Rock Climbing: A Hidden Culture
(Originally published with Forum Magazine.)
Some consider rock climbing to be an extreme sport or adventure activity pursued by crazy adrenaline junkies. For others, portable rock walls, children’s birthday parties, or a trip to Dick’s Sporting Goods may come to mind. But for the rock climbing community, climbing is not only a sport, an art, and a way of life, but also a culture thriving in Richmond and all over the world. Climbers Kenta Murakami, Jay Smith, and Nicholas Smith share their relationship with the sport and the community, offering insight into the hidden climbing culture in Richmond.
Kenta Murakami, a class of 2015 University of Richmond student, began climbing the summer before his freshman year at the Seattle Bouldering Project, an indoor climbing gym in Seattle. During his first visit, he fell in love with the sport and was given a gym membership as a graduation present. He joined the Climbing Club upon enrolling at UR and continues to attend the club’s trips to the indoor gym, Peak Experiences, and various outdoor crags.
“I love that each route changes for each climber,” Murakami said, “Like a sort of dance or battle between the climber and the rock… I love that it tests me both physically and mentally in equal proportion.”
Murakami said Richmond’s climbing community is comprised of people from all kinds of backgrounds.
“I love being at campsites and meeting twenty-something dirtbagggers, seasoned climbers from around the world, students, fire dancers, gumbies,” he said. “It’s always such an experience just running into people at the crag and talking about where you’re from.”
Murakami climbs weekly at Peak Experiences with the other club members. The club also coordinates outdoor trips, of which Murakami said he fondly remembers the West Virginia caving trip. Spiders interested in getting involved the campus’ climbing community should contact a member of the club’s leadership team posted on the club’s page on the UR website.
Jay Smith is the general manager and owner of Peak Experiences, Richmond’s indoor climbing center. He began climbing approximately twenty-five years ago at Manchester Wall by the James River.
“Climbing was, for me, something that was completely personal. The only competition and, therefore, the only thing holding me back was myself,” Jay said. “While I am a competitive person and love ‘traditional’ sports, climbing gave me something where there was no comparison to anyone else unless I choose to.”
Peak Experiences opened in 1997 with the merging of two companies, Peak Experiences and Passages Adventure Camp, and is currently owned by Jay along with Kevin Tobin, Scott Powell, and Casey Cockerham. Peak is the hub of the entire Richmond climbing community; each week newbies and veterans alike flood its walls, challenging and encouraging each other to explore the ever-changing routes.
“The climbing community is, as a general rule, very open, friendly, and accepting. We all started at the same place, i.e. not being very good at it. At Peak we have tried very hard to embody and promote that aspect,” Jay said.
The climbing community treats everyone as an equally important member, no matter what level you climb at or how long you have been climbing. The connection to the sport is the only unifying force needed for acceptance and friendship.
“Everyone should feel accomplished and engaged because what they are doing is unique and by choosing to take the risk of trying climbing for the first time they are doing something that most people won’t even try. We want people to feel that if you’re having fun and challenging yourself at any level that you can, you are a climber and a vital part of the sport that all of us love.”
A visit to Peak is perhaps the best way to try climbing for the first time and begin to get involved in the climbing community. Information about the gym can be found at peakexperiences.com, as well as pictures and videos of years’ worth of climbing community members.
Nick Smith, a former Richmonder, is a climber currently living in Boulder, Colorado, working as the events coordinator for USA Climbing, the governing body of United States competition climbing. He began climbing in 2006 when a teacher, James McMannus of Powhatan High School, recommended he join the school’s climbing club at Peak Experiences.
When considering what he loves about climbing, Nick said, “I feel as though I will never do climbing justice with my answer. It’s truly an indescribable activity for me personally… the collision of many intense emotions all colliding at the same time for the same singular purpose. The feeling of complete control of your existence in those brief moments, mixed with a complete freedom of mind and body, while physically pushing yourself. All of these pieces and many more create a complex and intense situation in which you can handle in that moment or let it get the best of you and fall… In the end, I believe that what keeps me coming back is that the only person I have to answer to in this is myself… that is such a beautiful experience regardless of success or failure.”
Climbing became a lifelong passion for Nick, and he quickly discovered the magic of outdoor climbing as well. He said his favorite place to hike is the New River Gorge in West Virginia.
“It has so much to offer in a setting that is accessible to many different levels of climbers. From [the] beginner to the advanced climber there are routes for everyone… I could go on and on, but the New simply gives me a sense of home. This is where I first climbed outside, and no matter what, it is my roots, and I will always be biased [toward] this crag,” he said.
The New River Gorge makes for a perfect weekend climbing trip. Climbing guides are readily available for hire for new climbers looking to explore a world-class crag close to Richmond, and the American Alpine Club’s campground is the perfect place to meet climbers from around the world.
Whether climbing with the university’s club or on your own, whether indoors or outdoors, climbing has something for you. “The easiest way is to [get involved] is to make the first step and just try it… Overcoming fears and pushing ourselves is something that we all have to do. Our community offers a great, nonjudgmental place for people to do that… The sport has a lot to offer to anyone who tries it,” said Jay. Discover Richmond’s hidden climbing culture, and you may find the rock climber inside of you.