Reporter driven up a wall

Climbing wall

It's lonely at the top.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Who hasn’t dreamt of clinging to overhangs a la Peter Parker and his alter ego Spider-Man? Well, now at Penn, mere mortals can have such thrills. I recently got a chance to flex my superhero muscles at the climbing wall of Penn’s spanking-new Pottruck Fitness Center. So, okay, you may not reach skyline heights, but with a 38-foot wall and a climbing rope, you can come pretty close.

Located on the first floor, Penn’s rock wall is a sculptural behemoth of fiberglass and polymer composites supported underneath by a steel frame. Craig Rogers, self-proclaimed “gym rat” and my instructor for the day, said the material mimics the feel of real rock. The slightly bumpy texture and brown color rival any boulder created by Mother Nature.

Having never climbed before, I arrived gearless. No worries, Pottruck rents out equipment to climbers of all shapes and sizes. Velcro straps and buckles made fitting into the harness, which wraps around either thigh and is pulled over the hips, a piece of cake. Rogers then clipped on two carabiners, hook-like attachments that secured me to the rope.

I found myself trembling with nervousness with every piece of new safety equipment strapped onto me. After all, I was the klutz in gym class who played volleyball with her face. But trust, I’m told—not hand-eye coordination, not bulging biceps—is the key to climbing. The question became, do I trust myself? Yes. And do I trust my partner? Hmmm…

After repeating Rogers’ six-step safety drill half a dozen times (yes, you should pay attention when he’s doing his shtick), I got the command, “Climb on!”

Holds, ceramic discs of varying sizes and shapes, guided my ascent. I’m instructed to follow the beginner’s path designated by yellow tape. The first two-thirds was a cinch, kind of like going up a ladder. Then, right when I’m level with the second floor, things got tricky. Holds stretched farther apart. My fingers fought for a secure grip while my toes searched for a resting place. I forgot all about pushing off with my legs and found myself relying too much on my arms.

“This is the tough part,” Rogers shouted from below. Then I made the big mistake of looking down. My breath caught at the sight of ant-sized aerobic fanatics milling about on the ground floor. I slipped, dropping less than a yard.

To my surprise, falling was fun. This definitely topped any tire swing I’ve ever been on. Falling also gave me a chance to pause, to get the blood flowing back to my arms, and to refocus. But apparently I didn’t refocus long enough because I fell a second time, at the same part. No matter, third time’s a charm. I did eventually make it to the top and even did it flawlessly.

If you’re thinking of going vertical, here’s fair warning: Climbing will make an addict out of you. I’m already plotting my next shimmy up that wall. Take it from Rogers, who chose a career in scaling over chemical engineering, “Climbing got in the way of school.”

More info on climbing at Penn at www.upenn.edu/recreation/climbing/climbing.htm.

Originally published on February 13, 2003