UT Students Participate in Austin’s Expansive Climbing Community
By Hailin Zhang
From group outings to nearby climbing gyms to joining climbing organizations and competing, the sport of climbing has taken hold at the University of Texas at Austin, creating a entirely new community and culture.
Climbing’s popularity has skyrocketed recently—especially in the United States, which has witnessed numerous gym openings each year.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, 44 gyms opened in 2020—10 more than the previous year, according to Climbing Business Journal. While that’s far less than the more than 60 gyms originally expected to open, the report states that it should still “be considered a steady—possibly even robust—continuation of the annual upward trend in gym construction that has been blossoming” since the early 2010s. Additionally, a report by Outdoor Foundation found that 9.9 million Americans engaged in some form of climbing in 2019.
UT astronomy and physics major Sam Barber said he believes introduction into mainstream media—through documentaries like The Down Wall and Free Solo—and the Olympics are the two biggest factors that led to climbing’s growth.
Tokyo 2020 featured rock climbing for the first time, and the event comprised the three sport climbing disciplines: bouldering, lead and speed. To be considered for a charter as a new sport in the Olympics, a sport must be proven to be widely practiced; climbing surpasses Olympic charter standards with ease.
UT and Austin’s climbing community is proof of this.
“Compared to other schools, I’d say that lots of UT students are climbers,” Barber said. “This is partially due to the Gregory climbing gym, which gives students amazing access to climbing, especially if they live on campus.”
German and marketing major Mia Orlandella said bouldering is a form of exercise for her; it encourages her to keep up with her fitness, and she feels reinvigorated and motivated after each session.
“It’s sort of like strength training for me, because I really like to do overhangs, which is where the wall’s slightly slanted, and you’re using a lot of upper body strength and pushing up with your legs strategically,” Orlandella said.
Bouldering breaks the traditional view of gym exercise, which may be another reason for its increasing popularity.
“Going on the treadmill or lifting weights is boring, but climbing is fun,” Orlandella said. “It’s a way to get exercise with other people. You don’t really feel like you’re exercising, either. I can see that appealing to folks of every generation.”
Climbing engages and builds a lot of muscles in one’s body, which results in more efficient future climbs. The areas people see the biggest transformations in are forearms, back, arms and core, according to The Climbing Guy.
“I think of it as 45% pulling muscles, 20% core, 20% pushing muscles and 15% legs, so you’re almost getting an entire body workout,” radio-television-film major Brandon Ly said.
The sport incorporates an element of problem solving that regular exercise does not. Long periods of endurance aren’t present, either; rather, there are multiple moments of intense exercise followed by rest.
“It’s also much easier to hang out with a friend while climbing than running or working out,” Barber said. “All these factors lead to people, including myself, to generally prefer climbing to traditional exercise.”
Barber said he’d cite the city of Austin as the reason for the UT climbing community being so large.
The Austin area has multiple climbing gyms, including Austin Bouldering Project, or ABP. The Barton Creek Greenbelt, which is less than a 15-minute drive from campus, also has bouldering and extensive lead climbing.
“Just outside of Austin are even better climbing areas, like Reimers Ranch Park, Pace Bend Park, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area and McKinney Falls State Park,” Barber said. “These areas have more climbing than the rest of the state of Texas combined.”
Climbers are, for the most part, environmentally conscious, they say.
“They’re into the idea of doing as little damage to the earth as possible, and I think that aligns perfectly with the culture of Austin,” Ly said. “Climbing also requires a lot of rest time, which opens the door to chatting with others and mingling, so that fits the demographic of college students.”
ABP is a close and trendy bouldering spot among both UT students and Austinites. Finance major Shiru Chen and Orlandella go at least once each week.
“It doesn’t look like a traditional climbing gym; it looks like a hangout space,” Chen said. “There are entertaining routes, and you can tell they were designed to entertain. Traditional climbing walls can be very technique-focused and intense, but even the hard routes at ABP are fun. They can span across a large area, [making] you move around a lot.”
Regardless of skill level, anyone can have a satisfying day at ABP.
“ABP has a lot of variety,” Orlandella said. “If you’re a very advanced climber, there’s stuff for you there. If you’re a beginner, there’s stuff for you there, as well.”
Climbing is a deceptively individual sport; in reality, it’s very collaborative, and encouragement is a large part of climbing culture. Strangers will cheer strangers on when attempting routes, and people will pair up or form groups to solve routes. Thus, the community’s almost required to ensure improvement, learning and fun.
“If you only climb by yourself, you’ll miss out on better ways to solve problems and, more importantly, you’ll miss out on a lot of great times spent with great people,” Barber said. “Climbers understand this and are always eager to reach out and help or learn from others. It’s rare that I go a day without teaming up with a complete stranger to solve a boulder.”
Ly is president of Texas Rock Climbing, UT’s climbing club and team, and Barber is a member. There’s a recreational aspect to the organization, as well as a competitive side; members compete in local, regional and national competitions.
“Being a part of Texas Rock Climbing is amazing,” Ly said. “We learn from each other and teach each other. I’m currently a senior, and a majority of the friends I’ve made during university are from this team, so it’s almost like creating a climbing family when you join. Everyone is friendly and open to discovering new ways to get better, and we also stumble upon ways to improve ourselves by just being around each other.”
Currently, they’re training to get in shape for competition in the spring and re-establish their presence in the climbing scene.
“Organizing the team again and finding our foot in the door will be beneficial in getting that momentum we need to succeed,” Ly said. “We [were] a big name in our region in the past, so we’re planning on getting ourselves to that number one spot again.”
Barber said he treasures every single day he gets to spend climbing, the places he gets to enjoy and the people he enjoys them with, and Ly said he finds it comforting to have a group of people he’s close with to accompany him on this journey.
“It’s a bunch of like-minded people with the same goal of getting better and learning more about their own sport,” Ly said. “And they’ve realized it’s easier to get there together than alone.”