By Jenny Neyman
In terms of efficiency alone, the ascending popularity of climbing makes sense. It’s like the benefits of other sports distilled into one activity — a great calorie-burning workout without ever breaking into a run. It builds strength, balance, agility and endurance, yet without the repetitious situps, burpees or dumbbell curls of a gym workout. It produces rushes of adrenaline without a buzzer or scoreboard, and teaches teamwork and communication yet is still an individual sport that doesn’t require an entire team with which to play. And it’s physically nuanced with endless iterations of technique to perfect, but with minimal gear required and a basic set of skills to learn that can then be continually built upon.
To really distill the appeal, though, ask a 9-year old: “Because it’s awesome,” said Marina Schramm, of Soldotna. She and her brother, 11-year-old David, are students at Redoubt Rock Climbing, classes for 6- to 12-year-olds taught by Nic and Natalie Larson, of Soldotna.
The Larsons are experienced climbers, and after moving to Soldotna from Fairbanks over a year ago noticed a lack of climbing opportunities in the area. Natalie knows from firsthand experience — literal in that she grew up climbing, and figurative from teaching climbing classes — how beneficial the sport can be for kids. It’s a great physical activity, yet builds mental muscles, as well — in patience, determination, problem-solving and, ultimately, confidence.
“My oldest daughter started doing it more, and the more she climbed the more confidence she had, and that spilled over into school and spilled over into social aspects. That was a really neat thing to see,” Natalie said. “And I had gotten feedback that kids 6 to 12 around here didn’t have that much to do, that we need more things like this on the peninsula. We just wanted to offer something a little bit different.”
So they built their own climbing wall in their basement garage, about 8 feet tall and stretching 25 feet long along two walls, studded with various hand- and footholds and geometric shapes jutting from the textured plywood. What it lacks in its limited, floor-to-ceiling height it makes up for in variety. The entire setup can be reconfigured to varying degrees of difficulty and endless route options — even some that incorporate handholds on the ceiling.
“Basically, everything we’re able to move around. We have tons of other holds — like slopers and jugs and stuff like that,” Natalie said.
A sloper being a sloping handhold without much positive relief to grab, sort of like palming a basketball, and a jug being a hold offering so much to grip it’s like the handle of milk jug. These and other terms are among the first things students learn when they start at Redoubt Rock Climbing.
“Most kids they’re used to climbing stuff — climbing is climbing. But teaching them the intricacies is what we really concentrate on, and the lingo so we can tell them, ‘Grab that sloper, pinch there,’ and they know what we’re talking about,” Nic said.
They started with one student in March and participation grew through the flyers Natalie made up, their website, http://redoubtrockclimbing.blogspot.com, and especially word of mouth. The Schramms, for instance, are neighbors and friends of the Larsons’ three girls, Lexi, Mia and Madison. That’s a learning experience for the Larsons as well as the kids.
“They would come and they would climb with the girls, but it’s different when we’re teaching a class and coaching them. I’m not the friend’s mom at that point, it’s like, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ It changes the dynamics,” Natalie said.
And teaching her own kids?
“You’re going to need to stretch out for that one,” she coached Mia. “You need to get your foot here in order to get your other foot here. Are you listening?”
“Yes. Kind of,” Mia responded.
“Yeah, it’s hard to teach your daughters,” Natalie laughed.
Class sessions last an hour and are offered at flexible times throughout the day and week. Climbing shoes, chalk and other equipment are provided. Students can have any experience level — from zero to veritable monkey — and the Larsons also offer private sessions so adults can participate, as well, including a father-daughter duo.
“We were able to challenge them. We are able to take this wall and transform it into whatever your level is,” Natalie said.
Beginners start out with an introduction to climbing — the benefits, the safety spiel, the gear, the terminology. The Larsons help set goals to work toward — balance, strength, flexibility, sequencing, confidence, etc. — which are continually revised as progress is made. They also discuss the different styles of climbing, particularly the bouldering type in which the Larsons specialize. As it sounds, that’s climbing large rocks or small outcrops. It also refers to the minimal use of gear — typically no anchors or ropes, since bouldering doesn’t usually mean climbing very high, but crash pads and mats placed below, just in case. (See related story, “Rock climbs takes hold.”)
Bouldering has been the best natural opportunity for climbing that the Larsons have found around the central Kenai Peninsula, lacking, as the area does, towering walls of rock like those along Turnagain Arm near Anchorage. Once a week or so, depending on weather, they’ll take students on the road to Captain Cook State Park past Nikiski, where they practice ascending the routes they’ve pioneered on the large glacial erratics that dot the beach along the Cook Inlet shore.
“Climbing out on the beach is way different. In here is more about training sessions and technique and safety and stuff like that. But when you get into the outdoors there’s so many different elements coming against you so you get a different feel,” Natalie said.
Back in the garage gym, they practice techniques that prepare for the real, rocky thing. That can involve tiny little holds, hugging slopers, doing sit starts (pulling yourself from a seated position on the floor up onto foot- and handholds above you) and maneuvering over bumps and outcroppings that block visibility. It’s enough to drive one up the wall.
