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When it was my turn to climb, I started out on a 5.intro route, which meant that the holds were a little bigger, easier to grip and closer together. (Image: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/ DC Refined)

A beginner's guide to rock climbing with Earth Treks Crystal City

For most of us, we have that one sport, that one activity that we wish we were the type of person who participated. It embodies something we want to be, but just haven't found the courage yet.

For me, that was definitely rock climbing. I would see walls in gyms or hear friends talk about how they went on a first date and tried climbing, and think "Man, I wish I was that adventurous, but there's no way."

But when the largest climbing gym in the Mid-Atlantic region opens in your backyard and they ask you to come test it out, it feels a little too kismet to say no due to preconceived notions of what you can and can't accomplish. All of this to explain how I found myself strapped into a harness clinging to brightly colored handholds and scaling the wall like Spider-Man one Tuesday morning.

Earth Treks opened its first Virginia location in Crystal City earlier this month in a 45,000-sqaure-foot facility -- 35,000 of which are dedicated to the 35-foot climbing walls -- with more than 400 climbing and bouldering routes. And the timing couldn't be better considering climbing is poised to be the next “it” fitness trend, with more than 4.6 million Americans participating in the sport, according to a report by the Physical Activity Council and PHIT America; the number increased by 150,000 in the last year alone.

"Our mission is to share our passion for climbing, and we're looking to do that with anyone that enters the facility whether it be a first-timer, someone who is a professional rock climber and everyone in between," says Earth Trek's VP of Climbing Center Operations, Triny Papavasiliou. "Really, if you can climb the stairs and do half of a pull-up, you can try rock climbing," adds Ex Pow-anpongkul, the Climbing Center Director.

The best bet for beginners is to check out open climb on Saturdays and Sundays between 9 and 5 at Earth Treks -- $30 will get you three climbs and an instructor to belay for you.

On the morning of my first climb, I was given a tour of the facility, which also includes a bouldering (15-feet of unroped climbing) cave, a yoga studio, climbing training areas, weight machines and pristine locker rooms, and before I knew it, it was time to climb! Papavasiliou helped me into my harness and adjusted my clips, while Pow-anpongkul set up to belay for me. I started off on a 5.intro route, which meant that the holds were a little bigger, easier to grip and closer together. Honestly, my methodology for that first climb was just to start making moves and not think about it too much or I'd chicken out. I am proud to say that I made it to the top fairly easily. But the biggest surprise was that I actually loved it! As a fairly competitive person, there was a strong desire to make it to the top, to be successful. I can definitely see this workout appealing to former athletes looking for the competitive release. Plus, it's a very social sport as you are relying heavily on your belayer to maintain your safety.

"When you finish playing sports in college, it can be a little depressing, or at least it was for me," admits Papavasiliou. "You no longer have that set activity to excel in, but climbing can give you that same rush with a lot of fun mixed in. And it is a great way to meet people if you're new to the community -- we've seen people meet friends, fiancées, spouses here."

I hadn't had my fill with one climb, and asked if I could try something slightly more challenging so Pow-anpongkul put me on a 5.7 climb, which is still considered a beginner route (5.10 and beyond are the more advanced climbs), but I could feel the difference; the route was a bit steeper and the holds were smaller and farther apart, forcing me to use more dynamic and planned movements to excel. It was a more thoughtful climb as I needed to map out my movements in my head rather than just barreling upwards.

A common misconception about rock climbing is that it is only an upper body workout, but as I learned the hard way if you are climbing efficiently and properly, you're engaging your core the entire time and using your legs -- your entire body will feel it the next day!

"You do need to do some pushups to counterbalance a lot of the pulling you're doing -- you probably feel it in your forearms right now," said Papavasiliou.

If you haven't tried rock climbing (or even if you are an experienced climber!) I would highly recommend giving Earth Treks Crystal City a visit. It would make for a perfect date night, office bonding session or birthday party outing.


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