After 25 years, Rock Gym still has people climbing the wall

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - More women are rock climbing, like Melissa Heller, while learning their skills at places such as Portland Rock Gym, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. It was the second indoor climbing center in the country to open, in 1988.Retiree Mary Ortiz wanted to try rock climbing at Smith Rock in Central Oregon, and she discovered something right away while eyeing the big wall in front of her.

“It’s a little scary,” she says, while training and practicing recently at Portland Rock Gym, one of the country’s oldest indoor rock climbing facilities. “These hand holds here that look like an old telephone receiver? They aren’t out there.”

So she let her son, Paul, do the real rock climbing, and Ortiz sticks to indoor climbing, preferring the simulated routes of Smith Rock on the big wall at Portland Rock Gym. “It feels like granite, it’s fun to climb, but it looks terrifying,” Ortiz says. “You have holes that you can hold onto, but you feel like a spider on the wall. It’s really neat.”

More women these days are rock climbing, many of them starting at the likes of Portland Rock Gym, 21 N.E. 12th Ave., which celebrates its 25th birthday this year under the ownership of Gary Rall. When he opened Portland Rock Gym at its first location in Beaverton, he remembers reading that men made up about 96 percent of all climbers. Today, it’s about 50/50, he estimates. Whoever the clientele, Rall revels in being around for 25 years, providing an athletic and rewarding experience for aspiring and veteran climbers.

“Gym climbing is beneficial and great training, and this is a good facility,” says Anna Rymill, 25, an avid climber and Portland Rock Gym employee. “It’s how I get my workout. Climbing is a full-body workout — fingers, toes, flexibility. The great thing for women is you’re always trying to get your abs in shape, and it’s a really great core workout.”

“You get in such great shape,” adds Jana Dong Lovelady, 36, a regular at Portland-area indoor climbing centers. “More and more people are indoor climbing for their health. It’s frustrating in the beginning, but we’ve all been there. There are no easy shortcuts. Everyone starts at the bottom, developing finger/leg/core strength.”

Rall opened Portland Rock Gym in 1988, just weeks after the first official indoor climbing facility opened in Seattle. Soon afterward, gyms sprouted everywhere. In the Portland area, there are a number of locations for indoor climbing, including sport-specific places — The Circuit Bouldering Gym in Portland, Stoneworks in Beaverton and Source Climbing Center in Vancouver, Wash. The likes of Sunset Athletic Club and Club-Sport also have climbing walls.

With spring approaching, more climbers will also be heading outdoors to the big rocks. For Portland-area folks, destinations include Smith Rock, and a number of rocks in the Columbia Gorge (such as Beacon Rock) and Mount Hood (like French’s Dome). Rall says most of his clients train indoors for the thrill of scaling walls in outdoor air.

It’s comparable exercise, indoor vs. outdoor, he says. Portland Rock Gym has about 15,000 square feet of climbing space and, with removable/bolted climbing “holes,” or simulated rock grips, the gym can change every route on the walls every two months.

“Gravity doesn’t change at all,” says Rall, 52, a climber since age 16. “Every new route configuration changes the angle of the holes, and you can create almost every type of climbing situation you want — cracks, overhangs, slabs, overhanging corners, inside corners.”

Holding on

There are different ways to climb. Rope climbing, featured at Portland Rock Gym, entails lead or top-rope. The lead scales the wall — in real climbing, he/she would drill in climbing rope bolts — and the top-roper benefits from the rope rigging to climb after the lead. Rope climbing requires a partner, or belayer.

Portland Rock Gym has an area for bouldering, which is the specialty at The Circuit Bouldering Gym. Bouldering requires only a good pair of shoes and a bag of chalk — no ropes.

“It seems to attract the younger crowd,” says Paul Robinson, 53, a veteran of 12 years of climbing. “It’s shorter, more powerful moves.”

Any kind of climbing requires strength. Rall says that Portland Rock Gym walls are meant to simulate climbing for training purposes and exercise.

“It’s strength-to-weight ratio,” Rall says. “And, sense of balance, connectivity between fingers and toes and all muscles between. If you’re a heavier person, you have to be a stronger person. It also increases people’s coordination.”

“The more technique you get, the more proficient you become,” Robinson adds. “With harder climbs, you just need strength, finger strength to hold on. A lot of times it’s just the ability to hold a static position; it’s not so much how many pull-ups you can do, but holding on with an open hand.”

Mostly, rock climbing takes concentration. Theoretically, the beauty of rope-climbing with a belaying partner is one can simply let go, if tired, without fear of falling and getting hurt.

“You gotta be paying attention and be on top of your game,” Rymill says. “It doesn’t get boring. It’s always challenging, finding new moves, getting your body into positions.”

Using every muscle

Rall started his gym in Beaverton, moved to Southeast Portland for 14 1/2 years and Portland Rock Gym has been located at its visible spot at Northeast 12th/Sandy Boulevard for nine years. He originally started the gym for training for hardcore climbers, but the interest quickly grew — “we didn’t have to encourage birthday parties to come here, they showed up in 1988,” he says. Half of his clientele, he estimates, climbs outdoors as well.

The 69-year-old Ortiz started climbing at Portland Rock Gym a year ago. She loves it.

“I tell everybody they ought to be climbing,” she says. “It’s fabulous for everybody. You can go as hard or as easy as you can around here. ... You use every muscle you have — I found some new ones.”

Adds Rall: “If you don’t use it, you lose it. Climbing is the best way to trick yourself into getting into shape. It’s a blast.”

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