Vertical Ballet

MONMOUTH -- What flows through your mind while clinging to the face of a sheer rock wall?


Instructor Robert Troyer hangs from a set of handholds after performing a "dyno," a move where the climber launches their entire body upward to another spot on the wall.

MONMOUTH -- What flows through your mind while clinging to the face of a sheer rock wall?

During his 11 years of climbing, Robert Troyer said he's always advised concentrating on technique, hand and foot placement, what that next move will be -- anything to avoid thinking about how high up you are.

"That's what I tell my students ... focus on what's in front of you," Troyer said.

"There's no reason to look down."

Troyer, a certified climbing instructor, teaches an introductory climbing course at Western Oregon University.

During his last class of the term, he demonstrated lead climbing -- ascending without an anchor point above -- on the 40-foot-high climbing wall inside Western's Health and Wellness Center.

Photo by Pete Strong

Troyer climbs as Charlie Newton acts as belayer, giving the climber slack to proceed while also catching them in case they fall.

Troyer moves upward with ease, following a marked vertical route. Charlie Newton

, a center staff member and climbing partner for this exercise, runs out slack in the rope attached to Troyer's harness so he can move.

Troyer reaches an outcrop jutting from the wall. He bends his arms and legs and throws himself up and out to snag a hold, prompting a collective "Whoa!" from the 13 students on the ground.

He later practice falls to show them how Newton -- the belayer -- brakes and slows the rope.

"He literally holds the life of the climber in his hands," Troyer said.

When Western students voted to build a recreational center on campus four years ago, part of the package was a fiber-reinforced, polymer concrete climbing wall.

That 2,220-square-foot, $300,000 facility has since sparked growing interest in a daunting sport and prompted a few to confront their fear of heights.


Photo by Pete Strong

Troyer rigs a rope and harness before giving his class a lead climbing demonstration.

I had seen videos before, and obviously knew rock climbing existed, but I never thought twice about doing it," said Taylor Mehringer, a student and now climbing junkie. "As soon as I started taking the class here, it was an immediate love ... it's an adrenaline rush."

Oregon is home to one of sport climbing's meccas, Smith Rock northeast of Redmond in Central Oregon. There are popular climbing gyms in Portland and Eugene. But in general, climbing in the mid-Willamette Valley means visiting indoor facilities in Corvallis or Salem, Troyer said. WOU's is the first of its kind in Polk County.

WOU's climbing wall

Photo by Pete Strong

Class members Heather Fledderjohann and Amber Brown (climbing) took turns as climber and belayer on the final day of Troyer's introductory climbing class.

is for campus members only for the present, said Rip Horsey, wellness center director. There's discussion, however, about making the wall more open to people outside the university in the future, he added.

Troyer, who's also an English professor, teaches beginners how to top rope climb, build anchors, repel and other basics.

As imposing as climbing seems, the sport is fairly safe if you know what you're doing. And it's inexpensive once you get past the initial investment in equipment, Troyer said.

"It's physical, mental and emotional," he said. "You always have to judge your center of gravity, your base of support, there's a lot of twisting ... I call it vertical ballet."

Student Heather Fledderjohann said the only climbing she had done before was in summer camp as a child. In recent months, she's bought her own harness, chalk bag and shoes and is on the wall almost every night. She's also helped start a rock climbing club on campus.

"My favorite part of this is problem solving -- figuring out how to use all of your (limbs) in unison," she said.

Some are climbing here as a personal challenge. Andrew Olivo Parodi enrolled in Troyer's class to beat an almost paralyzing fear of heights.

And "the most I knew about climbing was that Sylvester Stallone movie, `Cliffhanger,'" he said with a laugh.

"That first time (on the wall), I went up a quarter of the way and I was literally trembling," Olivo Parodi, 37, continued. "I couldn't make it to the top for two weeks."

But he did.

"It's no big deal now," Olivo Parodi said. "I don't think I want to do this out in the wild or anything like that ... but I might come back here on my own time to try it."

Mehringer and friend, Omar Esqueda, bouldered -- a short climb without a rope -- on this day. After three months of practice, both managed to pull off a "dyno" similar to the leapfrog maneuver Troyer displayed earlier.

The two have been climbing wall regulars since January. Sore muscles from moving in unnatural positions, scraped hands, forearms and legs are testament to that.

"You try to reach across your body to a hold and you get a graze from the wall, it feels like sandpaper," Mehringer said.

"We go through a lot of athletic tape," Esqueda added.

But this is a hobby now, Esqueda continued, noting trips to Smith Rock and Skinner Butte near Eugene in the future.

"It's really easy to get sucked into this," he said.


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