The sport of mountain climbing has long attracted outdoor enthusiasts and adventurers. Traditionally, an experienced mentor would pass down the sport, guiding the novice to the best climbing spots, teaching them how to tie ropes and helping them navigate a rock face for the first time.
Wanda Gwinn, co-owner of Climb@Blue Ridge, an indoor climbing gym located in Taylors, South Carolina, (just outside Greenville) has been in the outdoor recreation industry for 30 years.
Gwinn was active in the river paddling community in 1980 when she and her ex-husband opened Sunrift Adventures. Sunrift started as a guide service and later expanded into a retail shop. The shop became a popular place for local climbers to get gear and exchange tips, including the famous duo of Buddy Price and Doc Bayne.
Price and Bayne made the ‘first ascent’ on many climbing routes in North Carolina, meaning they are credited with the first successful, documented attainment of the top of a mountain, or the first to discover a particular climbing route. First ascents entail genuine exploration, with greater risks, challenges, and recognition than climbing a route established by others.
Among the routes Price and Bayne discovered together are Zodiac and Good Intentions, both on the south face of Looking Glass Rock, as well as Full Tilt Boogie in the Linville Gorge. Doc Bayne did the first ascent at Bayne’s Corner in Cedar Rock on his own. Both men also partnered separately with a variety of fellow climbers, making their list of first ascents a long one. Gwinn had the good fortune of learning to climb under the tutelage of these two pioneers of rock climbing. “They just came into the shop one day and we started talking,” Gwinn recalls.
Ryan Beasley, owner and head guide at Rock Dimensions, had his first climb in 1984 in New Mexico and he was hooked. He and his high school buddies learned the sport through mentors, enlisting older guys with more experience to teach them. Then they would share what they learned with each other. Beasley is credited with many first ascents in the Western North Carolina area including Got Hops, American Dream, and Tanqueray at Little Wilson near Boone, North Carolina.
Over his 30 years of climbing, Beasley has watched the sport explode into a cross-training alternative fitness craze.
Will Black, manager at ClimbMax Climbing Center in Asheville, agrees. “People want to be fit, but they don’t want to plod on a treadmill for an hour. They’d rather challenge their body in a more interesting way,” Black says.
This huge growth in interest spurned the rise of a new way to climb: the indoor climbing gym.
When Gwinn helped the City of Greenville erect an outdoor climbing wall, she knew it was the beginning of a trend. “I saw how many people would wait in line on a Tuesday night for three ropes and I knew there was a market for it,” Gwinn says. In 1995 she and Cathleen Anderson opened the first commercial climbing gym in upstate South Carolina. Anderson eventually retired, and now Gwinn runs Climb@Blue Ridge with her husband Barry.
Climb@Blue Ridge offers top rope, lead climbing, and bouldering. Their climbing walls tower over 25 feet. There are 20 rope stations with three routes each, meaning 60 different climbs are available. A designated bouldering area rounds out the space.
Rock Dimensions is an adventure guide service that operates the outdoor climbing tower in Boone. The 40-foot tower is easy to spot, located adjacent to Footsloggers retail store, which specializes in climbing gear and apparel.
“The climbing tower is more of a tourist attraction,” Beasley admits. “There are three climbs, one for beginners where you’re more on your feet, one vertical, and then one overhanging where you rely more on arm strength.” In the summer the tower is open seven days a week, but in the winter it is by appointment only due to weather restrictions. According to Beasley, the majority of tower climbers are families, first time climbers, and beginners. He has seen kids as young as four successfully manage the low incline.
ClimbMax Climbing Center has a 40-foot wall outside, as well as a variety of top rope walls and bouldering stations inside. Black has noticed a wide range of clients utilizing the gym, from experienced climbers looking to build strength for hard-core weekend outdoor climbs, to new climbers looking for a fun way to stay in shape.
“Now that the sport has taken off,” Beasley observes, “you can speed up the learning curve at the climbing gym or by going out with a certified guide.”
Belay— To protect a roped climber from falling by passing the rope through, or around, any type of friction enhancing belay device. Before belay devices were invented, the rope was simply passed around the belayer’s hips to create friction.
Rappelling— (also called abselling in Britain, New Zealand, Australia, and Ireland) is controlled descent down a wall or rock face using ropes.
Anchor— An arrangement of one or (usually) more pieces of gear set up to support the weight of a belay.
