Rock Solid: Raiders of the Rock Club

Southridge’s Raiders of the Rock club spent last Saturday experiencing outdoor rock climbing for the first time at Red River Gorge in eastern Kentucky. Eighth-grader Ana Hewitt worked her way up Brolo El Cunado, a 30-foot high, 5.8 difficulty route, on the Chica Bonita Wall. “It’s more challenging out here than inside,” Hewitt said. “But that’s what makes it better.”

Story by Allen Laman
Photos by Brittney Lohmiller

In recent years, students at Southridge Middle School have climbed to new heights — literally.

Language arts teacher and Raiders of the Rock club sponsor Aaron Wiles formed the rock climbing club in the spring of 2016, hoping he could spark an interest in students and get them into a burgeoning sport that still doesn’t hold the same footing in Hoosier Country as it does out West.

It’s also a transformative experience for the kids, who often begin their eight-week sessions intimidated by the heights they reach.

The group reached its apex May 12 when a pack of six girls participated in the group’s first outdoor trip, a venture to the world-renowned Red River Gorge in eastern Kentucky. The area is a sprawling mecca of rock crags that ropes in some of the best climbers from across the globe.

And the girls looked right at home during the day of tactical and physical rock conquering.

But it was certainly a change in scenery for the participants, who had previously only cut their teeth on artificial rock holds at Evansville’s Vertical eXcape indoor climbing facility. That did not discourage them, however. If anything, it amped them up even more.

Their proud leader smiled and cheered as they each reached the top of their paths, constantly encouraging them from the ground.

Wiles didn’t expect the kids to know anything about the sport before they joined the club. He doesn’t expect them to be in excellent shape, and he doesn’t hold them to a rigorous training regimen or require them to conquer difficult walls.

Southridge Middle School eighth-grader Angel Nunez used holds to begin his 32-foot climb inside Vertical eXcape in Evansville on March 19. Students practiced top rope climbing and auto belaying inside the gym.
Southridge Middle School teacher Aaron Wiles, top left, climbed inside Vertical eXcape. Wiles, who is the Raiders of the Rock club sponsor, is an avid rock climber.

The goal he has for the group is to open the climbers up to a new experience that will help them grow. After all, that was the reason he started climbing in 2013.

“I tell the kids, I got tired of being afraid of stuff,” Wiles said. “One of the things I was really afraid of was heights.”

So, he made a decision.

“Rather than be afraid of things, I’m just going to run at them at full speed. I tell the kids, because they say, ‘I can’t climb, I’m afraid of heights.’ That is exactly why I climb — to overcome that obstacle, that fear.”

About 60 students have participated in the program. Eleven were part of the most recent eight-week session — which ran from March through the beginning of this month — and six girls who attended either the fall or spring sessions during this school year made the trip to Kentucky.

Those who join Raiders of the Rock all have their own reasons for strapping in and climbing up walls, some of which exceed three stories in height. Eighth-grader William Barkley wanted to follow in Wiles’ footsteps and break his fear of heights and can now confidently say that he did. Participants like eighth-grader Olivia Durcholz, sixth-grader Zoey Bright, and eighth-grader Ana Hewitt just wanted to try something new and ended up having a lot of fun.

Wiles described the mix of kids as “the Bad News Bears of rock climbing.” While some are athletes on school sports teams, many are not.

“It’s just so fun to see kids coming out of their shells and making friendships and partnerships,” he said. “There’s so much trust and communication involved that they just naturally form these little pairs and teams, so it’s really cool.”

The kids always kick off their first session at Vertical eXcape with an in-depth safety seminar that teaches them how to slip into their harness, properly lock their carabiners (big metal clips) onto the safety rope that supports them, and belay (or secure the safety rope to an anchor point) for their peers.

Harnesses on. Belays ready. Clipped in. Climb on.

Seventh-grader Brayden Reimann isn’t into sports like football or basketball, so having the opportunity to build muscle and conquer goals at the rock climbing gym is a welcome challenge.

“Rock climbing is fun to me because everyone is involved,” he said. “There’s not as much judging other people. We all work together, and we all compare each other ... but we all work together to accomplish our individual goals.”

Evidence of that is audible when the kids take the gym and cheer their peers on from the floor. By the end of their eight-week sessions, they shout out words of encouragement as well as practical tips for how their suspended clubmates can make another move up by telling them to move their left leg here, or grab that rock with their right hand.

