The highest we ever got

By Jakob Wartman

Showing up to climbing club on time is a mistake. My advice for anyone who plans on joining the group which meets at 6:45 p.m. every Tuesday, is to show up a little early. I came on time and was informed that I had just missed the belaying class on the side of Doty.Adam Bidwell ’11 had taken it upon himself to demonstrate belaying by removing the screen and climbing down from his third story Doty dorm room.

“Apparently the RHD didn’t think that it was structurally safe to be climbing up the side of Doty,” Bidwell said. “A lot of people thought I was just going to jump out my window.”

Climbing has been around since man saw a mountain and decided that it would be an admirable goal to scale it. There is evidence of men climbing rocks depicted in Chinese watercolors from 400 B.C. But climbing as a sport didn’t really take off until the last quarter of the 19th century when English, Germans and Italians couldn’t get enough of it.

Now climbing is a worldwide sport that exists anywhere there are climbable rocks or even where there aren’t. It is a sport of endurance, determination, and precise calculation. Climbing tests the body’s strength, agility, and coordination, all while the body hangs precariously on a precipice. It is a sport that is, frankly, not for the faint of heart.

The 30 or so students who gathered outside Weyerhauser were not faint of heart, but I was. Raised in Minnesota I have become one with the flat earth and am a firm believer in adhering to the guiding laws of gravity (mainly the -9.8 m/s2 that is constantly acting on us).

Maggie McKenna ’08 and Sophia Kast ’08 were my “guides” for the night and after we had shuffled into various cars and the one van provided by the school, we were off. We managed to fit five comfortably in McKenna’s Subaru and I rode in back listening to Bidwell and McKenna discuss climbing gear and other technical stuff that sounded more like quantum mechanics than climbing, but by the sixth mention of finger jamming we had arrived.

I had seen a climbing wall before but what awaited me at Vertical Endeavors surprised me. Picture a gym without any gym equipment, or rooms, just thousands of square feet of climbing wall. The whole place reminded me of a Bally’s or Lifetime Fitness Center but the staff was much younger, relaxed and all around chill. Most of the experienced climbers in the group headed straight to climb while the new people waited around like cattle being led to the slaughter.

After we had signed our lives away, we were taken on a tour by a Jeff Daniels look alike who sported Euro sunglasses and a bit too much cologne. We saw the many different climbing routes, went over safety, learned how the automatic belay machines worked and went up to the bouldering cave (it was on the upper level and if it had a whirlpool would have been an awful lot like the Playboy grotto). Kast informs me that the club would love to offer outdoor climbing, but the liability risks are just too great.

After the intro, everybody goes their own way and I am left to mill around contemplating whether I would attempt to climb anything. Climbing gyms are a little intimidating mostly because everyone is really buff. But they aren’t only buff, they are agile, careful and not afraid of heights.

It is pretty obvious that I am acting awkward. Maggie and Sophia approach and ask if I am going to climb anything. I manage to ward off that question with one of my own. I learn that people get into climbing for all sorts of different reasons. Some people climb because they fear snakes, because they break up with a boyfriend around Valentine’s day or just do it because they always have.

It’s obvious that by talking to these two I am cutting into their climbing time, so I let them go. I sit back and watch people who closely resemble spiders with their vertical dexterity and speed.

I walk around for a bit and see that there is a huge range of climbers in the Macalester group. Some are content to attempt the easiest routes (called 5.6-5.7) while others are climbing much more difficult routes (5.10 a/b/c-5.11 a/b).

The ratings are lost on me, but I can tell which are hard (they all are) and which are harder. I stumble upon a group of 12-and 13-year-olds climbing the wall blindfolded. Yes, blindfolded. I look, shake my head, and continue to search for a wall or a bench that is calling my name.

By the end of our two hours I have yet to even attempt a climb. But I have learned a lot about climbing. McKenna excitedly tells me about her experience in a climbing competition and the possibility of introducing a competitive aspect to the club. And I can see why she has such enthusiasm. Many of the Macalester climbers are quite talented.

But the club isn’t about competition. It is about bonding with each other, and more importantly learning about yourself and what you are capable of doing.

Tony Carr ’08 sums it up by referring to a recent Mac Weekly article. “Climbing is something like parkour, but slower and more calculated,” Carr said. “It is kind of a hyper-rational sport.”

I never do attempt a climb but instead choose to sit back and get lost in the motions and talent some people possess 30 to 40 feet off the ground.