- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 9, 2003

Julia Streich clings like a gecko to the underside of a rock ledge, straining for the handhold she needs to pull herself over the hump that’s just out of reach. Three times she tries and three times she can’t quite find a way to keep from slipping and make it to the top of the 40-foot rock wall constructed inside the Sportrock climbing gym in Alexandria.

“I’m tired. I can do it, just not today,” she declares as her boyfriend, Gene Hundertmark, 29, gently lowers her to the ground by a rope attached to her climbing harness.

“She’s shorter, so it’s harder for her,” explains Mr. Hundertmark. He’s a foot taller than Ms. Streich, who at 5 feet 6 inches can just brush the top of her auburn hair against his chin.

Rock climbing brought the two of them together about three years ago. Ms. Streich, 26, says that’s just one of the many benefits the sport brings her.

“There’s just something about climbing that clears my head,” she says.

There’s something about rock climbing that attracts a lot of people. Whether it’s because of the chance to defy death or serious injury, or the challenge of scaling seemingly impossible heights or just the promise of a workout, the sport has grown in popularity in recent years.

“You have to unlock the puzzle that’s presented by the rock. It’s a mental as well as a physical game,” says Mike Personick, a 26-year-old University of Virginia graduate student spending his summer break honing his skills and keeping fit.

He says he prefers climbing to weight lifting, which he calls boring.

The concentration required by the sport makes it “a good workout for people with ADD,” he says, referring to attention-deficit disorder.

• • •

Climbing enthusiasts like the Washington area for the same reasons early settlers were drawn here — the city sits along the fall line, a low cliff that separates the rocky outcroppings and mountains of the Appalachian region from the gentle slopes of the eastern coastal plain, meaning some of the best climbing spots on the East Coast are nearby. The area’s mild climate allows outdoor activities most of the year.

Popular spots for climbing can be found just minutes from the city, in Great Falls Park on the Virginia side of the Potomac River and at Carderock along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in Maryland. Climbers cling to the cliffs along Mather Gorge near Great Falls on sunny summer days as tourists snap photos of the rushing water and kayakers shoot the rapids, all under the whine of airliners using Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

More experienced and adventurous climbers travel four hours or more to the rugged mountain wilderness areas of West Virginia and scale the cliffs of Seneca Rocks or the New River Gorge.

At each location, climbing routes are mapped out along the cracks and bumps left from millennia of wear on the rocks by wind, water and weather. They have poetic names such as Romeo’s Ladder and Juliet’s Balcony (popular routes at Great Falls), or more practical ones, such as Broken Neck or The Burn (at Seneca Rocks). Tradition gives the first person to climb a route the right to name it.

Each route is rated for difficulty according to what is known as the Yosemite Decimal System, a modification of a rating system devised by the celebrated German Alpinist Willo Welzenbach and used in the United States since 1937. The scale goes from class 1, which is a flat path with no slope, to class 5, routes which require knowledge of technique and the use of safety equipment.

Most climbers focus on class 5 routes, which are rated from 5.0 to 5.13, depending on difficulty. The highest numbers are reserved for climbs on surfaces where there are no apparent handholds or footholds and the climber must go under an overhanging rock. Climbs above 5.9 were thought impossible until determined climbers tackled them, and now some experienced climbers sneer at anything less challenging.

• • •

The sport’s popularity also has spawned indoor climbing gyms such as Sportrock, where veteran climbers can shrug off bad weather and beginners can learn in a controlled environment. The first Sportrock gym opened in Rockville in 1994; a third is in Sterling. The three Sportrock gyms have hundreds of members, says manager Dan Hague, declining to give an exact figure.

Dr. Maura Sughrue, 47, a family physician in Fairfax and a climber for two years, is among those who turn to indoor climbing gyms for practice. “It’s been horrible this year to climb [outdoors] because of the rain,” she says.

Rock climbing can be a dangerous sport. It’s also strenuous — climbing burns more calories than jogging. But it’s easier to get started in climbing than most people think, says Mr. Hague.

“Because climbing up to a certain level is mostly technique-based, it doesn’t require a lot of strength to do it,” he says. Balance and knowing how to hold on are as important as strength, he says.

