Climbing the walls: Youth team from Hadley shows off its rock-wall climbing skills

Last modified: Saturday, July 05, 2014
HADLEY — As Caden Boeri, 12, of Russell makes his way up the rock wall at Central Rock Gym in Hadley, a small crowd forms below. He has climbed the inner dome, gripping the plastic holds, to a point where he is nearly upside down.

“Come on, Caden.” “You got this, Caden,” his peers call up at him.

He wears a harness attached to a rope, and when he finally lets go, he falls fast but stops short several feet from the ground. The person holding the end of the rope, called the belayer, slowly lowers him the rest of the way.

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A climber falls, Boeri said, “When you feel dead. When your body cancels out and it’s not willing to go any further. But then you know you can always try again.”

Boeri is among 25 Valley climbers ages 7 to 18 who make up the competitive youth rock-climbing team at Central Rock Gym at 165 Russell St. The team practices at the gym for three hours every Monday, Wednesday and Friday under the direction of head coach Joshua Surette and assistant coaches Jonah Meyer, Augy Cohn and former team member Tucker Telega Kendrick.

The most important part of climbing is pushing back the feeling that you can’t go any further, said Meyer, 19, who lives in Shutesbury.

“They don’t know they are going to fall until it just happens,” said Meyer, who has been climbing since he was 10 years old. “An advanced climber is 100 percent committed to climbing til all of a sudden they pop off in an instant.”

Accomplished climbers

At a recent practice, the team had just begun to switch gears following the end of the fall bouldering season, a type of short-distance climbing that’s done without ropes and mats below. Five members — Sara Sternick, Julia Talbot, Liam Andrews-Bancroft, Innis Gallagher and Max Schweik — had just returned from the national bouldering competition at the Colorado Springs City Auditorium, where they had competed among nearly 400 of the top youth climbers in the country. They were scored on how many climbs they competed, and how many plastic holds they touched on the way up.

For the first time, Sternick, 17, of Florence, was named to the U.S. National team — meaning she was in the top five female climbers in her age range. Normally, just the top four qualify, but since the climber who scored above Sternick had been a winner in the biennial Pan-American Championship competition, a fifth member was invited, Sternick said.

Gallagher, 12, of Sunderland, was named to the national team twice before. This year, having entered a new age category, he placed seventh.

Central Rock Gym also has locations in Worcester, Watertown, and Glastonbury, Conn. So far, the Hadley gym is the only one with members who have made the national team, Surette said.

Shouts of support among team members are a regular part of practices, he said.

“I like that at times it’s very individual but it’s also very much a community endeavor,” he said. “It’s true at competitions as well: People are competitive and they want to win, but everybody’s friends at the end of the day.”

For the spring season, the team’s focus is on sport climbing, which involves climbing longer distances while harnessed. In those competitions, climbers can also be scored on speed.

During practice, many team members repeatedly push themselves to the point where they need to fall off. This helps them learn to deal with the fear, Surette explained. This tactic is sometimes called “lead falling,” or “fall therapy,” he said.

In recreational climbing, the individual is harnessed to a rope that is fastened to a hook at the top of the wall. In competitive sport climbing, it is up to the climber to carry the top of the rope on a clip and place it at different checkpoints, as would an outdoor climber scaling natural terrain, Surette explained.

He compared climbing to meditation in the way it forces a person to focus.

“It’s not a meditation where you’re sitting and tuning your senses out. It’s a physical meditation in that your senses are actually very heightened, becoming almost hyper aware, but not in a cognitive kind of way,” Surette said. “Your body is doing it, and you’re only reacting to the contours of the rock and the feel of the holds and making decisions based off the feedback your body is giving to your mind.”

He said it requires being able to make quick decisions while staying relaxed.

Catching on

For his day job, Surette, 36, of Amherst is trail planner for the New England National Scenic Trail, a 215-mile hiking path that runs through more than 40 communities in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He began climbing in college at age 19. In the world of competitive climbing, that is considered a late start, he said. Among the members of the team he coaches is his daughter, Jayde, 12, who took up the sport at age 9 and has competed in the national championships twice.

Surette noted that it is not a sport commonly found in high schools on the East Coast. It is more often found on the West Coast of the United States and in Europe, he said.

“It’s definitely perceived as a fringe sport, if a sport at all,” he said. But, he added, he’s noticing it gradually become more recognized.

The Central Rock Gym in Hadley opened in March 2011, and the youth climbing team started up that fall. Surette said the team had 20 members in its first year, many recruited though word-of-mouth and an open-house. He attributes its quick popularity to the Valley having an active outdoor community, as well as renowned outdoor rock climbing locations in the area such as Farley Ledges in Erving.

Many members of the Hadley team joined after starting to climb recreationally at the Northampton Athletic Club on King Street. For several members, climbing ran in their families.

Sternick said she first tried climbing on a chance visit to the Northampton Athletic Club with a friend in the ninth grade. Her father, Marc, had done some climbing in college, she said, so he was quick to support her new interest by taking her back to the club on weekends.

Surette said he is always looking for new team members. He can tell a good climber, he said, by a combination of natural strength, determination and a positive attitude.

When preparing climbers for national competition, he said, he looks for raw talent, focus, drive — and someone who doesn’t take competition too seriously.

“At the end of the day, I want people to say, ‘Wow, those are great climbers, and they’re great kids, too.’”