Sweat is dripping down your face, the harness tight around your waist, fingers sore as you try to reach that one extra inch above your head… This is an experience that many students have had with rock climbing at Holliston High School (HHS).
Whether you’re reaching up a cliffside or the wall in the field house, rock climbing has become a very popular program at HHS, headed by physical education instructor Mr. Glen D’Avanzo. Students have become heavily involved with the sport in the field house, out on local sites, and even beyond.
This year was the first year that students could receive wellness credits by taking this class, which was a major factor in the amount of response to it. Mr. D’Avanzo taught six blocks of rock climbing, three in the fall and three in the spring.
“There may be a rock climbing class offered in the winter, but there would be limited exposure to outdoor climbing,” he said. He explained how limiting the class to indoors would take away from so many experiences, such as climbing up a 500 foot cliff.
Mr. D’Avanzo said that Dr. Allison Belger’s article, The Power of Community, presents perfectly why students enjoy rock climbing so much. He summarized “The reason the challenge is so rewarding and students like it is the community aspect- it draws on the psychology. It’s physical, mental, and everybody at some level is vulnerable and uncomfortable. Mix that with taking risks [and it] bonds the class in a way that does not match any other class.”
Rock climbing can be seen either as an escape, a state of zen as you gain altitude along the rugged cliffside, or a competition against time, the elements, and one other. “Competition is an aspect that can bring out a… learning experience,” said Mr. D’Avanzo, smiling to himself. However “those who are not [competitive] get a chance to experience and learn something about themselves.”
One of those students this term was junior Colin Aubuchon. “I thought it [rock climbing class] would give the most opportunity to be physically active.” With his long legs and tall stature, his “climber’s body” gave him a slight advantage, letting him finish a climb with a faster time than others.
But what makes the climb most successful isn’t the physical aspect, but the efficiency of communication. There are “a lot of people you know and a lot of people you don’t know [in class], and you need to communicate with everyone there,” explained Aubushon. There is a system, an exchange of words and phrases, to ensure that both the climber and belayer – the person on ground who secures the ropes – are both ready for action. ‘Ready to climb?’ ‘Climb away!’ ‘Climbing.’ ‘Climb on.’
The difficulty of a climb is rated between a 5.0 and a 5.15, known as the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), the higher decimal being the more difficult in terms of steepness and other environmental factors.
“Learning to climb the harder climbs- it’s definitely a long process,” explained Aubuchon. The hardest climb in the class was about a 5.12. What he liked about the class was that you could “take it at your own pace.” Whether you climbed ten of a hundred feet, in one minute or one hour, every student would “feel the same accomplishment.”
Junior Hunter Murtaugh was also in fourth term rock climbing class, and he admitted “at the beginning of the class I had a fear of heights, so that was something hard to overcome.” Because of that fear, his greatest strength and contribution to the class was with his skill in belaying. To beley incorporates tying dependable knots, securing the person on the wall with the roping system, and being ready to hold the rope taught at any given moment if they were to fall.
Murtaugh explained that the most important piece of preparation for the class is in the safety equipment and technique. There are many components, including the rope system, the carabiners (metal hooks that connect the ropes, ensuring they don’t get tangled and can slide easily), and the webbing (the rope that anchors you when climbing outdoors).
Murtaugh enjoyed the class overall, and was unable to single out one memory. He most liked the “camaraderie” between the students, and there were “a lot of enjoyable moments as a whole.”
Rock climbing class has brought forward a fair challenge and a unique experience for students. “I don’t ever say it’s difficult [to teach] because I’m passionate and I love it so much,” said Mr. D’Avanzo. His ultimate goal with the class is having kids take up rock climbing as a lifelong activity.