Call of the Wall

Youngsters thrive in climbing gyms

Outdoor Explorer (5/18/2002)

Brion's comments:
'The great myth is that all children are born climbers, but they just forget how as they grow up. What I learned is that you can recapture that childhood gift on the walls of a climbing gym, and nurture a great family-oriented activity at the same time.'

Feature article:

Molly Wild stretches as far as her four-foot frame will allow, arms straining in search of something to grab on to. The 10-year-old is in a pickle. The route she is climbing, the Boston Rock Gym's blue-blazed "Ship of Fools," appears to have run out of holds at the midway point, about 12 feet up. With her long braid dangling behind, Molly balances neatly on rubber-covered tiptoes on a scalloped ledge and calls down to her father, "I can't go anywhere now."

"Well, think about it," replies Joe Wild. He is belaying Molly, connected to her by a rope looped through a locking carabiner attached to his climbing harness. They are a team: If she loses her footing or her hold, Joe will keep her from falling.

"You can rest, or you can climb whatever is there," he says.

"Am I allowed to use the red holds?" Molly asks.

"Yeah, I'll let you this time," answers Joe with a smile. He knows that she knows that the red-marked holds aren't part of the route.

With the aid of her newfound hold, Molly, all 60 pounds of her, darts spiderlike up the remaining 15 feet to the top of "Ship of Fools."

"There you go, Molly," says Joe. "Good job."

"That was tough," she tells her dad, her face flushed with effort, after he has lowered her to the padded gym floor.

It's precisely the challenge that draws Molly Wild to climbing. Joe has introduced his eldest daughter to other sports, including basketball and soccer, but rock climbing captured her imagination the first time she tried it.

"Molly wants to work at it, figure it out," Joe says. "It's a nice match."

"And I really, really like heights," says Molly, her broad grin framed by freckles. Her dad rolls his eyes.

Molly's mom, also a certified belayer, approves of her daughter's climbing too. "For the longest time Molly was having dreams that she wanted to fly," says Rose Wild. "Something in her mind sparked when she got on the wall. I guess she figured this was as close as she'd ever get to flying."

Do you know a family that has a Molly, a fledgling with energy to burn? Know a bunch? For many a parent, the approach of winter's short, dark days and the prospect of spending more time indoors pose a problem: how to keep the kids, and yourself, from climbing the walls. One solution is to climb a wall with them-at a gym.

A gym? With grunting, sweaty bodies? This is a place for you and your child? You bet. Don't be put off by appearances; to newcomers, a climbing gym can seem like another planet, its gray walls littered with mysterious bits of colored route-marking tape and chalk-covered holds that look like petrified amoebas. Think about it this way: A climbing gym is like the big cardboard box the new refrigerator came in when you were a kid, the one you rescued from the trash and transformed into a fire truck or a backyard castle. To play, you need to put your body and your imagination in gear.

Get Checked Out

Sport climbing allows you and your children to share the fun of taking on a physical challenge without making anyone feel inept or tied down. As most parents know, kids have a natural inclination to climb, and heading up a rock wall will take adults back to their childhoods quicker than a steaming bowl of Chef Boyardee. Through a shared "pull" on the rock, you can find common ground. But first, if you're not an experienced climber, you'll need to get oriented.

Rock climbing involves a certain level of risk, and the key to minimizing that risk is learning to belay properly. Good climbing facilities offer introductory classes that teach parents how to put on a harness, tie in and handle the rope properly. Some gyms recommend that parents take the class, pass a safety test and only then bring in their youngsters. Any gym worth its salt will require climbers with some experience to demonstrate their skill before they're allowed to belay anyone. Better facilities won't charge parents when they're just belaying-they'll charge only for the children's admission and for equipment rentals. Kids can also belay their parents, but good gyms require climbers under 18 to take a rigorous certification program. Many also feature anchors that tether belayers to the ground and prevent lightweight belayers from being hauled into the air or the wall.

Today's facilities are designed with families in mind. Many offer day care and programs designed for children. Kids can scramble to their hearts' content in bouldering areas, sans ropes and heights, or rent pint-sized climbing shoes and harnesses and scale the walls.

Something for Everyone

The beauty of climbing with your kids is that they don't have to keep up with you-or you with them. "Unlike riding a bike, running or playing hoops, rock climbing is very turn oriented," says Matthew O'Connor, the general manager of the Boulder Rock Club in Boulder, Colorado. "The children do what they want, then the adults do something they enjoy."

Good climbing gyms "try to integrate the most difficult routes in with the easier ones," says Ken Silber, owner of Boulder Morty's, the gym in Nashua, New Hampshire, pictured in this article (603-886-6789). "And you can make the routes as difficult as you want by just eliminating holds. I like to follow my seven-year-old daughter, and that gives her the chance to say, 'I just did the route Daddy's doing."

Don't worry about disparities. The little shavers will be better climbers than you might think, attacking the wall with all their natural gusto. There is no set minimum age for starting youngsters in the sport, but parents should be aware of their children's physical limitations. Alison Osius, the first woman (and mother) elected president of the American Alpine Club and a senior editor for Climbing magazine, says, "Let children go at their own pace. If all they want to do is swing on a rope, that's fine."

