- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2002

Outdoor rock climbing is a gravity-defying exercise in strength, balance and mental tenacity. It also can be a rather relentless sport in which a simple misstep spells disaster.

An indoor climbing facility is much more forgiving than Mother Nature and perhaps a whole lot more fun, judging from the full house at Sportrock Climbing Center in Sterling, Va., on a recent Saturday.

Sportrock bills itself as a gym for recreational climbers. Housed in an industrial park, the facility comprises 10,000 square feet of state-of-the-art climbing walls. Attractions range from 40-foot-high sheer walls to slabs, stalactites, roofs, towers and bouldering caves, which simulate climbing through a cave.

The gym's walls, constructed of plaster-covered plywood, are coated with a sculpted textured finish. They are water-streaked to create a rocklike feeling. Each surface is covered with multicolored "holds," which are small outcroppings and crevasses the climbers use for leverage in scaling a wall.

The appeal of climbing is that "it really pushes your mind," says manager Stephen Kroutil. "You have to concentrate on where your next move will be. A lot of people look on it as a problem-solving sport. The more you push yourself, the more you have to focus on your movement, technique and balance."

He says children make up a large portion of his customer base. Indeed, many children were enjoying the sport the day we visited. Many were with birthday-party groups.

"Kids are natural climbers," Mr. Kroutil says. "I think it's that whole fear factor and challenging aspect of it. Kids just get so excited about wanting to go 40 feet in the air. They don't realize that they could fall and die."

He's kidding, of course. No one can fall and die at Sportrock because each climber is connected to an instructor via a harness and a "dynamic rope" attached to pulleys. Even if a climber lost a grip at the very top of a wall, he or she wouldn't fall very far.

"Sometimes kids will get scared," explained a 15-year-old instructor named Liana Murray, leaning into her ropes while my 13-year-old niece, Marina, grappled up a wall. "But we've never had anyone really stuck up there scared, because you can always get down."

By the way, with the help of anchors clipped to the ground, Liana was able, without breaking a sweat, to prevent my 245-pound husband from falling and dying as well.

Susan Supcoe of Leesburg was back for a second visit with her sons, Dan, 13, and Robbie, 7.

"I originally just thought it looked like something they'd like to try," she said of her sons, who also enjoy inline skating, football and basketball. "They really loved it, and that's why we're back. I'd much rather spend my money on this than just dropping them at the mall or something like that."

"I've always liked to climb," Dan said as he and his brother waited for an instructor to become available. "There's so many different walls, and it's more fun when you get to go higher."

"It's not scary because I know I'm held by a rope," said Robbie. "It makes me feel like Spider-Man, and it's exciting."

Another climber, Robyn Ayn Thomson, also of Leesburg, was killing a little time over the weekend while her husband was out of town. She said she had done quite a bit of indoor and outdoor climbing as a college student.

"I like to take challenges," she said. "You learn to do things you never thought you could do with your body, like hanging off of walls."

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