Lauren K. remembers the first time she tried to scale the 30-foot-high textured gray face that is Connecticut College's indoor climbing wall. Kaiser, a senior with a background in gymnastics, quickly found a route amid the yellow, orange, green, and gray hand and foot holds that range from a tiny nub to a substantial slab of natural rock. Her climb was going well until halfway up when her mouth "got all dry…I looked down and said 'what am I doing up here?'"
Over the next six weeks, Lauren and her fellow classmates at the college in New London, Connecticut, would find success on the wall, thanks to instructor Anne Parmenter, who first learned to climb as a 10-year-old scrambling over rocks in England's West Country.
Parmenter, who is also the college's field hockey and women's lacrosse coach, has taken her love of climbing around the world, reaching such magnificent peaks as Denali in Alaska, Aconcagua in Argentina, and Ala Dablam in Nepal. While Parmenter prefers confronting the challenges of natural rock and the capricious weather which often accompanies it, she sees a place for indoor walls in the sport of climbing.
"The wall is a good place to begin climbing," she says. "It feels safe and controlled. And there are no environmental hazards that come with the outdoors."
Parmenter divides her class into pairs for the first session, which includes learning the following skills:
- How to correctly buckle the harness
- How to tie required knots
The techniques of belaying (the skill of attaching two climbers to each other and the wall) are also taught. One person climbs, and the belayer on the ground secures the rope so that the climber can be safely lowered to the ground if he begins to fall. The belayer also helps the climber descend after finishing a climb.
For Kaiser, success meant first learning to trust her equipment. "You realize that this stuff really works," Kaiser says. Her belayer adds, "After I fell a couple of times and learned that I was safe, it was a lot better."
Parmenter, who also gives continuing education courses in climbing, sees dramatic progress over the six-week course. "They go from not knowing how to put on a harness, to route finding and setting routes for each other," she explains. "They develop an understanding as to how the system works enough to trust fully in it. Then they are just able to climb."
Putting Safety First
Parmenter says safety is the main consideration when selecting a climbing gym. "Public climbing walls should have a very rigorous safety plan," she explains. "There should be a knot and belay test for all people walking through the door, no matter how advanced the climber."
Gary Lundin, manager of Prime Climb in Wallingford, Connecticut, says his gym insists on testing prior to climbing. "We make sure they put the harness on properly, that they tie into the harness with the rope carefully, and that they can retrace the required figure-8 knot." Lundin says the gym also employs floor managers who continually circulate to make sure climbers are tied in correctly and belaying properly.
Getting the Gear
The basic gear needed to climb indoors includes the harness and shoes. Most climbing gyms offer rental packages that include rock shoes, harness, belay device, and chalk bag. Many climbing gyms also have a retail shop to purchase gear.
All gyms provide beginner lessons. Gyms may offer instruction which includes the basic techniques of knot tying, belaying, holding a fall, and safely lowering a person to the ground. There is also instruction in the basic techniques of rock movement, ways of gripping holds, good footwork, and balance. Lessons help the novice avoid bad climbing habits.
Learning About Physique vs. Technique
While many climbers have well-muscled bodies, Parmenter, a slight woman, says it is good technique and not muscle power that will ensure you get to the top of the wall. She points out that some of the best rock climbers in the world, such as Lynn Hill of the United States, are slight in stature.
"Often initially, fear results in people using sheer strength to try to climb, but with time and a lot of practice, technique develops," she explains. "The indoor setting is a good place for this."
Climbing the Walls
Most climbing gyms have a variety of walls, which include vertical and overhanging faces, roofs, and low-angled slabs. Routes may also be rated from easy to difficult using color-coded tape.
Many gyms have bouldering caves, which allow people to climb safely without a partner or ropes. The low-ceilinged caves have walls with varying angles and textures. Bouldering allows short, challenging climbs. It helps the climber develop technique and practice moves.
For many indoor climbers, the challenge of testing their skills on natural rock is too strong to ignore. Parmenter and Lundin agree that, while the gym is a good place to learn the basics, there are special skills required of the outdoor climber.
"Setting the top ropes (at the top of a cliff) is a special skill you don't get at the gym," says Lundin. In climbing gyms, the ropes are already in place at the top of each wall.
Indoor climbing gyms are also popular with the advanced outdoor climbers, says Parmenter. "The indoor setting helps with the technique aspect and, especially in winter, climbing indoors is better than not climbing at all."
Back on the Connecticut College climbing wall, Gintas K. has just negotiated a difficult route. The Lithuanian taps the top of the wall before beginning his descent, which he accomplishes, not by rappelling down the rope, but by using many of the same holds that got him to the top.
Gintas, who lifts free weights six days a week, would rather be outside tackling a longer route on natural rock. He joined the class, not so much to learn new skills, but to keep sharp. He offers one bit of advice, "Make a good time of it, that's the most important thing."