An Outsider’s Game

A rock climber standing underneath a route in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky. Photo: Justin Roth / The Stone Mind
My friend Derrick in the Red River Gorge, taken during one of my early climbing trips, circa 1995.

Polo shirts and loafers, church groups, BMWs, big houses with porticos and sprawling lawns, golf clubs, box seats at the game, Jeeps, ski vacations, baseball caps, football parties…

These spring to mind when I think of my hometown. It was for the most part a white, Christian, yuppy town with a culture of wealth and status. Of course, not everyone in Upper Arlington, Ohio, was well to do, but it was tacitly assumed that everyone wanted to be.

There were plenty of us who didn’t fit (or even understand) this vision of perfection, however. We were the outsiders in a monoculture, chaffing against what we saw as an  inflexible norm. For this reason, after years of straining to keep up on the lacrosse team, full of people I didn’t get along with and coached by a guy I didn’t much respect, I threw myself fully into climbing, even though it didn’t have a well-defined place in the social hierarchy. It was my game; an outsider’s game.

I used to skateboard, too. Skateboarding was a countercultural act in my town. People saw you cla-clacking down the sidewalk and pretty much wrote you off. You were a punk, a druggie, a roustabout, to use a term from the way back. A lot of skaters did it only for the love, sure, but there was also that element of rebellion that drew many of us to it. Like punk rock, it was a middle finger to the established order, even as it was in the midst of becoming mainstream.

Climbing was different though—it was so new in the Midwest in the 1990s that it didn’t carry many connotations with it. This was exactly what I liked about it. It was a tabula rasa of sorts. The fact that it took place in a dusty old gym or out in the woods, where I would never run into any of my classmates, was even better. It was barely connected to the messy world of adolescent preppie-town social hierarchy I was so tired of navigating. The only fear involved was the fear of falling, which seemed so much cleaner and simpler than the fear of not being accepted by my peers. Climbing wasn’t pro or anti, high class or low—it was just something I did because it felt right. And there were others like me…

My dad was an art professor at Ohio State University, and his graduate students were my baby sitters when I was young. Blue hair, piercings, tattoos—my parents looked straight through their appearances and judged on words and deeds. And for the most part, these students were great influences: romantic intellectuals who followed their hearts with rare gusto. They were every bit as moral as the minivan families dressed in Sunday best, but, it seemed to me, even more honest, more free.

I soon discovered there were people like this at the climbing gym, too. Idealists, environmentalists, people who cared about health, about nature, about living in accordance with their beliefs. They were more interested in making the most of life while they had it than keeping up with the Joneses. Climbers and artists alike seemed after something more personally fulfilling and spiritually grander than the whatever it was the Midwestern suburban value system was offering.

I started climbing in the same athletic shorts I wore to lacrosse practice. I bought an Alpine Bod harness and a pair of 5.10 Spires from the closeout bin in the local outdoor outfitters. I wore my ball cap turned backwards, a vestige of my high school uniform. Slowly, I accrued the hallmarks of the climbing trade: a pair of bright red Mocasym rock shoes, Verve pants, a Prana hoody. I built a new identity around the fine art of climbing up a wall. Absent the pressures of a team, I focused on overcoming my own doubts and weaknesses. No coach was there to tell me I was screwing it up; no teammates scoffed at me when I blew it in a drill. I went at my own pace, motivated by my own interest and excitement. It was precisely what an outsider like me needed to grow.

Interestingly, the solitary game of climbing has helped me to become a better team player. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder like I used to, or much fear of being judged. I also bring more sympathy and empathy to every endeavor I undertake. Life isn’t simple, and people aren’t one dimensional, I’ve noticed. We’re all more alike than we’d like to admit, and more different that we’re often comfortable allowing…

Now, after 20-plus years in the climbing world, having worked at rock gyms, edited magazines, and hung around with pro climbers, I feel more like an insider than ever before. Somehow, I still feel like I’m playing an outsider’s game, though; it just feels right.

Climbing Gyms and the Power of Plastic

Brock bouldering at Vertical Adventures in Columbus, OH
Brock climbing with a mind of play. Vertical Adventures, Columbus, Ohio.

This weekend I brought my nephew, Brock, to Vertical Adventures, a climbing gym in Columbus, Ohio. Brock is seven, and Vertical Adventures — Vert, as some regulars know it — is one of the first places I ever climbed. It’s also one of the first places I worked, where I met many good friends I keep in touch with to this day, where I learned how to set a route, smack talk, belay, use proper footwork, train… . It’s also where I first developed that love of the vertical that binds a motley subset of humans into a strangely vibrant community.

