Every weekend, at gyms across eastern Massachusetts that are hazy with chalk dust and loud with rock music, members of the Northeastern Climbing Team can be found scrambling up rock walls and finding ever more creative ways to get to the top.
They don’t always make it—at an impromptu practice at Central Rock Gym in Cambridge, the thud of a climber falling onto padded mats on the floor was just part of the soundtrack of the afternoon. But getting to the top isn’t always the point for members of this team.
When Olivia Leighton, a second-year student on the team, struggled to find a foothold on a tricky route, her teammates’ voices were a chorus of encouragement as they suggested ways she might stretch and pull herself upward.
“The sport of climbing, and the Northeastern team specifically, is really collaborative,” says Leighton, who is studying finance at the university. “That can be surprising for people who are used to highly competitive sports.”
Leighton describes herself and her teammates Cayla Chow, a fourth-year student of experience design and Miya Iwashita, a second-year student of civil engineering and vice president of the Northeastern Climbing Team, as among “the shorter climbers.”
“Sometimes Cayla, Miya, and I will talk to each other to figure out different beta,” she says, using a term popular among climbers that designates information about a particular route.
There’s not only one way to climb up a wall, and the way that a 6-foot-tall member of their team might climb a route, for example, will be different than the way Leighton, Chow, and Iwashita may do it.
Climbing is a club sport at Northeastern, and a relatively young one at that. It was founded in 2014 by Josh Levin, a champion rock climber and “American Ninja Warrior” competitor who graduated in 2017.
In a normal year, the team competes in regional and national competitions in three different categories: bouldering, sport climbing, and speed climbing.
Bouldering, as the name suggests, is a style of climbing on small rock formations or shorter artificial walls, without the use of ropes or harnesses. Sport climbing involves athletes scaling taller rock faces or walls with fixed anchor points and a rope system in place. Sport climbers use a rope and harness. Finally, speed climbing is a race up the wall, where competitors climb identical routes side-by-side, as fast as they can. Speed climbers also use a rope and harness system.
In each category, and for indoor climbing in general, athletes must use their balance, strength, and problem-solving skills to get to the top of a wall using small pieces of textured plastic—sometimes less than an inch wide—to get there.
Collegiate climbing competitions were canceled this year because of COVID-19, but Northeastern Climbing hasn’t let it dampen their spirits.
“It’s been a weird year, for sure,” says Brynn Hamilton, a fourth-year student of physics and president of the team. “We held a lot of events on Zoom, just to stay in touch and hang out with each other, and in the last few weeks we’ve been able to get back to the gym and climb together. That’s been awesome.”
The team usually holds tryouts at the start of the fall semester (another norm upended by the pandemic), and maintains a roster of 15 men and 15 women. They compete in regional contests against roughly 10 other collegiate teams, and in national contests where as many as 80 teams appear. Hamilton says it’s been exciting to watch the team grow and change over the years.
“One of the things I really like about our team is that we make sure to have an equal roster of people who compete in men’s competitions and women’s competitions,” she says. “The sport of climbing has historically been pretty dominated by men, and I’m proud that we have so many women on our team. Having that diversity in gender makes it a more inclusive, fun environment.”
(In fact, the impromptu practice this News@Northeastern reporter attended happened to be among six women on the team.)
For climbers who’ve felt chewed up and spit out by highly competitive youth and high school teams, such as Anna Yerxa, a first-year student of chemical and molecular biology, the Northeastern Climbing Team offers a more supportive environment.
“There’s a lot less stress here than on youth teams,” says Yerxa, who has been climbing competitively for a decade.
Brynn Thomas, a first-year pharmacy student, agrees.
“I grew up climbing poles and trees and door frames before my parents let me join a team,” says Thomas, who has been climbing competitively since elementary school. “There’s a huge range of abilities on the Northeastern team, and you can climb with anyone and learn something from them. It’s a really supportive team.”