Sunday, July 07, 2002

Caught between a rock and a hard place

By Shannon Russell,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Just this week I stumbled upon a genealogical fact that you may find both chilling and shocking: I am in no way related to comic book superhero Spider-Man.

        This came as an enormous surprise Wednesday afternoon when I arrived at Sharonville's Rock-Quest Climbing Center with the intent of scaling 40-foot vertical walls for Summer Recreation Adventure No. 5, only to learn that my true genes are instead directly linked to lesser-known superheroine Pancake Woman, who can flatten evil villains by flailing her arms and plummeting from high altitudes.

        The kind RockQuest instructors informed me that I was in luck, because indoor climbing is sweeping the nation. This is partly because it's an exciting alternative to gym workouts and also because it's appropriate for nearly anyone regardless of age, height, weight, blood type, juggling abilities or ancestral ties to the arachnid family.

    Before there was indoor rock climbing, there was the great outdoors.

    And to many local enthusiasts, there's no better place to climb.

    “I've been climbing for 30 years, long before there was any of this gym stuff,” Ohio Climbers Association president Bill Strachan said. “There's so much rock in Ohio, there's never been a problem keeping climbing places available.”

    There are six public climbing areas in Ohio, including Eden Park's old reservoir wall (Cincinnati), John Bryan State Park (Yellow Springs) and Paint Creek Lake (between Hillsboro and Chillicothe). Many of the areas require permits, and calling ahead is encouraged.

    Reading resident Tim Eppstein learned about outdoor climbing as a Boy Scout and grew up exploring routes from Kentucky's Red River Gorge to California's Mount Whitney.

    While the outdoor environment provides an open, natural atmosphere that indoor gyms can't duplicate, it also presents added risks.

    “The scariest instance I can remember was when I was rock climbing in West Virginia and a tree broke off above us,” Eppstein said. “Debris and rock hit the ground all around us, and the tree landed right where my friend had been standing.”

    Travis Baker of Fairfield has been climbing for more than a year and likes the outdoors because it's peaceful and relatively secluded. But when the weather is bad or he wants to brush up on techniques, nearby climbing gyms provide a convenient alternative.

    Regardless of setting, Oakley resident Ginger Geiger likes the social aspect of top-rope climbing, which requires at least two people. Indoors or out, she always anticipates an elaborate exercise experience.

    “You have to prepare yourself physically and mentally, because (climbing) works out your entire body,” Geiger said. “No matter where you are, you're always thinking about where you need to put your feet and hands next.”

        Hurrah! Rock climbing would be a cinch! If ANYONE could do it, I suspected it would be me, able to excel magnificently while toting a hand-fan and canteen of iced tea. I immediately enlisted the help of my dad, Harry, 54, who retired precisely one week ago and is looking for a new hobby. Also in attendance was my sister Kit, who has managed to attend three of five adventures and should be limber enough to join the circus by the summer's end.

        Ryan Shrout, a two-year instructor, explained that there are three types of climbing among the 20,000 square feet of walls (bouldering, top-rope climbing and lead climbing), but the important one we needed to worry about was B.) top-rope climbing, which is ideal for beginners.

        After we signed a lengthy waiver affirming we would not be overly irate if we abruptly fell to our deaths, Ryan issued our required climbing gear. We were relieved to see it was NOT red-and-blue Spider-Man Spandex. Instead, he doled out unflattering medieval contraptions hereto referred to as “harnesses,” because they were in fact harnesses.

        “These are harnesses,” Ryan explained, expertly showing us how to secure the black straps around our waists and legs. “They allow you to attach to the ropes as a climber or belayer.'

        Be-whatter? Kit and I suppressed giggles while Harry committed every technological term to memory, which was actually very smart in light of the WRITTEN EXAM we sooned learned we'd be taking for climbing certification.

        Ryan's crash course in Climbing 101 went something like this: In the top-rope discipline, a climber is attached to a rope that loops over a giant metal bar on the ceiling and comes back down to the ground. A BELAYER is the climber's partner who is literally anchored to the ground and climber's rope, and who picks up the climber's slack as they ascend. The belayer is responsible for not letting the climber fall. It is probably wise to choose a belayer who neither bears ill will toward you, nor wishes to see you squashed.

        The climber, meanwhile, must grab on to randomly scattered holds of varying sizes while nimbly defying the laws of gravity with the grace of a ballerina and the strength of a large ox. To very unique people, whose DNA is based purely on caffeine, this sport is actually considered fun. I, too, was very excited about climbing prospects until I noticed that the floor was strategically covered with actual rocks.

        “Where's the safety net?” I asked.

        “Well,” Ryan said, “there isn't one.”

        As I evaluated the true importance of my bones, I realized I would like to keep them intact for the next 50 years. I suggested that a giant mattress, or a fancy retractable trampoline, might assuage first-timers' fears. Ryan explained that the rocks not only simulate true outdoor conditions but absorb the impact under a belayer if a climber should lose footing.

        After learning safety procedures, identifying equipment and learning to tie crucial knots, Ryan administered the surprise written test, which included very hard questions such as: “What is the square root of 425,104?” and “What are the components of a paramecium?”

        I began as the belayer while Harry began the first climb. His initial doubts seemed to fade as he climbed one rung after the other, surpassing a distance of about two stories.

Shannon Russell learns rockclimbing with her father Harry and sister Kit from instructor Ryan Shrout at RockQuest Climbing Center.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        Then it was my turn. Here is the absolute truth: YOU CANNOT LAUGH WHILE ROCK CLIMBING. As I attempted to establish footing, I discovered that I possessed the grace of a hiccupping wombat.

        Hoisting myself to the next rungs became increasingly impossible, even when I wasn't laughing, thanks to a complete lack of arm strength. The hardest part is maintaining balance while taking semi-large lunges, which is something I'm proud to say I improved during the climb. I gained confidence as a I climbed — despite my decreasing proximity to the ground — until my arms were simply worn out.

        Finally, when surrender was unavoidable, I informed my belayer (Kit) of my plans and pulled away from the wall. Unfortunately, I hadn't climbed too much taller than Kit's actual height, and nearly landed squarely on her head. This was exactly the time I abandoned my Spider-Man delusions and accepted my destiny as Pancake Woman.

        Kit then took over as climber and zipped straight to the top, a distance of four stories, in less than 15 minutes. Never mind that she bears an alarming resemblance to me. She is obviously adopted.

        “Rock climbing is a tremendous workout,” said Harry, who insisted he wanted to return. “But I liked it because you can set your own goals and try to surpass your last height.”

        We agreed.

        After some more hard work and a few more visits, I might become a climbing expert. And then Spider-Man better watch out.


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