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Great Outdoors: Out of the Comfort Zone

by on November 02, 2017 3:55 PM

On the southern tip of Rothrock State Forest off of Route 26 rests a stunning, sandstone bouldering area called Hunter’s Rocks. Nestled mostly on state game lands and some private property, it is a part of the Rocky Ridge Natural Area.

For Centre County climbers, it’s a pivotal location for mental and physical endurance. It’s Laura Gilham’s favorite local place for bouldering.

The State College resident started sport climbing (permanent anchors fixed to the rock), trad climbing (traditional climbing), and bouldering (shorter, without a rope and with a crash pad) while at Penn State. She then moved away and didn’t climb much, but later moved back to the area and found a good group of friends to climb with year-round, inside on rock walls and outside wherever she can climb.

“I love being out in nature and being outdoors,” Gilham says. “Gym climbing is fun, but I prefer outside. It’s you versus the rock. Some climbs are just as mental as physical, pushing your mind and body to get up something. You might fall 20 times, and you notice a way to do a move differently and you now don’t fall. I like doing both equally. Nothing beats trusting a cam holding you 200 feet off the deck, and the amazing view you can’t get any other way.”

Rock climbing is often referred to as vertical chess. Sam Wright, the climbing program coordinator with Adventure Rec at Penn State, says anyone can climb, but limberness, concentration, and confidence is key.

“I would say the skills that will give you a jump-start in climbing is having good flexibility — doing yoga is great for climbers — and, as corny as it sounds, having a positive attitude,” Wright says. “The mental side of climbing is a critical aspect to being able to progress. You have to be willing to embrace the thought of failing and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.”

To build up to climbing outside, Gilham recommends starting with rock-climbing walls inside. Locally, the YMCA of Centre County has a 20-foot wall in the gym of its State College location that can accommodate five climbers at a time. And in September, Penn State’s IM Building opened its climbing wall, a 40-foot wall with 16 climbing lanes and 3,000 square feet of climbing space.

“The wall is staffed fully by students who range in ability from certified national climbing instructors to people who had never climbed prior to this job,” Wright says. “We also have a separate bouldering wall that is over 1,000 square feet and is open anytime the IM Building is open.”

He says both walls have been very popular; they’re open to Penn State students and community members who purchase Campus Recreation Memberships. There had been a growing interest in building a climbing wall on campus for quite some time.

Josh Helke, owner of Organic Climbing in Philipsburg, has been a part of the local climbing community for a while and is watching interest grow.

“After living all over and traveling the USA to climb for many years, I think Central PA is a great location to live, for this sport,” Helke says. “Not only is there so much great stuff locally, but within three to five hours you can get to world-class designations for climbing like the New River Gorge National River in West Virginia, and Shawangunk Ridge (the Gunks) in New York.”

Helke started climbing when he was just 4 years old. He grew up in Minnesota, climbing with his family and his father’s cross-country students on team outings. Climbing takes so much concentration that it gives him a chance to focus solely on his next move and his physical endurance, instead of his busy life.

“Anyone can climb — anyone,” he says. “We do it naturally as children, we just lose the self-confidence we had, then as we grow up and no longer believe in ourselves. The best skills for climbing are attention to detail and confidence in yourself.”

Helke’s business, Organic Climbing, manufactures custom-made climbing materials, such as crash pads, chalk bags, bouldering mats, apparel, and more. His intention was to build the business in State College, but the economic board in Philipsburg reached out to him about building there. He was facing a number of challenges in State College, from zoning to high rent, so it worked out well. His business has grown from two employees to 16 within the last seven years.

“Making things and especially textiles runs through the blood of many folks in the area, so we are so happy that we found it for our workshop,” Helke says. “Within the past five years climbing locally has become way more mainstream and has grown significantly.”

Helke recommends people interested in climbing check out the Purple Lizard Map for Rothrock State Forest, to find Hunter’s Rocks.

“Take a hike out to these amazing boulders on the ridge, bring a picnic, and enjoy a day of exploring the rocks and climbing around on them. In my travels all over, I have never seen a better place to learn how to climb — it has very unique holds and world-class friction on the sandstone.”

Other locations for rock climbing in the area include:

  • Three Sisters Formation close to Hunter’s Rock, by the Standing Stone Trail (climbers must make arrangements with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources beforehand);
  • Donation Rocks in Huntingdon, off of Old Hawn Road (climbers have to sign a free waiver);
  • Panther Rocks, exit 18 off of Interstate 80.



Rebekka Coakley is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.
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