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'There's a certain feeling when your feet leave the ground'

Students form community, center their minds through rock climbing at Wilson Gym

'There's a certain feeling when your feet leave the ground'
  Chris Teufel

Pass by K-Ville, swipe in at Wilson Gym, walk past Quenchers and a grey, irregularly shaped wall with colorful blobs rises out of the floor beneath you.

It’s the backdrop of Wilson’s cardio area. Squished into the corner surrounded by an army of exercise bikes and treadmills, the rock climbing wall is an obvious afterthought.

“Wilson is very gender segregated with cardio being mostly girls and the weight room being mostly guys, but we’re kind of tucked into our little corner at the climbing wall and have that less,” senior Mike Kim said. “It’s a good environment for anyone to come in. Some of our hardest climbers we have are girls like Meryl which is pretty cool.”

If you stick around, you’ll get coated by chalk and hear words like beta, sit-start, arête, crux, jug, mantel, crimp and project—and I mean "project" used as a verb but pronounced like the noun.

“Eavesdrop on any of the conversations that happen at the rock wall, and you might feel like you’re in another country,” senior Meryl McCurry said. 

  Chris Teufel

It’s an alien language in an alien universe of people trusting strangers to not drop them, so that they can scale synthetic fruity pebbles. The wall occupies a small corner of Wilson, but for some reason attracts a community of people from all different corners of Duke’s campus.

The wall was built in 2007 and for the first two or three years, it was fully managed by students. It was originally going to be a bouldering gym—a type of rock climbing with shorter walls, no ropes and thickly-padded floors—but the builders came in to Wilson and saw the potential for a 35-foot top-roping wall. Top roping is a form of rock climbing with the rope already at the top, as opposed to sport and lead climbing where you clip the rope in to different points as you climb up.

Now, the wall is run by Outdoor Adventures which is managed by Chris Hendricks and TJ Beezley. 

Beezley described the wall as open, accessible and welcoming. Hendricks added that it’s a central space to not only climb, but also socialize.

According to Hendricks, 4,945 people visited the climbing wall in 2016-17, with 52 percent male and 48 percent female. In addition, 418 participated in the Duke Adaptive Climbing events for people with disabilities to learn how to rock climb. These numbers were up from 3,968 for the climbing wall and 80 for Duke Adaptive in 2012-13.

“I think I spend more waking hours at the climbing wall than anywhere on campus,” McCurry said. “I’m moving to San Francisco after graduation, and I already know the climbing gym I want to join. I really want to continue to build communities around rock climbing and take weekend trips outside.” 

With the closest climbing gym in the area being a 15-minute drive away, Meryl might not have even gotten into climbing if there weren’t a Duke wall.

“To a non-climber, it sounds like I’m speaking gibberish, but if you’re in the community, it makes so much sense to you,” McCurry said. “That’s why it’s so tight-knit and seems cliquey. There’s an instant understanding of the different layers.”

  Chris Teufel

There’s a team of route-setters that arrange the blobs of plastic to make creative mental and physical problems to solve, and McCurry’s routes have a theme this semester: dating websites. The pink 5.10a “Crimpin’ Mingle” and 5.10b “” are Meryl’s creations. The blobs are called holds and the climbing routes are color coded and labeled with levels of difficulty from 5.5-5.13, with each level exponentially more difficult. 

For instance, 5.13 is much harder than 5.5. A crimp is a strained hold that requires you to hold your weight with only your fingertips. Match is a move where you match your hands or feet on the same hold.

“[Climbing] is a physical brain teaser,” McCurry said. “Route-setting is like choreographing a dance. You think about the general movements, you have an idea of the flow, and it’s not until you actually get there and start performing the moves that you know exactly how it will flow.”

McCurry described climbing as one of the few things through which she finds her state of flow where she is completely focused and present. And there’s always more to discover in climbing—from indoor to outdoor to sport to trad to multi-pitch to alpine to mountaineering to ice climbing.

“Each next step I take in climbing, I’m like 'how did I call myself a climber before this?'” McCurry said. “It’s always this imposter syndrome.”

She said she thinks climbers at the wall are like tenters in K-Ville. 

“That’s how the climbing wall sometimes feels to me,” McCurry said. “We have our own group of climbing wall crazies.”

When sophomore Natalia Androsz—an ECE/CS major, linguistics minor and never-before athlete—first joined the OA staff, she was intimidated by the cliquey-ness of OA, “especially the [Project Wild] people." At her first staff meeting, everyone seemed to know each other and were chatting, but she only knew three people there from an OA backpacking trip.

“I thought, it’s just gonna be another group where I can’t make friends with anyone,” Androsz said. “I’d never been to this part of the gym. I was afraid to be such an amateur. There’s a perception that it’s an exclusive group, but I found that it was very inclusive, and I’ve been able to make friends and acquaintances.”

A peer advisor and resident assistant in Southgate Dorm, Androsz is a dual citizen of Poland and the United States, and is from Brookfield, Connecticut. 

