Climb every mountain

Feb. 13, 2003, midnight | By Anna Benfield | 16 years, 11 months ago

Blazers test their limits both indoors and out

Spectators watch as junior Greg Maker clings to the cold rock 30 ft above the rushing Potomac River at Great Falls. Calm and focused, he thrusts his weight upward to reach a numb hand toward a protrusion in the rock. Maker hasn't lost his breath or even broken a sweat; he's done this climb dozens of times.

Maker, along with several other Blair students, has joined an increasing number of people scaling local rock faces and indoor climbing walls. Once considered an obscure and dangerous pastime, rock climbing is now one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S., according to the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America.

Innovation or plastic imitation?

Rock climbing has long been popular in the western U.S., but the growth of indoor climbing gyms has recently made the sport more accessible in eastern metropolitan areas, according to Bob Dolan, assistant manager of Sportrock, a Rockville climbing gym.

Indoor facilities have transformed climbing into into a more competitive sport, covered on the X-Games and Gorge Games.

The most popular type of competitive climbing is bouldering, an indoor, unroped event described on the American Bouldering Series (ABS) website as the "gateway drug of climbing." Maker, an employee at Sportrock and the longest-standing member of the Sportrock Junior team, participates primarily in the ABS because of its accessibility at local gyms.

Some controversy, however, surrounds the validity of indoor climbing as a sport. While a Black Diamond 2000 catalog article regards indoor climbing as "every bit as valid and as vibrant" as outdoor climbing, gyms are often considered simply a training ground.

Generally, climbers agree that despite inconveniences, outdoor climbing offers a superior experience. Indoor climbing lacks, for example, any relationship with nature. Junior Sarah Robinson appreciates the connection she has with the rock. "[Climbing] is the most basic interaction you can have with the earth," she says.

For the love of the climb

While most Blair climbers were introduced to the sport through friends, summer camps or birthday parties, some of them have unique stories about what kept them coming back for more.

When Maker returned to the U.S. after living in Scotland, he found a sport in which he could excel and also combat a family phobia. "Because my mom's deathly afraid of heights, this was an opportunity for me to rebel in a twisted way," he says.

For Robinson, the sport's appeal came with the adrenaline rush of being so high with so little apparent support. "It's just you and the rock. If the rope weren't there, you'd be pulling a Tom Cruise on top of the world."

Flexing their willpower

While most climbers stress the importance of safety, Robinson says that the perception of looming danger is a rush. "Even though you know that you're not going to fall and die, the idea is still there," she says.
As Maker secures the top ropes for a climb, he admits that no climbing situation is 100-percent secure. "Climbing is like sex. There's no such thing as safe climbing–-only safer climbing," he says with a grin.

According to sophomore Kate Selby, one of the most important keys to success is trusting the equipment and belayer, the person who is at the other end of the rope.

Determination and willpower are more valuable assets to Selby than upper-body strength. "When you're frustrated, it's easy to give up, but that's not what this sport is about," she says. "It really matters more how dedicated you are."

Junior Ben Martinez, an avid climber, has become so impassioned with the sport that he attached climbing holds to trees in his backyard. Martinez also considers climbing to be an intensely psychological sport because every climb is a personal experience that presents individual obstacles to overcome. "You set little goals for yourself as you're climbing," he says, "and accomplishing them feels great."

Selby admits that climbing is the first athletic activity at which she has been successful. Because the sport requires balance, flexibility and lower-body strength, young women like Selby excel alongside their male counterparts and represent 40 percent of all climbers.

For Robinson, new-found self-confidence has translated to other aspects of her life. "Climbing has taught me about my limits and how my limits aren't necessarily permanent," she says.

Sweet taste of victory

After being intimidated by a challenging climb, Robinson enjoys reveling in the sense of pride she derives from reaching the top. "The best part is looking over the cliff and feeling like you've conquered it," she says.

According to Martinez, there is no better feeling than walking away from a day of climbing feeling mentally and physically exhausted. "You feel so hardcore afterwards because you've accomplished so much," he says.

Perhaps this is because, for him, rock climbing is more than just a sport. He describes the intimate relationship he develops with the rock face as spiritual. Passionately, he says, "It's so hippie. All your senses are really sharpened, and you feel like you're one with the earth."

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Anna Benfield. Anna Benfield is a CAP swimmer, field hockey and lacrosse goalie and diversity workshop leader. She loves biking, sailing, collages, the zoo and her little brother. More »

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