Taking Sport To New Heights

May 16, 2014
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Michael Spano and Emma Wright traverse the walls in warm-ups.

Michael Spano and Emma Wright traverse the walls in warm-ups.

Story and Photos by Art Petrosemolo

MIDDLETOWN – Emma Wright and Michael Spano, neither old enough to drive, move their hands and feet between brightly colored holds as they climb the vertical face of a 40-foot wall.

Emma, 15, and Mike, 11, look relaxed as they listen to coach Sean Walsh’s advice as they move closer to the building’s high ceiling and further away from the floor.

At The Gravity Vault at 37 Kanes Lane “getting high” has no negative connotation. The phrase at the new climbing facility, which opened in February, literally means gaining confidence, skill, balance and strength in a sport that allows participants to find their way up vertical rock walls through chutes, overhangs and chimneys. It’s all done in a controlled environment with a coach or instructor close by handling the safety line, giving advice, guidance and pointers.

Rock climbing centers like The Gravity Vault, a franchise, have become an alternative to the traditional gym, says manager Fred Nutting. “Climbing has also developed as an alternate sport for those who shy away from team competition.” Experienced climbers train at centers and compete in events against climbers of similar age and abilities scoring points for reaching the wall summit with the fewest slips, following the designated route – marked by colored ribbon – using the best technique and fluid style. There is a time limit to the climb but speed is not essential to compete or part of the judging.

The Gravity Vault in Middletown is one of three such franchises in the state. The original location is in Chatham with the third site in Upper Saddle River. Sam Wright from Little Silver is the Middletown owner.

“We lived in Morris County,” Wright says, “and I started my daughter, Emma, climbing as she did not enjoy team sports. She took to it immediately and enjoys it as both sport and exercise.”

When Wright moved to Monmouth County, he began to look for a climbing facility closer to home. At the time the owners of the Chatham Gravity Vault were starting to franchise and Wright saw an opportunity to bring climbing to Monmouth County and also avoid a long commute so Emma could continue to climb.

The Middletown Gravity Vault has done some modest advertising but according to manager Netting, “the word has gotten out and we are very crowded on weekends and have seen our bookings for parties grow since we opened.”

The Gravity Vault attracts experienced and novice climbers as well as those who just want to give it a try and see what it is all about. Like any fitness club, there are memberships that give you daily access to the 10,000 square feet of climbing surface. The climbing walls are steel-framed, plywood covered and gunite sprayed with hard plastic “holds” bolted on to create courses for the novice to the expert.

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Most walls are top roped with safety lines that extend down from the summit and fastened to a climber who then is belayed by instructors for safety if they lose their grip. There are 56 top-rope locations and on weekends all can be in use. A group of more than a dozen 20-something climbers staff the facility.

There are individual and group lessons available at the center and a boulder wall, without any top ropes, for experienced climbers. “We do have thick safety pads on the floor,” Netting points out, “but that doesn’t mean you don’t feel it when you lose your grip and drop 20 feet.”

Costs range from$24 to $50 for lessons depending on size of group and memberships are about $80 a month and climbers can also purchase day passes to use the facility.

The Gravity Vault also has a party wall that is not too high, with large, fun-shaped, handholds and footholds that are close together where the novice can get his or her first experience with the concept of climbing.

Coach Walsh, who says with a smile he has been climbing “for a lifetime,” but seriously for seven years says some kids get their start climbing trees and baseball backstops and usually drive their parents crazy in the process. Many kids – or their parents – find facilities like The Gravity Vault where they can hone their skills under the direction of certified climbers with all the safety gear to make the experience as safe as possible. Don’t kid yourself,” Netting says, “this can be a dangerous sport but most accidents happen because people do something stupid or are not thinking and following safety guidelines.”

Walsh puts young Mike and Emma through stretching exercises and warm-up traverses around walls before they go vertical. Emma, in climbing shoes, black tights and a T-shirt, dries her fingers with chalk and starts up one course on the 40-foot vertical surface. Mike, who started climbing at another facility when his mother gave him a gift certificate for a Christmas present, climbs side-by-side with Emma, deep in concentration, as he looks carefully for each brightly colored hold.

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Each hold is a different shape, according to the instructors, to closely replicate what climbers would find in natural, outdoor rock climbing environment. Their names signify how they are gripped – pinches (to be pinched with fingers), slopes (with rounded sides like rocks), crimps (grasped with finger tips) and jugs (that can be gripped with your whole hand). Handholds on the walls are larger than footholds.

The pair move steadily to the top of the wall before rappelling down the face to get Walsh’s comments.

Many experienced climbers use facilities like The Gravity Vault to practice during the winter months before the good weather when they climb at locations in and out of the state. Nearly three-quarters of the members and climbers at the facility are experienced climbers. Harriman State Park in Suffern, N.Y., and The Gunks, New Paltz, N.Y., sometimes called Yosemite East, are popular outdoor climbing spots for experienced and novices in the sport.

“We plan to grow our offerings, The Gravity Vault owner Wright says, “with special summer camps as well as weekend activities to get would-be climbers onto the walls and into the sport.”

Climbing is growing in popularity as fitness enthusiasts look for something new and different. Climbing involves the entire body. It is a cardio exercise, builds strength and balance and teaches strategy while building self-confidence. However, that being said; everyone agrees the sport is definitely not for anyone who is afraid of heights.

Rock Climbing Dates Back Centuries

Although many of today’s rock climbers got their start in trees and on baseball backstops, paintings in China that date back to hundreds of years B.C. show men rock climbing. It also is thought that in America, 12th century Anasazi cliff dwellers were excellent climbers.

Rock climbing, as a sport, dates back to the late 1800s in England and Europe when it became an independent pursuit from mountain climbing and a distinct athletic activity.

Aid climbing, using equipment that acts as artificial handholds and footholds, became popular between 1920-1960 in the Alps and Yosemite Valley on faces that were considered impossible to climb without such aids.

However, today, climbing techniques, equipment and ethical considerations have evolved and climbing, using natural holds has become the norm.

In the United States, Wyoming’s Devils Tower with 5,000 feet of evaluation and full of parallel cracks is one of the most famous rock climbing sites and was first summited in 1893.

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