“There’s exactly one brook and one field,” Androsz joked about her hometown. 

She’s planning on taking a National Outdoor Leadership School course in Patagonia next year before her study abroad in Chile. During her senior year of high school, Androsz and her best friend Julia traversed Northern Spain hiking the Camino and spent most of her summers growing up in Poland.

She said that she struggled a lot during her first year of college because even though she had great close friends, she didn’t feel like she had a community. Now, she is a part of this “awesome and friendly” climbing community.

“I never felt bad that I didn’t know [climbing] terms,” Androsz said. “People were throwing out beta, arête and send, and I did not know any of those words meant. I asked, people were super nice and said ‘I’m sorry, I say these words so much that I forget that people don’t know what they mean.'”

She noted that she likes seeing people return to the climbing wall and watching them improve. 

"By nature, climbing is a partner sport," she said. "You need someone to hold the other end of your rope. There’s such a cool bond made just belayer to climber.”

For sophomore Ake Kankirawatana, his introduction to climbing was during a freshman fall break trip. It was a 5.6 climb. 

“It was weird, it was awesome,” Kankirawatana said.

He started coming to the Wilson wall every day during freshman year. 

“I was decent at it which was pretty cool,” Kankirawatana said. “There was a natural progression. I fell really in love with it, just being at the wall. Sometimes I’ll come the Wilson wall and just do homework to be near the rock wall. It has a certain vibe to it.”

Growing up, Kankirawatana did “stints of soccer, swimming, fencing and all that jazz," but never considered himself an athlete.

“My life at Duke wouldn’t be my life at Duke at all [if there was no climbing wall],” Kankirawatana said. 

P-Wild, Outing and OA make up his social life, he said. He described the wall as a sense of familiarity, peace and intimacy and P-Wild as family.

  Chris Teufel

“There’s a certain feeling when your feet leave the ground,” Kankirawatana said. “You leave every single thought on the ground.”

Junior Courtney Werner was Kankirawatana’s first belay. 

“Teamwork and trust crosses over into friendships in the climbing community because you trust each other with your lives,” Werner said.

Werner said she finds that the wall is important for stress management and finding mental clarity. 

“The existence of accessible top roping gyms like the Duke wall where you can walk in with no experience and check it out are so important,” Werner said.

The Duke climbing community isn't just made up of current students though. 

When P-Wild climbing directors Michael Kim and Courtney Werner were leading an Outing Club trip to Rocky Face—2.5 hours away—they ran into Kevin Sparks, Trinity '79, who asked for a belay and introduced himself as the 1979 P-Wild climbing director.

Sparks' dad worked for an oil company, so he was a city kid who grew up in London, Beirut and Lebanon. Sparks was an economics major and learned how to rock climb through P-Wild where he met Chris Hyson, Trinity ’77 and a geology major. Hyson and Sparks are still climbing together to this day. 

After Duke, Sparks did a Ph.D. in physics as well as postdoctoral work. Then, he spent two years as a full-time professional climber and met his future wife at Smith Rock—a popular and famous climbing area in Oregon. His wife’s workplace that specializes in fiber optics was looking for a physicist, and he is still working at the same company as a scientist today. They are life partners and climbing partners for life. 

During his time at Duke, Sparks climbed the Chapel—yes, from the outside—twice. Once with his friend Tom and once another friend named Adrian. 

“It was with Adrian that we took a pumpkin up and skewered it up onto one of the spires,” Sparks said. “The pumpkin was stuck up there for three or four weeks after. It was a great trip. I don’t recommend it to anyone. It’s a very, very, very serious undertaking. The first 70 feet or so was extremely difficult to protect. It’s a chimney, and it’s very difficult climbing… At the top there is a two-finger pocket in the gargoyles eyes.”

Sparks trad-climbed the Chapel which means that he placed his own protection using small pieces of gear that are put into cracks during the climb with his rope through the gear to catch a potential fall. 

What appeals most to senior Mike Kim—and many of the other climbers—about the sport is its ability to help him destress and find his flow. 

“When climbers talk about flow, no one knows what they mean so there is value in putting words into it,” Kim said. “But I still don’t know how to describe flow.”

  Chris Teufel

Maybe it’s like a writer whose words and thoughts dance across the page and you can’t stop reading. A pianist whose fingers seem to float on the keys. A figure skater that jumps with no hesitation and is fully connected with the music. A mathematician who with a piece of chalk write out a beautiful proof that covers the entire board. An artist who has complete control over their paint brush to create transcendent masterpieces. 

Maybe flow is when someone is so connected to their sport, movement, thoughts, subject, song that they are in that exact moment. They aren’t thinking ahead or behind their movements, but they are right on the sweet spot of being fully present, immersed and focused on their art and craft. 

Maybe it’s the combination of nature, risk, focus and mind-body coordination. 

Regardless of the exact definition, climbers at Duke are at the Wilson wall doing what they do best—finding their flow.