It’s the Climb: Climbing Culture at Calvin

Photo+Courtesy+Calvin+College

Photo Courtesy Calvin College

Rocking indie music, specialized climbing shoes and chalk. These are the staples of Calvin College’s famed rock wall. Though the college may have installed the wall as a perk of the Calvin experience, it has since grown into a culture that includes many students, from the floor-date rookie to the climber of actual mountains.

Experience here is not an issue. Anyone who wants to climb can after becoming belay certified.

“The only hindrance to helping yourself succeed in climbing is yourself. Many people come to the wall at Calvin with a very timid mindset, afraid of being judged,” said avid climber and sophomore Alex Vander Ark.

However, there is a group of about 30 people who could be considered regulars to the rock wall. Perhaps you’ve seen them, or wanted to be them, as they nimbly maneuvered their way up and around the wall courses.

These students are the heart of climbing culture here at Calvin, and they provide an interesting insight into the idea that college is an adventure.

Vander Ark described the kind of people who frequent the rock wall:

“Pretty much all around the world, climbers are known to be goofy nut jobs who love climbing tall things just for the beautiful thrill of it. That is honestly true. But there’s more to it than just that. We, like so many others, love to just have fun and let that obscure, crazy-goofy person inside of all [of] us out,” she said. “We are all individual people with lives full of many things that aren’t just climbing, but when many people who love the outdoors and the sport of climbing come together, it’s an explosion of huge personalities and hilarity.”

Many of the climbers are also a part of Calvin’s Adventure Club. According to Calvin’s website, this club is a “gateway for all Calvin students to learn more about God’s natural creation and in turn, have the opportunity to take leadership roles in outdoor adventures.”

What does this look like?

Laura Van Winkle, sophomore and Adventure Club vice president,said, “Adventure Club in the past was only a way to give people going out on wilderness spring break trips some gas money. This past year Calvin had about a hundred students who qualified for the money. This year, though, we are actually having monthly [meetings] and we are hoping for a large turnout.”

Van Winkle, along with other Calvin climbers, has experienced climbing in the real world through trips to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, which Calvin’s rock wall is modeled after, and Joshua Tree National Park in California. Students were able to spend an Interim in Joshua Tree learning the systems of climbing.

This real-life experience can benefit climbers like Van Winkle as they compete in local climbing competitions.

“We [Calvin] hold two comps a year, top rope in the fall and boulder in the spring. There is also a team climbing comp, which is all bouldering,” said Van Winkle.

The first climbing competition of the year was held on Nov. 14. Between 50 and 60 people signed up to climb.

First-year student Madison Orth, who started climbing at a gym in Anchorage, Alaska, when she was six, was excited for the opportunity to be competitive with an activity she always loved.

“They divided everybody into four divisions of difficulty,” Orth said. “They had 48 routes you could climb, and you climb for three hours, whichever ones you wanted. Your top three hardest routes counted for points, with the highest two routes determining what category of difficulty you would be placed in. For example, if you climbed two in advance and one in open, you would be placed in advanced.”

And in regards to the competition itself? “We just went ham,” Orth said.

“Going into it, I had never done a competition before, but I just tried to climb the hardest routes that I could, but also three that were in the same area of difficulty for points. I don’t know how I did in the end, as they only announced the winners in the division. But it’s sweet because now there’s a ton more routes on the wall.”

And at the end of the day, it’s not about the points or pride, but the thrill of the climb.

“My favorite part about climbing is probably that no matter who you are, it has to scare you a little bit. But you’re in control of your own abilities and you can surprise yourself,” said Orth. “You can get better at it; there’s no limit. It’s just up to you if you practice.”