Rock climbing might seem like a puzzling second career for Santa Claus, but the fact is that summers spent on belay serve as excellent professional development for the wintertime role of Santa Claus.
Because, the little-known fact is that Claus descends chimneys using, not magic, but a rope and harness. And every year, he comes to Chimney Rock to refine his December technique.
The Claus technique
It’s probably not an overstatement to say that this revelation caused a bona fide paradigm shift for me. I had to see just how it worked, just how the world’s most well-known philanthropist applies the techniques of rock climbing to the delivery of gifts.
Some of those specifics, Claus said, are classified trade secrets. But he agreed to show me the ropes on Vista Rock, an outcropping about 100 feet high, just downhill from Chimney.
It had been a couple years since I’d been in a harness, but I was relieved to see how readily I remembered how to tie in with a figure eight knot — with Claus supervising, of course — and how to gauge the proper tightness of a harness, the correct fit of a helmet.
But to my surprise, one memory did not come rushing back to me as I leaned backward off the vertical rock face — the adrenaline.
Ordinarily, that first step of a rappel is when the adrenaline surges, the body’s natural fear reaction protesting the ridiculous notion of stepping off a cliff into thin air, holding nothing but a rope that seems all too slack. I’d spent all week preparing for that moment, giving myself intermittent pep talks about how strong the ropes are and how much fun it is to be on the rocks once that first transfer of trust in the rope is over with.
But as it turned out, none of that apprehension was warranted. There was no adrenaline rush, no moment of questioning whether this climb was, in fact, a death wish.
Instead, an opposite and almost equal reaction countered my lean backward — the friction of an extremely thick rope. The chunky rope coupled with the belay device it fed through to produce enough resistance that I had to manually feed the rope through the device in order to move.
I was cheated of my thrill, but that kind of friction comes in handy for Claus, who carries extra pounds in his belly year-round and in his sack on Christmas Eve. Anything that makes it easier to handle rope, sack, beard and climb is a boon.
On this practice run, though, he didn’t bring his sack, and that left him enough flexibility to play a little trick on the kids who gathered at the base of the mountain to watch his descent. The last time Claus gave his hearty ho, ho, ho atop the Chimney that day, he said, “I heard them saying ‘Don’t let go!’ So I let go and did it with no hands.”
Sally Jacobs, who came with her husband and 6-year-old son George to watch Santa on the Chimney, said she might have been one of those worried voices. George, on the other hand, had no concerns.
“I think he would be OK,” George said.
Luckily, George was right and is probably on track to get the Matchbox car he’s hoping to receive for Christmas — provided, at least, that he supplies Claus with some cinnamon cookies, which he says are Claus’s favorite.
Timothy Curtis, 5, was a bit more apprehensive, however. He was afraid that Claus might fall off the rock, though he said he hadn’t been expecting to see that Claus would be tied in to a rope. That made things a little safer.
Christmas Eve protocol
On Christmas Eve, Claus even takes some additional precautions. One small mistake could end up depriving entire regions of the world of Christmas gifts, so it’s important to do the delivery right. While Claus serves as his own belay at Chimney Rock, on Christmas Eve he travels with a team of belay-certified reindeer.
But there’s only one ungulate that Claus trusts with his life.
“Dasher is the only one I let belay me,” Claus said. “He’s the most attentive.”
Somehow, even the reindeer’s lack of thumbs doesn’t hamper his skill with the rope.
“They manage to stick the rope between their hooves,” Claus explained.
More concerning than Dasher’s belay ability is danger from overzealous homeowners associations that aren’t fond of rope marks around the edges of their chimneys.
“Sometimes the homeowners associations don’t like that kind of stuff,” Claus said. “I’ve been shot at a few times.”
Still, he doesn’t travel armed save for the knife he sometimes carries in case he ever needs to cut his beard out of the belay device. And even that isn’t on him all the time — in all his years delivering gifts, he’s never gotten it stuck. Not even in England, which Claus said has some of the world’s tallest and most challenging chimneys.
A two-decade tradition
Every year, it’s a challenge, but Claus isn’t shy about crediting his practice time at Chimney Rock with ensuring a magical outcome for the children of the world each year.
“It’s kind of tricky that we don’t have anywhere to practice at the North Pole,” he said.
He’s spent two Saturdays at Chimney Rock each December for the past couple decades, descending the 315-foot rock about six times each day for a total of nearly 4,000 feet each year.
And while the second practice day, Dec. 13, dawned sunny and unseasonably warm for December, Claus is not a fair-weather climber. Even on cold and foggy Dec. 6, Claus put on his game face and stayed in his harness for the entire three hours in his quest to pull off the perfect Christmas Eve. Quite a feat, said Shannon Quinn-Tucker, public relations manager for the park, “considering that we had a ton of fog that day and you could not see more than 50 feet.”
The park has other activities clustered around Claus’ visit — there are cookies and hot chocolate; rangers displaying live animals like snakes, possums and groundhogs; music; poetry and even Mrs. Claus herself — but Santa’s appearances on the brink of Chimney Rock are undoubtedly the highlight. More than 300 people turned out to watch on Dec. 13.
“I just think it’s really neat for folks to be able to come and watch something that’s that unique, especially in this region,” Quinn-Tucker said.
It’s also an opportunity for Claus to share his first love, climbing, the cause he’s committed to when not busy overseeing elves or double-checking lists.
“Each climb is like a little puzzle,” Claus said. “It’s not purely physical or purely mental. It’s a little bit of everything.”
The process enthralls him, which is why he dedicates so much time to sharing it with others, in the warmer months teaching climbing customers ranging in age from 7 to 72.
“I love climbing, so I think it’s something everyone should do,” he explained.
Quinn-Tucker, meanwhile, loves Christmas, and a side benefit to working at the park that supplies Santa with his first-choice climbing rock is that she often lands herself a pretty high toys-to-coal ratio on Christmas morning.
“I expect that this Christmas will be very nice for me personally,” she said.