With a new club, Wheaton’s climbers create a community that goes beyond traditional workouts.
Located in Chrouser’s Eckert Gym, the Wheaton College Climbing Wall offers a place for students to rock-climb together on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 8-10 p.m., and Saturdays from 2-5 p.m. Amid the dozens of responsibilities and extracurriculars that vie for students’ time and attention, the wall offers a full-body workout and a supportive community without the typical intimidation of trying a new sport.
Wheaton’s wall, which opened in 2000, has a mix of artificial holds, in the form of colored grips, and natural holds, which simulate cracks and cliffs. Each semester, Chrouser staff reset the wall to offer a new route — a path, or series of holds — by which climbers can reach the top.
“One of the great things about climbing is that it doesn’t really matter how you’re built,” said Bella Kephart, a sophomore international relations major. “There are lots of different ways that you can complete a route.”
Kephart, a Climbing Club leader, started climbing as a sophomore in high school. She was also a pole vaulter at the time, but she eventually quit track and field after her senior year of high school to continue climbing. Two years later, she’s one of nine wall-staffers teaching students, recruiting members and organizing climbing events.
“I realized that I liked climbing a lot more than I liked pole vaulting,” Kephart said with a laugh. “I’ve just kept climbing ever since, and I’m not sick of it yet.”
Last year, several enthusiasts started the Climbing Club, which began as an informal group chat for student climbers who wanted fellowship and opportunities for climbing beyond the wall. The group used it to plan events and off-campus climbing trips. This year, it’s official: the club has a group of leaders, and a spot in the Mastodon March.
There are about 25 regular club members, and it’s an eclectic bunch: traditional athletes, artists, student teachers, musicians and other students with varying interests. The nine staff members are ready to welcome students of all skill levels: experienced climbers, beginners, and those who are somewhere in the middle.
“I love the Climbing Club because it’s not as organized as some other groups,” Kephart said. “I got into climbing because I loved that. I could climb at my own level. I could go at my own pace.”
During the 2020-21 school year, the pandemic was in full swing, which meant the wall didn’t open to the public until spring semester, and even then, it was difficult to get the word out about it. In the spring, the wall was open to students, but students were limited to every other rope and fewer climbing hours. Now that restrictions are no longer an issue, the club is excited to get back to pre-pandemic energy levels. Step one was the beginner’s climbing night on Tuesday, Sept. 20.
The club also plans to host their annual climbing competition, “The Comp.” The event is meant to be as social as it is athletic, similar to the sport of climbing itself. Attendees have the opportunity to compete for the fastest and highest climbs, but the main goal of the event is to bring people together for a good time. There will be music, food, door prizes, crate-stacking, slack-lining and, of course, climbing. Though its date is to be determined, “The Comp” is usually held in the first quad of spring semester each year.
Like Kephart, senior English major Anneka Weicht is a member of wall staff and also a club leader. Last year, no one in the club was a climbing instructor. But this year, the nine instructors are all doubling as leaders of the club. Weicht said one of her main goals is recruiting newcomers.
“We didn’t do a good job publicizing that the wall still existed,” said Weicht. She said their ability to host events like the Comp this year will be dependent on getting enough regular attendees to justify it.
Because the wall is only open four days a week, the leaders try to organize additional climbing sessions at Vertical Endeavors, a local gym in Glendale Heights, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Wheaton wall limits climbers to top-rope climbing, where one person is attached to a rope threaded through an anchor at the top and controlled by a belayer, who stands on the ground and holds the other end of the rope to pulley the climber. At Vertical Endeavors, the climbers have more routes to explore and more climbing styles to try.
But the climbing community at Wheaton isn’t limited to the club.
Junior music composition major James Battersby has been climbing for the last eight years. He was a competitive rock climber throughout high school in Colorado, primarily doing a form of free climbing known as bouldering. There are no harnesses or ropes involved in bouldering, unlike top-rope climbing.
Bouldering showcases the creative aspect of the sport. Similar to typical climbing routes, ‘boulder problems’ are slightly shorter and require more technique. In order to be successful, the climber must figure out a way to get from hold to hold and reach the top.
“I like the challenge,” said Battersby. “You find a route, and you work on it until you get stuck somewhere. Then you find that spot, work on it, and then find a way to link everything up together. I like that kind of problem-solving.”
Battersby, like many Conservatory students, maintains a packed schedule. He doesn’t have the time to attend many of the open wall hours or club get-togethers. However, the climbing community at Wheaton makes it possible for him to enjoy his sport.
“We’re just here for anyone who wants to show up,” said Kephart. “We love climbing and we want to share that love with other people.”