|THE SCENE ON 450-FOOT CATHEDRAL LEDGE in North Conway, New Hampshire, is a veritable lifestyle commercial: English-lit-crit guys in beards and wire-rim glasses belay their athletic sports-bra-clad girlfriends. Smart-aleck instructors merrily toss insults back and forth while dangling 300 feet off the deck. What appear to be entire families dally at the base of other routes, fussing with gear and chomping on peanut-butter sandwiches. In a sport known for withering assaults on Asian monoliths and catalog images featuring sinewy, fearless phenoms, here we have mere humans. It's adventure without insanity. Rock climbing's answer to jogging.
Such a crowd isn't atypical. Crags across the continent are hosting growing populations of beginner and intermediate climbers—thanks in large part to the proliferation of indoor climbing gyms enlightening droves of would-be Spidermen. (There are now an estimated 500 gyms nationwide, up from 200 in 1997, according to the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America.) Once the domain of ascetics and thrill-seekers, indoor climbing gyms now find minivan owners and their towheaded shorties tying in next to young adults bored with Spinning, empty-nesters with dusty NordicTracks, and singles on the prowl. And why not? After all, it's fun—trampoline-style, kid-again fun.
Not to play the rust inspector at the Tilt-A-Whirl, but fun is also becoming the great liability of indoor climbing. Learning the ropes takes time, something in which too many novices fail to invest before they step out on a real ledge. "We saw, and still see, people doing so many things that are so dangerous when they go outside, mostly because they left the gym with a false sense of security," says Peter Lewis, a mountaineering guide for the Eastern Mountain Sports climbing school and coauthor (with Dan Cauthorn) of the just-released Climbing: From Gym to Crag—Building Skills for Real Rock (Mountaineers Books).
Lewis earns his lunch money guiding at Cathedral Ledge. After showing me a hoot of a time on a local indoor wall, he has hauled me—an eager novice—75 feet up a slab of granite to point out the not-so-obvious: Climbing outside is very different from climbing inside. Having spent the last 20 minutes scrambling up the rock face, I now stand on a tiny ledge next to Lewis. Several stiff gusts threaten to knock me from my perch (I'm tied in, but somehow it's not that reassuring). I'm acutely aware that there is no permanently affixed top rope, no ascending hashes of colored tape denoting the route, no bolted-on plastic holds to grab. "You can get comfortable on a gym wall, learn a few routes with a difficulty level of 5.9 or 5.10, and decide you're ready to head outside," says Lewis. "Do that, though, and a 5.3 on the outside will have you wetting your pants."
To avoid that sorry predicament, here's a jug-hold-size piece of advice: This winter, head to your nearest indoor climbing gym, and use it for something other than an all-purpose place to goof off. Instead of thrashing at the hardest tape-marked route until you become bored, demoralized, or worse—injured—try this instead: Develop a workout. Come spring, your forearms will last longer, you'll high-step more confidently, and you'll be less prone to injury. We'll help you along with training and technique tips, plus advice on hot new climbing gear, including liquid chalk and shoes that grip like talons. Add a mandatory course of qualified professional instruction on setting anchors and leading climbs, and in a few short months you'll be ready to rock where the view is better and they don't charge by the day. And that, in case you've forgotten, was the whole reason behind indoor gyms in the first place.
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