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Wilmington Rock Gym builds camaraderie, confidence and climbing skills for all ages.

Cody Ison was telling me, as far as I could figure, to put my right foot on a pink peg that was somewhere near my right armpit. I was already a considerable distance up, clinging desperately to a wall that sloped out over the mat floor beneath me.

“Really?” I yelped, gulping and hoping hard that I had misheard.

“Trust me,” Ison responded gently. “Remember: foot up, deep breath and push with the legs.”

PHOTOGRAPHY BY Matt McGraw

Trembling, sweating and more than a little nervous about not making it, I found a way to contort my body. I lunged up a few feet. I was ecstatic and shouted in delight.

“Well, okay, that was a big step,” Ison admitted. “But great job.”

And so it went: Ison coaching and encouraging me until I reached the top of the wall.

This wasn’t my own Spartan warrior television series, this was just a day of rock climbing at the Wilmington Rock Gym. It just so happened that on this day I was having a great time. My two sons were there with me, trying out bouldering routes, and we were there to see what it was all about. I had never been in a climbing harness or in climbing shoes. This was my first attempt at trying to shimmy up a rock face, even if it was manmade. But I fell in love.

It seems odd, frankly, to have a rock climbing gym in coastal Wilmington. We do surfing, paddleboarding and fishing here. We have a strong triathlon and Ironman crowd, but if you look out at our horizon, you can’t even see a hill. So how is it that a large, active and friendly rock climbing community has been built here?

On the rainy weekday we were there, my sons and I were among about a dozen climbers, with that number growing as we left. The gym was filled with chatter and laughter. Climbers would shout words of encouragement or questions across the gym to colleagues. As members came in, they would regale Ison and other climbers with stories of their weekend, which were nearly all about water adventures. Yet inside this warehouse, tucked away and not even visible to passersby, the state of Wilmington rock climbing is healthy.

“Climbing itself is extremely social by nature,” Ison explains. “We are trading experiences and thoughts back and forth. We figure out a route together.”

Ison believes that the sport of climbing has taken off in Wilmington because the town cultivates a culture of outdoor adventure and healthy living. It is only natural that rock climbing would be the next manifestation. Ison is not only a former professional rock climber and competitor but also a surfer. He sees many fellow climbers out on the waves. Adventure seekers have met at the Rock Gym and traveled to western North Carolina on weekends to climb together (outside).

I found that rock climbing offers a hobby that stimulates much of the body and offers so much that you can’t help wanting more. I’m a health and fitness enthusiast, yet climbing up the wall engaged muscles I didn’t know I had. My brain was fully focused on pegs and moves; there is always another route and another climb to tackle so the days are never the same; I felt connected with the person holding the rope; I was laughing at myself and jokes from fellow climbers; my children were enjoying the time alongside me; and, when I made it all the way up a harder top route, the amount of pride I felt in myself was indescribable.

“So much of rock climbing is mental,” Ison says. “You are mapping out your route. You can’t think about anything else and it gives you permission to slow down and live life in the present.”

In a world where many of us sit at our desks primarily engaged with computers, everything that rock climbing offers is a welcome change. It feels healthy for mind and body and, given the environment at Wilmington Rock Gym, also the soul.

The rock climbing community in Wilmington is still growing, too. Ison, the manager of the gym, shares that there are anywhere from 20 to 60 check-ins each day. They host a competitive rock climbing team of youth (ages 11 to 17) who practice three times a week and travel to meets. There are women’s climbing nights, programs to learn to belay your kids, yoga for climbers and introductory classes. They offer birthday parties for kids. There is an area of weights, available for members’ use, and Ison is willing to craft tailored fitness programs for climbers.

All this activity is amazing considering the gym opened just over a year ago.

When I asked Ison the future goals of the Wilmington Rock Gym, he explained that the only goals they pursue are to keep everyone safe and to have fun.

Safety, of course, makes fun possible, so Ison and his staff are thorough when it comes to requirements. If you come to climb the top routes, you must either hire a staff member (like Ison) to belay you or find a partner who has taken a belaying class, passed the Wilmington Rock Gym’s test and is certified. Bouldering routes, which are lower, do not require belaying and are available for climbing at all times. Their system has worked. There haven’t been any accidents at the Rock Gym.

“Climbing is about conquering your fear,” Ison tells me. “With skill, confidence and some education, you can do anything.”

I, for one, was hooked on climbing, as were my kids. They have asked to return many times, including the day after our first visit where my shoulders were aching from change. I am happy to oblige them. I can’t wait to conquer that next level top route and see what else I can accomplish. At the Wilmington Rock Gym, I learned that with a little more skill, I can do anything.

Visit the Wilmington Rock Gym:

8118 Market Street, Wilmington
(910) 319-7209
wilmingtonrockgym.com

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