I remember my first rock climbing experience, some twenty years ago. I was adventuring with friends near Heart’s Content in the Allegheny National Forest and Surrounds landscape of the PA Wilds. Laden with rope, harnesses, and carabiners, we were attempting to scale shear rock faces. I had some training on climbing safety and was emboldened by my ability to manage the risk. With no knowledge of climbing techniques, I blindly relied on fitness and strength. Still, it was thrilling to be high on a cliff wall, and I loved the challenge. I spent all of my time outside–barely aware of climbing gyms, which were still in their infancy.
After about a year, work took me to Rochester, NY, where I had my first indoor climbing experience. And though similar in many ways, indoor climbing is a different creature. The anatomy of indoor climbing has evolved over the years though the basics remain the same. The fundamental elements of indoor climbing walls are modular “holds” that are attached to the walls. They are primarily made of plastic and come in an absurd panoply of shapes and sizes. They are periodically taken down, cleaned, and moved around, creating the potential for ever-changing terrain. No matter how much you love climbing outside, you cannot argue with the benefits of indoor climbing. Climbing gyms provide a controlled, low-risk environment, and are ridiculously convenient. Bad weather is never an issue, and regular hours make it easy to plan your climb and get connected to other climbers. There is no need to wander the woods searching for rocks, and there are lots of well-marked climbs at your fingertips. Plus, there are trained staff, and a community of experienced climbers from whom you can learn.
At the time, most climbing gyms focused on top rope climbing. This is where the climber is protected at all times by a rope that is affixed to an anchor at the top of the wall. The rope travels from the climber to the anchor at the top of the wall, then back to the ground where another person (the belayer) is attached to the other end of the rope. As the climber progresses up the wall, the belayer can take the slack out of the system, can arrest a fall, and will lower the climber when they are ready to come down.
In addition to top rope climbing, this gym also allowed for climbing without a rope. Climbers were permitted to traverse the walls without a rope as long as we stayed below a certain height. This type of climbing is called bouldering. Bouldering focuses entirely on the movement of climbing, and with bouldering it is common for several climbers to work together on the same climb. This adds a social dynamic. With top rope climbing, climbers typically climb in pairs and most of the time climbing partners are separated by significant vertical distance. With bouldering, small groups can congregate together. It’s akin to hanging out with friends at the local coffee shop or brew pub. Except with bouldering, there’s less drinking and more playing. Being new to the area, bouldering made it easy for me to meet other climbers.
With bouldering, getting to the top was no longer my goal. Instead, my focus quickly turned to movement and technical difficulty. I fell in love with the actual climbing of rock climbing. I was hyper-focused on trying to figure out how to deftly move across the wall. Sometimes, I would spend hours just moving from one hold to another. These challenges were like puzzles to solve, and I found myself obsessed with them. I quickly discovered that I could no longer rely on fitness and strength. These full-body riddles required me to learn techniques; to become more efficient; and to move on the wall with less effort and more skill.
I’ll never forget one epiphany. I was attempting to reach from one hold to another. However, the wall was so steep that I needed both hands just to stay on the wall. I could not let go with one hand to reach without falling. A younger climber, perhaps 15 or 16 years old, saw that I was struggling and offered up a solution. He showed me a technique called a dropknee. By adjusting his feet and twisting his knee downward he was able to use his feet to keep him from falling, thus allowing him to free up one hand to reach to the next hold. I was excited to try. At first, it was awkward and foreign. My body struggled to perform something my mind didn’t understand, and I almost rejected the idea. After a few tries, I found the balance, and it felt as if I was levitating between the holds. What seemed quite impossible became effortless. I had this feeling of defying gravity and the laws of physics. Looking back, this experience was made more memorable because I was nearly thirty at the time and being instructed by a teenager.
The mental, physical, and technical challenges emphasized in bouldering have become the focus of my climbing experience. I love the intense problem solving. And I am not alone. As a form of unstructured, social play, indoor climbing, specifically bouldering, is intrinsically appealing to a diverse population. The younger you are, the more obvious this attraction is. However, this passion and excitement is agnostic when it comes to age, profession, gender, and even ability. Blue or white–the color of your collar is irrelevant in the world of climbing. Boys and girls climb together, and I’ve seen children climbing with retirees. These days climbing gyms are literally crawling with happy people who are less concerned with their differences and intrinsically focused on what they have in common.
Now decades later, I still have a passion for immersing myself in nature, exploring wild places, and wandering the forest in search of rocks to climb. However, I also love climbing indoors. These days that’s actually how most climbers are getting their first experience — on plastic. Climbing gyms are becoming ubiquitous. Each year we see more new gyms and, with the popularity of bouldering, this growth has been exponential. Climbing doesn’t have to be an extreme sport, and indoor climbing offers a safe environment in which to learn. The real attraction is social play–the connection with other people and physical problem solving. And as the world is becoming more and more virtual, it is nice to have an actual place to go where we can engage our bodies and find real connections.
Guidebook author, climbing developer, and owner of Goat Fort Indoor Climbing Gym, Dana Harrington is a resident of the Pennsylvania Wilds. Indoor and out, he has been actively contributing to the climbing community for over 20 years, compelled by the belief that community is important…movement is good for the body…and play is for everyone!