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Scaling a wall lets you turn the clock back

Desmond Bieler
L.A. Times/Washington Post News Service
Vail Daily file photoA climber reaches for the top of the wall at the Gypsum Rec Center
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I’m not sure if Jimmy Galindo, my rock-climbing instructor, meant to be funny when he told me that the sport involved “a steep learning curve,” but that line’s so good, I’m swiping it.

Indoor rock climbing: It’s a lot of fun, but you might say there’s a steep learning curve.

How steep? Well, Galindo’s Sportrock in Alexandria, Va., has walls as high as 40 feet, similar to the other two gyms I visited, Earth Treks in Columbia, Md., (44 feet) and Results on Capitol Hill (38 feet). As for a curve, many of those walls have one – one that bends outward toward the climber, who, several stories up, probably doesn’t need an extra challenge.

And make no mistake, rock climbing is a challenge. I have the aching forearms to prove it.

But it’s not the kind of workout you might think it is. Jim Stiehl, a professor in the sport and exercise science school at the University of Northern Colorado and the co-author of “Climbing Walls: A Complete Guide,” says in an e-mail exchange: “Many people who have never tried indoor climbing mistakenly believe that its primary prerequisite is extraordinary upper body strength and, therefore, is the sole province of strong athletes. When climbing, however, technique is often more important than strength.”

Or as Galindo put it, “My pet peeve is when people say, ‘Oh, I have no arm muscles; I can’t do that.'”

A workout alternative

And if someone like me can scale a wall, you can, too. Heck, I’m the type of guy who, if a drill instructor demanded that I drop and give him 20, would drop and give him 20 bucks in hopes of bribing my way out of it. But I got up there. Well, it took some doing (and enough perspiration to fill Shaquille O’Neal’s bathtub) to get up the 40-foot wall, but eventually it happened. And along the way I realized how climbing can be very good for endurance, as well as the leg, back, shoulder and aforementioned forearm muscles.

Upper-body benefits are nice (okay, very nice), but it’s likely that rock climbing’s emphasis on what Earth Treks’ Julian Peri described as “doing lots of obscure movements in a functional manner” is what makes it most attractive to fitness buffs looking for an alternative to their regular workouts.

Those movements also reflect the distinctive mental aspect of the sport, which Lillian Chao-Quinlan, president of Sportrock, likens to “a moving chess game.” The climber has to think at least two steps ahead, in the sense that if he puts his right hand there, then where’s the left going to go after that?

Actually, the mental aspect kicks in right off the bat, as would-be climbers first need to ingest a fair amount of technical know-how. Galindo spent about an hour and a half just showing my group the ropes – literally – before anyone so much as proffered a toe in the direction of a wall. That is a good thing, as proper use of ropes, carabiners and other specialized equipment can mean the difference between a secure perch high above the floor and what Galindo repeatedly referred to as “paperwork.”

Bonding over belaying

My group learned how to tie a rope to the harness each of us had to wear, and we learned how to belay a climber. Belaying is controlling the rope as a climber works his way up a wall, keeping the rope taut or slackening it as need be; usually, the belayer is stationed on the floor, with the rope already slung over the top of the wall. The gyms all require belayers to be certified, part of a reassuring emphasis on safety. Students were allowed to belay during the class under the supervision of the instructor.

And although it might seem necessary to get some big lug to keep a strong hold on the rope, just about anyone can belay effectively. For instance, my partner, Maile Zeng of Alexandria, is considerably smaller than I am. The point is, she had little trouble keeping me up in the air when I fell away from the wall.

While rock climbing can be a solitary pursuit, it hardly needs to be. In fact, Chao-Quinlan was quick to point out that her gyms are quite the social hives, especially for young professionals who flock there after work. In addition to belaying for each other, strangers can bond over discussing new techniques, routes to the top and, possibly, how tight their shoes are. (Rock-climbing shoes are designed for maximum feel around the toes.)

There certainly was no mistaking the camaraderie on display at Earth Treks, where both Peri and I had to raise our voices to be heard over the din of climbers shouting out encouragement and advice. And as Peri pointed out, that makes the sport an attractive proposition for couples looking for a shared workout, as it is not only sex-neutral but it also encourages them to “interact on a more interpersonal level because they’re making sure each other doesn’t get hurt, and they’re pushing each other to move forward.”

Look up, not down

In fact, just about the only fitness enthusiast who might not take to indoor rock climbing would be the kind who is afraid of heights. But bear in mind that, ideally, you’re going to be spending most of your time looking up, searching for the next hold. And I found it kind of a liberating experience to know that I was so well harnessed that I could take a break from climbing, which my decidedly non-Popeye-like arms demanded several times on the 40-foot wall, and just hang there, working up some more strength to reach the top.

It’s definitely fun to return to your childhood, maybe the last time you felt compelled to climb something just for the sake of climbing it. But indoor rock climbing adds the benefits of a controlled environment, expert assistance and plenty of safety equipment. As for taking your act outdoors, that does seem to be the ultimate goal for the truly hooked, although Chao-Quinlan said many of Sportrock’s members are perfectly content to cavort in her gyms’ friendly confines.

For his part, Results instructor Gary Gorski couldn’t recall witnessing a single climbing-related injury, either of the tragic-mishap or repetitive-stress variety. But he did recommend that participants do some lower-body stretches beforehand, because “having flexibility in your legs is extremely beneficial.”

If you want to just try it out for a day, expect to pay between $16 and $19. (Earth Treks takes novice climbers on weekends only.) Monthly memberships for individuals vary from $60 to $100, plus initiation fees.

After that, go hit the wall and conquer that learning curve!


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