On Belay, Belay On, Climbing, Climb On

If you put a boy in front of a big rock he will try to climb up the side.  It doesn’t matter if it’s at the Rock City near Mt. Diablo, Balconies in Pinnacles, Half Dome in Yosemite, or even a boulder next to the parking lot.  Boys like to climb.  Scouting understands this impulse and offers the Climbing merit badge to put some structure around this natural activity. 

There are lots of places where Northern California Scouts can learn to climb safely.   One of the most interesting indoor locations is in the old Great Western Power Company building  in Oakland.  The climbing walls are built around a 150 foot tall smokestack and the walls are as high and interesting as the adrenaline rush they inspire.  The Troop voted to make this our outing destination.

We walk into the gym at around 8:00 pm.  The cavernous space is cold and dark.  A faint smell of mold and perspiration rises from the thick mats that cover most of the floor.  The facility is split into two climbing areas.  The area closest to the entrance is for beginners and is filled with short walls, easy routes, and extra pads.  A free climb overhang is off to the side.  The other room is for more advanced climbers.  It contains the smokestack, which divides the much higher walls into two smaller sections, and a dozen walls that are sometimes angled to make the routes more challenging.  

Some boys brought sleeping bags, which are thrown into a dark space under the industrial stairs.  We put on sweatshirts and look for our gloves.  Most of the boys stare nervously at the climbing walls and wonder if they are strong enough (and brave enough) to get to the ceiling.  When everyone is safely inside, the doors are locked and bolted.  No one is leaving until 6:00 am, when our drivers are scheduled to return.

The Troop splits into two groups.  First year Scouts  are working on the merit badge, so they are herded into the beginner’s room with the counselors.  We don’t see them for a few hours as they learn the basics and test each other on rappelling and tying figure eight knots (count six pairs, plus a fisherman knot at the end).  From time to time a shout followed by a loud thud tells us that everything is proceeding normally in the merit badge session

The rest of the Scouts have already earned the merit badge.  They follow two experienced climbers (staff) to the smokestack and sit at the bottom of the 150 foot wall.  Everyone has to review the components of a safe climb:  harness, clips, ropes, knots, belay commands, and inspections.   The staff is tough and some boys have to be tested again and again.   

Climbing outing at Touchstone in Oakland

Scouts Climbing the Wall

Finally everyone is ready.  Half of the advanced group moves to the wall, with the other half deployed to belay the safety ropes in case their climbing partner should slip and fall.   For the next several hours, Scouts pick a route, tie into the harness, and climb until they hit a section that is too difficult.  Directions and shouts of encouragement echo in the chamber.  “You can do it.”  “Don’t stop now.” “Move your left foot up a little and put your weight on the blue rock.”   “You are almost to the top.”  Over and over again, until everyone’s arms are exhausted and fingers don’t work anymore.  Time for a rest.  

By 3:00 am, some younger Scouts are starting to get sleepy.  They look for a quiet place to roll out their sleeping bags.  They are soon to learn a harsh lesson:  it’s difficult to sleep on mats in an open room where Scouts are playing football or when people are tripping over you to get to the pizza and hot chocolate.  Miraculously, one narcoleptic boy sleeps through all the commotion.

For the final two hours, we crank up the music and try to get all the boys onto the walls again.  Some get their second wind and begin climbing steadily and seriously.  Belayers move to the heavy beat of the music in order to stay awake and keep themselves warm.  Younger Scouts wander across the mats, not comprehending how their minds can be mostly asleep while their bodies are still moving.  Adult Leaders keep looking at their watches as the minutes creep slowly by. 

Finally it’s six o’clock.  Scouts slowly push sleeping bags into stuff sacks.  Trash is picked up and equipment is put away.  The bill is paid (including a nice tip for the staff who also stayed up all night)  and the cars are loaded with Scouts, who immediately fall asleep.  The long night ends with a flurry of early morning telephone calls by adult leaders to get parents to collect their Scouts.   Then, finally, it’s time to go home.

The Great Western Power Company gym is owned by Touchstone Climbing and Fitness, which has multiple facilities around the Bay Area and lots of climbing options for youth groups; including easy walls for a Tenderfoot Patrol or Webelo Den and more difficult walls for Venture Crews.   http://www.touchstoneclimbing.com/