In Winter, Athletes Climb the Walls

Artificial cliffs let climbers practice year-round; they also are changing the nature of the sport

FOR today's climbers, traffic lights and weight rooms may be bigger obstacles than a thick stand of Douglas fir or granite slabs tumbled together by a careless glacier. It's not that crowded intersections or rows of bench presses are cluttering the base of Yosemite's Half Dome. Rather, rock climbing is moving indoors.

Artificial climbing walls, an idea imported from Europe a few years ago, have proliferated from New Hampshire to Oregon. Recreation centers, college athletic departments, and ``rock gyms'' devoted to climbing are exposing many more people to the sport, and changing the way people climb.

Climbing walls started in Britain in the 1960s ``because of the bad weather,'' says Nick Yardley, head guide at the International Mountain Climbing School (IMCS) here. Early walls tended to be short - only about ten feet high, but maybe 40 feet long so climbers could traverse.

Built out of brick or concrete, those early walls had permanent handholds, offering climbers little variety in routes. The French picked up on the idea in the '80s and improved it: They built taller walls with interchangeable holds for competition. The wall surfaces were covered with polyester resin and sand to give the feel of natural rock; the holds mimicked actual rock formations.

``Three years ago, there were three manufacturers of modular holds in Bend, [Ore.]'' says Chris Grover, president of Entre Prises there. Mr. Grover estimates that as many as 25 companies now make them.

Looking for a winter option

For the many dedicated climbers in this little town in the Mt. Washington valley, the long, cold months from November to March used to curtail climbing opportunities. Climbers would either trade their rock shoes for ice crampons or head off to places like Joshua Tree National Monument in Southern California to stay in shape.

Searching for local climbing options in the winter, Mr. Yardley and senior IMCS guide Jerry Handren, both professional climbers originally from Britain, began asking recreation clubs if they were interested in building an indoor artificial cliff. Mt. Cranmore Recreation Center took up the idea, and last March opened a $70,000 wall.

Nestled behind a cavernous warehouse filled with indoor tennis courts, the wall, designed by Mr. Handren and built by Entre Prises, is 30 feet high. On busy weeknights and weekends, Yardley says there are 15 to 20 people climbing at a time, but they've had as many as 70 people watching or waiting. (It costs about $10 to climb.)

The wall has been used for emergency training courses and climbing competitions. IMCS, which runs the wall concession for Mt. Cranmore to ensure safe climbing, teaches basic climbing there and is now starting a junior program to teach school children to climb. (Climbers are supported from the top of the wall by a rope, and no one is allowed to climb until he or she has passed a test on basic technique.)

The most important part of building such walls, says Grover, is to satisfy the sensation of touch. The types of sand and the viscosity of the polymer resins used must be carefully controlled in order to achieve a feel similar to natural surfaces, he says.

Steve Whitesler, who co-owns and built the Boston Rock Gym, agrees. ``We tried to simulate natural features - like what might be found on a natural cliff,'' he says.

As popular and successful as artificial walls are becoming, they are also changing the sport. They have eased some environmental strains, but exacerbated others. And while more people can learn the physical skills of climbing in a safer setting, a subsequent lack of technical skills can lead to trouble outdoors.

A positive change is that competitions are now held almost exclusively on artificial walls. That eliminates a lot of the environmental damage those events used to create.

``To make competition fair, you have to create a route that is completely new,'' says Yardley. ``People used to have to vandalize the cliff'' in order to establish a new route.

And since part of competition is crowd participation, large areas below cliffs would need to be cleared, often damaging the delicate growth and soil. Indoors, there is no environmental detriment, and spectators can get much closer to the action.

But the walls are also creating new concerns.

``Artificial walls have produced a generation of very skilled climbers who can not climb safely,'' says Paul Casaudoumecq, who learned to climb in Yosemite Valley in California.

``You get some yahoo who jumps on a real wall who doesn't know what he's doing, there are a potential number of problems,'' says Yardley. Indoor climbers used to being belayed by a top rope have no opportunity to perfect lead climbing (climbing without a belay) and anchoring techniques.

Exacerbating an bad trend

Indoor climbing may also have exacerbated what purists consider an obnoxious trend, says Mr. Casaudoumecq: affixing permanent climbing bolts to natural rock, instead of using cams and other removable equipment.

``Rock is a limited resource, and there are only so many routes that can be climbed,'' says Casaudoumecq. ``Instead of waiting until you're good enough, people take the risk out of the sport by bolting ahead of time, whereas before they would have had to wait until they had the guts to go for it without a bolt.

``It has gotten so bad that people have even drilled [modular] holds into the rock in Yosemite. Then people who don't like these bolts mangle the rock'' trying to chop the bolts off, he says.

But overall, climbers welcome the indoor walls as a way to stay in shape in the off season and expose more people to the thrill and challenge of climbing.

On its own, climbing has evolved: ``When climbing started, it was a sport to get up the mountain,'' says Entr Prise's Grover. ``It was a lunatic-fringe activity. The danger factor was sought and coveted. But the focus has changed from danger to gymnastics. Climbers now look for gymnastic difficulty rather than killing themselves.''

``If climbing stops evolving,'' adds Yardley, ``it won't be much fun. As long as it's fun, safe, and not hurting the environment, I don't see anything wrong with it.''

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