Myth of rock climbing in the prairies: debunked

My jaw hit the floor when I first heard of this phenomenon, how could it exist? Around these parts it’s a myth as prevalent as sasquatch, or even the yeti; it’s rock climbing in Manitoba. We’re a flat province where you can look as far as the eye can see. We don’t have hills, let alone mountains!

But I digress. Supposedly “rock-climbing” exists in Manitoba, and has a handful of committed enthusiasts. No one has argued their devotion to the sport, but many dispute the supposed location of this activity. Therefore, in the name of investigative journalism, I scurried to the Frank Kennedy Centre here at the University of Manitoba to get to the bottom of this developing story.

I was surprised when I laid my eyes on the indoor climbing wall. It was real and it was glorious. I rubbed my eyes to ensure I wasn’t dreaming; the wall is nearly 10 meters tall and filled with a variety of different-sized holds to challenge any athlete.

Given the location of the university, watching climbers scale huge heights in the natural world wasn’t a reasonable goal, so instead I settled with staying at the U of M’s facility and sampling the sport with the assistance of wall leaders Lyndsay Houston and Matt Sposito.
Before trying to ascend the wall, the two dispelled some common climbing myths for me — besides the fact that you can indeed participate in this sport in the prairies.

Power, for example, isn’t all you need. “You definitely need strength, but technique can compensate for strength any day,” said Sposito. “I know a lot of female climbers that if you ask them to do a chin-up, they probably couldn’t,” added Houston, “but they can still make it to the top of any route.”

Being a climbing virgin, the leaders figured the best way to start me off was without wrapping climbing equipment onto me. I figured they were crazy, but since I was ascending no higher than 10 feet and had a comfy gymnastics pad underneath me, I was in no danger.
The version of climbing that I tried first was bouldering. “Bouldering is climbing without the rope; staying below a certain point and more traversing. Typically, routes are a little harder and might involve more upper body strength,” according to Houston.

Initially, bouldering was a breeze. I didn’t follow the routes, but instead navigated across the wall horizontally as I saw fit. Soon my forearms began turning into mush, and climbing wasn’t effortless any longer.

Afterwards, I was moved to what I deemed to be the pinnacle of climbing: top-rope. This is a climbing form where a rope flows from the bottom of the route to an anchor at the top, fastened to the climber by a harness that he or she is wearing.

After giving my harness a once-over, I was ready to climb. Houston was my partner, waiting at the base of the route controlling the belay device. That mechanism is an important tool, tightening itself and preventing the rope from going through and ultimately leading to my potential demise.

Soon I was ready to climb the wall. Reassured by the harness pulling on my groin, the same way a wedgie does, I walked towards the wall with shock overwhelming me.

Only 10 meters high, I told myself. It looked a lot taller.

I decided not to complicate matters; I ignored the routes, and got up the quickest way I could find. My feet pressed my body upwards, shuffling to their spot and then my hands followed suit. Some holds were no bigger than a golf ball, but thankfully they held me up and I trekked onwards. With my arms in pain, I reached the summit easily enough, however the yank that I felt each time the rope slid a certain distance through the belay device didn`t help my confidence.

At the top of the peak, I was king of the world until I looked down, and wondered, “how am I getting out of here?” Houston instructed me to release my grasp of the wall and let her pull me down. One problem: I didn’t want to let go.

My heart started beating faster and I may have shrieked like a 10-year-old girl. I was leaving all my trust with Houston and my equipment. I relied on other forces to prevent me from needing an ambulance in a matter of minutes. And I struggled with it. My legs flailed towards the ground, jerking the rope back into place, and instead of letting my arms rest freely, I held on to the rope for dear life. When I finally reached the ground, I calmed myself and played it cool like any other confident guy.

Though I had difficulty trusting my more-than-capable partner, I had a great time climbing and realized this was a tough sport to master. To spread the truth that climbing does exist in Manitoba, give the guys and gals a visit as part of your gym membership. You get one free visit before you must complete the Climbing Fundamentals course, if you intend to top-rope. Or you can join the climbers virtually at their Facebook group, aptly-titled University of Manitoba Climbing Club.