Of course, some beginners take to the rock immediately. As with any new athletic venture, some people are initially more comfortable than others and approach the new challenge with a better kinesthetic sense.

"One of our big rules is that children climb only as high as they want to," says Silber.

An Athletic Alternative

"Climbing is the best thing you can do for your kids," says Scott Franklin, owner of Franklin Climbing Equipment in Bend, Oregon. Coming from one of the country's foremost sport climbers, the comment is hardly a revelation. But as a new father, Franklin is thinking like a parent, and he regards climbing as a healthy alternative to sports generally associated with growing up in America.

"With climbing, the difficulty is very adjustable," he says. "Traditional sports aren't as forgiving. I grew up playing tons of sports. But with the ball and stick sports, if you can't do a specific skill, like hitting a ball or shooting baskets, you're not considered an athlete."

Osius agrees. "A child of any size can take part in climbing and be good. Say you have a kid who's small and wiry, someone who might get slammed around playing hockey or football. The climbing gym could be a great place for them-they'll have the ideal strength-to-weight ratio."

Build Better Bodies

Indoor rock climbing is flat-out exertion within a controlled environment. It's the climber and an upright slab and a handful of cracks and protrusions that purport to be holds. The rope and the harness and the person on belay are for protection only as you climb, and to help you get down, not up. The price of a challenging climb? Tired forearms, trembling legs, heavy breathing, giddy laughter. You'll have a newfound appreciation for the expression getting worked. The same will be true for your children.

"Even indoors, moving up a wall is a primitive activity," says Franklin. "People come down with a grin, and they don't know why. Whether it's the endorphins or whatever, it makes people feel good."

The physical benefits of the sport include increased strength and flexibility, improved hand-eye coordination and better cardiovascular fitness. "Kids who get into climbing will probably be very fitness oriented,"says O'Connor. "If they start dragging the adults out, then the adults will want to stay fit and enjoy it."

Build Character, Too

As good for you as physical exertion is, it's only half the story. "Climbing is very holistic, left and right brain, really balanced," says Franklin. "It doesn't teach you just one pathway."

In a world of conformity, climbing celebrates creativity. It presents challenges that must be figured out through individual interpretation. But it is't all fun and games. Frustrations happen. Sometimes the strength goes first, sometimes the focus, sometimes the nerve.

When a child falls away from the wall, a parent on belay shares the experience whether or not any words of advice are offered. Rock climbing can be a wonderful forum for learning - how to set goals, be patient, accept responsibility, perservere, be disciplined and take control. I''s in tune with the Teddy Roosevelt credo of getting into the arena, getting dirty and giving your all. "Children learn how to handle fear, how to approach failure and how to succeed with character," O'Connor says.

And sometimes they do a little teaching themselves. "Kids know how to use their bodies, and they know how to have a good time," says Franklin. "They're not concerned with the rules of the game. Gravity is the only rule."

Be Cool- Together

"Rad move, Mom!" Could there be three more precious words for an adventurous parent? One of life's underappreciated truths is that most youngsters want nothing more than to spend time with Mom and Dad. And vice versa. Call it DNA attraction. This is especially true of younger children, but it also holds true with older kids-though many of them might not normally be caught dead admitting it.

Don't underestimate the potential of the coolness factor. "Teenagers rarely say anything cool about their parents, but if they've been climbing together, it gives them bragging rights," says Silber. "They can tell their friends,'Look at this cool thing we did together.' And you can really see it on the parents' faces too."

Parents might be pleasantly surprised by the opportunities that crop up when they're climbing with their often rebellious progeny. "With older kids, communication is especially important," says Silber. "When you're climbing and belaying each other, that requires trust. And trust is a vital aspect of family life."

The sport also presents a unique twist on the usual parent-child athletic interaction. "Climbing is not directly competitive," Franklin says. "If you're a full-grown man and you're playing a sport with your kids, there's a funny dynamic going on. It's either 'I'm letting them win' or you're in teaching mode.

But climbing allows you to interact nondirectly, so you can be real supportive and you can each find your own challenge. You don't have to be comparing yourseles with each other. Then the really interesting point is the convergence, when the kids and the parents are doing the same stuff."

Don't Spend an Arm and a Leg

Finally, climbing offers a big bang for your buck, whether you measure in time spent with your children or in dollars and cents. Parents today often find themselves having to choose between staying fit and spending time with their youngsters. Climbing together alleviates the need to choose.

The sport is also relatively inexpensive. You'll ned to buy or rent shoes and harnesses; most indoor facilities rent them, so you can try before you buy. Gyms provide ropes, belay devices and locking carabiners. Membership costs vary, but it's safe to say th bottom line will be a whole lot less than the price of joining an average youth hockey program. Figure on spending roughly $700-$1000 on an annual gym membership (not including rentals) for a family of four. It's a reasonable amount when you consider all the advantages of a shared pull on the rock. So get checked out, tie in and take to the wall.

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