Hold On, Climb On

Photo by Max Catalano

Photo by Max Catalano

Liz Harper

Inside a large detached garage on the northwest side of Athens, a group of young people take turns using colorful plastic holds to work their way up and across a wooden climbing wall using a variety of routes. Located on Vore Ridge Road, this place, known as Beta Fish, is one of two bouldering facilities located in Athens.

The other facility, called The Dojo, was built by Ted Welser in his basement when he first moved to the area in 2007. Its purpose then was simple.

“I built it because I wanted a place to train for climbing, and I wanted to teach my kids about climbing,” Welser explains.

Both bouldering facilities belong to Climb Athens, a nonprofit climbing club founded by Welser and Bryant Noble in 2016 for the purpose of providing a space where climbers could train and connect with each other.

Bouldering is a form of rock climbing that doesn’t use ropes or anchors; rather, it involves free climbing on smaller rock formations, usually boulders or an artificial equivalent. Though the size and shapes of bouldering walls vary, at a gym, a climber should be able to fall at any time and land safely on the cushioned crash pads below.

Welser built his first home bouldering wall in 1992 and says The Dojo is his fifth such project.

For several years, Welser trained in his gym, inviting friends to come climb if they wanted.

But he felt like something was missing in terms of a rock climbing community in Athens.

“It wasn’t until, I’d say, 2012 or 2013 that I struck up a friendship with a group of climbers at OU,” Welser says. “… That led to me going on a lot of climbing trips with outdoor rec people.”

Through those trips and those connections, Welser met other outdoor enthusiasts, including Noble. Noble and his wife were looking to buy a house at the time, specifically for a property with the space to build a bouldering wall.

The detached garage that now houses Beta Fish was perfect. It’s spacious and has 12-foot ceilings, which gave Noble plenty of room to build — both a rock wall and a community. Upon his arrival to Athens in 2011, Noble found that the area lacked the kind of rock climbing community he had in Illinois.

“It was a challenge for me, that first year, to find the climbing community and become a part of it,” he says. “It seemed there was some community at Ping with students, but not being a student, I didn’t feel like I was really getting involved with the group. I kind of stopped pursuing climbing for about a year or so, didn’t really do a lot of rock climbing at all, and then I met [Welser].”

The two became friends and Welser invited Noble to The Dojo to climb. The more they talked and climbed together, the more Noble noticed a shared longing between the two.

“It seemed to me that [Welser] felt the same way I did, that we were searching for this community that wasn’t very well established,” Noble says.

Meanwhile, Noble and his wife bought the house with the detached garage, and he started building his rock wall with help from Welser and other friends.

Noble decided to build a MoonBoard, a universal training wall with a very specific blueprint. A MoonBoard is set so that everyone who climbs one is using the same wall, with the same holds arranged in a specific way. There’s even a MoonBoard app that allows people from around the world to share the routes they’re climbing so others can try them, too. Once completed, climbers can log the climb, then rate it.

While Beta Fish has the ceilings to house such a large wall, The Dojo is a smaller space. The walls there are no taller than 7 feet and are significantly steeper than the ones at Beta Fish. Welser estimates he has 450 feet of climbing surface and about 1,500 holds in The Dojo, all wrapped around one room. Climbers can actually “do laps” in The Dojo, climbing around the room numerous times to work on their endurance.

When Noble finished building Beta Fish in early 2016, he and Welser agreed that they wanted to do something to try and bolster the rock climbing community in Athens. The friends they’d been climbing with were already looking for a way to contribute to the upkeep of both spaces, and thus Climb Athens was born.

“In terms of the organization… we’re trying to foster community around rock climbing and foster healthy and active lifestyles and involve kids and students and families,” Welser says. “There’s a lot of things that university students do but people who live around here don’t, and vice versa, and we wanted to be more inclusive.”

Though Climb Athens is mostly made up of college students, there are a handful of older climbers, like Noble and Welser, as well as young professionals, a high schooler and middle schoolers.

Jackson Kohn is a high school student who is relatively new to climbing — he only began coming to Climb Athens in the past year — but with his dedication and enthusiasm for the sport, it’s hard to tell he’s only been climbing for a few months. Kohn’s skill has “increased exponentially” since he first came to Climb Athens, Noble says.

Climbing challenges Kohn, and he loves that.

“I like the satisfaction of improving on a route and improving on a problem, because you really feel like you’re getting somewhere,” he says.

Kohn shows up twice a week equipped with ample energy and a music playlist that earns him good- natured teasing from other climbers.

“We all race to get here first so we can plug our music in before [Kohn],” jokes John Timmons, who graduated from Ohio University in the spring with a master’s in environmental engineering.

Timmons met Noble and Welser through climbing while he was still an undergraduate student, about the time Climb Athens was established. He was among the first official members of the organization. The club has approximately 65 members, with 33 of those active during the 2017-18 school year.

While members of Climb Athens vary in age, they all share a love for climbing and the challenge that comes with it.

