“Belay, On!”

Posted by Andrew Vaccaro


I am not known as the most physically active person in the McDermott Program. While I ran cross country and played tennis in high school, I hadn’t yet found a physical activity that I really enjoyed in college until this past summer. I started climbing about three months ago with my friends Andrew and Anthony, and I was hooked immediately. Now I climb at least four days a week, with my time split between the climbing wall at UT Dallas and the Summit Dallas indoor climbing gym.

There are three main types of climbing that you might encounter at a gym or outdoors. “Top rope” is the stereotypical setup found at a climbing gym; a climber goes up a wall while supported by a rope that passes through a carabiner at the top. The climber’s weight is offset by the “belayer” at the other end, who takes up slack as the climber ascends. It is among the safest types of climbing and requires only a brief introduction to climbing and belaying. “Lead climbing” is similar to top rope, but the climber clips into a series of carabiners as he ascends. Leading is very intense for both the climber and the belayer, as the climber must hold his/her weight while clipping themselves in. Finally, “bouldering” is climbing short, intense routes without the use of a rope and is my current favorite. Bouldering requires a lot more strength and focus on individual moves, while the other two styles rely a lot more on endurance and balance.

The climbing vocabulary has essentially been made up by the small climbing community during the last few decades and can be confusing to those new to the sport. A “jug” is a large hold that can be gripped like a ladder rung, while a “crimp” can only be gripped with the fingers due to its small size. “Taking” is when the belayer takes up slack on the rope and supports the climber with the belayer’s body weight, allowing the climber to rest or prepare to come down. To “flash” a route means to successfully climb it on the first try, without falling or taking. “Beta” is providing verbal assistance to a climber, such as instructing them on the locations of handholds. “Free climbing” means to climb without the use of aids such as picks or crampons (shoe spikes used in ice climbing). “Free solo climbing” means to climb without the use of rope or any other protection and is probably the most dangerous climbing activity possible.

Last weekend was my first time actually climbing outdoors. The UTD climbing club went to Mineral Wells, a state park west of Ft. Worth that has some of the few natural rock climbing locations in North Texas. By free soloing easy routes, the experienced club members climbed to the top of the rocks and set up anchors so the newer climbers could top rope on the harder routes. Climbing on natural rock is significantly harder than at the gym. Routes are not marked, so you have to rely on your own judgment to find proper holds and body positioning. The sun and heat take a toll on your endurance, and sweat can seriously reduce your grip strength.

I think I enjoy sport climbing for two main reasons: the pacing and the community. Climbing is a very relaxing sport, with fairly brief periods of exertion followed by plenty of time to recuperate and stretch. The climbing community is also one of the most positive groups I have ever encountered. Climbers are always willing to give advice to newcomers and are genuinely excited when somebody finishes a new route or learns a new technique. It’s a great niche sport, and I recommend that everybody try it at least once.

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