Whole Body

Rockin’ Out

An occasional climber relearns the basics at Central Rock Gym

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I’m not very good at knots. Everything else about climbing, I can figure out: find hand-holds, hug the rock, “solve problems,” and lean comfortably into a rappel. I even own a pair of proper, hand-me-down climbing shoes. But after years of occasional scrambles, always with experienced climbers, my knowledge was piecemeal. Belay someone? Maybe. Tie myself into a harness? I wouldn’t know where to start.

This is how I found myself in a basic belaying class, taught almost daily at Central Rock Gym in Warwick. “Belaying” is the fundamental art of holding and tightening a rope, so that a climber never falls more than a few feet. My instructor was Sean McLaughlin, a chipper, good-humored college student from Massachusetts. The class was small – just me, McLaughlin, and the simulated rock face. Step by step, he showed me how to tie a bowline knot, a figure-eight knot, and how to weave the rope through the carabiner and belay device. The movements were familiar, because I’d seen them done for me a dozen times, but now I was the one holding the rope.

“So now you’re going to belay me,” said McLaughlin. “The first time, I’ll just climb straight up. The second time, I’m going to do what we call an unannounced fall.”

My dad is a seasoned amateur climber, and he introduced me to the sport when I was a kid. “Roped climbing is safer than playing on a jungle gym,” he often quips. This is true, but the rookie still feels some pressure, standing on the ground, tightening the line. The climber, high above, needs that rope. Out in the real world, belayers (literally) hold climbers’ lives in their hands.

McLaughlin bent his knees. He looked skyward, and he leapt. The move is common among serious mountaineers; they lunge for an outcropping, hoping that their fingers will stick to the rock. But McLaughlin missed – deliberately – and his body fell. I yanked down on the rope, and it locked against the belay device. McLaughlin froze in the air, and his shoes bounced playfully against the wall.

“Nice,” he said.

The knots were not as cryptic as I’d feared. McLaughlin was thorough, but he reviewed the lesson in the easygoing tone of a friendly neighbor. Basic techniques can be learned in an hour, and the course only costs $14. In a single afternoon, the fledgling climber unlocks mountains of possibility.

“Want to do some climbing?” McLaughlin asked. Friends had asked this many times over the years, and the answer was always yes. This time, the ropes weren’t some mysterious technology, but a simple rig that I could theoretically set up myself. I grasped the holds and hauled myself upward. My muscles thrilled at the long-dormant posture, the familiar flex and strain of vertical ascent.

Central Rock has a warm and inviting atmosphere, which is hardly the norm for climbing gyms. I spotted no “rock jocks” swaggering through the place, smirking at their lessers, and this makes all the difference. The space is also colossal: 17,000 square feet of climbing terrain, and 100 rope stations to choose from. As I strolled down the patchwork of mats, the walls rose around me like the stone faces of an actual canyon. Climbers stretched on the floor, trading stories about their exploits on the ridge. There was a lot that could be done in a place like this, and nowhere to go but up.

Central Rock Gym
275 Natick Road, Warwick • 889-5452