Local Climbing Gym Drives Popularity of Bouldering

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Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tennessee)


They are called "problems."

In the sport of bouldering, a problem is the route a climber takes. The goal is to solve the problem and get to the top.

That that problem might include trying to get a hold on a hand grip so thin a finger's end might barely find a fit or hanging by a hand from the grip on a horizontal wall is all part of the game.

Bouldering is big at Onsight Rock Gym on Western Avenue. The facility opened in April 2016 and has become a central hangout for the climbing community. It offers 50-foot climbing walls, but also shorter bouldering walls that stand only about 15 feet.

Bouldering includes none of the pain-in-the-rear equipment or help needed to climb the tall rock formations: no ropes, no hooks, and no belayers. Just basically start grabbing rocks, climb and hope you don't run out of strength, confidence or both. Failure means a fall of at most 15 feet to an ultrasoft pad that wouldn't let an egg crack.

Recently the inaugural "Freaks of Nature" bouldering competition at Onsight drew a full-house field of 60 competitors for a Saturday filled with climbs and falls.

"I really enjoy the fight-or-flight thing," said Willard Robinson, a climber who came from Asheville, N.C., to compete. "It's a workout unlike any other."

Plenty of short flights occurred Saturday.

Climbers warmed up in a room at one end of the building, then shielded their eyes as they were led to the bouldering area at the other end. They weren't supposed to get an early look at what problem they would be expected to solve.

Walls in the bouldering room are speckled with hundreds of colored holds, little appendages where a climber can get a hand grip. Some of the holds are a couple feet wide with big gripping areas; others are rounded, much smaller and hard places to hang. The idea is to get to the top by using the holds of the same color. The problems have been designed by experts with a full bag of tricks.

The baddest looking problems are those requiring climbers to hang from a horizontal roof as part of the trip to the top, but gym manager Jonathan Carter said looks can be deceiving.

"Actually the hand holds on those could be quite firm, whereas on another problem the holds aren't as firm and might be spread farther apart," he said.

Christian Robinson, who co-owns the gym with wife Yolanda "Yoli" Chen, said business has been good.

The couple moved to Knoxville a couple years ago, just to climb. He's from Hawaii originally and calls Knoxville "one of the real climbing centers in the United States. It's right in the center of the best climbing in the country," he said.

With the Obed Wild and Scenic River nearby, "Rock City" Chattanooga to the south, Red River Gorge in Kentucky and spots like Looking Glass and Corner Rock in North Carolina, Robinson's point is well taken.

He really likes the camaraderie of the sport.

"You don't get a lot of rooting against the other guy in this sport," he said. "You don't get anyone wishing somebody would fall so that they can win. This is all about everybody cheering everyone else on."

"It is an incredibly giving and generous community," Carter said. "It is so tight-knit. I'm sure there is a great running community here, but it is going to be a lot bigger. If you're a climber here, you probably know all the other climbers in Knoxville."

At the competition, a roar went up anytime someone reached the top - a place open-division climber Jaret Salas was hoping to find often.

Bouldering fits right into Salas's list of athletic pursuits. A former New Mexico resident who moved to Knoxville about a year ago, he grew up with gymnastics. In recent years he has turned his attention to training for the American Ninja Warrior, a made-for-TV sport that involves making your way through a series of difficult athletic challenges.

He has been on the show twice - in 2012 and 2014 - and hopes to make it again. Meanwhile, he has gotten hooked on climbing.

"You get a brand new challenge every time. You never know what to expect. Every problem is different," he said.

Age differences aren't a big deal with climbers.

"We have some kids as young as 3, but what I really think is neat is that it's a competitive sport that you can stay in at least into adulthood. We have people who climb well into their 50s and 60s," Carter said.

Silver-haired Kelly Brown admitted, "I'm a lot older than anybody else here."

He has been a fixture in the Knoxville climbing community for more than 30 years. He helped install many of the bolts for sports climbing at the Obed - an international outdoor climbing destination.

Harper Allen, 11, likes climbing because "it's never the same. There are so many different problems; so many ways to go. There is also nobody telling me what to do. I have to figure it out."

Carter said he enjoys the sport because it keeps him healthy.

"For me, climbing acts as a keystone goal. If I have climbing well as a goal, it requires me to keep my diet on point. My fitness has to be on point. It requires me to get the right number of hours of sleep. It is a real motivator to stay in shape."

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March 3, 2017


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