- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2004

Early January is a time when cabin fever can run high. It’s cold and dreary outside, and at least some Christmas gifts already have lost their appeal. This can be an excellent time to take restless children to a rock-climbing facility, where climbing walls can be educational and fun, not — as in the home — a nuisance and potentially dangerous.

“Most children love it,” says Jason Montecalvo, who teaches rock climbing at Sportrock, a climbing facility in Alexandria. “They’re natural climbers.”

Children generally are adventurous and agile and have a low percentage of body fat, all advantages in climbing, Mr. Montecalvo says.

Sportrock, which also has facilities in Sterling, Va., and Rockville, has classes for children age 6 and older, for whom parents must sign a waiver, says Angi Raub, general manager.

Younger children, even as young as toddlers, are allowed to climb with their parents or guardians — at their own risk.

“But the 2-year-olds usually just sit here on the counter with me and watch their parents climb,” Ms. Raub says. “They can’t really do much.”

The gym’s core membership consists of people ages 20 to 30. but the age range for members is 6 to 70, Ms. Raub says.

The cheapest climbs are $5 per climb. Sportrock also offers 90-minute classes for $20 on Friday nights for children 6 and older. All equipment is available for rental, but if the child is enrolled in a class, the equipment is included in the price.

If the child is not enrolled in a class, renting the full gear, including shoes and harness, costs $9. The child also has to pay a walk-up fee of $7 ($18 for adults). Visitors who choose to pay $5 per climb do not have to pay the walk-up fee, Ms. Raub says.

The Alexandria facility is 8,000 square feet, with more than 28,000 square feet of climbing wall, featuring climbing routes with varying degrees of difficulty. The tallest walls are more than 40 feet high.

Sportrock is not the only show in town. The Washington area features several rock-climbing gyms as well as health clubs and sporting-goods stores that have climbing walls.

Just inside Sportrock’s entrance is the “bouldering” area. This is a free-climb area where climbers ascend a 12-foot wall without safety ropes. In difficult places, the wall has overhangs.

Instead of the cracks and crevices that form in natural rock, these artificial rock walls contain “holds” that climbers can grip or use to stand. The beginner holds, “jugs,” create little shelves that are easy to grip and step on. The more advanced holds, “slopers,” are smooth and flat, making them close to impossible to grip or stand on. Below the wall are thick, blue gym mats. Now and then, you hear a big thump as someone loses grip and falls to the floor.

Most children don’t use this area because there are no safety ropes. They use the “top-rope” area, where they are fastened to a rope (through a harness) that’s threaded through a hoop at the top of the wall. The other end of the rope is held, or “belayed,” by an instructor. So, while maybe as high as 40 feet up in the air, the child can’t fall or drop any major distance.

“And most children are not fearful anyway,” Mr. Montecalvo says. “They treat this place as if it were a jungle gym.”

Children who get hooked on climbing may want to join Sportrock’s junior team, which enables them to work out weekly with instructors and compete in climbing competitions.

Some children, however, are initially very cautious and timid. For these children, learning how to climb takes time, but ultimately it can be a great way to overcome fear, Mr. Montecalvo says.

Climbing also can help develop independence, he says, because it forces the climber to make split-second decisions. Where should I grip next? Where should I put my foot next? No one but the climber can make that decision, he says.

“I think climbing teaches you self-reliance and builds self-esteem,” he says. “The kids will say, ‘I thought I couldn’t do this climb. I just found out I can. I wonder what else I can do?’”

WHEN YOU GO:

LOCATIONS:

• SPORTROCK HAS THREE FACILITIES: ALEXANDRIA, 5308 EISENHOWER AVE.; ROCKVILLE, 14708 SOUTHLAWN LANE; AND STERLING, VA., 45935 MARIES ROAD. FOR INFORMATION, CALL 703/212-7625 OR VISIT WWW.SPORTROCK.COM. WALK-UP PASSES ARE $18 FOR ADULTS AND $7 FOR CHILDREN AGES 12 AND YOUNGER.

• EARTH TREKS CLIMBING CENTER HAS TWO FACILITIES: COLUMBIA, MD., 7125-C COLUMBIA GATEWAY DRIVE, 410/872-0060; AND TIMONIUM, MD., 1930 GREENSPRING DRIVE, 410/560-5665. FOR INFORMATION, VISIT WWW.EARTHTREKSCLIMBING.COM. THIS ROCK-CLIMBING GYM, LIKE SPORTROCK, OFFERS ANNUAL MEMBERSHIPS, DAY PASSES AND CLASSES FOR ALL LEVELS OF CLIMBERS, WITH SPECIAL CLASSES FOR CHILDREN. DAY PASSES ARE $16 PER PERSON.

• GALYAN’S, 2 GRAND CORNER AVE., GAITHERSBURG, IS A SPORT AND OUTDOOR ADVENTURE STORE THAT OFFERS CUSTOMERS THE CHANCE TO TRY THEIR HANDS AND FEET ON A CLIMBING WALL. PARENTS MUST SIGN A WAIVER FOR CHILDREN YOUNGER THAN 18. FOR MORE INFORMATION: 301/947-0200 OR VISIT WWW.GALYANS.COM. CLIMBS COST $2 PER PERSON FOR AN UNLIMITED NUMBER OF CLIMBS.

• YMCA NATIONAL CAPITAL, 1711 RHODE ISLAND AVE. NW. THIS YMCA BRANCH HAS A CLIMBING WALL FOR ITS MEMBERS. FOR MORE INFORMATION: 202/862-9622 OR VISIT WWW.NATIONALCAPITALYMCA.ORG. CLIMBS ARE FREE WITH A YMCA MEMBERSHIP.

• RESULTS THE GYM, 315 G ST. SE, HAS A 38-FOOT WALL THAT OFFERS MORE THAN 1,200 SQUARE FEET OF CLIMBING SPACE. FOR MORE INFORMATION: 202/234-5678 OR VISIT WWW.RESULTSTHEGYM.COM. CLIMBS ARE FREE WITH GYM MEMBERSHIP.

NOTE: All locations have equipment for rent. The climbing gyms — Sportrock and Earth Treks — offer a full gear package, including shoes and harness, for $9 per person. The rock-climbing gyms also arrange birthday parties for children.

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