By Lee Kennon
While many students this winter can be found braving the cold on the track, racing in the pool, or ballin’ up and down the court, members of Outdoor Collegiate’s winter climbing team can be found in Peak Experiences Indoor Climbing Gym in Midlothian.
The climbing team, which started as a four-day-per-week program by Upper School history teacher Brad Cooke seven years ago with only about a dozen participants, has evolved into a popular after-school sports option for students, particularly this year. This season there are over 30 climbers and three coaches. Upper School English teacher Josh Katz has taken the reins this winter as head coach, with the assistance of Cooke and former Cougar (and occasional Upper School substitute) Erin Barclay (‘03), who volunteers her time when available.
When asked about his new position, Katz explained that “[Cooke] had told me during the fall about how spring mountain biking was going to be more intensive this year, and that his prep time would cut into winter climbing. So I was prepared for him to not be around as much; I was far less prepared for him to put me in charge of the season AND open up the membership to any junior or senior who could drive themselves. But Brad’s funny like that – he tends to know what I can handle well before when I actually know – and the result has been the single best winter climbing season in my three years of coaching. I love the extra responsibility; I’ve grown so much as a climber that I feel like my advice actually matters.”
As Katz explained, the increase in numbers this year was made possible by the fact that juniors and seniors are now allowed to drive themselves to the gym. In the past, the amount of participants was limited by the number of available Collegiate bus seats. If you did not get a spot on the bus, yet still wanted to climb and could transport yourself to the gym every day, you had to receive a sports waiver to receive the sports credit. However, Katz and Cooke saw the new driving rule as an opportunity to eliminate that challenge and welcomed all upperclassmen who wanted a spot on the team. Steele Viverette (‘18), who is new to the team this year, was “really relieved” when he found out that all interested upperclassmen would be able to join, because “that made it possible for me to join, and I love that there is a big group so there are even more great people to hang out and climb with.”
Having a larger group has led to a bit of a different dynamic, due to the wide range of levels of climbing experience. While some participants, like myself, are veterans to the program, the overwhelming majority of climbers this year are completely new to the climbing world. Thus, the first week of climbing can be overwhelming for newcomers. They must learn the basics of climbing—how climbs are rated by levels of difficulty, what equipment is required, and, most importantly, how to properly belay another climber as they make their way up the wall. New climbers quickly learn that there is so much more to climbing than what you may have learned at your friend’s Peak Experiences birthday party when you were little. What may be obvious about climbing to a seasoned climber is usually foreign to newcomers, making watching new climbers learn the ropes both entertaining and exciting.
Most new climbers agree that despite how overwhelming and sometimes even scary learning to climb and belay may be, the team and coaches continually provide positivity and support as they learn. Wescott Lowe (‘18) explains that she was stressed and scared as she learned, but quickly realized that climbing “allows me to challenge myself physically in a relaxed environment,” free of judgement. Katz elaborates on this, explaining that what makes Outdoor Collegiate and the sport of climbing in general so special is “there’s nothing like it in the world – you confront your limits on a molecular level when you’re fifty feet off the ground, and it forces such mental and physical concentration: the experience is more like yoga or meditation when you’re locked in on a challenging route. Plus, you forge such trust with your teammates! They literally hold your life in their hands (and vice versa), and students respond positively to that level of responsibility.”
The climbing team not only spends their afternoons climbing, but also exercising off the wall with Peak Experiences’ head of fitness Meme Mays. Mays leads the team in exercise sessions filled with cardio, TRX, yoga, and abdominal workouts, which are essential in building the skills necessary to becoming a more technical, stronger climber.
This season has been pivotal in the growth of Outdoor Collegiate by exposing more students than ever before to climbing, which is just one portion of the program and the outdoor sports world in general. As a veteran climbing team member who became attached to the sport a few years ago, I have been so pleased to watch new climbers find the same love and excitement to go to the gym every afternoon. Similarly, Katz says that “no one’s gotten tired off climbing or being in Peak, and the member participation is locked in – many a time, I’ll go to Peak on the weekend, and there will be twenty Collegiate kids there on their own just ’cause they want to be there. As a coach, you dream about that level of investment, especially when it’s a sport as special as rock climbing.”
If you would like to see the climbing team in action, don’t miss their competition on Monday, February 5th at Peak Experiences from 3 to 7 pm. They will compete against other local high school climbing teams, including Trinity Episcopal School.
Featured image courtesy of Lee Kennon.