Eighth-grader Olivia Durcholz began her ascent of Mary Pop-Parazzi while Chris Browning of Elberfeld belayed for her May 12. “It takes a lot more endurance out here,” Durcholz said. “You have to plan out your route before you go.”

While the kids aren’t forced to climb anything they don’t want to, they push themselves and each other to take on higher difficulty paths. It’s never a mentality of, “I can’t do this,” but rather, “I can’t do this yet.”

Southridge ninth-graders also got in on the climbs this past session. It marked Alexis Emmons’ first eight-week session, while Payton Folz has attended each one since the first iteration three years ago.

“I wanted to join because I wanted to do something that was different and more out there instead of just playing the typical school sports that you have,” Folz said.

The technique — positioning and strategy during the climb — is just as, if not more, important than shear strength when it comes to maneuvering a wall.

The artificially constructed walls at Vertical eXcape are littered with colorful grips that climbers grasp and push off on their way to the top of stations that are between 30 and 32 feet tall. Varying difficulty levels are posted on walls throughout the gym to inform climbers of what they’re getting into. Across gyms and outdoor destinations, paths rated 5.0 to 5.9 are typically considered easy to intermediate in difficulty, while routes labeled 5.10 to 5.15 kick up the intensity and range from hard to extremely challenging. The easiest paths in the Evansville gym start at 5.5 and the most difficult cap out at 5.13. Different color holds denote the different paths on a particular slice of wall.

Freshman Payton Folz worked her way up Mary Pop-Parazzi, a 25-foot high, 5.5 difficulty, route on the Chica Bonita Wall. “I know in the gym I can do a 5.11 but here I don’t know, maybe a 5.5,” Folz said.
Southridge Middle School teacher and Raiders of the Rock club sponsor Aaron Wiles, left, congratulated eighth-grader Kelby LaRoche after she completed Mary Pop-Parazzi, a 25-foot high 5.5 difficulty route, on the Chica Bonita Wall. “Being on rope outside feels a lot different than it does in the gym,” Aaron said.

This patterned guidance was noticeably absent at the gorge on May 12, forcing participants to assess their climb before they began their ascent and feel around the surface of the rock slabs when they were stumped.

“It takes a lot more endurance out here,” Durcholz said at the gorge. “You have to plan your route before you go.”     

Those who went on the May 12 trip spent the day dangling from what is known as the Chica Bonita Wall, which is located in the gorge’s Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve. The extended chunk of rock is wholly shaded and has paths ranging from simple to complex. It stretches high up into the sky and twists at points with an overhang, but the Southridge climbers stuck to the tamer paths that capped out at 35 feet.

Hewitt jumped at the chance to be the first climber up. She said she got an adrenaline rush from solving the puzzle of where to put her feet and hands. She takes pride in her climbing abilities.

“I wanted to be able to figure it out on my own without watching people’s patterns,” she said of why she wanted to climb first. “I wanted to be able to see it by myself instead of copying someone else’s route.”

Each girl climbed to the top of at least one path on the face of Chica Bonita, a 5.5 level path named Mary Pop-Parazzi. (Route names are either given by the experienced climbers who bolt the anchors into the rock that safety rope is then strung through for other climbers, or by the first person who successfully climbs the route after they lay it out.)

Other climbs the girls tried their hands at included Pocahontas Path (5.7), Brolo El Cunado (5.8) and Ridin’ the Short Buzz (5.9).

After about six hours of climbing, they ended the trip with a hike to the top of the Natural Bridge and a trip to Miguel’s pizza, a popular hangout for climbers who need a place to get grub and set up camp for cheap.

Wiles remarked at the end of the day that the trip was a big success. You get from the sport what you give to it, and Aaron is most proud of the good attitudes the kids bring with them wherever they climb.

“We go into our climbing on a regular basis with positivity and growth improvement in mind,” he said of the club. “I guess the biggest thing I take away from it is that I watch these kids go from never having climbed anything to ... outside, crushing everything. It’s really incredible to see that all take place. That growth and transformation in the kids.”

“It’s a tradition that after you’ve climbed in The Red you come to Miguels Pizza and have Ale 8s,” Aaron said as he brought pizza and soda to the group at the popular location for rock climbers to stay and eat. Durcholz, left, and Kelby LaRoche, right, clinked their Ale 8 bottles with freshman Alexis Emmons and Folz.

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