History tells us the world isn't flat, but when I stay in Chicago for too long, I begin to wonder. So when I'm in the city and crave an increase in elevation—and riding an elevator to the top of a skyscraper just won't do—I hit up the indoor rock climbing wall at the Old Town Fitness Formula Club
. When I reach the top of FFC's 30-foot wall, I feel unstoppable. Along with boosting my confidence, climbing challenges my strength, concentration and endurance unlike any sport that keeps my feet planted on the ground.
The skinny: Rock carvings in China from 300 B.C. depict men climbing rocks, but modern man invented indoor rock climbing. A physical education professor in the UK constructed the first artificial climbing wall in 1964. Since then the sport has taken off in many countries, especially in urban areas where the weather or environment isn't conducive to outdoor climbing. Sounds familiar.
The getup: It's important to wear comfy clothes that allow you to move freely. Other than that, most gyms have their own equipment that you're welcome to use, since purchasing your own climbing gear can be pricey. Shoe rental does usually cost extra (at FFC $5) so I recommend purchasing your own pair if you're going to climb often. Rather than shelling out $75 for a fresh pair, I bought a used pair on eBay for $15. Have a fear of fungus? You can buy a can of deodorizer for less than $10.
The payoff: Any exercise that leaves you unable to squeeze a shampoo bottle for days must work. It's not often you find a need for buff forearms, but climbing requires it and gives the rest of your arms a pretty good workout, too. If you climb correctly, your quadriceps and back should also feel the burn. I wouldn't classify climbing as cardio, but when you're racing up a wall to get to the top before your muscles give out, your pulse quickens substantially.
Wear and tear: Despite putting your life in the hands of a harness, rope and your belayer (the person at the other end of the rope), a German study found climbing indoors to be ten times safer than soccer. According to the Chicago Sport and Social Club staff, who runs a climbing course at FFC, common climbing injuries include strained wrists and pulled back muscles. Climbers who boulder (travel horizontally along the wall without a rope) may fall and sprain their ankles.
The commitment: Since climbing successfully, in many ways, has more to do with technique than strength, CSSC recommends climbing twice a week to improve. But if you've never even climbed a tree before, visit the wall at Dick's Sporting Goods in Schaumburg where you can try it out for $5.
The cost: For $120, CSSC offers a beginner's course of six two-hour training sessions that will get you certified and give you access to discounted passes to climb solo. To become certified, you have to know how to belay. I have a friend who once transformed his condo's stairwell into a climbing wall. He taught me how to belay by tethering a milk jug to a rope and tossing it over the monkey bars at a playground. With my skills in tow, I was able to get certified at FCC for less than the going rate of $35. Once you're certified, you can climb at any time for $15.
Difficulty level: Well-kept walls like the one at FFC feature routes of varying difficulties. The bright stickers guide you through easier routes with larger grips or harder ones that require finesse. Some sections of the wall have obstacles, such as ledges and angles, which can add difficulty. There's nothing like the desperation you feel hanging backward off a ledge just a few feet from the ground to make you think twice before tackling Everest.
The verdict: I've been climbing infrequently for a year now and have yet to become a devotee. Maybe it's because I've never felt the rush of climbing a real rock face. With no car and the closest outdoor spot to climb 163 miles away in Galena, Ill., that's not going to change anytime soon. I think what's really holding me back is that climbing requires planning. If you're not taking a course, you have to find a friend who knows how to belay to climb with you, and each session takes at least a couple of hours. Still, however seldom I go, climbing indoors gives me that hard-to-find high right here in my flat backyard.
For climbing hours, visit Old Town Fitness Formula Club's website www.fitnessformulaclubs.com/oldtown or call (312) 640-1235. Visit Chicago Sport and Social Club's website at www.chicagosportandsocialclub.com for more information about group classes.