either side. My instructor calls down. Adjust the angle of your right foot 90 degrees, he says. I do as he says and can immediately boost myself up. This climb in Acadia National Park is fittingly named “The Great Chimney.”

I have rock climbed a few times before. But only by watching the mountaineering guide do I begin to understand that while climbing is about strength and agility, perhaps the most important qualities needed are problem-solving and attention to detail. 

Instructing me this late May afternoon is Dick Chasse. He is a senior guide for Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School based in Orono and Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island. In business for close to 30 years, the school offers rock and ice climbing in Acadia, on Mount Katahdin and elsewhere in Maine, New England and Nevada. Guides also lead ski trips in Iceland.

Chasse has been a rock-climbing guide since 1996. Raised in the Waterville area, he has guided and taught future guides around the world. Volcan Cayambe in the Ecuadorian Andes and Deep Shadows in Nevada’s Red Rocks are among his favorite climbs. 

He trained with Jon Tierney, a climber and LifeFlight paramedic who owns and operates Acadia Mountain Guides. Tierney, himself, began guiding in 1983. Well known among Maine climbers, and nationwide, Tierney is credited with having routed various ascents up cliffs and peaks in Acadia. For aspiring guides in the U.S., the veteran mountain guide devised near-ubiquitous climbing and medical education methods practiced across the country.

Chasse often takes people where we are today, the sea cliffs in Bar Harbor’s Otter Cove. It is a sunny day, the breeze strong enough to keep us cool. Straight across the water is Winter Harbor and the Schoodic Peninsula. Trace your eyes left into the distance and you will see Great Head. Sand Beach is around the corner. A bell buoy rings through the afternoon, alerting mariners to a collection of ledges off the coast. They are exposed now but will not be at high tide. 

Few spots in the greater Mount Desert Island area offer climbs accessible to both beginners and veterans like the Otter Cliffs. 

“You’d think there’s rock climbing everywhere, but there isn’t the right matrix of the right height and the right textures,” Chasse says. “Either it’s way too easy and not enjoyable as a rock climber or it’s just blank and really hard … In terms of sea cliff climbing, [this is] really where it’s at.”

Rock climbers are sometimes known as fear seekers, daredevils. My instructor’s most striking attribute, however, is his awareness. His eyes constantly scan over me, the equipment and the cliffs. As we prepare for each climb, Chasse runs his hands through the rope. He is doing two things at once, he explains, coiling the rope so it cannot twist or knot and feeling for small tears. Every movement is intentional. Fundamentals, he says, sometimes neglected at indoor gyms, are crucial to safe climbing.

“The details are there whether or not you see them,” he continues. “As you get more and more experienced, in some ways, all of a sudden, the rope work becomes more intuitive. All of a sudden, you can focus more on those details. Maybe someone’s cold or you’re noticing someone’s a little more nervous … Now you have the ability to coach them and give them some guidance.”

He reminds me to hydrate. He seems to know when to tell me to take off my tight-fitting climbing shoes, just as my feet are getting sore. Watch out for the puddle, he warns as I repel. I step in it anyway.

Chasse takes an intentional approach to climbing, too. While I clumsily ramble, scraping my knees, he seems to decisively glide. Of course, no amateur can match a professional, but that is not the goal.

Chasse loves The Great Chimney. Some climbs, he tells me, are fun while you do them. Others are stressful but make for fond memories. For me, The Great Chimney falls in the latter category. Emerging from difficulty with a smile and a story is part of climbing’s appeal. For those starting out, Chasse cautions, patience is a virtue.

“Recognize that it’s a learning process. It takes time and the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. You progress and some years you’re climbing really well and some years you’re not. Just enjoy the ride a little bit.” 
Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School is located at 228 Main St., Bar Harbor and 92 Main St., Orono. For more information, call (207) 288-8186 or visit http://acadiamountainguides.com/ or Facebook.