Freshman Sam Buck lunged to reach for a climbing hold as he scaled a 43-foot replica of a cliff face. He grasped the hold and pulled himself and set his feet on new holds. He repeated the process until he reached the top and rappelled down.

A year ago Buck started rock climbing. Before he had played soccer,  track, and basketball. But none of the sports appealed to him like climbing.

“(Rock climbing) is very intellectually involved,” Buck said. “Most sports mainly consist of impulsive reactions. But with climbing you have to get to the top with a plan. Otherwise you won’t get there.”

He now trains three times a week for three hours with his rock climbing team, Team Touchstone.

I accompanied Buck to Pipeworks Climbing and Fitness (116 N. 16th St.) to find out if rock climbing was really as intense as I had always imagined.

And it was.

Freshman Ben Miner came along too, as I couldn’t climb due to a sprained ankle.

When I arrived, I walked into a massive warehouse bustling with climbers.

There were four huge pillars that reached the roof. There were instructors teaching first timers, climbers calling out spots for other climbers to go to, and even barking dogs.

When Miner arrived, he quickly filled out his release form and rented climbing shoes.

As Miner rapidly learned, climbing shoes are meant to squish your toes to allow a better grip and make sure the shoes don’t fall off. He complained about his shoes for the following 15 minutes.

The first climbing action Miner saw was Buck teaching him how to fall off the wall correctly. Buck climbed up the 10-foot wall without ropes and purposely jumped backwards onto the mats beneath him. With the balance of a cat, he landed on his feet, then quickly fell onto his back. This falling method prevents injuries such as a broken arm.

But it looked easier than it was. Miner somehow managed to fail four or five times at falling down. He continuously fell putting all his weight onto his feet and not transferring it as he fell to his back, as Buck had done. Eventually Buck trusted that Miner wouldn’t seriously injure himself, and they moved to climbing.

Failure would become a recurring theme throughout our day.

There are two types of climbing: bouldering and top rope. Bouldering is without any ropes or harnesses, so it involves smaller heights, about 20 feet. Top rope is with ropes and a harness, and thus involves heights up to 43 feet, at least at Pipeworks.

We briefly stopped at the bouldering walls to watch Buck climb for the first time that day.

Before climbing, Buck took a minute to determine his route. So once he hopped on the wall, it was like clockwork. He quickly and fluidly went from hold to hold. In about 30 seconds he had reached the top.

In practices, Buck does a strenuous activity called “burleys.” The climber chooses two routes next to each other, one easy and one difficult. The climber then scales up the difficult route and down the easy one for five minutes without stopping. Buck tries to pace himself, by going slightly slower than full speed, because the climber is given a two-minute break before resuming the grueling task. The climber ends up spending 30 minutes climbing and 12 resting.

Burleys were obviously part of the reason Buck climbs so effortlessly.

Notice Buck's shoes, which squish his toes to allow a better grip.

Ben Miner
Sam Buck reaches the top of a bouldering wall. Notice Buck’s shoes, which squish his toes to allow a better grip.

Miner also had a go at the easiest route on the wall. However, he didn’t plan his route before, so he was considerably slower than Buck.

When we arrived, the 43-foot rock walls had been the first thing that caught our attention. So we headed to top roping.

But before we could even think about top climbing, Miner and I had to learn how to belay. Even though I couldn’t climb, I could belay.

Belaying is the process of securing and safeguarding a rock climber by holding a rope to support the climber’s weight if he falls.

Surprisingly, learning to be a belayer took almost an hour and a half. And even then we weren’t very reliable belayers.

Buck first taught Miner how to tie the rope correctly to Miner’s harness as a climber. It took Miner about 30 minutes (and about 10 tries) to correctly thread a rope through a couple of holes.

Buck then taught us how to tie the rope to his own harness as a belayer. Surprisingly, this took only a few minutes.

He also went over basic things that we should check every time before the climber begins – like making sure we were attached to the climber’s line and not just a hanging one. There were multiple ropes hanging from the walls, making the mistake possible.

Having passed our belay test, we went over to the 30-foot top climbing wall to get some experience.

Miner scrambled to the top; the rope didn’t affect his climbing. We both belayed for Buck well enough to advance to the big walls that went all the way to the ceiling.

Buck explained that competitions are judged by both the difficulty of the climber’s route and the number of attempts it takes to complete that route. Buck trains with his team, but he competes individually in competitions. So far he has competed in only local competitions, so he isn’t regionally ranked.

When I belayed Buck at the big walls, I realized that even that aspect of climbing was pretty difficult. Buck was so quick to ascend I had to work hard to remove the slack on the rope to make sure extra rope didn’t get in his way. I was constantly pulling with most of my strength to match Buck’s climbing pace. I think I was more relieved than he was when he finished.

Buck left Miner and me alone while he went to get his chalk bag. (Chalk gives climbers a better grip). This is when events began to spiral downward.

Miner and I  decided it would be a great idea to attach my GoPro, an action camera, to a rope and raise it as Buck climbed to take pictures. I tied the mini-camera to the rope, and Miner started raising it to test our ingenious idea. We then saw Buck returning, and we were excited to show him our great innovation. But we had forgotten one thing: we didn’t have a plan to lower the camera back down.

Buck was dumbfounded at our lack of common sense, and harshly laughed at our mistake.

But it got even worse.

As Buck prepared to rescue our camera, I prepared to belay for him. So he came over to check that I hadn’t messed anything else up. Surprise! I had attached myself to the rope of the camera, instead of Buck. I had also tied my knot incorrectly. Whoops.

“Okay, we’re done top climbing today,” Buck said. “I don’t know how you guys can be so dumb.”

After retrieving our camera, Buck decided it was best if we returned to bouldering, where he wouldn’t risk plummeting 30 feet to the ground and breaking all his bones because of our incompetence.

We finished our four-hour adventure watching Buck once again climb the bouldering wall.

Exhausted, Miner and I thanked Buck for his time and patience. Soon after, Buck started scaling that wall again.

—By Adam Dean

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