Fear of heights worth facing for rock climbing

By Emma Kilcup

Rock Wall, 140 Trees Hall

Monday, Tuesday, Thursday 4-10… Rock Wall, 140 Trees Hall

Monday, Tuesday, Thursday 4-10 p.m.

Wednesday 12-6 p.m.

Friday, Saturday, Sunday 1-6 p.m.

The idea of rock climbing elicits fear for me. After seeing “127 Hours,” I can only picture the beloved James Franco stuck in a Utah canyon. Luckily for Franco, he lives — as did the real-life person his character is based on, Aron Ralston.

While I love the outdoors, I don’t love heights, and I feared that my attempts at rock climbing might end less fortunately. But Pitt offers a place for rock climbing that is somewhat less daunting than any canyon near Moab, Utah.

Trees Hall’s rock wall has differing hours but is open six hours every day. The first time, which requires a lesson, costs $5 and after that, a day pass is just $1. Equipment — shoes and a harness — is available for an extra fee, totaling about $5. In all, the whole experience is more affordable than watching James Franco climb canyons on the big screen.

So with James Franco as inspiration, I channeled my inner adventurer — I knew it was in me somewhere — and put on my climbing shoes. After an initial mandatory instructional lesson, I was on my own. Well, I was harnessed and under supervision from the rock climbing staff, but ready to lift both feet off the ground without prompts.

While amateurs might be intimidated by the skilled climbers clambering upside down on the ropeless wall, it should serve as motivation: The instructors explain that it just takes practice.

“No matter how small or big, there’s always something you can challenge yourself with,” Joseph Grau said.

Grau, a senior studying chemistry and psychology, works at the rock wall and teaches people how to navigate the wall safely.

“I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t enjoy it,” he said.

As I worked on my own climb, I felt continually more elated the higher I moved up the wall. I followed the tape marks representing the easiest path and scrambled up to the top of the wall like the spider monkey my dad always said I was. Success! But only momentarily.

“Ready to belay down?” my instructor, Daniel Logue, yelled.

Nope, I was not ready. I clung to a small, heart-shaped stone, all limbs touching the wall.

“People seemed to be concerned about safety or are afraid of heights,” senior Brian Keil, another rock wall staffer, said. “Nothing ever happens on the top ropes but people can always boulder, too — it’s a short, technical climb.”

Both Keil and Grau say that they take precautions with friction wraps and the staff will be sure to point out any technical improvement for climbers. The benefits seem to beat any fear of heights.

“Just let go!” my instructor Logue called.

I turned around, looked down, and could not let go. I was at the top. In a melodramatic move, I embraced the adrenaline rush and screamed as I let go of the wall and swung above the ground.

Soon, my screams turned to “yippees” as I regained some composure and rappelled down the wall and back onto the safe, cushioned ground with the other climbers.

The experience was so exhilarating, I trekked back up to Trees Hall for a second round, even with my callused hands and sore legs.

“It’s a great stress relief. It takes your mind off things,” Keil said. “We socialize and listen to music — there’s also a mental gain, compared to just counting weight lifts. It does not isolate muscles like lifting weights, it incorporates working every muscle: forearms, legs, toes, fingers.”

And then there are those practical benefits.

“You get great at opening jars,” Grau said.

I’m convinced. When it’s hard to feel the satisfaction of climbing toward a career or a perfect GPA, there’s comfort in knowing that you can climb the rock wall and reach the top.