Getting a grip

Novices safely scale new heights on indoor rock-climbing walls


Jason Weesner is halfway up the wall when he hesitates.

He briefly glances down to check his foot position, then plots his next move. Grip after grip, he pushes and pulls himself to the top of the 28-foot edifice, pauses for a moment and yells "take!" -- the rock climber's jargon for "get me down!" After he is lowered down the wall, he unties the knot in his rope and rests.

This is Weesner's first indoor-rock-climbing session -- an introductory class at Earth Treks Climbing Center in Timonium. "There was a time I would have never imagined doing this," said Weesner, a 36-year-old insurance-fraud investigator. "Growing up, I was terrified of heights," he said. "I still get that rush from up high. ... You test yourself doing things like this and you lose that fear after a while."

Recently, Weesner climbed the Via Ferrata course at Nelson Rocks Preserve Inc. in Circleville, W.Va., as part of an outdoor adventure race. The Via Ferrata, a climb geared toward people with little or no climbing experience, sparked Weesner's interest in the sport. When he returned home to Baltimore, he signed up for a beginner program at Earth Treks.

Eventually, Weesner plans to work his way up to climbing regularly outdoors.

Most local rock climbers agree that indoor climbing is the easiest way to start learning the sport.

While the greater Baltimore area has several indoor-rock-climbing walls such as Earth Treks, the state has few parks with large outdoor rock faces.

"It's hard to be a climber in Maryland," said Chris Duffy, who oversees Towson University's rock-climbing gym.

Duffy, 29, said he gets his rock-climbing thrills on trips to Seneca Rocks, W.Va., and the Shawangunks in New York state. He took up the sport about eight years ago when he went to school at Towson. Now, he helps introduce Towson students to climbing on a pair of 33-foot climbing walls at the university.

Though novice climbers have various reasons for taking up the hobby, Duffy said, a big factor is that climbing, like running or cycling, is a sport where you compete only with yourself.

"Everyone's at their own level and respects the other people who are out there climbing and having fun," Duffy said. "It's a thrill."

On a recent night at Earth Treks in Timonium, all ages climbed the roughly 50-foot main walls. In the training area, Weesner was one of four men taking the beginner's class. Using handholds and footholds, he and one other climber crept up the indoor walls while their partners on the ground -- called belayers -- monitored.

Before scaling the walls, climbers strap themselves into a harness that wraps around the legs and waist. When properly secured, it can hold 1,700 to 2,100 pounds of force, said instructor Derek Baumgardner. The climber loops a rope up under the harness and ties two knots.

The climber's rope runs up to the top of the wall, through a pulley and back down to the belayer, who is also wearing a harness. The belayer takes up slack as the climber ascends, and is ready to stop the climber from falling by locking the rope in place ("belay" is French for "hold fast").

The climber and belayer should check each other's knots and harnesses before starting, Baumgardner said.

"You have to trust the equipment," he said. Otherwise, you're just going to freak out up there -- panic and freeze."

It's common for first-time climbers like Weesner to hesitate at the top of the wall and cling for an extra few seconds before letting go and trusting their belayer to safely let them down.

Earth Treks' climbing walls have wood and steel frames faced with plywood and surfaced with a concrete-based finish. The holds are molded polyester or urethane resin.

Strips of brightly colored tape stuck underneath the handholds mark the paths up the wall, called routes. Each route is marked with a decimal, indicating its difficulty. The higher the number after the decimal (at Earth Treks, they range from 5.5 to about 5.13), the tougher the course.

Novice wall climbers tend to use their fingers and forearms too much, Baumgardner said. As they become more experienced, they learn to rely on their legs and core for balance and power.

Chris and Jenny Tomlin, both 23, are a married couple who live in White Marsh and climb together at Earth Treks in Timonium. Chris was into lifting weights in high school and college, and now rock climbs for the same benefits.

"It's similar in the way you're working out -- you're doing an explosive workout," he said.

Jenny finds climbing a lot less monotonous than spending an hour on cardio machines.

"Unlike getting on a treadmill, you don't get bored," she said.

Besides increased strength and dexterity, climbing can be life-affirming, Duffy said. There's a satisfaction from setting your own hurdle and finding the will to jump it, he said.

"Coming down after a day of rock climbing and having those experiences, you feel renewed -- in control of your life," Duffy said. "I also like [climbing] because it can get me to amazing places."

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