Lying on the ground after a mild fall off a boulder in the middle of the woods, Robin Close lets his self-deprecating sense of humor show.
“In case you haven’t figured it out,” he says, “climbing’s really stupid.”
Close and his friend, Rob Brisentine, are spending a Saturday morning in July bouldering on the Wishing Rocks in Pasadena, Md., a short trail away from a shopping center. While some people work out at Planet Fitness, and others eat at Pizza Hut, Close and Brisentine park in a small lot behind the shopping center and walk through the woods to get to a small group of rocks between the trees.
Bouldering is a subset of climbing, still a niche sport but rising in popularity. In June, after more than a year of cooperation with the climbing community, Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland legalized bouldering for the first time since 2014. And last month, the International Olympic Committee said it would add climbing to the Olympic program in 2020.
But most climbers climb for the same reasons many people start other sports: for the fun. Even in competitions, Close and Brisentine say, the interaction is friendly. One competitor will complete one climb, then tell an opponent about it so he or she can try it.
“You want to win,” Brisentine said, “but you want to be a good ambassador for the sport.”
In this sport, there are few egos and few guidelines, just people who want to have fun in as many settings with as many people as often as possible. Like other athletes, they walk up to a group of rocks and see things nobody else would see – subtleties in the texture of the rock, crevices that could be footholds, and intricate paths to the top. The opening of Catoctin to bouldering expands their opportunities.
When the park initially outlawed bouldering, it grouped bouldering with other types of climbing, such as rope climbing, which, the park feared, could damage the rock. In reality, bouldering is a low-impact activity, with injuries rare, environmental consequences minor and heights topping out around 20 feet.
The climbing community, led by Chris Irwin of Mid-Atlantic Climbers (a liaison between climbers and land owners) and Erik Murdock of Access Fund (similar to Mid-Atlantic Climbers, but on a national level), met with Catoctin administrators to explain this difference. They scheduled appointments and made progress in changing the rule. New Catoctin superintendent Rick Slade took over in May and approved the modifications.
Now, the area’s climbers have another space on which to expand their hobby, but even without it, there were plenty of boulders to climb. Before this particular Saturday last month, Close had never been to the Wishing Rocks in Pasadena.
When he arrived, he noticed that the rocks were unlike anything he had seen in the area. They were sandstone-based, a variety normally restricted to the South but sometimes found in Western Maryland and West Virginia. It’s a subtle feature – an ordinary observer likely wouldn’t notice – but it has Close fascinated.
“I am going to be excited all day about the fact that this rock is so different from what we usually have,” Close said.
Before they get on the rock, Close and Brisentine spend a few minutes preparing. They change out of their sandals and into thin, flexible climbing shoes made of sticky, high-friction rubber. They position protective mats, about four inches thick, on the ground in front of the rock to cushion their fall. And they coat their hands in powdery white chalk to help them grip the handholds. Then, all of a sudden, one is hanging upside-down from the rock while the other spots him.
The sport provides a rigorous workout – both start sweating within minutes, albeit on a humid morning – and rarely dangerous. The most common injury is a mild muscle pull from not warming up enough before climbing. Close estimates that he hurts himself on impact only about once a year.
They proceed that way from 9 a.m. until about 12:30 p.m., trying paths up different sides of the rock. Close attempts a climb, then falls. He tries again as Brisentine encourages him – “Trust it!” – and then he falls. On the third time up, he makes it to the top, then points out a helpful approach to Brisentine.
The sport has helped both of them find themselves. Close is sometimes more comfortable interacting with fellow climbers than he is in other situations, connecting with people he’s met on past trips when he climbs in different parts of the country. Brisentine, meanwhile, uses climbing as a way to stay healthy after having problems with his weight in the past.
“The reward of being here when doing this is incredible,” Brisentine said. “The payoff is great, and I just feel so much better now. … I wouldn’t be hanging out outside right now if it wasn’t for this.”
Close, a special education teacher who lives in Columbia, and Brisentine, a software consultant who resides in Glen Burnie, met at the Earth Treks gym in Columbia. They’ve bonded through climbing, making it easy to pass a morning in the woods like this.
The last climb they try is a rock that slopes outward from the ground, requiring them to start at the bottom and work against the slant of the rock to mount to the top.
“That’s pretty much what this is – you getting in an uncomfortable spot and either falling or giving up over and over,” Brisentine says.
He tries it once, grasping hold for a moment before falling onto the mat and crying out in agony.
Close gets up and approaches the rock.
“All right, I need to try this,” he says. “You just made it sound appealing.”