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Peaking Popularity

Rock Climbing Has Gained a Foothold at Local Gyms


Rock climbing can be a matter of life and death.

Reaching out your arms for that elusive hold, smearing your climbing shoes across a flat stretch of vertical rock and focusing your last bit of energy on a bump of stone the size of a quarter--with such maneuvers, rock climbing is serious business.

Luckily, that isn't where most climbers start out.

"Lately, there's been an explosion of gym climbing," said Scott Lappi, an amateur indoor and outdoor climber who has spent more than $2,000 to build a small training wall in his Ventura apartment. "Most of the people I talk to these days have had their first climbing experience in gyms."

On local artificial climbing walls, climbers practice on imitation rock with man-made handholds that provide a safer, more controlled environment. On such a wall, climbers are strapped into a harness and monitored by an instructor on the ground. The instructor assists the climber as he or she ascends, which is known as belaying--giving the rope slack to allow the climber to continue or locking off the belay device if the person begins to fall.

"It's exhilarating, and like any other type of exercise, it's challenging," said Darren Odgers, climbing instructor and fitness trainer at the Ventura County Athletic Club. "If it's raining outside, then you can climb inside. And it's very good for strength training."

And training is one of the main goals of those braving an artificial wall.

Kevin Wilcox is the climbing instructor at Ojai Valley School, where the wall and the school's ropes course were rebuilt this summer after being damaged in last December's Ranch fire. Wilcox practices on the private campus' artificial wall by climbing up and down, side to side and even in circles. He only stops when he simply gets too tired or falls.

"It's great for training, and it's a great environment for novice rock climbers," he said. "The drawback is that it's quite a bit different from natural rock climbing; the experience [outdoors] is more mentally challenging."

Lappi agreed, saying that outdoor and indoor climbing are worlds apart.

"I still climb indoors, but outdoors there's no limit to the difficulty of it," he said. "You're outside and in nature and it's much more of an adventure setting. They are two totally different sports."

Instructors say there are three types of indoor climbers. There's the novice who will try it just once. Then there's the regular climber content on an artificial wall who never plans to venture outdoors to more dangerous, natural rock climbs. Finally, the third type will use the artificial wall to gain the experience needed to rock climb at local outdoor sites, such as Sespe Wall in Ojai, Foothill Crag in Ventura or Gibraltar Rock near Santa Barbara.

Trevor Beridon, a 28-year-old from Ventura who recently started rock climbing, said he tried artificial walls twice before switching to natural climbs.

"It's more gratifying to climb on real rock," Beridon said. "I try to get up to Sespe Wall a couple times a week where it's more like face climbing, though you're more subject to slip. And you can get a little spooked."

Kimie Golis, a climbing regular at the Ventura County Athletic Club, said she really enjoys "bouldering," a style of climbing reserved for smaller rocks or boulders that don't require being harnessed to a rope.

"Bouldering is much harder, because the holds are a lot different," she said. "I never come back without a bruise or a scrape, and you're not in a harness so all you have is a crash pad" to break your fall.

"I prefer natural rock any day," said the 33-year-old Odgers. "Natural rock is tougher on the hands, but it reminds me of being a kid again and it keeps you positive."

Over the past decade, artificial climbing walls have evolved from oversized Pegboards into a one-size-fits-all adult jungle gyms. The walls have begun to surface at health clubs, rock-climbing gyms, private schools and youth camps worldwide.

"I got into it because it's such an adrenaline rush," said Lappi. "But I'll never be climbing [outdoors] five days a week again, because you find that the meaning you got into it for changes over time. Now I find that it restores balance to my life."

The Phoenix Ranch Summer Day Camp in Simi Valley has woven its artificial climbing wall into its daily rotation of sporting activities. The wall is 15 feet high with two sides, offering beginning and intermediate climbs.

As many as 60 kids climb the wall daily, according to camp specialist Louis Estrada, whom the campers call "Hawk." He said he fell into his position after working at the camp for six years.

"I'm having a blast," he said. "It's a great thing to see a child who hasn't gotten up [the wall] five days in a row come out and just make it."

The Conejo Valley YMCA's three-sided monster is 35 feet high and is constructed to offer a variety of climbing routes. It even gives athletes a chance to practice rappelling, or backing down a rock face using a rope secured to the top.

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