Kent Climbing

On Belay: Get Your Rock Climbing On

The rough texture of the rock beneath your fingertips and the burn in your forearms. That tickle at the small of your back, reminding you that you’re hanging above the ground, and the light tug of the harness against your waist. You are a rock climber. Like Stallone in that movie where he dropped that chick. You’re like Stallone. You suck in deep to the wall, press you’re chest against it, feel your feet take the weight and quiver to hold it on the tiny sliver they’re poised upon and you reach your right hand up, slowly, slowly to the next hold. It’s only wide enough to accommodate your first two fingers, but hey, you’re Stallone  and that’s all you need.

Your belayer takes the slack out down below, and as you’re leaning over to make your next move, a six year old whizzes past you. He’s scrambling up the wall beside you like it’s not vertical, laughing like a psychopath in an Adventure Time T-shirt. You’re not in the Alps. There is no chick. You are not Stallone. You are at a rock climbing gym.

In the past few years, Rock Climbing has gone from something that you were only ever peripherally aware of when someone died doing it in Yosemite, to something your toddlers can do every day after preschool, and I’m here to tell you why that’s a good thing, and why you should hop on board.

I’m standing in Vertical Heaven rock climbing gym in Ventura, California next to a kid named Oscar. Put simply, he’s yoked. He looks like he’s been carved out of wood. His forearms are bulging and his chest is wide and his abs are copious. Oh yeah and he’s 13. He looks like a painting of a Greek god that Woody Allen might have painted. Oscar is standing at the base of a wall with a harness on and the rope that’s tied to it is connected to the wall and then down to a guy named Bob. Bob’s got calves like slabs of beef and forearms that would make a weightlifter blush. Oh yeah and he’s 67.

These are the types of people that you run into in a gym, working together, hanging out. And the effect that it’s had on the two of them respectively is fairly typical. Working out at a rock climbing gym works like this: usually when you start off, you end up wandering up to the first wall you can find and scramble up and down it a few times until you’re worn out and then you pack it in and go home and when you wake up in the morning, you can’t make a fist. Then you stagger back in about a week later when you can work the door handle again and you do it all over again. Scramble for an hour and quit. Then, as you start to show up more often and you look at the people around you, people like Oscar and Bob, you see what they’re doing. Resting between climbs, using their muscles efficiently, and slowly, over time you start to become better. The pain is less severe the next day. The routes that you’re climbing become more technical, the holds get smaller and your awareness of your body and where it is in space becomes heightened. You’ll find yourself looking at rustic rock chimneys and thinking: I could climb that,  or putting your hands on weird rocks at the beach or in the park and thinking: That’d be a great hold.

But the benefits of rock climbing aren’t purely mental. Just go to a rock climbing gym and look at one of the 50 year old women hanging off a fingertip from the ceiling. Chiseled arms and sculpted shoulders are definitely tools of the trade. Defined abs are another added bonus. As an after-work hobby, a rock climbing gym is a great alternative to a weight bench or a spinning class and if you decide to take it really seriously, you could end up among the climbing elite. Guys who do chin-ups until they get bored. Guys like Stallone.

The following images are from Vertical Heaven Indoor Rock Climbing Gym, in Ventura, California, where I was a rock climbing instructor for several years.

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Kellen Burden is a novelist, freelance writer, rock climbing instructor, avid surfer and he fought a bear once. His novel “FlashBang” is available at He lives in Tacoma, Washington and can be reached at