“They say, ‘Switch this up for me.’ And I say, ‘When we get to real rock I can’t switch the rocks for you.’ I want to get them used to harder stuff. I want them to get comfortable with being in weird positions and be able to tackle it. There are definitely areas out there where you’re in strange situations,” Natalie said.
They start the wall for new students in easy mode, with holds littered all across it, so they can evaluate the students’ abilities. Then students start learning technique — or relearning technique, since some who have climbed before might have picked up bad habits.
“They’ve been told to just go on the wall. So I’ve had to break certain habits,” like crossovers, Natalie said, where climbers move sideways by crossing one leg over the other to get to the next hold, rather then moving one leg forward and bringing the other to join it, then moving forward with the leading leg again. “I see a lot of kids do this and I don’t know where they picked that up from but it’s a horrible technique. I don’t know why that might feel comfortable. I watch them for a minute then say, ‘That’s not working out so good for you, is it? Maybe try it like this … .’”
Ultimately, the goal is to get the students to tackle routes on their own — with good technique and logical, safe decision-making, but without needing every movement coached.
“When I’m teaching I can show them different ways to do the route but for the most part I want them to figure out what feels comfortable to them so they can master that technique on their own. They’re creating their own art form of how they want to get there,” she said.
One of the hardest aspects of climbing isn’t even the physical challenge — a not-insubstantial combination of yoga flexibility, weightlifting strength and dancer agility — but the mental exercise of planning a route. It doesn’t work to scramble up the obvious options without thinking through to the end position and how to attain it.
“When they see the wall they think, ‘Oh, I can do that wall.’ But they don’t realize that it makes all the difference with the little holds that we place and the ways we make them do them,” Nic said. “The sequence of moves that you do really makes a difference. You’re trying to do it one way and you think it makes sense but you keep falling. Just being in the right sequencing position means a lot. It’s a big part of what we teach, to recognize the sequence and how to move properly, and how to hold properly, on the wall.”
Consequently, one of the most common questions coming from students while stuck like flies to the vertical surface, seemingly defying gravity with fingers burning and legs and arms starting to quiver, is, “Now what?”
“Once you get your foot here, put your hips up into the wall, then put your right foot here and then you’ll be able to reach over here, and you can start transitioning over that way,” Natalie said to Marina, who was Velcroed to a volume jutting out of the wall.
“I can’t do this!” Marina warbled through heavy breaths of exertion.
“You can do this! There you go! You’re going to have to crab this one — she tried it a million times to go like she was doing, but see how you pendulum out?” Natalie said, transitioning between coaching and commentary. “Now, push up with your leg. Good! See? There you go! Good! Oh, almost! That’s it, though. It’s not as easy as it looks. You’ll get it next time.”
A new route can take up to an entire class period to accomplish, each attempt taking a slightly different approach, utilizing a different grip or stretching a little farther, pushing a little harder, grabbing a little quicker. Seemingly minute changes can make a huge difference.
David was practicing using tiny, two-finger handholds and footholds just big enough for tiptoes.
“He’s using his legs a lot right now. It’s endurance training. You really have to maximize what you’ve got,” Natalie said. “Sometimes you have to lunge and make bigger moves. The (climbing) shoes have a sticky sole and I really want to get the students to trust that. And once they can and they can learn where their balance system is they’re able to utilize more of their legs, instead of just relying on their arms.”
At another juncture David had to get around “Big Larry,” a volume protruding far enough from the wall to block visibility of the holds beyond. It’s one of the Larsons’ favorite elements of the wall — a versatile, movable pain in the fingers.
“This hold has added a lot of different obstacles for the kids. It’s pretty interesting how just this bulge sometimes throws their mind frame off. Climbing is definitely 50 percent mind and 50 percent body. Some kids, we’ve really had to teach them, an obstacle is an obstacle — how do you get around it? It’s like a math equation. You just have to figure out your movements,” Natalie said.
David heaved himself across Big Larry, found himself scrunched up like a cobweb in the corner of the two walls and ceiling, stretched himself back down onto the miniscule toeholds, swung like a pendulum for a fingerhold above his head and managed to finally haul his weight onto the ledge that marked the end of the route, a feat that took several attempts to accomplish. That’s one of his favorite parts of climbing, descending from the wall of his own accord.
“I just feel like, ‘Yes! I’m done with that route!’” he said.
Natalie was full of praise and enthusiasm, sounding almost more excited than the 11-year-old. In a way, she is.
“I’ve had students who come in here and mom and dad are like, ‘All they do is play video games, they haven’t really figured out their sport.’ And they come in and two months later they’ve progressed to this amazing level. And mom tells me, ‘He seems like a totally different kid. He’s just more confident, he’s working out more, he’s not watching as much TV.’ That makes me really happy to see that. It’s like, ‘Wow, we’re really doing something more here than just teaching a sport,” Natalie said. “These kids are able to incorporate it into their lives. It’s been a really, really, positive, awesome thing. I really love it.”
For more information, visit http://redoubtrockclimbing.blogspot.com/, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 907-388-9108.