By Ryan O’Connell
Arts & Features Editor
Alexandros Skretas smiled.
“Try everything,” he said to first-timers, before he latched onto a white stone and began a short, yet intimidating 45-degree-angle climb up “The Cave.”
On the wall, muscles tremble, arms shake, legs wobble, and grips fail. Veins pop, forearms feel full, and blisters start to form. Breath shivers, balance is lost - and people learn to fall.
Most Tuesday evenings at 6:30 p.m., members of Framingham State University’s Outing Club are in similar positions: nervously gripping the uneven concrete walls of the Central Rock Gym (CRG) in Framingham, tens of feet off the ground.
Skretas, the president of the Outing Club, is a junior biochemistry major. Although he has the composure and enthusiasm of a professional on the wall, he was only introduced to climbing his sophomore year after he joined the club.
Sophomore Susanna Krantz, who’s been climbing for a little more than a year, said she gets scared almost every time because she’s always thinking about getting hurt. “But that’s a part of it, I guess,” she said.
Inside, it’s tough not to be nervous. It’s not a big place - no more than 100 feet by 100 feet - but it feels restricted. The video guide climbers are required to watch says never to walk too close to a wall, and the padded mats have paths carved into them on one side of the room.
It feels like walking through a gorge. And it looks like one too.
The Outing Club gives students the opportunity to experience a range of physical activities, organizing weekly trips to the CRG for indoor rock climbing, alongside special events such as hikes, kayaking, and even archery.
Junior mathematics major Olivia Heafey, a member of the Outing Club, said they joined the club last year due to a friendship with the past president who they shared a class with. They added they had done a lot of rock climbing in high school.
“I first learned to belay and rock climb when I was in 10th grade at Medway High - they taught us that as part of our gym curriculum,” they said.
Belaying is the typical mode of rock climbing depicted in popular media, where a climber has a rope attached to a harness that keeps them suspended if they slip off the wall.
Heafey said they used an outdoor ropes course and an indoor climbing gym to learn rock climbing, and even took a field trip to a CRG in Worcester at the end of their sophomore year in high school.
“After I learned that stuff, I went on to become an IPEC [Interdisciplinary Physical Education Curriculum] leader, where we would teach the other 10th-graders how to do it,” they added.
When the Outing Club advertises “weekly rock climbing at Framingham CRG,” the expectation might be tall ceilings, tight helmets, cascades of colored lumps dotting the walls - and most importantly, ropes.
But most stereotypical elements of climbing aren’t present at the Framingham CRG - and it isn’t even that kind of rock-climbing gym, Heafey said.
“The place we go in Framingham is just a bouldering gym, so there actually is no belay at all, which means that the gym is smaller,” they said.
Heafey said the first time they did any rock climbing was at a “Medway Day” town event with a mobile rock wall. A mobile rock wall is a portable climbing device rented for outdoor events - even used at FSU’s Sandbox in Spring 2022.
They said their introduction to rock climbing at that event was doing it just for fun, but now they see climbing as an intense sport.
“When they bring [portable rock walls] to events, there’s typically just multicolored rocks. You just climb to get to the top and come back down,” they said.
“But with bouldering, or any Central Rock Gym, they have labels of difficulty and the color of the rock, and you’re supposed to stay on the path.”
The colored rocks dictate a journey and a difficulty level, ranging from VB, the easiest and most forgiving climb, to V9, the most challenging and strenuous.
Some of the most challenging courses require “dynos,” slang for dynamic movements, usually meaning a lunge or jump for a far-off grip or foothold, and extremely challenging for shorter climbers.
Skretas said he loves climbing because it brings people together. “There is always a back and forth,” he said, between club members and regulars of the gym regarding the optimal way to complete a wall.
He added he loves rock climbing because it is also a full-body workout requiring focus, strength, and strategy.
Skretas said his first time climbing was both scary and exhilarating, and he was at first nervous about falling. However, he said he quickly adapted to the challenge and pushed himself further than he initially thought possible.
“It felt empowering to conquer these goals,” he said.
Skretas said he’s done belaying and bouldering before, and bouldering requires more strength and dynamic movement. He added belaying is more about endurance, and he has a lot of fun with both styles.
“I vividly remember the first time I had to let go from an approximately 40-foot wall while I was wearing a harness,” he said. “I felt my stomach drop and I got the largest adrenaline rush as I let go of the wall and was only hanging by the rope.
“Over time, I had to learn to trust myself, my equipment, and my belayer. Now honestly, what once was the scariest part, is my favorite part!”
