A rock climber is perched 30 feet above the ground, toes and fingers clinging spiderlike to holds no wider than a quarter. He surveys the rough surface above him. Seeking. Calculating. He must move quickly. There.
Decision made, he reaches out...deliberately...toward another hold. It is too far. He stretches his already fully extended body and, in desperation, lunges.
The climber falls a few feet before the safety line to which he is harnessed tightens and yanks him sharply to a stop. It hurts, but the real pain is in his disgust. He rights himself and rappels down the wall. He unhitches himself from the ropes and harness, and heads toward the lounge to rest before making another attempt.
Yes, the lounge. No, not in Yellowstone, or New York's Shawangunk Mountains. This isn't one of nature's massive rock formations. It's the Boston Rock Gym, a storefront climbing facility that caters daily to the walk-in trade.
The brainchild of three 32-year-old rock climbing buddies—Wayne Domeier, a field engineer; Tom Nonis, a carpenter; and Steve Weitzler, who works full-time on the premises—the Boston Rock Gym was the first full-fledged indoor rock climbing facility east of the Rockies when it opened last summer. (There are two rock gyms on the West Coast, the Vertical Club in Seattle and the Portland Rock Gym in Oregon; some others recently opened are in Ithaca, N.Y.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and New York City.) Stuck in a commercial block of Somerville, Mass., between a bottle-redemption center and a driving school, the Boston Rock Gym isn't easy to find. Though climbers can buy all their gear here, the Boston Rock Gym also rents sticky-soled climbing shoes and harnesses for $5. Walk-in climbers pay $8 a day to use the gym, which is open from 4 to 10 p.m. on weekdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. You can also sign up for a three-, six- or 12-month membership, for $109, $189 and $295, respectively, and get unlimited use of the place.
After signing in at the front desk, you go past the makeshift lounge with its two well-worn couches, some overstuffed chairs and video machines, past the changing cubicles and into the last room at the back of the building.
There it is. The Wall is not exactly Devils Tower or El Capitan, but no one is complaining.
The four-story building had been a performance theater until the 1950s; from the 35- by 17-foot floor, the four walls of the former fly loft, behind what was the stage, soar upward 40 feet. The three partners couldn't have asked for a better set for the type of play they had in mind. They spent 2½ months converting the structure. There are 17 separate climbing routes up the four brick sides; artificial hand- and footholds are screwed into the surface. Near the top of one is a plywood overhang covered with textured panels, for friction, and also fitted with handholds and footholds—for experienced climbers. Another wall has a 22-foot section that is kicked-back, or slightly inclined. Compared with the other three in the room, it looks like a downright easy ascent.
On the second floor of the building is another room with 16-foot-high walls. Plates of hand- and footholds cover three of the walls. There are also a rowing ergometer, a StairMaster, a chin-up bar and two fingerboards specially designed for climbers, with handholds made of the same rocklike synthetic material used on the walls of the main gym.
The second-floor room is ideal for novice climbers and boulderers. "Bouldering is really a subsport of rock climbing, just like rock climbing is a subsport of mountaineering," says Tom Callaghan, the chairman of the Boston Chapter Mountaineering Committee of the Appalachian Mountain Club. "Boulderers usually climb complex boulder formations and try to solve difficult climbing problems. It is a lot like physical chess."
Bouldering is popular in many urban areas because it doesn't require substantial rock walls; a highway bridge piling will do. Around Boston, boulderers go to the Longwood stop on the Green Line of the T, the city's public transportation system, to climb on the 120-foot-long granite retaining wall of the station, traversing it horizontally and often getting no higher than two or three feet off the ground.
Weitzler, who has been climbing for about 13 years, is an avid booster of his sport. "It's a terrific workout, both physically and mentally," he says. "Not only do you have to have the strength and flexibility to get up the wall, you have to look for the best route to the top. I run and cross-country ski, but with those sports you get out and put your mind on cruise control. When you're bouldering you have to constantly calculate. As far as the total workout is concerned, you use every muscle in your body."
The fitness factor is a major attraction for experienced climbers who want to stay in shape for the more difficult climbs they attempt outdoors during the warm months. Leo Bunuel, 26, a graduate student at the University of Connecticut, has been making the 90-minute drive to Somerville three or four times a month to sharpen his skills for the upcoming outdoor season. "You have to stay in shape for climbing," says Bunuel, who hails from Phoenix and has climbed at Yosemite as well as in Europe, where the sport is booming. "The routes aren't too difficult, but the fact that there are no places to stop and shake the cramps out of your hands makes it great. You really can't stay on the wall much longer than five minutes." To keep it interesting for their regular climbers, the owners periodically change the handhold routes in the big room.
Because of the short length of a single climb, there is a lot of down time at the Boston Rock Gym, which is ideal for practicing another aspect of rock climbing: talking about climbing and plotting different routes. Most climbers hang out for two or three hours, socializing, watching climbing videos and making quick climbs. The requirement for a partner to hold you on belay, coupled with the gym's 65/35 male-to-female ratio, also makes for a lot of phone-number exchanging.
The belaying partner requirement, however, is not the Boston Rock Gym's version of "Hi there, what's your sign?" It's a safety precaution. Each climber is connected to a person on the floor via a rope that is fed through a friction device. The rope is threaded through the metal loop known as a carabiner, which is mounted on the ceiling. Should the climber slip off the wall, the friction device automatically snubs the rope, which is kept under loose tension at all times by the floor partner, so that a fall is limited to a few feet. Says Weitzler, "The most important thing is that we have a safe, controlled environment. I can't imagine anyone getting hurt here unless he tries to be unsafe about climbing. You can crack your head falling from 15 feet just as easily as you can from 50 feet." With that in mind, every person has to sign a "release and assumption of risk" waiver before climbing.
So far, the most serious injury to any of the 2,500 people who have scrambled up the walls of the Boston Rock Gym is a pulled muscle. The Spider-Man wannabes who are the Boston Rock Gym's clientele find it a hard place not to like.