Because it's there?
In the last few years, sport climbing - an offshoot of traditional rock climbing - has become increasingly popular in the United States. The number of participants has doubled just in the past few years. Why has there been such growth in recreational climbing today?
To begin with, the prevailing importance of elevated health and fitness has prompted people to search for activities that furnish a balance of exercise and mental discipline, which climbing provides. In addition, people who have, in the past, been dissuaded from undertaking an extremely strenuous sport such as climbing, are learning technique - not brute strength - is the secret to success. This is particularly true in the current gymnastic-style, which depends more on agility and strength-to-weight ratio, rather than brawn alone.
People are also realizing that because rock climbing is such a challenging activity, it has a tendency to put the trials of daily life into perspective. Monday morning office problems don't seem as critical if you've spent the weekend clawing your way up some crumbling desert tower.
Finally, with the development of established climbing area and artificial walls, as well as much improved, safer equipment, climbing has become accessible to a more general crowd. Rock climbing is now a viable alternative to aerobics or racquet ball.
Peter Mayfield, 27, has been "in the scene" for about 15 years, once as the chief guide at the Yosemite Mountaineering School, and now as the founder of City Rock Gym - a San Francisco Bay Area climbing gym. Mayfield thinks more and more people are finding climbing is an excellent way of developing balance, coordination and mental focusing skills. "As a climbing teacher," says Mayfield, "I really think climbing develops those attributes in people to a high degree."
Gary Rall, owner of the Portland Rock Gym, agrees. Business is booming, according to Rall. But climbers are not his only clientele. "A lot of people who aren't climbers are finding climbing is a good way of working out," says Rall.
As the sport develops into an activity necessitating balance and flexibility rather than upper body strenght, more women are being drawn into recreational climbing. Amy Irvine, 24, personifies the modern day climber. At 5'4" and about 100 pounds, she's hardly the hulk most people associate with climbing, yet Irvine is quickly becoming one of the best women climbers in the Salt Lake City area. Why does she climb? "I've never gotten this feeling from any other activity," says Irvine. "Part of it is being back in an environment I love - being outside. Part of it is the freedom of movement, and the way your mind flows when you're so intensely absorbed in what you're doing."
Rock climbing however, is not always serene and contemplative - on the contrary. But because of its demanding nature, it is an activity that promotes emotional as well as physical growth. Climbers often attribute heightened self-confidence and independence to the sport. Climbing, Irvine contends, has taught her to be more self-sufficient. "I'm much more capable of utilizing my own resources to get out of difficult situations," she affirms.
An account consultant for a major San Diego photocopying company, Nanette, 29, attributes much of her business success to climbing experiences. "I'm better able to face difficulties," says Nadelson and she should know. While climbing in Yosemite one summer she suffered a climbing accident. "We were about 400 feet up and the next thing I knew, I was falling - I had completely come off the rock," says Nadelson. She fell past her partner and landed, hanging from the rope, upside down. "We were mangled and in shock," she recalls. With a broken ankle and wrist, it took Nanette nine hours to crawl back to the road. "Sometimes I feel like I have a big problem in front of me," says Nadelson. "But when I think about standing at the bottom of a big crag and looking up, these problems don't seem quite as overwhelming."
These days new places to climb are developed with convenience in mind. Natural climbing areas are established closer to the road. Artificial climbing walls, built in the vicinity of downtown office parks, may allow a climbing session on the way home from work. Safety too has played a role in the recent development of climbing. Due to significant improvements in equipment made over the last several years, rock climbing is now safer than ever. "Some people quit climbing because they start thinking it's dangerous," observes Denver geologist and rock climber, Anne Leibold. "Personally I think it's less dangerous than commuting to work every day."
An overall image change has accompanied the practical transformation climbing has undergone. A sport that once appealed to a narrow social group comprised of those generally considered great risk takers, climbing now attracts a much broader spectrum of people. "Climbing," says Mayfield, "has gone from something that took a commitment of lifestyle - an esoteric lifestyle - to becoming a recreational activity."
Unlike the health club scene, climbing is something people want to stick with. "The biggest problem health clubs have is retaining members," says Mayfield. Statistics indicate 50% of new members will quit within six weeks. It's hard for people to stay with a workout that may be an end in itself. "Outdoor sports are a bit more meaningful to people," he adds.
Like many sports, however, rock climbing has its drawbacks. In his book, Rocks Around the World, professional climber Stefan Glowacz confesses, "Climbing is an addiction from which there is no escape. Having once tasted it, one is driven on in crazy pursuit of the next fix." Indeed, there are many fanatics whose climbing conversations are punctuated with terms such as "compulsion" and "obsession."
"All I know is that the more I do it, the more I want to do it," says Irvine. "It's really easy to say it's everything." Leibold expresses her climbing drive from another perspective. She says she was warned never to climb with a boyfriend or husband - that it would create problems or rifts. "My rule," she laughs, "is that you don't have a boyfriend that doesn't climb."
