Climbing to the top
Photography by Chelsea Hess Moore
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I admit it, prior to spending a late-summer evening at Climbnasium in Mechanicsburg, pretty much all of my rock-climbing knowledge came to me via Hollywood. One movie, in particular, occupied the entirety of my gray matter reserved for the sport of ropes, chalked hand holds, groin-hugging harnesses, upper-body strength and fear scoffing.
The film that represented rock climbing in my mind for nearly all of my childhood and adult life – save for the past couple weeks – was the 1993 cinematic classic known as Cliffhanger.
For those who may have never seen this gem of the silver screen, the plot unfolds as follows. Gabe, an expert mountain ranger played by Sylvester Stalone, is called into action to rescue some plane-crash survivors atop a snow-capped peak in the Rocky Mountains. Two obstacles stand in the way for poor Gabe – well three, if you count the mountain itself.
First, he’s guilt ridden after letting his friend’s girlfriend plummet to a horrific death because she slipped from his hand during a recreational climb.
Second, and this is when things get really real for Gabe, the plane-crash survivors turn out to be a team of armed thieves who lost their three suitcases filled with a cool $100 million. I won’t give away the ending, but needless to say, things get pretty dangerous from there on out.
So, armed with visions of Cliffhanger drama and a small dislike of heights, I ventured out to Climbnasium to experience a little of what poor Gabe went through.
Fortunately, it did not take long for Climbnasium manager and near-expert rock climber Travis Gault to dispel all of my misconceptions about the sport.
The first thing I learned about rock climbing is that Cliffhanger was pretty much all lies in terms of the actual geological-formation-ascending activity. I can safely state that, while there, I did not meet one single rock climber who has ever encountered a team of armed thieves stranded on a mountain, who forced them to scale a vertical rock face without ropes in a snow storm while wearing just a T-shirt in order to recover their lost cache of cash.
The second thing I learned about rock climbing is that it is completely fun and, if done correctly, not really dangerous at all. And, despite my lack of upper-body strength, I was able to make my way up the beginners’ wall on my first attempt – the second slightly more difficult wall, not so successful. But I instantly saw the appeal and understood why the sport has so many avid practitioners.
At Climbnasium, all beginners learn a few of the basics – after signing a mandatory waiver, of course – before being set loose upon the countless and varied walls throughout the gym.
These basics include how to properly strap on a harness, tie-in as a climber, set up a belay (“a technique used to exert friction on a climbing rope so that a falling climber does not fall very far”) and construct a figure-eight knot.
After that, a bit of trust is given to your partner on the ground holding the other end of your rope, and off you go. Part of the fun is the actual climbing itself; the other part is reaching the top of the wall and realizing what you just did. Few other sports offer that sense of accomplishment for newbies.
“Climbnasium is great for someone to get their feet wet,” says Gault, a 17-year climbing veteran. “Basically, we can host someone from their first time all the way to being great at it – if that’s what they want.”
Gault explains that there’s essentially three kinds of rock climbing at Climbnasium: top roping, sport climbing and bouldering. “Bouldering is un-roped climbing up to 14 feet in the gym with a padded floor and crash pads to fall into,” says the 32-year-old Carlisle resident. “Top-roping goes up 40 feet with a rope. Sport climbing is for a bit more advanced climbers, which is a form of lead climbing.”