Skretas said the feeling of climbing has changed during his time with the Outing Club.
He said as he gained experience, he found himself encouraging new members to take risks and to trust in their ability, the same way members did for him in his sophomore year.
He added now that he climbs “more technical routes,” the experience is a combination of physical effort, mental focus, and adrenaline, which all work to keep him engaged during the climb.
Skretas said he personally does come to climbing sessions with goals. Although he said he recognizes this doesn’t work for everyone, each success contributes to his skill, eventually culminating in progressing to higher level climbs.
Rock climbing isn’t the only activity Skretas said he participates in, also playing hockey during the week, going to the gym, and organizing weekend hikes with the Outing Club.
“As the ancient Greeks would say, ‘Νοῦς ὑγιής ἐν σώματι ὑγιεῖ,’ which translates to ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body,’” he said.
He added staying active helps maintain not only his physical health, but also his mental and emotional wellbeing.
Skretas said rock climbing is an amazing way to exercise physical and mental abilities, and provides a unique form of exercise.
He added no prior experience is needed to rock climb, and CRG accommodates all skill ranges, from fresh climbers to experts.
Skretas said he thinks everyone should try rock climbing once, and encourages students to join the Outing Club to do so.
“All of our rock climbing … and Outing Club in general activities are fully funded by the University,” he said. “Take advantage of the various club programs that you help fund with your tuition.”
Susanna Krantz, a food and nutrition major, is the secretary of the Outing Club, and said she joined last January so she could have a reason to get off campus more often.
Krantz said she began rock climbing with the Outing Club, and enjoys it despite it not being her “best skill.
“I like it because it takes a lot of mental and physical strength, and it’s kind of like a game when you’re doing it,” she said. “And it’s fun to do with other people. I feel like it’s a really good stress reliever.”
Krantz said the first time she climbed was difficult for her. She said she did a lot of different climbs and ended up underestimating how hard it would be, but still completed most of what she started.
She added she thinks she was actually better at climbing when she started, and she’s lost some of her confidence over time.
“I don’t like the idea of getting up high and then having to jump down. … I guess I am a little bit afraid of heights,” she said. “So that might be why.”
She said she’s only seen Skretas get injured, and she has only hurt herself once - a minor knee injury from an incorrect landing.
Krantz said climbing is a mixture of “pain and fun,” since it requires a climber to hold their entire body weight. She added she doesn’t like to go into a climb with a goal, but really wants to do a pull-up one day, since the CRG has bars.
Krantz said she’s an active person, and has gone to lots of other Outing Club events - hikes and Level 99 being two examples. She said rock climbing is one of her favorites, and she tries to attend every week’s climb.
She said rock climbing is also a great team exercise.
“You can have people talk to you about where to put your hands and legs,” she said. “Although, I will say, if you have bad anxiety, it’s kind of hard whenever people are watching you.”
Heafey said they aren’t scared anymore when they’re climbing, but definitely remembers a time when they were.
“I’m not afraid of heights, but I am afraid of falling,” they said.
When they were in high school they only did belaying, and were afraid to start bouldering since climbers are required to jump off the 15-to-20 foot wall after finishing. “I’m a lot better now,” they said.
However, completing a difficult wall is always worth it, they said.
Heafey said they enjoy the Outing Club for the same reason they’d like any other club - the chance to connect with people.
“I’ve even connected with people who are not in the club who just go to the gym. I’ve just talked to them,” they said. “I’d watch them do something that maybe I was having trouble with, and be like, ‘How did you start that one?’”
Heafey added they like rock climbing gyms because it’s a workout without some of the judgment that exists at other gyms.
“I’m not as skilled [as other members] or something, but I’m still doing what’s difficult to me, I’m still getting challenged, and I’m still working out in a fun way,” they said.
To finish a wall, climbers are required to locate the colored rock labeled “Finish,” and must touch it with two hands - even if just for a second.
Climbers, complete strangers, sit aside each other, waiting for forearms to cool off. They give suggestions, words of encouragement, and watch with as much investment as the person on the wall.
They debate the methodology of how to succeed in a “crack climb,” nail walls they can’t quite, and direct from the ground level.
Reach up to the “Finish” rock. It doesn’t feel safe enough to try and grip it. Take the risk, tap it for only a moment, and go back to the security of the previous position.
When a climber is 15 feet up and focused in, everyone starts to sound like they’re part of the Outing Club. It’s a lot sweeter when it turns out to be a 40-year-old couple cheering.
“Full credit on that one!”