South’s hidden community of climbers

by Ari Zeren, Sports Contributor
photo contributed by Willa Foster

It was the last day of a virtual climbing competition, and there was only one rock climb left for junior Alex Ma to complete — a difficult V9 (climbing gyms typically have climbs ranging from V0-V11). The only problem —  he had never completed a climb that challenging in one go. After four harrowing tries, he still couldn’t get the last move, but on the fifth attempt, he gave it every ounce of effort he had, and to his own amazement, sent the climb.

“It was just me, my dad and a teammate,” he said. “And it felt better than any competition I’ve ever been to.” 

Long considered a fringe sport, the last decade has seen a boom in rock climbing’s popularity across all demographics. According to “Gripped,” a Canadian rock climbing magazine, almost 600 climbing gyms were built in the United States alone in 2021. Last summer, the sport was added as a combined event in the Tokyo Olympics. 

Alex Ma, who has been climbing for nine years, competes on a youth team run by Central Rock Gym in Watertown, where he and his teammates practice 12 hours a week, working to develop their skills in the three main disciplines of climbing: route, bouldering and speed. 

Separated from other sports due to its blend of strength, flexibility and problem solving, rock climbing is an uniquely engaging activity. 

Senior Sophie Berger, who has been climbing for 13 years, said the sport is like physical chess. 

“It’s a lot of training your mind to control your body in ways that you would not expect to be a natural movement pattern, and learning to really trust your own strength,” she said. 

 Freshman James Ma, Alex’s younger brother, said he enjoys how climbing forces him to work out how to make sense of what he sees on the wall and to make do with what he has. 

Climbing, however, certainly isn’t all serious. Junior Willa Foster, who’s been climbing intermittently since sixth grade, said that she climbs for a simple reason.

“Oh, wow, OK. I don’t know, it’s fun,” she said. 

Foster said that despite climbing’s individual nature, the sport fosters a collaborative environment.  

“Everyone in the gym is learning, so it’s not a big deal if you fall [or] if you mess up because we’re all trying our best and we’re all learning like a community,” she said.

Junior Brandan Holt, whose father introduced him to climbing when he was only five years old, said that climbing has taught him a resilience that is applicable in other aspects of life. 

“Whenever I’m working on a climb that I’m kind of stuck on, I just keep going at it. Maybe I’ll come back the next day, or just think of a new way to kind of look at it, or just a new sequence next time,” he said. “I do my best to bring that viewpoint into some other aspects of my life where I might have a problem to deal with.”

James said that his older brother has given him some sage climbing wisdom.

“You have to try hard, but not just in the moment. You have to try hard over a long period of time in order to get stronger.” James said that he has taken this mindset to heart, and that it has allowed him to feel determined in his daily life. 

Alex Ma said he hopes more people at South will try climbing.

“Anyone who tries it will have a really good time, any age, any body type, any experience. It’s just a great sport and I love it so much,” he said. “Whenever I hear a classmate say that they went to CRG Watertown and they knew that I rock climb and they wanted to let me know, that makes me feel so proud. It’s just so awesome.”