When John Hankins invited me to join him for a rock climb, I didn’t know our adventure would be taking us to the campus of UCSB. A bluff-top university teeming with surfing book worms just wasn’t the first place I would have imagined for a climb. But as it turns out, UCSB has just opened a state of the art indoor climbing facility. Since I had only done a couple of beginner climbs on the real thing, I thought an indoor climb would give me an opportunity to improve my skills.
John brought along Eric Lohela, a philosophy senior at UCSB and rock climbing enthusiast. Eric was happy to show us the ropes, so to speak, and gave us a quick tour of the new MAC (
). This new facility is the result of a recent expansion of the Multi Activity Center , and includes a huge fitness center, locker facilities and the climbing wall. Students have free access to the facility, but the community can access it by paying a day use fee of just $8.00. Recreation Center
When we arrived at the climbing facility, I was immediately impressed with the wall’s height. Looming overhead at 30 feet, I also couldn’t help but be a bit intimidated. Hector was on staff and took time to get us acquainted with two pages of “Rules and Risk Management.” I signed the waiver, agreeing that I would not engage in any horseplay or chew gum. More importantly, as a novice climber, I could be “on belay,” but I could not be a “belayer.” That is, I could climb with a rope clipped onto my harness, but I couldn’t be the one holding the rope below. Personally, I’m not even sure how I was allowed two feet off the ground.
Hector gave Eric and John a quick belay test, which they passed with flying colors. I was thankful for that, since each would belay me shortly. We looked for the easiest route and after a simple knot-tying lesson – I say simple because it only took me a half-dozen times to learn – I had the rope secured to my harness and started up the wall.
I quickly gravitated toward the grey holds because they were about as easy as climbing a ladder. When I got above the red line – at about the 10 foot mark – there were fewer grey holds. My pace slowed a bit, and I tried some of the other colors, each usually leading me to my now favorite grey hold. At about half-way up the wall, I was stumped.
“Try the blue one near your knee!” John urged. I looked down and assessed the blue one. It was about the size of a dime and with a shoe size of 9½, I let out a nervous laugh and shrugged it off. I opted instead for the red one. This was a mistake.
In rock climbing, I’ve come to discover that there are two ways to make a decision. The first one involves short term planning, as in, “That looks like an easy place to put my foot, so I think I’ll go for it.” The second way involves long term planning, as in, “Now that I’ve put my foot here, I realize there is nowhere to put my hand.” I, of course, employed short term planning with my decision to go with the red hold. With my hands now at waist level and my foot precariously perched on the red hold, I had no choice but to rest my cheek on the rock face. I should also mention I’ve decided at this point that I much prefer real rock to this somewhat slippery substitute. With my face keeping me from falling to my death (John reminds me that I’m clipped to a rope), I decided to back track a bit. Following John’s advice, I used the dime-sized blue hold and in doing so, was able to grasp the coveted grey hold (in rock climber lingo they call this a “bomber” hold). Feeling pretty good about myself, I continue on, then I slip.
I think this was a pivotal event for me. Having done this climbing thing only a couple of times, I had never experienced what it was like to slip. My knees crashed to the wall and my hands tightened. Leveraging myself against the tension of the rope, I pulled myself up and got my feet into place. I made a couple more moves, but could see that the degree of difficulty was increasing. Still a bit shaken, at just over 20 feet up, I let John know I was ready to come down. When I landed, I was surprised at how much my fingers tingled. I guess I was really holding on tightly.
John and Eric each made a couple runs up the wall, showing how an accomplished climber does it. I was intrigued by their movements. So fluid and graceful and with a deliberate rhythm; it could have been choreographed. I’ve often heard rock climbing compared to dance. They made it look so easy.
I relayed my experience to an avid rock climber in Ojai. Ian Potter of Trails by Potter leads climbing excursions for all levels. He urged me to use the climbing wall as a means to improve strength and agility, but not to substitute it for the real thing. “Climbing walls can give a false sense of security.” This seemed to echo what the staffers at UCSB are teaching. Their adventure programs offer a few hours of in-class instruction, but they are always followed with a full day conquering the real thing in the outdoors.
The rock wall is a great way to improve your physical abilities and get to know the gear. After you have spent some time learning basic moves and conditioning the muscles that are most often used for this sport, get out there! There are so many opportunities locally to experience rock climbing out in the open air, with the sun overhead and a cool breeze pressing you on. I’ll see you at the top!
Published August 2005 in the Sierra Club's Condor Call.