Hilary Byrne hates gyms.
Riding a StairMaster doesn't compare to the rush the 31-year-old Towson computer programmer gets from climbing over the jagged edges and 12-foot overhangs along the 44-foot-high synthetic walls of Earth Treks in Columbia, the only rock-climbing gym in the Baltimore area.
"It's a lot more fun to literally climb the walls instead of hopping on a stair-stepper and staring at the walls for 20 minutes," Byrne says.
Rock climbing, once the sport of a relatively few hard-core aficionados, has gone indoors and gained tremendous popularity in recent years.
Since it opened three months ago in a converted warehouse in a corporate park off Route 175, Earth Treks has been drawing a stream of serious and amateur climbers to its 13,000 square feet of climbing surfaces - from harried professionals working off stress to Cub Scouts working off youthful energy.
The only other place for indoor climbing in the Baltimore area, Clipper City Rock Gym in Baltimore's Woodberry neighborhood, burned down in 1995 and has not reopened. Some of Clipper City's former instructors work at Earth Treks.
Unlike the outdoor variety, climbing at the Columbia gym offers air conditioning, foam-padded mats to soften falls, conveniently placed holds for hands and feet, and nearby bathrooms. Some Earth Treks climbers prefer the indoor conveniences and have never been climbing outdoors.
"Rock climbing used to be a fringe-element activity for young men who weren't considered responsible and were willing to go off on harebrained adventures," says, Chris Warner, the gym's owner. "Now, more and more people have tasted the sport and are realizing those risks don't exist."
Craig Wilson, a coordinator at the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America (ORCA) in Boulder, Colo., an industry trade group,says, "Rock gyms are exploding in popularity as more and more mainstream types are getting into it who want that thrill-seeking experience but don't plan on ever going authentic.
"They still get the edge," Wilson says. "But they're going indoors just for the sheer accessibility."
Jennifer Pitt likes the "edge." For $12 a visit, the University of Maryland Baltimore County student and waitress from Catonsville climbs at Earth Treks at least two to three times a week, rain or shine, night or day.
"It's a lot easier to drive the 20 minutes, come in, pay your $12, rent the shoes and start right up climbing the wall," says Pitt, 28, who has been climbing indoors and out for two years. "You don't have to drive hours or go with other people. It's all just right here."
The gym's design resembles a Southwestern canyon, with sand-colored walls and streaks of gray and black to mimic water marks. Its walls are covered with a bumpy mixture of gloss latex paint and a skid-proof substance used on aircraft carrier walkways.
The walls, which rise 44 feet to halogen lights in the ceiling, are dotted with multicolored blobs of hard plaster known as "holds."
Climbers can take at least 100 routes to the top, ranging from 5.0 (the easiest) to 5.14 (the hardest) on a scale used to measure the difficulty of a climb.
"It's like switching channels. Every time you come in here you get a different climb," says Syl Mathis of Virginia, who designed the gym. He has been rock climbing for 25 years and teaches it as well.
The gym's most popular features include a 14-foot-high fin that runs vertically up a corner of the wall and resembles a challenging feature at a famous outdoor rock-climbing site, Smith's Rock in Bend, Ore.; an inside corner of the kind commonly found at Devils Tower in Wyoming; and a 2-foot-wide space, like those often found in Utah, that forces climbers to wedge their arms and legs against its walls.
Toward the rear of the gym, the most prominent feature is a 9-foot-high black boulder that leads to a 4-foot-thick, 16-foot-long stalactite hanging from the ceiling. The canyon ends in a cave where climbers can practice moving sideways along its 8-foot-high walls.
"There's this incredible physical challenge and adrenalin rush you get of getting up to the top of something and knowing you made it through the routes," Pitt says. She had just made it over a block-shaped overhang 30 feet off the ground.
Dominic CiLento, 25, of Baltimore says, "And then you get up there in the ceiling and your forearms are just burning. Coming down is like, 'Yes, I did it! I got all the way to the top of 44 feet.'"
The number of gyms in the United States offering such thrills has mushroomed in the past decade from about a dozen to more than 300, including 80 on the East Coast, according to the Climbing Gym Association of ORCA. The sport's popularity has paralleled the growing interest in other activities once considered risky, such as cycling and in-line skating.
Earth Treks - which has led outdoor rock-and ice-climbing expeditions since 1990 - offers about half a dozen courses to teach climbers the basics: tying knots, footwork and body positioning.
"It's sort of like playing a chess game in here," Byrne says as her instructor encourages her to "jug" up, which means to reach up the wall. "You have to have a strategy to reach the top, whether it's a mountain or the ceiling."
But to some climbers, the synthetic structure doesn't compare with embracing the elements of the outdoors.
"It's not as spiritual," says Todd Miller, 18, of Timonium as he belays his partner up the wall. "Gyms are good on rainy days, but there's nothing like being out there with the wind and the sun."
Climber Patrick Egan of West Virginia, who helped build the indoor climbing center, says that as with some other ersatz activities, something's missing with indoor rock climbing.
"The motions are all the same," he says, "but there's no emotion to it."
Pub Date: 5/06/97