Climbing the walls to stay in shape


March 09, 1992|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Staff Writer

In Baltimore these days, people are climbing the walls.


Indoor rock climbing has come to town, folks. You can indulge in the sport at the Clipper City Rock Gym, which looks more like a dank, cavernous warehouse than a typical gym.

"I have really wanted to do this for a long time," said 19-year-old Allison Steiner, as she tied a rope around her waist in preparation for her first climb. The Johns Hopkins University sophomore always has enjoyed things like hiking and camping -- and sees this sport as the next logical step.

Rock climbing has long appealed to the daring and outdoorsy, but now local enthusiasts don't need mountains to indulge. Indoor rock climbing gyms have been sprouting up around the nation -- particularly on the West Coast; Clipper City, in Clipper Industrial Park in Hampden, is the first indoor climbing gym in Baltimore.

"There's one in Philly and one in New Jersey," said owner Jim Ellis. "But not in the mid-Atlantic region. With this building, our eventual goal is to have the premiere one in the country."

Mr. Ellis, who has been climbing for about 16 years, gave up his desk job in the purchasing and estimating department for a Harford County construction company to start the gym.

"I have always wanted to have my own outdoors program," the 34-year-old said. But he settled on an indoor rock gym because he enjoys the sport and thought it would be a success. "I thought it was a great way to turn your avocation into your vocation."

Chris Warner, an Ellicott City resident who has scaled the Himalayas, said the indoor gym is "definitely" something he is glad to see come to town. "It's a great place to keep in shape, to develop your skills," said the 27-year-old who runs a mountaineering guide service. He estimates there are 500 to 600 climbers in the Baltimore area.

"The rock climbing community in the Baltimore area is pretty small, but it's definitely growing," he said.

At Clipper City, the second floor is equipped with walls made of textured plywood ranging in heights from 26 feet to 28 feet. The walls, which are studded with rocks, have "routes" with varying degrees of difficulty. Equipment such as shoes, harnesses and helmets can be rented.

To reach great heights, a climber ties a rope around his waist and scales the wall as a spotter -- called a belayer -- stands below, holding the other end of the rope.

Physical and mental challenges are what attract Eric Vollmuth to climbing. "It's a one-on-one challenge. You and the route," the Johns Hopkins University sophomore said.

And Tim Bolling, 36, speaks almost poetically about the sport: "It's ballet on rocks," said the Essex man who spent a recent lunch hour at the gym. "It's balance. It's flexibility. It's strength."

Mr. Bolling, who works at a roof shingles plant, has been climbing for about 16 years.

"This is something I have to do," he said. "I'm a thrill seeker basically. You will see me here about five or six days a week." Until now, indoor rock gyms "have been basically nil" on the East Coast, he said.

And he and others at the gym looked on admiringly as Paul Harmon, 23, seemed to effortlessly scale the toughest route.

"Adrenalin. Excitement. The physical challenge. The mental challenge," Mr. Harmon ticked off as the reasons he enjoys climbing. "There is always room to become better."

Mr. Harmon, who has a thin, yet solid, body that looks perfect for climbing, is a staff member at the gym. Before this job, he "basically lived like a bum" traveling around the country and climbing, he said.

"This," he said with a look of contentment, "is the ideal job."

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