If you had stepped into the St. Croix Hall Gymnasium on the campus of Washington County Community College last Saturday, you would have heard sounds that you might not expect coming from a gym. Instead of “Shoot!” coming from a basketball player, you would have heard, “Climb!” coming from a totally different type of competitor. That would have been uttered by a climber harnessed to a rope in the indoor wall-climbing competition called ROCKFEST. Or, “Ahhh!” from someone who peeled away from a boulder route 10 feet up, un-roped, who landed on a mat on the floor.
ROCKFEST is run by the second-year students in the adventure recreation and tourism program. Last Saturday they held the competition as part of their course requirement to graduate from the two-year program. The students are responsible for every part of the event, from planning, establishing and rating the difficulty of the routes on the climbing wall to judging the competitors and everything in between.
As Scott Fraser, their instructor, explained, “From a student learning perspective, ROCKFEST allows them to apply general programming concepts such as setting goals, creating and managing a budget, marketing, promotion and public relations. In addition, students are learning and applying what I call adventure-specific aspects of event planning, like risk management and challenge awareness and management.”
If you’ve never seen an indoor climbing wall, I’ll describe it: It looks like a peeled pickle’s skin has been pasted to a wall. All the bumps on the pickle vary in size from one-half inch to two inches wide. Some are curved, some are even more deformed. The bumps are artificial, formed from polymer and drilled into a vertical (but sometimes overhanging) wall 25 feet high.
The students then climb the routes and put colored tape near the bumps to grade them for difficulty and mark the route so it can be followed during the competition.
The challenge for the wall climber is to scale the routes in a harness attached to another person on the floor for safety. The person on the floor can’t pull them up, but is allowed to adjust tension for the climber.
Now for the rules. They’re a little technical for nonclimbers like me, but basically they boil down to this. Each route is rated for difficulty from one to 10, one being the easiest.
At ROCKFEST, the lowest-rated route was worth 200 points, the highest, 1,000. There were 10 climbing routes which climbers in three categories — beginner, intermediate and advanced — could choose to attempt. They tried to climb as many routes as possible during the three hours that the competition is held, gathering as many points for each route as they could.
As Fraser put it, “The goal is to amass as many points as possible. The rules are similar to how the American Bouldering System is in terms of scoring. That’s how the students chose to run this competition.”
There were also ten bouldering routes that participants were required to climb for half of their score. Bouldering routes are climbed without ropes and are only twelve feet off the floor to the top. To achieve a score, the climbers had to attempt a minimum of three routes in both bouldering and the wall elements.
Participants got as many chances as they wanted to climb either bouldering or climbing routes. For every successful completion to the top, they receive the maximum points for the route. If they fell off, being protected from landing on the floor by the belayer, points were deducted. They could retry as many times as they wanted, but after three attempts, if they were not successful, their score can’t fall below their lowest previous score.
The registered climbers paid an entry fee of $15 to compete. Half the money went to the Outdoor Adventure Center at WCCC, which rents outdoor equipment to students and the public for a nominal fee. The other half of the proceeds went to Teens to Trails, a statewide program that provides grants to high school outing clubs.
Twenty-five climbers registered and were ready to start climbing when the timer started at 11 a.m. For the next three hours, a rock mix played on the sound system, while a group of about 30 spectators watched and cheered on their favorite “wall rats.” There were lots of “oohs” and “ahhs” from the crowd. There was the occasional scream, uttered by a climber who either fell off or completely ascended the wall and bouldering elements.
The timer blew three hours later, with the winners declared after the climbers signed their scorecards and the student judges tallied them up. Prizes were awarded for first through third place in three categories, beginner through advanced. The prizes ranged from chalk bags to whitewater rafting trips. All the prizes were donated by the sponsors that the students had rounded up.
As student Nate Hammick said, “We owe a great debt to our sponsors. We’d like to recognize them, so here they are: The Townhouse Restaurant, Alpenglowgear.com, North Country Rivers, Cadillac Mountain Sports, Ski Rack Sports, Calais Motor Inn, Calais Regional Hospital, Washington County Community College Student Senate and especially the Ladies Auxiliary VFW Post 9779, and VFW Post 9779. We couldn’t have done this without them.”
The competitors came from all over the state and New Brunswick. They came, they climbed and they conquered. The students raised money and demonstrated just what was possible by holding an event like theirs. They probably didn’t even realize they were learning something. A lot, actually.