Brock is still new to climbing, but he clearly has the bug. At Vert, He climbed with a mind of play, not much interested in following the specific routes or problems. He grabbed whatever holds looked good, cutting his feet dramatically every couple of moves and then dropping to the pads and rolling around. He watched the other climbers, tried out some new moves, and even brushed chalk off the holds for his aunt Kristin. When I asked if I could get a dip of the white stuff, he offered generously, “You can use my chalk; I don’t mind!” Kristin and I left after a few hours, but Brock and his dad stayed on to climb until dinner.

Alexis and Carrie Roccos opened Vertical Adventures in January 1994. At that time, gyms were just starting to sprout up around the country and were especially novel in the heartland. (Vertical World, widely regarded as America’s first commercial gym, opened in Seattle in 1987.) Together with a friend, Alexis constructed the gym’s walls out of plywood and two-by-fours, paint and elbow grease. It was a leap of faith for the couple, who moved to Columbus from the East Coast.

I started climbing at Vert as soon as it opened. I was so excited to have a real climbing gym in town, I shadowed Alexis for my freshman year career day. I helped him pound T-nuts in the sawdusty warehouse space near the Anheuser Busch brewery. Later, in the summers when I returned from college, Carrie and Alexis kindly hired me on as a temp worker, which helped pay for gas, food, and CDs.

Vert and the people I met there over the years played an important role in my development as a human being. Not long before the gym opened, I’d gotten in some trouble hanging out with what you’d call bad seeds — kids who used drugs, huffed paint, stole, fought, basically did whatever they could to numb or lash out against the pain of their broken, abusive households or emotionally absent parents. In great contrast, my parents, loving and supportive, helped me through my own poor decisions in those angst-filled years. Meanwhile, the community that gathered on the walls of a small Midwestern climbing gym offered examples of what healthy friendships were like, what it meant to live a life centered on something you love rather than reacting to things you fear, hate, or resent.

Community is the best word I can conjure for the group of regulars that developed at Vert during the years I climbed there. We not only climbed, but socialized together, watched the Super Bowl together, attended each other’s weddings. When one of our own, a strong young climber named Jeremy, was injured in a car accident one night on the way home from the gym, a group of his friends organized a fundraiser at Vert to help offset some of his heavy medical costs. When Jeremy needed a wheelchair ramp, the crew from Vert, among others, came together and built one.

“I think that people will meet in a variety of settings. Church, on a bike, at a climbing wall, in a pub, at work, etc.,” Alexis wrote to me in an email, but added, “The gym does make that process easier. (Kind of like lube.)” Personally, I felt Vert was more than just lube: it was a hub, a catalyst. But perhaps that was due in part to its location far from natural crags. Still, there are many, many towns similarly situated, and for them, gyms really can create a community of climbers that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

A lot of climbers talk trash about gyms. For some reason, they like to remind others and themselves that climbing outside is real climbing, and climbing in gyms is practice, for gumbies or for kids. Now, I’d be hard pressed to trade time on the rocks for time on plastic, but the truth is, gyms are the biggest thing to happen to climbing in decades. Gyms are the wide end of a funnel through which people of all backgrounds and walks of life can access the climbing life, not just those lucky enough to grow up close to Yosemite, the Gunks, Southeast’s bouldering goldmine.

I started climbing in a gym, but I’m not alone. So did Alex Honnold and Beth Rodden, Sasha DiGiulian and Chris Sharma, and many other climbing heroes today held up as exemplary in the media. Plenty of kids escape the frustrations and pressures of adolescence at their local rock gym. A lot of folks make lifelong friends in the gym, not to mention partners who one day will accompany them up big walls or high peaks. Plenty of busy working parents find the time to keep climbing thanks to the convenience of gyms. Without gyms as training centers, few of today’s hardest climbs would have seen their first ascents. Gyms and the competitions held in them may well be the key to climbing’s future inclusion in the Olympics. The list goes on…

Brock is young yet; there’s no way to tell if he’ll be a lifer or if he’ll move on to other pursuits and forget about climbing. Either way, he has already found a rich new activity through which he can bond with his dad and other kids his age. Lately, he’s been learning to tie knots with a strand of cordelette he bought at Vert, and has plans to come visit Kristin and me in Utah, where I hope to take him out onto the beautiful sandstone in the south of the state — an experience he probably wouldn’t have been so excited about if it hadn’t been for the humble climbing gym.