How did you get that rope up there? Contrary to popular belief, the leader does not hook the end of a climbing rope on to a giant grappling hook, only to hurl - with super human strength - the hook to the top of a 1,000-foot cliff. Technical free climbing involves a series of "pitches," or sections of a route measured by rope lengths (60-160 feet). The "leader" ties one end of the rope into her harness, and, dragging the rope up behind her, secures it with "protection" every five to 10 feet. The "belayer" secures the rope through a metal disc (attached to his harness) called a "belay plate" and only issues a small amount of rope to the leader at a time, thus minimizing the distance the leader would fall if she slipped. When the leader reaches the top of the pitch, the climbers change jobs. The excess rope between them is pulled up, the leader becomes the belayer, and the old belayer follows or "second" the climb.
Soloing vs. Free-climbing vs. Aid-climbing
In the complex world of rock climbing jargon, climbing "free," does not mean without a climbing rope as a safety net. Climbing without a rope is called soloing. Free climbing refers to ascending a route without use of aid - that is, climbing only the rock. In free-climbing the climber ascends the rope by means of metal ascenders, commonly called jumars, it is said he or she is using aid. Aid climbing is pursued when the rock does not provide sufficient holds for the ability of the climber.
What You'll Need
As in any sport, you can spend as much as you like on equipment, but you can get basic gear for around $100. Sticky-soled climbing shoes should be your first priority. In the last couple of years the American market has been flooded with new designs, ranging in price from about $60 to $150.
A climbing harness should include leg loops and a waist belt. Some stores will allow you to actually hang in the store - worth doing. If it isn't comfortable for more than a couple of minutes in the shop, you're not going to be happy sitting in it for long periods of time later. Make sure not to get it too tight.
Although some climbers find the presence of gymnast's chalk offensive, it can come in handy, especially on warmer days. A chalk bag is helpful, but not mandatory.
Where To Go
Rock climbing is technically possible almost anywhere there are rocks, however beginners would be well advised to stick to established areas - fortunately there are many, multiplying as popularity in the sport grows. Some of the classic U.S. areas include the following:
Yosemite National Park, California: The best time to climb in Yosemite is in the fall or spring, when it's cool. Yosemite offers world-class climbing instruction at the Yosemite Valley Mountaineering School.
Joshua Tree, California: Although a wintering area for climbers around the northern United States, the desert can still get-pretty cold in the dead of winter, so dress warmly. For information contact Vertical Adventures, 511 South Catalina Ave., Suite 3, Redondo Beach, CA 90277 or phone (213) 540-6517.
PHOTO : Climbing on the C.A.T.S. (Colorado Athletic Training School) wall in Boulder, Colorado.
Glossary of Climbing Terms
aid, aid-climbing: climbing on equipment rather than on the rock (i.e., climbing the rope, pulling up on pieces of protection) anchor: equipment used to attach the rope or climber safely to the rock approach: the walk or hike to the base of the route
belay: to belay, a climber holds the rope, only letting a small amount of slack amass between the belaying device (usually a belay-plate) and the partner's harness, thus limiting the distance of the fall if the climber slips off the rock
belay-plate: a metal plate through which the rope is threaded, that aids the belayer in stopping the rope from being fed out unintentionally, "catching" the climber if they should fall
bouldering: climbing boulders without ropes, generally relatively close to the ground
buildering: climbing on the outside of buildings without ropes
carabiner: oval metal "snap rings" used to attach slings
chalk: magnesium carbonate ("gymnast's chalk") used to keep hands dry, to prevent fingers from slipping off greasy holds
chocks: a form of protection
crack climbing: climbing up cracks rather than on the outside or face, of the rock; generally involving wedging hands, arms and legs into opening
face climbing: climbing on the rock face, not in cracks
free-climbing: climbing without aid - using only the rocks natural features
friends: a form of protection - a spring-loaded camming device that can be jammed into a crack
gear sling: a sling, usually made of modified webbing, carrying the rack; to be hung across the climber's shoulders and chest
jamming: in crack-climbing, wedging body parts into cracks and pulling up on them
jumars: metal ascenders used in aid-climbing
lead: when the first climber climbs a pitch, dragging a rope behind; called "on the sharp end of the rope"
pitch: one rope length, usually 60-160 feet long
protection - "pro": devices affixed or wedged into the rock to prevent falling to the ground - friends, chocks, nuts
rack: an assortment of protection selected for a specific route
rappel - "rap": a rapid way of descending a route; lowering oneself on the rope
route: a series of pitches, usually named for identification by the members of its first ascent, and graded for difficulty and safety
rocks: a type of protection consisting of a wedge-shaped head attached to a metal lead
second/to follow: the second climber, belayed by the leader from the top of the pitch
slack: loose rope between the climber and the belayer
slings: nylon webbing tied into loops which are used to attach carabiners to protections, etc.
soloing: climbing without a rope - not recommended for beginners
top-rope: roped climbing when there is no leader. By walking to the top of a route to fix an anchor, the rope may be threaded through the anchor. The rope then creates a triangle between the climber, anchor and belayer, who remains on the ground throughout the climbing of the route.
Catherine Gockley is a freelance writer living in Grand Junction, Colorado.