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No Frills Fun: The Bouldering Wall

The new bouldering wall at Washington and Lee University is far from fancy, and it cost far less than the usual models. Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped enthusiastic students, faculty and staff at W&L from using the structure.

The wall has been in the works for six years, according to James Dick, director of student programming and outdoor education at W&L. The budget of the W&L Outing Club covered the $2,700 cost.

Bouldering is a form of rock climbing performed without the use of ropes and harnesses and usually less than 20 feet off the ground. Originally a method of indoor training to increase stamina and finger strength for roped climbs, it emerged as a sport in its own right.

“There are different types of climbing walls,” explained Dick. “One type would be the centerpiece of an indoor athletic or recreational facility, and they are beautiful to look at but also expensive and under-used. That’s because most college students don’t want people looking at them while they’re climbing and trying something new.”

In contrast, the bouldering wall at W&L is tucked away into two converted horse stalls in a corner of the Outing Club barn. If the wall continues to be a success, Dick hopes to expand it into a third stall.

“It’s the most basic wall around,” said Dick. “It isn’t pretty or architecturally beautiful, but it’s a tool, and that’s why we built it. This is the type of wall someone would build in their garage to train through the winter. You show up, put on your shoes, try some routes, interact with people and come back. It gets easier. You don’t need training to use the wall because it’s very user-friendly, but we do have students who can give tips and advice.”

The wall is known as a “woody” since it is made of two-by-four studs and high grade laminate plywood. Dick and kayak instructor Randall Stone created the framing over the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks and completed it early this year with the help of W&L students.

The plywood is coated with polyurethane, and the holds are plastic with a t-nut behind each one so they can be moved as many times as climbers want. Climbers follow routes marked by different colored tapes, and the routes can be changed to provide different challenges. Mats are provided in case of falls. The wall isn’t very high, however, and a climber can request a spotter.

“It’s awesome. All of us have been waiting for this to happen for a long time,” said Josh White, a sophomore business administration major. “I’m really into climbing, so this is definitely a major addition at this school. Everyone should come out regardless of whether or not they’ve climbed before, because that’s what we want this to be. We want to teach people how to climb and then hopefully, eventually, we can get a bigger wall, and more people can climb.”

Dick estimated that between 15 and 18 students and employees use the bouldering wall during open hours. “We have law school students, undergraduates and employees come during their lunchtime. It’s very popular,” he said.

Open hours are Friday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and during the lunch hour on Tuesday and Thursday. No entry fee is required, but climbers do need to be members of the Outing Club, which has a fee of $40 for four years.

The club offers a variety of outdoor activities and classes, including a rock-climbing class that Dick teaches each term. The bouldering wall allows him to teach climbing during the winter, when it’s too cold and wet to climb outside. Many of the students who use the bouldering wall have also taken Dick’s class and gone rock climbing in the area.

W&L students lead most of the activities at the Outing Club, which include backpacking, fly fishing, canoeing, kayaking, rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking, caving, skiing and outdoor cooking.