Chalk— A compound used to improve grip by absorbing sweat. It is actually gymnastics chalk, usually magnesium carbonate.
Route— The path of a particular climb, or a predefined set of moves.
Problem— Used in bouldering, the path that a climber takes in order to complete the climb. Same as route in roped climbing.
TYPES OF CLIMBING:
Bouldering— Climbing a wall up to 14 feet without the use of ropes. A landing pad below allows the climber to drop safely to the ground after they’ve reached the top.
Lead Rope— The closest to outdoor climbing, typically climbers have their own equipment. This requires more training in order to safely lead others.
Top Rope— Using the security of a rope, a belay partner helps the climber safely ascend and descend. Usually requires an easy route to the top, either by foot path or otherwise.
CLIMBING FOR A CAUSE
If you want your climbing dollars to go towards a good cause, check out The Mountain Goat indoor climbing gym located in Greenville, South Carolina. They offer top roping and bouldering, with indoor walls ranging from 12 to 25 feet. The Mountain Goat funnels 100% of revenues into providing free climbing and outdoor trips for at-risk and under-resourced youth.
The Mountain Goat climbing gym is a division of GOAT (Great Outdoor Adventure Trips, Inc.), a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Director Ryan McCrary founded GOAT in 2009. “I was working at an ad agency,” McCrary recalls, “but I loved climbing and outdoor things. At first I just started helping friends learn to climb, but then I saw it as a way to give back.”
GOAT partners with over 40 organizations. “They don’t have the resources to put together a trip or afford sessions at a climbing gym,” McCrary says, “so that’s where we come in.” The Mountain Goat provides access to indoor climbing, as well as outdoor adventures such as rafting, backpacking, and mountain biking to kids who would otherwise be unable to afford it.
Some of the clients they serve include The Frazee Center, Upstate Circle of Friends, The Boys & Girls Club, The Boys Home of the South, White Horse Academy, Generations Group Home, Neighborhood Focus, and KB Mission, to name a few.
Currently serving over 1,200 kids every summer, the program doesn’t just provide fun. They mentor kids to be leaders and even offer them jobs. One successful candidate now coaches their youth team.
ON THE PRECIPICE: SAFETY FIRST
As with any sport, safety is an important part of training. All climbing gyms require safety waivers, but according to Beasley this is just a legal precaution.
“We’ve never had anyone get hurt on the tower,” Beasley says. “They’re wearing a harness and attached to a rope with a certified staff member operating the belay.”
All staff members at Rock Dimensions have been certified by The Professional Climbing Instructors Association (PCIA). Beasley also teaches a wide variety of certified instructor courses such as Climbing Wall Instructor (CWI), Base Managed Climbing Instructor (BMCI), and Lead Climbing Instructor (LCI).
Stuart Cowles, owner of ClimbMax Climbing Center, teaches a Climbing Wall Instructor Certification Program in conjunction with the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA).
CLIFF-HANGER: ARE WOMEN BETTER CLIMBERS?
“When I started there weren’t many women in the outdoor scene,” Gwinn recalls. “It was usually me and five guys.” But since that time Gwinn has noticed a huge increase in the number of women involved in the sport. “In 1995 it was about 80% men and 20% women. Now it’s about 50/50.”
“Younger girls can definitely excel past the boys,” McCrary observes. “Some guys can’t handle how good the girls are. It levels the playing field.”
“Women are better climbers than men because they’re more graceful and have more finesse,” Gwinn says. “They also have less weight to carry.”
Although Stephanie Edwards regularly climbs at ClimbMax Climbing Center in Asheville, she had yet to attend a ladies night. But when instructor Michelle Tuday invited her to the very first ladies night of 2015, she decided to give it a try.
Some ladies nights have fun themes, like ugly sweaters, gold spandex, or super woman, encouraging the gals to adorn costumes or capes while climbing. The night Edwards attended the women enjoyed home-baked cookies between climbs.
Edwards found the atmosphere at ladies night to be more relaxed. “I get nervous when people are watching me climb, or if I think they’re watching me,” Edwards admits. Because of this she tends to climb in the mornings when less people are at the gym, but on this night the girls had the place all to themselves. “Michelle gave everyone individualized attention, she was very encouraging,” Edwards says. “It was more social than a typical night.”
Ladies night at ClimbMax Climbing Center is held on the first and third Mondays of the month, from 6pm to 10pm.
