Check your ropes. Wear your harness. Make sure your clips are on. Climbers at Hillsdale’s rock wall in the Sports Complex know these precautions well.
This year, climbers must take additional precautions. Check your temperature. Wear your mask. Make sure you are socially distancing in this era of COVID-19.
For two months, Hillsdale climbers have to put their passions on hold due to Gov. Whitmer’s restrictions. But since the rock wall’s opening on Oct. 18, Hillsdale climbers have returned.
Junior Lauren Benson, a staff member at the wall, said her love of climbing started when her boyfriend asked her to join him on a climb.
Benson started climbing with her boyfriend at a local rock climbing camp in Minnesota. Even though Benson said she prefers to climb indoors, her favorite place to climb outside is Shovel Point at Lake Superior in northern Minnesota. Unlike typical routes, the climbs are called “slab routes,” which means they are not vertical, but at an angle.
“We would go to courses about once a week,” Benson said. “Then I started climbing outdoors and came here to this wall.”
Coronavirus has changed her perspective on climbing.
“I think COVID-19 made me realize how much I appreciated climbing and missed it,” Benson said.
Climbing for Benson is more than just getting in a workout. When she’s more active, Benson said, she is more efficient academically, socially, and spiritually.
The rock climbing community also plays a role in her growth. Climbers must rely on their belayers, who hold the ropes.
“You get on a deeper level than you do with a lot of other people,” Benson said. “You have to stick together because your life is in their hands.”
When walking into the rock wall and strapping into the harness, the community is ready to welcome you in and help you refine your skills. Benson says that new members have already jumped into the climbing community since the reopening of the wall.
“There have been quite a few new people, which is fun because you see them improving and getting better just in the few weeks we have been open,” Benson said.
Not only do newcomers get better at climbing the more they come, but they also help Benson improve her skills.
“When you have to give new climbers advice, you have to stop and think about what is happening when you climb with your center of mass and how you are holding things,” Benson said.
Junior Peter Curtis said his love for climbing began when his dad took him to a climbing event in Washington for REI employees. These events, which are sponsored by companies like Chaco, Marmot, and Merrell, happen a few times a year. There was food, games, contests, and giveaways. But Peter gravitated to the in-store climbing wall.
“Some of the people there asked me to try it,” he said. “As soon as I started to climb, I became addicted.”
Near his hometown in eastern Washington, Curtis can be found jumping off granite and basalt walls into the lake below once he climbs high enough. The cliffs at Banks Lake in Washington have sharp drops that segway into the deep water. Curtis and his friends take paddle boards and climb up the side of the clift straight from the water. Once he gets tired of climbing, he just leans back and falls into the water — without safety gear or a care in the world.
“Top roping is basically the same as indoor climbing to me,” Curtis said. “You are locked in. You have a harness. You have a safety rover. My thing is bouldering, where there are no safety measures. You have crash pads at the bottom, but other than that, there is nothing.”
Despite Curtis’ lack of concern for safety, he has never seriously injured himself in his five years of climbing. Since Curtis has started climbing, he has seen himself grow less afraid of trying new things. He now is more apt to experience life in the front row instead of watching life-changing opportunities walk by him.
“It impacted how scared I am of doing risky things,” Curtis said. “It has shown me how I can trust my body and how much I can push myself. I think everyone should have something that shows them what they are capable of.”
Now at Hillsdale, he’s had to tone down his adventurous side, he said, but even though the Hillsdale wall is small, Curtis said he is thankful for it. For Curtis, the climbing wall is his haven.
“I missed being able to get up on the wall,” he said I know the routes. It is something that I’m comfortable with. It is like being at home. It gives me a sense of comfort and safety.”
Much like Curtis, as soon as senior Tyler Sechrist stepped onto the Hillsdale rock wall his freshman year, he knew he found something special.
“I saw the climbing wall and basically told myself that by the time I graduated, I wanted to be able to climb every route on the wall,” Sechrist said.
With this goal in mind, Sechrist said he pushed himself physically, made lifelong friends, and became Hillsdale’s rock climbing manager.
Sechrist said his favorite part of climbing was the heights.
“Maybe it is because there is a little bit of the thrill of being up high,” Sechrist said. “As long as I can trust the equipment I am using, I will go anywhere. You can safely climb thousands of feet up a cliff and do it with the proper equipment, and you don’t have to worry because even if the equipment fails, there are backups to the backups to keep you safe.”
Climbing, said Sechrist, engages both his mind and body. Going to the gym allows you to have a workout, but it does not occupy your mind. When rock climbing, however, you have to problem solve to get up the wall. There are no mental breaks.
Sechrist, explaining when he first started to climb, said, “I just showed up, and I have become friends with all the people that regularly climb.”
Throughout his time at Hillsdale, he has grown with these people into the climber he is today. Sechrist said there are 15 to 20 people who are staff or regulars that make up the Hillsdale climbing community.
When speaking about his role as the manager, Sechrist says he loves it.
“It is probably one of the best jobs on campus,” he said.
The first day the rock wall was open, Sechrist described it as “a big rush” and that “everyone at the wall was itching to get going.”
Anyone can rock climb even if you don’t have the strength or skills coming in.
“Rock climbing will also very quickly build the strength that you need for it,” said Sechrist. “Coming in, I had never been super physically fit. And then, I was able to develop the muscle necessary to do it.”
More than just a place to build strength, the rock wall provides Curtis with a community of like-minded individuals pursuing similar interests, he said. His climbing friends from home are relaxed, easy going, and up for doing anything, he said.
“They just love their lives,” he said.
His outlook on life is similar to these climbers.
“I have always had an appreciation for the little things. Like with climbing, I will get a nice little hold, but it is just perfect for my hand, and it is a great feeling. It helps me appreciate what’s around me more.”