Climbing to New Heights

Tess van Straaten tries indoor rock climbing

By Tess van Straaten

I’m one of those people that make New Year’s resolutions — lots of resolutions — and I almost always keep them. But as I stare up at the massive 55-foot rock climbing tower at the University of Victoria, I’m starting to have my doubts about this one.

“For a lot of people it’s mental — you have the strength and you have the ability to do it, it’s just pushing off your feet and taking that step,” explains Bruce Allen of the Peninsula Co-op Climbing Centre, which is open to the public.

I’m still not totally convinced I can do it — and for good reason. The climbing tower at UVic’s Centre for Athletics, Recreation and Special Abilities (CARSA) is the tallest of any Canadian university. And it’s very steep. But my 14-year-old son, Tyler, can’t wait to get started and after a quick orientation and safety lesson, he’s strapped into his harness and hooked onto the safety rope.

Allen, who will be our belayer, holds the other end of the rope and will make sure Tyler doesn’t fall if he misses a footing. But my son, who is strong and fearless, quickly scrambles up the wall. Before we know it, he’s reached the top and Allen lowers him back down.

Trying to buy myself some more time, I ask climbing centre coordinator Sebastian Powell what’s the most difficult part about rock climbing. Before he can answer, Tyler pipes up saying, “It will definitely be heights for you, mom!” He’s right. I’ve always been afraid of heights, which is one of the reasons I’m doing this.

“For some people it’s heights, for some people it’s finger strength and for others it’s power,” explains Powell, who’s been climbing for 23 years.

“There are so many things that make it hard — that’s why it’s so challenging but that’s also what makes it so rewarding and it’s never boring.”

Telling myself I don’t have to go all the way to the top, I start climbing. With hundreds of holds, there are lots of options — some easier than others. They’re colour-coded so Allen tells me to stick to the easier colours. Before long, I’m half way up the wall and wondering if I should come down.

“You’re almost there,” Allen shouts up to encourage me. “Keep going!”

Realizing how high up I already am I decide I might as well conquer the tower. If I don’t, I know I’ll never hear the end of it from Tyler but I also want to be able to say I did it. Reaching the top and looking down was an amazing feeling. It’s easy to see why the centre, which also has a 14-foot bouldering wall (no ropes or belayer needed), averages 80 to 120 people a day. “Rock climbing is one of the fastest-growing sports and being included in the 2020 Olympics has probably helped,” Powell says. “Bouldering has really increased in popularity in the last few years and people love it because you don’t need a partner and the terrain is more varied.”

I won’t be headed to the Olympics anytime soon, but I’ll probably be back for another climb.

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