Get strong: climb indoors

RUTLAND – On a frigid evening, most of the windows on Woodstock Avenue in Rutland are dark and the parking lots are mostly vacant. But at the Green Mountain Rock Climbing Center, the neon “Open” sign is illuminated and the parking lot is mostly full.

Inside, a crowd of 40 climbers are stretching, warming up and getting ready for the last night of the adult league. At 6:30 p.m. sharp, climbers rush to tie in and start climbing, looking to rack up as many points as they can before 8 p.m. – and the end of the fall league.

Steve Lulek has owned the gym with his wife, Sherry, since 2003. Walking around, accompanied by a friendly spaniel named Bella, he knows many of the climbers by name and offers encouragement as they scale walls of 10 to 40 feet high with hand-and-foot holds arranged in levels of difficulty. Called sport climbing, it’s been a growing industry for much of the past decade.

Lulek was first introduced to climbing while he was in the Army, training soldiers from the National Guard at the Army Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, Vt. Instructors were required to be proficient in skiing, mountaineering, climbing and navigating — a climbing wall was part of the fitness program.

“There was no other way to go about it,” Lulek says. “If you want to train for climbing, you have to be climbing.”

Winter’s indoor sport

Winters are busy times for climbing gyms, especially in the Northeast, when shorter days and colder weather sends many climbers inside to keep in shape and hone their skills.

Rutland’s climbing league started four years ago, after Lulek noticed a desire to compete in an informal atmosphere.

“I saw a lot of people bowling, and I knew they shouldn’t be doing that,” Lulek jokes. “I saw a lot people golfing, too, and I knew they definitely shouldn’t be doing that either. But what I was able to do was take the handicap system from both of those activities and apply it to our climbing community.”

The league runs for nine weeks as teams of three or four complete as many climbs as they can in an allotted time. Handicaps are assigned to keep things even with relative improvement being the goal. The Luleks’ gym also organizes a “Plywood League” with climbers heading to gyms in Saratoga and Queensbury, N.Y., as well as to climbing centers in Quechee and Essex Junction.

Bastion Auer from Wallingford has been climbing with the league for two years after a coworker invited him to join. It was his first time putting on a harness, but he’s continued to come to the adult leagues and now climbs three times per week.

“It’s about getting into that physical and mental space where the stars align and you have a good night,” he says. “When you’re in that right place, it can be like ballet.”

Meanwhile in Burlington, Petra Cliffs Climbing Center continues its climbing activities as one of the longest-operating climbing centers in the state.

“For anyone who wants to train for any activity, it’s easier to go indoors, get in a workout and take a shower before going to work,” says Tim Farr, a rock and ice climbing guide as well as a membership manager at Petra Cliffs.

“It’s a lot easier to train that way instead of dedicating a full day to it,” he says.

Next month, Petra Cliffs hosts a weekend full of events at their Briggs Street location in Burlington and on the frozen ice faces in Smugglers’ Notch, between Jeffersonville and Stowe. Now going into its ninth season, the Smuggs Ice Bash starts on Jan. 22, 2016, with demos and a dry-tooling competition that evening. This year, Farr says climbers can expect a challenge.

“The trend is the first third of it is easy enough for most strong climbers to do, the second third gets quite a bit harder to weed out the strong climbers but not the stronger ones, and the third tends to be incredibly hard and endurance-demanding. It’s very pumpy and technical,” says Farr.

The competition draws crowds of well over 100 to see some 15 competitors going for the podium, including native son Will Mayo, a climber born and raised in Vermont who now resides in Colorado. Mayo already has numerous first ascents under his belt on ice and mixed climbing and has competed in many national competitions, including the UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup in Bozeman, Mont. and the Ouray Mixed Competition in Ouray, Co.

In neighboring Essex Junction, settled into the back of a parking lot on Susie Wilson Avenue, MetroRock, Vermont’s newest and largest climbing center, is also in full swing. Construction started last fall and the gym opened this August. The Essex Junction location is the newest in a chain of gyms with two Massachusetts locations in Newburyport and Everett. The massive facility features 11,500 square feet of walls up to 50 feet high for top roping and lead climbing and 5,500 square feet of bouldering terrain.

“A lot of people are just looking for something to do inside and just stumble upon rock climbing,” says Matthew Butler-Bugher – or simply Boof – manager of the Essex facility, who discovered climbing in this way while he was going to school at the University of Maine. In 2003, he had just run a marathon and found himself tired of running. Since then, he’s explored rock climbing all over the country.

The fun part, he says, is applying a “Northeast style” of outdoors climbing to the routes set in the gym, replicating moves on plastic holds bolted to the wall.

“In the Northeast, the climbs are rated more difficultly,” he says. “There’s a different style of cryptic, less-straightforward climbing.”

The Essex Junction gym plays host to the Dark Horse Series, an annual series of bouldering competitions at MetroRock’s three gyms.

“The idea was to put together a bouldering competition that wasn’t part of the big USA Sport Climbing Series that would be fun for people to compete in that would be recurring and a have a decent-sized prize purse,” he says. “It’s been growing ever since then.”

Last month, the first competition in the series attracted some 300 climbers to the Everett, Mass. gym. Now in its sixth year, the series draws elite level climbers from all over the Northeast, attempting problems set by Dave Wetmore, a nationally ranked climber who has recently set routes for the 2014 Dominion River Rock Boulder Fest and headed the 2013 Citizen’s GoPro Mountain Games. Registration for the event is open.

A unique community

What attracts climbers to move inside to pursue their passion is more than just the frigid temperatures outside; it’s also about the community inside.

Amy Wright, from Middletown she says she enjoys the different atmosphere of the climbing community she’s found in Rutland.

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before because you’re still competing against people, but at the same time you’re helping each other,” she says. “You want everyone to win until the scores come out. Then you want to win.”

Meanwhile, as Steve Lulek finishes totaling the teams’ points for the fall season at the Green Mountain Climbing Center, climbers change back into street clothes and attack a buffet of wings and nachos supplied by a local restaurant. On the last night of the league, the climbers enjoy each other’s company. Most will be back in January, eager to keep climbing until the snow melts.

“We like it here,” says Rob Black, a climber of 53, who has been climbing at the gym since it opened. “With people like this and walls this good, I couldn’t care less what the weather’s doing out there.”

Evan Johnson

Evan Johnson

Evan Johnson is the staff writer for Vermont Sports Magazine. The native Vermonter enjoys steep and deep skiing and wandering all over the state by Subaru. Find him on Twitter at @evanisathome.