Matt Hulet hovered somewhere above me on the wall. Even looking up, somehow, I couldn’t see him. My eyes were going all over the place and my heart was pounding.
“Just let go and fall back,” he told me. “Just let go. The rope will do the rest. Trust the system.”
I nodded. He was right. Before I’d even climbed the wall at Gritstone Climbing and Fitness in Morgantown, we’d gone over the safety features. I was wearing a harness and connected by two, sturdy carbiner clips to a rope that was looped through some kind of pully system.
If you kicked off the wall, the rope would catch, and you’d drift to the well-cushioned floor below, setting down lightly.
The tension on the line reminded me a little of the cord to my vacuum cleaner. You press a button, and the cord gets slurped up like a spaghetti noodle.
Matt, the manager of Gritstone assured me I could do this and said, “It’s actually harder to climb down.”
But I could not.
I felt like a cat caught hanging on the curtains in my living room. The fall wasn’t that great. I was sure about the safety system and fairly confident that I could take the drop with no trouble. But I could not make my hands let go of the pink, tongue-shaped grips my fingers clutched.
“I guess I’m climbing down,” I said.
Gritstone had come up in conversation with David Statler at eNeRGy Rock Gym, who’d told me about the size of the place and that the folks there did something his gym did not: they used ropes.
The eNeRGy Rock gym focuses on bouldering, climbing without all the entanglements (and protections) of ropes.
From what I’ve gathered, the trade-off with not using ropes is that bouldering climbers typically climb courses that are less likely to lead to death or permanent disability. They’ll stay a bit closer to the ground, though there are always people who will go out on their own and become brief, but memorable Youtube stars.
While I’d enjoyed the mental challenge of figuring out how to climb up the side of the wall and the new dose in humility about my actual fitness level, I wasn’t facing my needling fear of heights much.
Gritstone Climbing and Fitness promised me a shot at that. So I reached out to them, explained what I was doing, and they invited me to come to Morgantown and check out the facility.
The place stuck out.
In a Morgantown business neighborhood, the building towered over a little Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant next door. From the outside, it looked more like a performance hall than a gym — with plenty of parking.
Matt met me inside, which was a brightly lit cathedral to climbing: all high ceilings and plenty of room to move.
The Lumineers played softly over the sound system.
In the middle of the day, a handful of climbers were scaling different courses on the walls, while one of the staff was busy, high up, moving different grips or holds.
Matt explained that staff moved plates around regularly to give gym members variety with their climbs.
Changing it up was important, both as a good workout and to help keep climbers mentally sharp.
After I arrived and signed an electronic accident/injury liability waiver longer than my last car loan contract, he gave me the nickel tour.
It was a nice gym.
Along with 61 rope lanes, some of them going up 49 feet from the ground, they had an entire area on the second floor devoted to bouldering. There was space set aside for practicing skills and some old school weights to help climbers build strength.
“New climbers feel a lot of fatigue in their hands and forearms,” Matthew told me.
I nodded and said I’d been surprised by some of that.
“Even before I got a little healthier, I thought I had sort of decent forearms,” I explained. “I expected my hands to get tired, but not my forearms.”
To illustrate, I flexed by Popeye-sized forearms.
Matt flexed his forearms and grinned. Size didn’t matter, of course. I know this from CrossFit, where smaller men routinely lift heavier weights than me.
Getting past the soreness was part strength training and part learning technique, knowing how to reduce the amount of stress you put on your hands, he said.
Gritstone opened in August of 2020, while many businesses, including gyms, were either closed or were working at reduced or restricted capacity because of COVID-19.
Matt said, “It’s been a struggle, but we’ve done OK.”
Gritstone aims to be part of a larger draw to the area for remote workers and others who might come to the area because they’re attracted to West Virginia’s outdoor culture.
“We’re not the largest facility in the country, but we’re the largest in the state and at least one of the largest in the region,” he said.
Rock climbing, Matt said, is somewhat seasonal.
“You don’t want to climb when it’s freezing and you don’t want to climb when the temperatures are too hot,” he said.
Climbing gyms are great for convenience, great for developing an athletic community and important for serious climbers who want to keep up their form during the winter months when they can’t climb.
“If you’re a long-distance runner and you take the winter off, it’s going to take you a little while to get back into form, but not that long,” Matt said. “If you’re a climber, taking that kind of time off is going to be so much harder to come back from.”
As a sport, climbing is also on the rise. This was the first year it was part of the Olympics and Gritstone has a copy of the Olympic course for climbers to try or practice.
Alberto Gines Lopez of Spain, the winner of the men’s speed climb at the Olympics, scaled a 15-meter wall in 5.2 seconds. The winner of the women’s speed climb did it in 6.96 seconds.
That’s crazy fast.
Matt let me try several different portions of the climbing gym. I did a little bouldering without a harness, which was mostly me just monkeying around. He showed me that I didn’t have to necessarily grip every hand hold, but that I could also wrap my hand and wrist around some of them, which let my fingers rest.
Always, he suggested not working so hard — so that I could get more out of the climb.
I never did get comfortable with letting go of the wall and letting the rope take me to the ground. We tried another wall and different heights.
“Three, two, one, go!” Matt shouted from below.
I wanted to let go, but my hands clutched the holds.
He tried again, “Three, two, one, let go!”
I laughed and slowly made my way down. I felt foolish, embarrassed. My hands ached. I was sweating.
“It’s OK,” Matt said, kindly. “Did you ever see that old movie, ‘What About Bob?’”
I knew it well. They shot part of the thing not far from where I grew up.
In the comedy, Bill Murray’s super neurotic character, Bob, is encouraged to navigate his life through small steps forward, making difficult tasks (difficult to him) manageable.
“Just baby steps from the wall,” Matt said. “Go up a little way and jump off. Get comfortable with that and then go a little higher. Jump off from there. Baby step your way to it.”