- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2007

Walking through the doors of Earth Treks’ newest rock-climbing center, in Rockville, is like entering a giant man-made cave. The climbing walls in red and orange rise to more than 44 feet. The total climbing space exceeds 15,000 square feet.

Chris Everett, spokesman for Earth Treks Climbing Centers, says the indoor climbing gym is one of the largest in the country.

That’s not hard to believe. The year-old Rockville gym, the newest in the three-center Earth Treks chain, offers rock climbing daily for all levels. All Earth Treks centers are in Maryland; SportRock Climbing Centers, the main competitor, has two Virginia locations and one in Maryland.

No experience is needed; all equipment can be rented on-site, and staff is always on hand for instruction. However, Mr. Everett recommends that newcomers take a quick introductory course offered several times a week. Some of the weeknight courses cater to participants 14 and older; weekend classes are geared toward children ages 6 to 13 and their parents or guardians.

“I think rock climbing can be a great family activity,” Mr. Everett says. “It’s all about trust and taking responsibility. … It can be a real bonding experience.”

Most climbing is done in pairs. One person climbs, and the other stands on the floor securing the climber. The introductory course covers basic techniques such as tying knots and belaying (the on-ground person securing the climber with a rope so if the climber falls, he or she won’t fall very far) as well as safety.

“Safety is very important — rock climbing is not a safe sport — and taking one of the introductory courses will teach you the basics,” Mr. Everett says.

Aside from general climbing, the center also offers party space — one of the deep indentations or alcoves in the circular cave — for birthdays, bachelor and bachelorette parties and corporate festivities. Because the winter season is prime time for rock-climbing centers, Mr. Everett recommends booking up to five or six weeks in advance.

“We’ve had up to six birthday parties in one day,” says Kevin Kirkpatrick, who works the front desk at the Rockville location. “It’s very popular.”

Another aspect of climbing gyms that is becoming increasingly popular is bouldering, which means climbing without a harness or ropes, Mr. Everett says. Bouldering is assigned a specific area in the gym. The walls are lower, and the floor is extra-padded because, unlike rope climbers, climbers who are bouldering will fall all the way to the floor if they lose their grip.

Speaking of grips, the walls at the Rockville gym are peppered with holds (about 5,000 in all) of varying sizes and shapes. Climbers grasp and step on them during each ascent. The colors — red, blue and everything in between — have nothing to do with the difficulty of the route. That’s indicated by colored tape fastened underneath the holds.

The holds have names indicating their type.

“Slopes are large rounded holds, and crimps are small holds just big enough for three or four fingers,” Mr. Kirkpatrick says.

The difficulty is not decided just by the type of hold (smaller and smoother is harder than large and edgy) but also by the route setting and the lean of the wall. Climbing an overhang, for example, requires a great deal of abdominal and arm strength, Mr. Everett says.

“You’re generally trying to keep your center of gravity over your legs,” he says. “Climbing is a great workout. It tones and builds core body strength without creating bulk.”

To keep it challenging and fun for frequent climbers, Earth Treks staff members often change the climbing routes, says Mr. Everett, who started climbing more than two decades ago. Back then, rock climbing was not at all as accessible as it is today with so many indoor gyms having opened in the past 10 years. Also, many area health and fitness centers have climbing walls, albeit not on the same scale as at Earth Treks and SportRock centers.

“I think rock climbing is much more accessible than it used to be,” Mr. Everett says, “and it’s not very gear-intensive, especially not compared to other extreme sports. It’s not like you have to invest in a $2,000 mountain bike or kayak.”

The low cost can be another reason to introduce it to children who may or may not pursue it long term, he says.

Beyond that, rock climbing also can teach life skills like few other sports, Mr. Everett says.

“It teaches trust and responsibility, and in the end, it helps build self-esteem based on true accomplishment,” he says.

When you go:

What: Earth Treks Climbing Center

Where: 725 Rockville Pike, Rockville

Admission: Fees start at $16 for a day pass. Equipment can be rented separately ($5 for a harness, $2 for a belay device, for example) or in $11 packages that include harness, shoes, chalk bag and belay device.

Memberships are available starting at $65 a month per person, including access to the gym’s treadmills and weight equipment, or $100 a month for a family membership. Family memberships include two family members; a $10 fee is added for each additional family member.

Introductory courses cost $30 per person for the weekend family type and $35 per person for the course geared toward participants 14 and older.

Hours: Noon to 10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays November through March but until 6 p.m. Saturdays April through October; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.

Parking: Free parking in lot.

Metro:Rockville on Metro’s Red Line; the gym is located four blocks south of the station.

Information: Click on www.earthtreksclimbing. com/rockville.html or call 240/283-9942.

Miscellaneous:

• The Earth Treks center offers only limited food service (Power Bars and such) but there are several eateries within walking distance.

• Other Earth Treks centers are in Columbia and Timonium, Md.

• SportRock Climbing Centers is the other big indoor rock-climbing chain in the area. It has three locations: Alexandria and Sterling in Virginia and Rockville. For more information, click on www.sportrock.com or call 703/212-7625.

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