School of Rock (climbing)

Local rock climbers tout wide range of health benefits

Rock climbing, whether on a mountain or on the man-made stuff, excites Ian Clay and helps keep him in shape.

“It’s kind of like meditation, really,” says the 23-year-old a foreman for a landscape architecture firm. “You don’t worry about anything, just the next grip.”

Now in training for a climbing trip in Arkansas with friends, Clay heads to the BREC rock climbing tower at the Perkins Road Park every chance he gets.

Created to mimic a natural granite rock face, the 30-foot tower at BREC’s Perkins Road Community Park features cracks and overhangs along with artificial holds.

“A lot of people are assuming it will be a breeze to climb up to the top,” says Lee Guibeau, a longtime climber who runs the BREC tower. “They are surprised about how difficult it is.”

A squishy padded flooring that surrounds the artificial rock protects against hard falls, but an automatic belay system prevents climbers from ever falling in the first place. When climbers strap into a harness and rope, the system will gently lower them to the ground if they come off the rock.

“It’s a sport you can do by yourself, especially here,” says Clay.

Rock climbing provides several benefits, says Guilbeau. It works all of your muscles and requires flexibility, he says.

“Fingertips to toes and everything in between,” he says. “There is nothing that limits your movement except your body and the rock.”

Clay, who works out at a gym regularly, finds the rock wall a more enjoyable form of exercise.

“I don’t do arms anymore (at the gym),” he says. “I just come here.”

But the sport doesn’t require amazing upper body strength. Legs come into play as much as arms.

Climbing encourages a good sense of balance and coordination.

“It’s not always the people who can do 50 pull-ups who are the best climbers by far,” Guilbeau says. “We see a lot of dancers, acrobats and cheerleaders who are really smooth on the rock.”

At first her lack of arm strength discouraged Cindy Armstrong, a 51-year-old physical therapy technician, from trying. Watching her 11-year-old son climb and compete in rock climbing convinced her to try.

“You get arm strength, you get leg strength, you get stretching,” she says. “Mentally it helps me focus. It helps me to think.”

When the rock wall is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Armstrong and her son, Angus, climb together.

She’s pretty good for starting at a later age, Angus says.

Angus climbs like a spider and conspires with other young climbers to scale the wall without using some of the easier holds, which trains them to become more creative.

“It’s a place I can go and relax and just hang out,” Angus says.

A sport where speed matters less than mental focus and overall fitness and flexibility overshadow showy muscles, rock climbing is, at its heart, about the climber and the rock.

“When you’re on the rock, it’s really just you,” Guilbeau says. “There’s nobody to compare against except yourself.”