“[Sports like climbing] engage your mind as well as your body,” says Noble. “I think that’s probably the most enjoyable thing about climbing for me [is] that it blends all those things. You have to be mentally fit and physically fit and it builds on both those things, and it’s just super fun.”

Bouldering may appear simple at first, but there’s a lot more to it than climbing to the top of a wall or a rock. The plastic holds on a rock wall are modeled to imitate rock formations one might encounter while bouldering outside, so climbers can take their indoor training and use it on actual rocks and boulders. The holds on a rock wall vary in shape and size, requiring climbers to utilize them in different ways as they climb.

For example, a jug is a large hold that a climber can fit their whole hand around. It’s one of the easiest holds to grab and hold onto. On the other hand, a crimp is a small, skinny hold that only has room for a climber to grab it with the pads of their fingers. It’s harder to hold onto, so holds like that can make a climb more difficult.

ere are several rating systems used worldwide to determine the difficulty of a climb, but the V-grade system is among the most commonly used. The system starts with V0, which is an easy climb, and increases from there. On a rock wall or at a climbing gym, routes are often marked with different colored and patterned tape to indicate where a certain climb starts and which holds should be used as part of that climb.

At The Dojo, there are about 110 taped routes, all documented in a guidebook kept at the facility. When someone completes a climb, they can initial in the guidebook that they’ve finished it and look for another climb to do.

“The most popular is called Black Flag— it’s a V0, and it’s marked with black and silver tape. It starts on the east wall,” Welser says, pausing to read as he flips through the book.
About 40 people have completed the V0 ascent and put their initials in the book. From there, the routes get more challenging, culminating in one V10 that Welser calls “pretty hard.” Fortunately, there are many more climbs that fall between the easiest and hardest ratings.

Climbers have other options besides climbing routes, however. They also can use any hold to climb around as long as they want and build endurance. The Dojo is better suited to that practice than Beta Fish, which doesn’t have as many walls and doesn’t go around an entire room.

Bouldering requires a lot of endurance, which is why climbers like Timmons spend about eight hours a week training and climbing. After six or seven years of climbing, it’s a fixed part of Timmons’ life.

“It’s something that I can’t picture not doing,” Timmons says. “I’ve had one injury my whole climbing career and I took two and a half months off, and I was going insane.”

Fortunately, the local climbing community is supportive and thriving. Even in Athens, where the community is smaller than in other cities, the different rock climbing groups overlap. People from Climb Athens and OU’s climbing club intermix between Ping, e Dojo and Beta Fish, but they also cross paths in other places.

Hayley Carnahan, a junior at OU, is the president of OU’s climbing club as well as a member of Climb Athens. The student climbing club meets weekly at Ping and uses the rock wall there because it’s free for all students, but many of them are also part of Climb Athens.

“Everyone in the climbing club knows about these two [Climb Athens] locations, and we’re always offering rides up in the group chat or inviting people to come if they want to come climb,” Carnahan says.

Often, when people begin rock climbing in Athens, they aren’t committed enough to want to pay the Climb Athens membership fees right away. Climbing at Ping is a good way for beginners to first experiment with climbing, but for more experienced climbers, it doesn’t provide all the resources they want in a training facility.

Ping has four routes on its rock wall, and only one climber can ascend at a time. Climbers at Ping wear harnesses, which makes taking turns take longer, as a climber can’t just jump off the wall and give someone else a turn when they’re hanging from a rope two stories in the air. Additionally, for training purposes, climbing on a bouldering wall isn’t always about reaching the top. Sometimes, it’s about increasing endurance or strength. No matter how good a training facility is, many climbers prefer climbing outside on real rocks to climbing indoors.

“I would never come back to an inside gym if I had resources to be outside climbing every day,” Timmons says.

Though Climb Athens doesn’t organize official trips to outdoor climbing areas, many members of the climbing community in Athens take trips to places like the Red River Gorge in Kentucky and the New River Gorge in West Virginia to practice their skills outside, and they invite other climbers along.

The community around rock climbing plays a significant role in helping the sport thrive.

“I really love the community aspect of climbing because everyone’s involved in figuring out a climb,” Carnahan says. “It also pushes your limits too. I like that aspect of always constantly wanting to be better and get stronger so you can reach your goals.”

For those who are newly interested in climbing, a strong community is also a great way to get into the sport.

“The core of rock climbing participation always used to be meeting people and just going [climbing] with people who are knowledgeable already and kind of mentoring,” Welser says. “And the more you can make friends with those people and go climb with them and see what they do…”

He trails off, the message clear: learning from climbers who already know what they’re doing is one of the quickest ways to improve your own climbing.

The community of people sharing knowledge and learning from one another is a staple of Climb Athens. The passion and dedication the climbers have for their sport is another. Climbing can be a time-consuming hobby, but for many climbers, it’s more than worth it.

“To me, the lifestyle is really appealing,” Timmons says. “I want to be a climbing bum— eat canned beans and rice for the rest of my life, live somewhere I can go climbing, money-doesn’t-matter kind of stuff, as long as you’re outside playing in the dirt.”