Sportrock and other indoor gyms offer classes and equipment for climbers, using walls of varying slopes built with metal frames, plywood and concrete “rock” faces. The handholds are molded from an epoxy compound and can be moved to vary the climbing experience, Mr. Hague says.

The indoor walls also allow for instruction on the different types of climbing. There’s more than one way to scale a rock, Mr. Hague says, including low-risk options for the fainthearted and less-strenuous ones for beginners to build up their strength.

• • •

The safest is what is known as “top-rope” climbing, where the climber wears a harness attached to one end of a safety rope drawn through a pulley-like device anchored at the top of the climb. Below the lone climber at the other end of the rope (and usually, but not always, on the ground at the bottom of the climb) is a “belayer,” someone whose job is to pull the rope tight if the climber loses his or her grip, and lower the climber gently to the ground.

Top-rope climbing is the norm in locations like Great Falls, where the only access to the rocks is from the top, and climbers must scamper down to the narrow Potomac shore before they can inch their way up.

If a climber can’t set up a safety rope at the top, he or she will use the “leading” method, which is climbing with a rope attached to the harness and anchoring the rope to the rock at set intervals as he or she goes up. The belayer will follow at the other end of the rope.

It’s a more risky method of climbing, Mr. Hague says. If the climber loses his or her grip he or she would fall the distance to the last anchor, which could pull out if not properly set.

“[Leading] makes it significantly more dangerous. You’re falling faster and there’s less control,” Mr. Hague says.

Riskiest of all is “soloing,” the art of climbing without safety equipment. Closer to the ground, it’s known as “bouldering,” because it consists mostly of scampering over large, low rocks.

The American Sport Climbers Federation’s safety guidelines recommend against climbing alone, and only the most daredevil climbers do it, Mr. Hague says.

“Most of us are sane — we don’t free solo,” he says.

The guidelines also recommend climbers use and maintain the proper gear for the type of climbing they want to do.

The minimum needed for indoor climbing is a good pair of climbing shoes, a harness and belay device, chalk to help grip the rock and a bag for the chalk — about $200 worth of gear.

“Try to get into golf for that,” Mr. Hague jokes.

Outdoor climbing adds another $200 or so to the tally, primarily for a good rope.

• • •

Climbers also can choose whether to be competitive. Teresa Oaxaca, 15, jumped at the chance to test her skills against other climbers two years ago, and last year finished fifth in the nation among girls in her age group.

“It’s suspenseful and it’s nice knowing how you are compared to other people,” says Teresa, a sophomore at Woodlawn High School in Arlington.

She says the competition keeps her too busy studying the rock to be scared. “I’m concentrating on the route and how to make the next move.”

Climbing is more of a social activity for Tilling Lee. The 31-year-old native of Malaysia sees the sport as a chance to get together with like-minded friends and explore the natural beauty of the Washington area, where she has lived for the past 10 years.

“Climbing is all about yourself. You’re not competing with people,” says Ms. Lee, as she takes a break from practicing her climbing technique.

She started coming to the climbing gym about four years ago, became friends with the instructors and was hooked. Now she comes twice a week for practice and as a break from her job as an analyst for a consulting firm. She also joined with a group that rented an apartment in Fayetteville, W.Va., near the New River Gorge, so they could climb there on weekends.

“I still have a lot to learn. A lot of these people are really good,” she says.

The social scene at the indoor gyms is just part of the many formal and informal networks that bond climbers.

“Climbing is very much a group effort, and that makes it fun. You have to really trust your partner,” says Dr. Sughrue, co-coordinator of the Washington-Baltimore chapter of Sheclimbs Inc., a national club for women climbers. The local chapter has about 40 members, including some men.

“That’s not a heavily advertised fact,” Dr. Sughrue says.

Ms. Streich credits the social value of climbing for her relationship with Mr. Hundertmark. She had been dating a non-climber, but that relationship wasn’t meant to last, she says.

“I just decided that I needed to climb more than I needed to see him,” she says. “He was jealous of my climbing because he thought I was spending too much time on it.”

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