By Colin Knechtl and Dara Smith
Birds soared behind Mark Leventhal as he clung to the Shawangunk Mountains. He was 13 years old. He remembers being far above tree line, and enjoying the views of upstate New York as he looked off into the distance. It was his first time climbing outdoors, the very same day when he fell in love with rock climbing.
Leventhal says he went on to climb in 38 states, several countries, and even in the Himalayas. But before facing his first mountain, he began his training at an indoor gym. Today, Leventhal is the Vice President and General Manager of Island Rock, one of two indoor rock climbing gyms on Long Island.
Starting April 10, Island Rock will be offering a spring break camp for kids. The camp will last five days, and will run from 9:00AM to 12:00PM. During the camp sessions, kids will learn techniques, train, and participate in climbing activities and games.
“They will do more climbing than they could possibly imagine,” Leventhal said. He believes that children don’t only benefit physically from rock climbing. “The mental benefits are tremendous. You develop tons of self-esteem and confidence while you climb here. Climbing up the top of a wall is very strategy oriented. It teaches you to think. It teaches you problem solving.”
Young climbers who climb outdoors usually get their start indoors. Indoor rock climbing gyms like Island Rock have added more youth climbing programs to accommodate the growing interest. Island Rock’s spring break camp will be different from the traditional after school climbing programs.
Americans participating in climbing activities has increased between 2007 and 2015, based on a 2016 report put together by the Physical Activity Council and PHIT America. In 2007, over 4.5 million Americans participated in sport, indoor, or boulder climbing. Within eight years, the amount of climbers has increased by 170 thousand.
In contrast to the apparent growing interest of indoor rock climbing among youth, there has been a decrease in youth participation in sport, indoor, and boulder climbing, from 1.6 million in 2007 to 1.3 million in 2015, showed in the The 2016 Outdoor Activity Participation report. Although there is this decrease, there has been a steady increase of youth participating in traditional climbing and mountaineering, increasing from 510 thousand in 2007 to 730 thousand in 2015.
Some sports psychologists and rock climbing coaches see that by putting themselves through the challenges of climbing a rock wall, children receive mental and emotional benefits.
“It does a lot of good for the ‘Selfs’ as I say. Self confidence, self esteem, self efficacy,” Adam Naylor, a Sports Psychologist who has worked with extreme sport athletes, said. He’s found that extreme sports offer greater space for self-growth. “Extreme sports have more emotional engagement which creates this independence and bravery that many of us benefit from.”
The Cliffs Climbing, an indoor rock climbing gym in Queens, also has programs and camps for youth. When Carly Squires, assistant director, first started coaching at The Cliffs Climbing in 2010, there were only two recreational youth teams. Today the gym has two additional competitive youth teams in response to an interest among their younger members.
“A lot of times parents talk about how it helped their kids with school because when problem solving in climbing, you have to figure out the specific route. There isn’t just one way to get to the top so it shows kids there are different ways of problem solving and not just one way,” Squires said.
Besides the mental and physical benefits, psychologists believe one reason children are drawn to rock climbing is because it is a non-traditional sport.
“It’s not as traditional an athletic event,” Mark Walch, a sport psychologist who has worked with rock climbers, said. “A lot of times, young people are put off by traditional paradigm of sports with coaching and expectations. [Extreme sports] allow more independence and flare.”
Having introduced rock climbing to his three sons and boy scout group, Joseph Pagendarm, an assistant Scoutmaster for Boy Scouts, says younger children should not partake in outdoor rock climbing. “It’s something they need to work their way into and grow into,” Pagendarm said. “Smaller children are great on the indoor gym. That’s the best place for smaller kids to gain interest and enthusiasm for the sport.”
“You want to show them that they can get up. If you take them out on a rock face and they can’t go anywhere, you’re going to discourage them right off the bat.”
Rock Climbing is often not as dangerous as it appears. Rock Climbers sustained 4.2 injuries per 1000 hours climbing, and .027/1000 hours in indoor climbing gyms a 2015 Wilderness and Environmental study reported. Comparatively, among recreational runners, the ratio was 7.7 injuries per 1000 hours running as found by a 2015 NIH study.
“Playing pee-wee football is just as risky. Emotionally, playing little league baseball is risky to a kids’ self esteem. Rock climbing is extremely safe if you’re in a gym with ropes. I’ve had hundreds of young kids rock climbing and never had any kind of problems.” Walch said. “It’s less traditional and very personally individually rewarding when you can see your progress”
The trend continues as Gravity Vault, a new indoor rock climbing gym, opened in Melville on Jan 28 2017. Since 2009 the number of indoor rock climbing gyms in the United States has more than doubled, with 48 more planned to open by 2019.