Rock climbing on the rise in Westchester

L-R: Amalia Wompa, Corey Piller and Mason Kleiner

Amalia Wompa is a junior at Sleepy Hollow High School. She is a competitive rock climber and writer. She’s been climbing since she was 6 years old and competing in the USA Climbing youth competitions for the past 3 years. 

Rock climbing has become one of the fastest-growing sports in America, especially right here in Westchester. From Free Solo, the Academy Award-winning documentary that captures Alex Honnold’s ascent up El Capitan without protective climbing gear or ropes, to being accepted as a sport in the upcoming 2020 Olympics. Lately, this unique sport is capturing everyone’s interest.

With this explosion in popularity, more and more people are getting into climbing every year. For many, indoor rock climbing has become a fun and social exercise alternative to simply working out at a regular local gym.

One’s first thought when they think of rock climbing is probably that of a brave soul hanging off the edge of a cliff, but with new climbing gyms opening up every year, it’s easier than ever to learn to climb safely indoors.

There are four types of indoor climbing: bouldering, lead-climbing, top-roping, and speed climbing. All are very different and use specific skills to master. First, when lead climbing and top-roping, climbers scale a 30 to 60-foot wall, or even taller while wearing a harness attached to a rope. A belayer controls the rope and stops it when climbers fall or want to rest. Speed climbing is exactly what it sounds like; climbers race a partner on a 15-meter high identical climbing wall. Finally, when bouldering, climbers tackle a short (less than 20-foot) wall without a harness or belayer. Climbers who fall land on a bouldering mat. Learning how to fall is a safety technique that needs to be learned just as much as the climb. With the exception of speed climbing, all types of climbing are graded to help climbers distinguish the easy climbs from difficult ones.

As of 2016, there were approximately 414 climbing gyms in the US. Amazingly, 43 gyms opened in 2017 alone and even more opening each year. That’s not even counting the number of climbing walls installed into sports facilities such as Grand Prix New York in Mount Kisco. There is a reason for this high demand. Climbing is a sport that uses almost every muscle in the body, but most of all, the brain. Climbing is a physical and mental challenge: climbers must plan ahead to conquer a route by making difficult decisions quickly. All this makes climbing a fun workout alternative to just running on a treadmill.

However, it’s not just fitness that attracts people to their local climbing gym. Climbing is also a social activity. In almost every climbing gym, climbers are met with open arms as soon as they walk in. For any new climber, they’re greeted by a friendly and interesting community of climbers of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences. Climbing gyms are extremely social environments. People watch others climb, strategizing together on how to conquer a difficult route or applauding amazing moves. No matter how shy somebody may be, it’s impossible to avoid a friendship. Anybody is bound to meet someone in this contagiously friendly atmosphere. Gyms also offer outdoor climbing trips and camps, which are great ways to meet new people and get outdoors to enjoy some of the beautiful areas near Westchester County, such as the Shawangunk Ridge (better known as “The Gunks”), in upstate New York or the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Most gyms have classes for children and adults, summer camps for children, and climbing teams.

On top of all of this, what pulls people to climbing is the competition. USA Climbing, a non-profit, is the national governing organization for competitive climbing in the United States. They promote and arrange competitions for three disciplines; bouldering, sport climbing (top rope and lead), and speed climbing. Like other sports, competitive rock climbing has regional, divisional, national, international, and Olympic competitions. Kids begin training from as young as four years old to become the world’s next big climber. When training, youth climbers develop essential skills, such as muscle memory, problem-solving, quick decision making, and the overall mental and physical strength needed in a competitive atmosphere. Training and competing gives young climbers confidence in their lives outside of climbing as well. Kids who compete in climbing always seem incredibly grounded and determined. They learn to face challenges, work through pressures, be supportive to their team members, and focus on their goals. On top of this, traveling to different gyms for competitions gives climbers the opportunity to meet peers from cities and states across the country, offering them a chance to connect with people they would likely not meet otherwise.

Recently, there has been a huge boom in competitive climbers within the Westchester county area. One climber, in particular, is a senior at Sleepy Hollow High School named Logan Rafter. Logan has been climbing ever since he was recruited by the gym’s team coach who saw his potential to compete. When questioned if climbing has helped him succeed academically, Logan responded straightforwardly, “Definitely, because it makes me believe in my abilities more.”

He went on to explain further how climbing has helped him to excel both academically and socially, turning him into a more confident person in school and life.

Many small-town climbing gyms dream of sending their young climbers to nationals and beyond. However, the road to success is a hard one. Growing up in a competitive atmosphere, we realize early on that more often than not, you’re not going to succeed in every climb you attempt. In fact, you’ll fall way more than you’ll grab the top of the wall. Some may wonder why climbers still go on when we fail as often as we do. The answer is simple: climbing is fun, challenging, and rewarding. The adrenaline one feels as they attempt a huge leap, or the rush of relief when they hit the top of the wall, is a feeling that’s never taken for granted, and one that we’ll never forget.

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About the Author: Amalia Wompa