Earth Treks gets a foothold

Wall: Columbia climbing center appeals to all ages, skill levels.

Howard At Play

April 20, 2003|By Gary Davidson | Gary Davidson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It might not be Mount Everest or K2, but those with the urge to be upwardly mobile can find their thrills at Earth Treks' Climbing Center in Columbia.

Conquering the world's most challenging peaks is the domain of Earth Treks owner Chris Warner, a renowned mountaineer and TV personality who is in Nepal, leading his third expedition on Everest, trying to reach the world's tallest summit for the second time.

In Maryland, Kary Williams, director and membership co- ordinator, oversees a program he believes appeals to people of all ages, skill levels and physical condition.

"I've not yet encountered anyone who came in here who could not do this," said Williams, 27.

The facility is for people "anywhere from having no skills and not being in shape to someone who is in great shape and has been climbing for years. Is it for everybody? I can't determine that. But I think everybody should at least make that decision for themselves, at least give it a try."

Warner, who Williams estimates spends six months a year in this area, started Earth Treks as a guide service in 1991 and built the Columbia facility in 1997 in a part of the huge former warehouse used by General Electric. The address is 7215-C Columbia Gateway Drive.

A larger Earth Treks facility opened in Timonium in December.

The Columbia gym offers 15,000 square feet of climbing space. The walls, which are 12 to 44 feet high, are crammed with thousands of "holds," which are plastic composite replicas of rocks and crags, with multitudes of taped arrows that identify more than 50 designed climbing routes that sometimes change daily.

While climbing offers obvious physical benefits, participants note the community atmosphere and the mental challenge as special attractions.

"It gives me a chance to focus in on the sport itself and shut everything out and just be clear," said Jerry Booker, 35, a network engineer from Columbia who has been climbing for two years.

"It definitely builds confidence, in that the more that you do it, the better you get," he said. "It's partly a workout, but they are always putting up new routes for us to try new goals. It's a mixture of being strong enough to do a route and the problems you have to solve as you work your way though them."

While Booker is muscular, Missie Fleck is slightly built. The Laurel-Howard County resident climbs twice a week with her fiance, Dave Vess, 24.

"We like to tone our skills on the walls. It's challenging, and it's equal opportunity," said Fleck, 23.

"If you're a smaller person, sometimes you're better at certain moves. When you're a taller person and stronger, you're better at other moves. ... A year and a half ago, we were lucky if we could get on the wall and make it up the simplest routes. And now, I'm trying to do a lot of the more challenging routes.

"When you first start climbing," she continued, "it seems really difficult. As you get along, even a few months into it, you ask yourself, `Why did I think this was so difficult?' You gain skills every time you get on the wall," Fleck said.

Williams says Columbia climbers are between ages 6 and 81 and evenly divided between men and women. There are 900 members who pay annual dues of $60 to $70 and can use both centers. Day passes are available for $16, plus $9 to rent equipment.

Earth Treks also offers a wide array of outdoor activities, from rock climbing tours around Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia to mountain-climbing expeditions around the world.

The Earth Treks Web site says its two centers are the "largest on the East Coast" and, in the past year, it has "taught over 19,000 people to climb indoors, over 2,000 people to climb outdoors and guided 16 international mountaineering expeditions."

While practicing their particular discipline, climbers are often encouraged from the ground. Others converse in what seems to be a genial social atmosphere.

"Ultimately, what brings you in is because you want to attempt to go climbing, but what attracts a lot of people to climbing is the whole atmosphere around climbing," Williams said. "It is very supportive. It is a community atmosphere.

"And," he continued, "it is not something that you do on your own. Like with [lifting] weights, you're there alone trying to motivate yourself. Here, when you're 25 feet up on a wall, you have two, three, four, five people beneath you, encouraging you, saying, `You can do it.' When you leave here, you really feel like you've done something."

Those planning to use Earth Treks should be prepared to sign a liability waiver. Williams said that safety precautions are offered to beginners, including an automatic belaying device that halts a fall before someone reaches the ground.

"By no means is it risk free. This is a dangerous sport," he said.

Three styles of climbing

Three basic types of climbing are practiced at Earth Treks' Climbing Center.

Top-roping: The rope is attached at the top of the "mountain" and the climber moves up.

Sport-lead climbing: A person advances through a route by clipping into pre-placed gear as he or she moves along.

Bouldering: Done without a rope, with the climber moving from hold to hold in a test of strength and agility.

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