By Ingrid Howard
When Kathleen Lawrence’s daughter, Lindley, was having trouble dealing with anxiety at school, Kathleen pulled her out of Vestavia Hills High School to take some time off.
But when the mother-daughter duo visited High Point Climbing and Fitness on U.S. 280, they were welcomed by a community of people of all different ages who were supporting each other and enjoying an interesting sport.
Inspired by a similar program at High Point’s Chattanooga location, the Lawrences helped create an Interscholastic Climbing League in the Birmingham metro area, starting with Vestavia Hills. They had the help of Jessi Reddick, an employee at High Point who now coordinates the ICL in Birmingham.
“You might have a situation where you have people of multiple genders anywhere from age 12 to age 50, clustered around a bouldering route, talking about how to unlock specific sequences or do specific movements and cheering each other on,” Reddick said. “That’s not something you necessarily find in a more traditional gym.”
With just Vestavia Hills on board, though, Kathleen was faced with a problem: the athletes wouldn’t have any other climbers to compete against. Then she met Liz Shults, who teaches at Oak Mountain High, during one of High Point’s Ladies’ Nights.
Shults climbed in high school and a little in college, but as she grew older, she didn’t have time to keep it up. But when she found out that High Point was trying to start an interscholastic climbing league, she was on board.
“It’s really versatile for a lot of different types of kids,” she said. “It’s a great athletic event for people who are already athletic and people who aren’t athletic at all. You don’t need a preset skill base. It doesn’t come with a jock vibe that maybe other sports do.”
Shults became the coach for climbers at Oak Mountain. She had only been teaching at Oak Mountain for a short time, though; she previously taught at Briarwood Christian. So after she started a league at Oak Mountain, she sent Brian White at Briarwood an email. Now, he coaches a team of climbers there.
“It’s fun because you get to spend time with so many friends doing something you love,” said Halle Beasley, one of Briarwood’s climbers. “It’s continually encouraging each other while you push yourself to do new grades. It’s really cool.”
To form a league at a school, a sponsor – typically a teacher at the school – gets a team together. As long as the team is active, the sponsor has a free membership at High Point.
High Point has regularly scheduled instruction with the teams, teaching classes such as rope skills or movement and technique. The schools are then free to schedule practices however they want.
“I’ve seen a variety,” Ruddick said. “Like the whole team is here one time a week or different pockets of groups of kids are coming in whenever it fits their schedule. And that’s nice because it’s also a student who does other sports, or maybe academics are super-overwhelming for them. It’s easy for them to come in and find time and enjoy themselves.”
Then there are competitions. At High Point, the walls have different colored rocks, each color representing a different level of difficulty. The climbers pick their color, stick to the route, then receive points based on how difficult the color was. The climb isn’t timed, but it must be completed without the climber hanging on the rope or taking a fall.
“The harder you get on the climbing grading system, the more it’s a mental puzzle as well as a physical exercise,” Ruddick said. “That’s what keeps it fun.”
Each school currently has about 10 to 20 climbers in each team, and other Over the Mountain cities are trying to get teams together.
Benefits Not Just Physical
Kathleen said the kids “aren’t your typical cookie-cutter kids.” Sometimes she will see a traditional jock struggle to get up the wall, and sometimes she sees a scrawny kid scaling routes that no one else can master.
Just as her daughter Lindley, now back at Vestavia High, was able to let go of her struggles when she went to High Point, Kathleen said she hopes other kids can feel the same way.
“From (Lindley’s) struggles with anxiety and stuff and not fitting in at school, we’ve tried to use this to help other kids,” she said.
In the future, Kathleen said, she’d like to get more teams involved, and she said she would like more opportunities for the different teams to climb or hang out together.
“It’s a great environment, and it’s a lifelong sport that you can do on to adulthood,” Kathleen said. “And it’s a community sport – you learn as much next to the person climbing next to you as you do from a class.