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It doesn't require as much investment in ropes and other related gear, rapport with a partner or the time required to climb hundreds of feet. Yet down-to-earth "bouldering" is taking the sport of rock climbing to new heights.
"Anybody can boulder," says Matt Lambert, owner of Rogue Rock Gym.
All it takes is some tight-fitting footwear, maybe a dusting of chalk for the hands and a desire to tackle the bumpy, creased, pockmarked face of an unyielding rock — hanging upside-down if need be — to reach its squat summit. Although the climb is shorter, bouldering often feels more intense than scaling a rock face twice as high, says Lambert. It can be more social, with several climbers attempting the same route in quick succession, or suited to solitary climbing, which typically isn't recommended for rope-dependent ascents.
"A lot of people will start climbing with bouldering initially," says Lambert.
To accommodate rising popularity, the six-year-old Rogue Rock Gym doubled its bouldering terrain by installing a new, 16-foot-tall wall this summer at its 6,000-square-foot facility in a South Medford industrial complex. Like the gym's other features, the boulder is constructed of steel and concrete textured to imitate naturally occurring rock.
"The geometry is very complex," says Lambert. "It's made to mimic real rock climbing — outdoor rock climbing."
Rock gyms started popping up in the early 1990s — the first in Seattle — to give rock climbers a place to practice during times of inclement weather. But the chance to try climbing in comfortable, climate-controlled environments with safety features staffed by experts helped to popularize the sport with the general public. About half of Rogue's approximately 200 members climb solely indoors, says Lambert.
"It's a nice, safe place to learn the proper skills to go outdoors," he says, adding that the gym fosters a community for meeting climbers who can introduce novices to some of the region's natural terrain waiting to be scaled.
After a June introduction to climbing through Southern Oregon University's Outdoor Program, 20-year-old Taylor Moellerich took her newfound pastime inside on a rainy weekday. She says the rock gym offers an opportunity to build skills, but the outdoors represent adventure.
"It's very addicting," says Moellerich.
Climbing partner Sam Murray, 23, knows the feeling. Four years ago, a friend showed him how to climb in the Rocky Mountains' Sawtooth Range of Idaho, where he was working at a lodge.
"I became obsessed," says Murray.
He moved to Ashland in 2008 and quickly joined the gym because it's the best facility around, he says. SOU has a small, indoor wall constructed of plywood compared with Rogue's more realistic walls — 30 feet tall with 33 rope stations.
Indoor climbing facilities were small and sparsely arrayed when he moved to the Rogue Valley with his wife, Chrysten, in 2003, says Lambert. Formerly employed at a Seattle rock gym, Lambert identified an empty warehouse on Samike Drive for his own gym and contracted with Colorado's Eldorado Climbing Walls for the features. Rogue remains the largest indoor climbing facility between Portland and Sacramento, Calif., with membership almost evenly split between men and women from childhood age to adults in their 50s, says Lambert.
"Women tend to be better climbers right out of the gate," he says. "I would say girls have an advantage."
The gym's top climber is Cameron Thomson, a 10-year-old Medford girl who placed first in the Northwest and is competing nationally this year. Beginning her climbing career at age 7, Cameron still is the Rogue team's youngest and smallest member. She competed in "bouldering" (climbing without ropes, no higher than 20 feet) in a national competition in February. And in June, she placed sixth among climbers in her age group nationwide in sport climbing, using ropes and going as high as 60 feet.
Cameron's success, says Lambert, is an ideal contradiction to the commonplace myth that climbing requires a lot of upper-body strength. Climbers' legs literally give them the boost they need, he says, and excess body mass is a disadvantage.
"Balance and flexibility are more important than strength."
Once climbers learn the basics of choosing a route based on the gym's color coding and position of V-shaped strips of tape, navigating it is like "figuring out a puzzle," says Lambert. Rogue creates all new routes every three months to keep climbing interesting. Thousands of handholds in hundreds of shapes make for nearly infinite combinations and variations, says Lambert.
"It's like your brain is engaged and stimulated," he says. "It's a great stress-reliever.
"You're so focused on the rock that you're not thinking about your work."