Don’t Delay, Belay

If you’ve ever gone to the gym to work out, to run, or for a team practice, you know about the climbing wall. As soon as you walk in the doors of Gutterson Fieldhouse, there it is, a series and hand and foot holds attached to the two sloping walls of the far corner.

Little beknownst to most students, however, is the fact that the climbing wall is operated, maintained, and loved not by a nameless faceless University bureaucrat, but by the student members of the Climbing Club, a relatively new club to UVM. The Climbing Club was founded two years ago, when a group of climbing aficionados applied to the SGA for club status. Although affiliated with the Outing Club, with the majority of members of the Climbing Club being leaders or members of the Outing Club, the Climbing Club is separate from and not subordinate to it.

This leads to some discrepancy. The Outing Club does sponsor climbing trips, but these are not affiliated with the Climbing Club, although Climbing Club members may be leading or participating in the trip. The Climbing Club is basically concerned with indoor climbing, with the club activities and meetings mostly “revolving around the wall,” according to club member Brad Curth. The Climbing Club generally consists of those kids you see when you first walk into the gym, wearing harnesses around their waists, hanging from the ceiling by ropes, listening to loud bluegrass, and appearing to be among the small group of people that actually go to the gym and have fun.

Much of their time is spent climbing on the wall themselves, but they also manage the wall. It is the job of the Climbing Club members to keep the wall safe and in good condition, store and lend out equipment and, perhaps most importantly, help newcomers to use the equipment to climb the wall.

Anyone that can get to the gym can use the climbing wall, which – a new development this year – is free to all. Regardless of your climbing skill, or whether you’ve even climbed before, the club members will lend you any equipment you need, including shoes, teach you everything you need to know, and guide you on the difficulty level of each route and which is probably best for you. There is a lot to know about climbing before you can actually climb, but luckily the Climbing Club members are willing and eager to help anyone with questions. Wanting to climb the wall myself, I had some questions of my own for the club members.

The first step to climbing the wall is to put on climbing shoes and a harness. Only the very bold or very stupid climb without shoes on (whether they are bold or stupid basically depends on their level of expertise – the better you are, the more risks you can take). The next step is to tie on a rope to the harness, a rope that is attached at the other end to the harness of a Climbing Club member. This person, the person with the other end of the rope, is called the belayer.

Belay is French for “hold fast”, according to club president Josh Kowalski, and that is an apt description of the belayer’s job – to hold onto your rope, keeping you steady and helping you down when you are done. Tied fast to my belayer, club member Nick Meltzer, I climbed a few easy routes that he kindly recommended to me. There are several such routes (a route being a series of hand and foot holds on the face of the wall, generally going from the bottom to the top) on the wall for beginners or people who just want to try the wall out once, but there are also some difficult routes, mainly reserved for the experts.

To be technically accurate, the route with the highest difficulty rating on the wall is a 5.11 (5.16 being the hardest route that anyone, anywhere, has climbed so far). This rating comes from the Yosemite Decimal System, an American rock climbing scale of difficulty rating. The number before the decimal, in this case the five, represents the grade (slope) of the climb, one being flat.

This part of the scale goes all the way up to five. The number after the decimal, in this case the eleven, represents the difficulty of the climb. There is no cap for this number, as people (along with their equipment) are continually getting better, and doing harder and harder climbs, but the most difficult climb thus far has been a .16.

The Climbing Club is mainly in charge of the climbing wall, but they also manage and maintain the bouldering hall, a long stretch of hallway covered in holds. The bouldering hall is for horizontal climbing, and requires an entirely different technique and different muscles to climb. The series of hand and foot holds on the hallway walls are called problems instead of routes, and their difficulty is measured differently than that of routes.

Bouldering problems have a V System for difficulty – ranging from V0 (lowest) to the hardest climbed so far, a V15, though again there is no cap on this. The bouldering hall in the gym goes to a difficulty of V5.

The Climbing Club does not rent out equipment for the bouldering hall, and using the hall does not require the members being there, as the wall does. However, the club members will advise anyone who is interested in bouldering techniques. The hall is currently closed due to a leak in the ceiling of the hall, but the problem is in the process of being located and fixed. In addition to its role in the gym at the wall and the hall, the Climbing Club is also involved in climbing competitions. Club members have gone to a few competitions, their most recent one being “Maine Bound”, at the University of Maine.

The club, looking to expand its role in competitions and trying to get more UVM affiliates (students and faculty alike) involved in climbing, has hit upon a solution to both problems at once. The Climbing Club will hold it’s first annual UVM competition on April 2-3, in the Gutterson Fieldhouse. The bouldering competition will take place on the second and the climbing wall competition will take place on the third, each competition being open to any and all UVM affiliates.

To participate in the competition, you can contact Kowalski and the rest of the club through the Climbing Club listserv, at [email protected], or just show up and register at eleven in the morning on April second or third, prepared to climb at noon.

The listserv is open for any questions regarding the climbing club, including how to join. The Climbing Club members themselves are happy to answer questions, and can be found at the wall Sunday through Thursday from five to ten at night, and Friday and Saturday from four to seven.