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ON THE SCENE: Sport climbing expands in Lake Placid

Children make their way up a wall at the Climbing Center at Mount Van Hoevenberg. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Many people worldwide first learned about sport climbing by watching the Tokyo Summer Olympics last year. In this exciting sport, athletes hang by their fingertips and sometimes leap up and out to catch another handhold, hopefully without falling off.

At the Games, three elements were featured: bouldering, lead climbing and speed climbing. Unusual is that the results of all three disciplines were combined; the person with the highest combined score on all three won. Many in the climbing world criticized the decision to combine all of them as the method of scoring each is quite different.

The person who can get to the top the fastest wins in speed climbing. In lead climbing, the athletes try to get as high as possible within a set time while being belayed from below. Bouldering is about conquering as many short, challenging routes as possible during a set time. All these activities take place on a climbing wall covered with various elements adjusted to create a wide array of routes of differing abilities.

In the Adirondacks, the general public is more familiar with rock climbing and ice climbing, especially as significant sites are visible in such locales as Chapel Pond in Keene, the Cascade Lakes, Wilmington Notch, and Poke-O-Moonshine between Lewis and Keeseville.

Sport climbing began outdoors at the Verdon Gorge in France in 1976 and Smith Rock in Oregon in the early 1980s. In the U.S., the sport moved indoors in 1987 with the establishment of the first climbing gym in America, Vertical World in Seattle. Climbing gyms feature vertical multiplex walls with holes drilled into them where different shaped and sized grips can be affixed, with some having belay attachments at the top. The walls often have sections that lean outward, creating gravity-defying challenges for the climbers, often present on natural rock walls or large boulders.

Instructor Jake Handerhan teaches a class at the Olympic Sports Compex’s Climbing Center at Mount Van Hoevenberg. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

High Peaks Cyclery has an indoor bouldering wall, but until recently, the Crux in Willsboro and Rocksport in Queensbury were the only two nearby locales where one could also find a lead wall. That changed recently when the Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg — operated by the state Olympic Regional Development Authority — opened its new indoor sport climbing facility. The wall is highly visible, located right off the lobby, and can be viewed from the second floor.

Though it took some time in coming, the climbing wall is already very active, especially on weekday afternoons when groups of school kids come out to try out the new sport. I’m not sure about you, but for many of my contemporaries growing up, pine trees were a natural jungle gym to climb, as was getting up on a garage or barn roof. This is to say, the kids at the ORDA climbing wall took to it like a band of spider monkeys out for an afternoon swing through the trees. My contemporaries and I were inspired by Tarzan movies; for today’s kids, it’s Spiderman and the film “Free Solo.”

What did kids have to say about the new experience? The most common refrain was “awesome.”

Building a climbing wall wasn’t in the initial plans for the Mountain Pass Lodge at Mount Van Hoevenberg. Then the focus was on the indoor push track for bobsled and skelton, combining the cross-country skiing and sliding base lodges, ski rentals, waxing rooms, a cafeteria, gift shops, and the like. The inspiration installing the climbing wall was the building itself, how tall it had to be to contain the swooping push track and an indoor sprint track.

“While we were programming the building, we recognized that we would have a very tall space because of the push track,” said Rebecca Dayton, Olympic Sports Complex general manager. “We knew that we were going to have some big walls. As we’re always looking for weatherproof year-round recreational opportunities to add to the mix of things we do, installing a climbing wall was a natural fit.”

Climbing Center instructors Griffin Smith, of Saranac Lake, and Shauna Fliss, of Peru (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

ORDA put out RFPs seeking firms to bid on building a climbing wall, and Eldorado out of Colorado got the bid. The next step was to post a job-opportunities for climbing instructors during their open house, and it turned out several, who already worked seasonally at Whiteface, had the skills.

“Having outdoor-minded people already working for us in our ski school and ski shop who already had climbing experience enabled us to keep them on in the climbing program,” said Dayton.

For the lead instructor, Jake Handerhan, the job was a perfect fit as he had several years of experience teaching at climbing at gyms out in the Buffalo area. He was able to discuss climbing instruction needs with the installation team, develop plans and schedules for teaching people of different ages and abilities how to climb, and make the facility accessible for seasoned climbers.

“We have a bouldering wall featuring about two dozen routes and a top rope wall with a couple of climbing opportunities,” said Handerhan. “We don’t have the infrastructure for speed climbing. Three days a week, we offer school programs for youth from throughout the Tri-Lakes region, and one day a week, the Keene Youth Commission brings kids up. Bouldering is more centered around making a half dozen harder moves to get to the top of a smaller wall, while top roping and lead climbing is more about stringing together long sequences of moves.”

A couple of advantages of indoor climbing are that the climber doesn’t have to own or carry a lot of equipment up a mountain, it’s not weather dependent, and there is a lot of padding at the base — a nice feature for anyone who has bouldered along MacKenzie Pond Road.

Parent Luke Hudak at the Climbing Center (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“I have two kids trying out the sport climbing for the first time,” said Jan Wellford. “They are seven and nine, and I brought them to try out another outdoor-related activity to do after school. So far, they seem to like it, and I am excited to see how it goes.”

“My daughter Gabby, seven, is climbing today,” said Luke Hudak. “We live locally and do all the local sports, soccer, lacrosse, skating, skiing, and this is another thing to do. Gabby is super pumped about climbing, and she’s very excited. I’m pleased because it’s something else that she feels confident that she can do, get exercise, have fun, and meet other kids.”

“It’s awesome,” said Finn, 11. “It’s fun.”

For more information on the Climbing Center, visit mtvanhoevenberg.com.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)

Parent Jan Wellford (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)