Helping high-schoolers learn the ropes

Text by Tim Hyland
rock climbing

Paul Haraf says climbing is about making the impossible seem possible.

It’s also about empowering people—and giving them the unique thrill of walking on the edge. Even though, really, they’re completely safe.

Haraf and his experienced team of climbing instructors from Penn’s Pottruck Center have for years been inspiring Penn students through their climbing classes and special climbing events—events that have given even climbing novices the once-in-a-lifetime experience of a soaring Tyrolean traverse, or a well executed repel down a cliff face.

Starting this summer, Haraf hopes to be able to extend that same thrill to teenagers.

Penn’s UROCK Youth Climbing Camp has been created specifically for high school students, and aims to give kids of all climbing experience a solid foundation in rock climbing skills. The camp will be offered from June 22-26 and again from July 6-10, both at Pottruck’s climbing wall and at Ralph Stover State Park.

“With this course we’re looking specifically at teenagers,” says Haraf, assistant director of outdoor adventure programs for Penn Rec. “They can be people who have never climbed before or they can be people that have climbed before. What we’d like to do is, over a period of five days, help people who have climbed before perfect their skills and help people who haven’t climbed before understand the basics of what every climber should know—how to put on a harness, how to tie a knot.”

Those basics, says Haraf, will be emphasized even for the experienced climbers.

And there’s a good reason for that.

“It’s just amazing how much misinformation is out there,” Haraf says. “There are a lot of organizations that provide instruction. The problem is, their people aren’t trained.”

The same can’t be said of Haraf and his team.

In fact, Haraf says there is no other organization in Philadelphia more capable of training new climbers—and training them well—than Penn. That’s because he and his fellow lead instructors are all certified, highly-accomplished climbers who understand both climbing and teaching. Haraf, for example, is a certified American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) Single Pitch Climbing Instructor who has completed mountaineering ascents in Alaska, Canada, and throughout the United States. He’s also a certified Wilderness First Responder and a ACMG Level 1 Climbing Gym Instructor, and has also completed the AMGA Rock Instructors Course. AMGA is the only nationally certifying body for the United States and is part of the International Federation of Mountain Guides.

“Great climbers don’t necessarily have the skills to be great teachers,” Haraf says. “Only great teachers can teach. We are experienced, great climbers, but we can also effectively disseminate information, too.”

In other words, climbers in the UROCK program will be in good hands.

But they’re also in for a thrill.

Because by the end of the course, Haraf says he’ll have them doing things they may have never thought possible.

Even if these kids don’t go on to become lifelong climbers, Haraf says his goal is to give them one memorable climbing moment—one experience they will remember, and even treasure, for years to come.

“What may look very daunting for you, we’ve really made into something that can be easily done,” he says. “All of my courses have always had that—whether it’s a really hard steep mountain climb or something else that they’ll never really have a chance to do again. I want them to have a unique moment—something that, when they think back on their five days with us, they will think of that moment.”

The UROCK Youth Climbing Camp is for kids aged 13-18 and costs $495. For more information, contact Paul Haraf at or 215-746-8622.

Originally published March 5, 2009

Originally published on .