by Caitlin Johnston
Matt Elletson, 28, used to think rock climbers were crazy. Now he’s the shift supervisor at Earth Treks Climbing Center in Columbia.
“I’d see people hanging out in the parking lot wearing harnesses and think, ‘Look at that freak show’,” Elletson said. “And now I am one of them.”
When he was 21, a friend at a poker game took him climbing for the first time. Elletson was scared out his mind, and said he actually had a mini-meltdown when he got stuck on the wall.
“My partner somehow convinced me to finish the route, and it felt amazing,” he said. “I felt so empowered, after that I was hooked.”
To those unfamiliar with the sport, rock climbing is a world of extremes. Either it’s a high-stakes adventure only for thrill seekers or it’s a casual activity reserved for kids’ birthday parties and corporate team building. The reality often falls somewhere in between.
“It really is a physical Sudoku puzzle,” he said. “You’re trying to solve a puzzle and get a great workout at the same time.”
Not only is rock climbing a sport that helps with concentration and problem solving, but it’s also an engaging workout for nearly any body type, Elletson said.
“A lot of people say, ‘I can’t climb. I have weak upper body strength’,” he said. “It has little to do with upper body strength. If you can essentially walk up stairs, you can climb.”
He cites his 57-year-old dad as a prime example. His father, who had blown out both knees and used to weigh 230 pounds, now climbs with him two days a week. Thanks to climbing and an improved diet, he now weighs 190 pounds.
Nick Shalimov, 17, has been climbing for five years and can now conquer some of the toughest routes in the gym. He was first exposed to climbing at an outdoors camp. Like Elletson, as soon as he tried it and moved past the initial fear, he was hooked.
Shalimov said he enjoys the challenge of always having a new route to overcome.
“There’s always something new to work on,” he said. “There’s always something harder.”
He also enjoys being able to eat whatever he wants and still stay in shape. Depending on the study, climbers can burn as many as 500-1000 calories in one hour, Elletson said.
“Let’s just say I’ve tried to get fat and it’s not possible,” Shalimov said.
Elletson said he’s terrified of heights, but climbing has helped him control the fear. He can be several hundred feet up in the air, but he’s so focused on setting up his route and making his next moves, that he can’t focus on the fear.
“You really do find out what your body is capable of doing,” Elletson said. “I couldn’t even imagine doing the stuff I do now.”
Tracy Flanders, 25, understands the fear part. Though she occasionally boulders – strength based shorter routes completed without a harness – she prefers traditional top rope climbing where she and her partner are both strapped into a rope and harness system.
The system helps her feel safer, allowing her to try riskier moves.
The mental aspect aside, she said her favorite part about climbing is that it doesn’t feel like work.
“I don’t feel like that on the treadmill,” she said. “I feel like I’m laboring. But I feel like a monkey ninja when I’m top roping.”
Photo by Eric Bond