Climbing competitions can run the gamut from small local competitions geared towards fun and confidence building with sponsors offering prizes, to professional sports competitions where climbers qualify to compete at the regional, divisional, national, and even the international level.
ClimbMax hosts the Annual Fall Flash Fest, a local competition in its 20th year, which attracts climbers from all over the region. They also have a competitive climbing team, which is ability-based rather than age-based. The coach determines who is ready to move up.
“I love to see a person who comes in a complete beginner, maybe even afraid of heights, and watch them gain confidence and learn the sport,” Black says.
Although a team may attend a competition together and cheer each other on, climbing is an individual competition sport.
The national governing body of competition climbing in the United States is USA Climbing. The organization receives sanctioning and is recognized by The International Federation for Sport Climbing (IFSC), the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC).
“In November Mountain Goat hosts the only USA Climbing Competition in South Carolina where competitors can qualify for regionals,” McCrary says.
USA Climbing promotes three competition disciplines: bouldering, sport, and speed climbing.
Mountain Goat runs a Youth and Junior Team that practice twice a week under the guidance of a coach. They also have a Competition Team for advanced climbers wishing to compete at the local, regional, and national level.
Climb@Blue Ridge has a competitive team for climbers of all skill levels, they meet on Thursday nights, from 7-8:30pm.
Indoor climbing gyms offer day passes and memberships. They also host private birthday parties and special interest groups.
According to these experts, climbing is an activity appropriate for the entire family. “All shapes, sizes, and abilities can climb,” Beasley says. “The oldest person I took out was in his 70s.”
“I’m on the short side,” Edwards says, “so I can get frustrated when I can’t reach, but really it’s just an excuse.”
“A lot of kids climb everything in sight, like furniture and trees,” Black says. “It’s great to turn that into a structured activity they can do for life.”
ClimbMax Climbing Center offers an afterschool program for kids ages six to eighteen. Kids build strength and confidence climbing, but they also sharpen their problem-solving abilities. “It’s a puzzle as well as a workout,” Black says.
“Climbing is very much a problem-solving activity,” McCrary says. “There are a number of ways to get to the top.” The welcoming and fun environment naturally builds community. “Climbers help each other,” McCrary says. “At first someone might say, ‘I can never do that’. But then everyone encourages them to find their own way.”
Edwards has even designed an indoor route herself. “Anyone can do it with some training,” Edwards explains. “You want to try to mimic the outdoor routes so that it flows.”
Outdoor rock routes naturally offer more holds to choose from, so movement flows well. Whereas indoors each hold is carefully placed and colored tape helps to differentiate a route.
Unlike dull workout routines that feel like a chore, indoor climbing with its many techniques and variations naturally ignites a sense of adventure. “It makes you feel like a kid again,” Edwards says.
BEYOND THE GYM: REAL ROCK
“Some people never go out to real rock, they’re happy with the climbing wall,” Beasley says.
Many fitness seekers are satisfied with the ease and convenience of the indoor climbing gym. Indoor climbers are able to focus on technique without weather to contend with. They can also climb after dark, which is especially appealing in the winter months.
“To transition outdoors you need a guide to take you to the right place,” Gwinn says. “But at the gym, professionals can just drop in after work and get a great workout.”
“A novice can arrive at the gym with no equipment,” McCrary says. “We provide everything they need, including professional instruction so they can start climbing that day.”
But for those who do want to experience a more natural setting, Rock Dimensions offers a “Tower to Rock” program. Participants start out at the Tower in Boone, spending a couple hours in the morning learning the basics. After a break for lunch, they spend three to four hours in the afternoon having a real rock experience.
ClimbMax started a new program last summer called “Gym To Crag” to help gym climbers transition outside. The program covers risk management and safety, as well as outdoor etiquette, such as staying on established trails and leaving no negative environmental impact.
Beasley loves being out in the woods with friends where he can unplug and enjoy the community of climbers, but he admits clients vary widely in interest levels. “Often the people we take out to the rock just want to experience it and cross it off their bucket list,” Beasley says. “It may be the only time they climb outdoors.”
“I like climbing outside because you’re connected with nature,” Edwards admits. “But when it’s cold, it’s nice to come inside where you can feel your fingers and toes.”
301 Bulls Rd, Taylors, SC
43 Wall St, Asheville, NC
>The Mountain Goat
61 Byrdland Dr, Greenville, SC
139 S Depot St, Boone, NC
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