Students dig new climbing wall at University of Alaska Fairbanks

Campus now boasts a $160,000 structure that rivals real thing

Posted: Sunday, October 21, 2007

FAIRBANKS - Making his way up a 30-foot-long vertical crack in the new rock climbing wall in the University of Alaska Fairbanks Student Recreation Center on Wednesday morning, Tim Ciosek was at about the 20-foot mark when he stopped.

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"These are kind of slippery jams here," Ciosek said, talking over his shoulder to Stan Justice, who was on the ground belaying Ciosek with a rope as he made his way up the wall.

"Yeah," Justice replied with a grin, "that's about where everybody slows down."

Gripping one side of the crack with both hands, a determined Ciosek tried to hoist himself farther up the crack but lost his grip and fell off the wall, dropping only a foot or two before Justice locked his belay device to stop his fall.

"Wow, that definitely is a sting in the tail there," said Ciosek, looking at the crack as he swung back and forth like a pendulum 20 feet in the air.

Ciosek, 32, tried to attack the crack from the opposite direction but met with the same result.

"That jam is so slippery I don't want to torque on it," Ciosek said, as he signaled Justice to lower him down. "People with little hands are going to love this top part.

The crack is just one of many features of the new $160,000 rock climbing wall built at UAF this summer. There is also a roof, an overhang and two chimneys, not to mention multiple aretes - small, knife-like protrusions - that make rock climbing at the student rec center now seem more like the real thing.

Gone is the vertical slab of concrete that was disguised as a climbing wall and in its place is a first-class facility that even accomplished climbers like Ciosek will find challenging.

"I'm not really a gym climber, but seeing this I'm excited about climbing in the gym a little bit and staying fit," said Ciosek, who has been climbing for 14 years and recently moved to Fairbanks from Sitka to attend UAF. "There are tons of features here that you can relate to real rock climbing. I'm impressed."

Designed and built by Entre Prises Climbing Walls from Bend, Ore., the new wall was unveiled earlier this month with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Justice and other instructors with the Alaska Alpine Club began certifying climbers on the wall Monday.

Joe Nichols, one of the instructors , said the difference between the old wall and the new one is "night and day."

"It's a huge improvement," Nichols, 28, said.

"It's a lot more three-dimensional. It's a lot more like outside climbing with all these features - a corner, two chimneys, an overhang, a roof.

"I love that there's a crack up the whole wall, too," he said.

In addition to the three-dimensional features, the wall features a more rock-like texture than the old concrete wall.

"It's pretty abrasive, just like sandpaper," Justice said of the new surface. "If you slip on it, you bleed."

The new wall is also equipped with metal clip-ins to allow climbers to lead climb after completing a lead climbing orientation course, though all lead climbing will be supervised, said UAF athletic director Forrest Karr.

"That should be neat," said Karr, a climber himself. "We haven't really had a wall that's good for that."

The climbing wall is one of the most popular venues at the recreation center, for both students and local climbers, Karr said.

"It's the only facility of its kind in town, where you can rope up and belay somebody and go up some distance," he said.

The wall was built to accommodate advanced or beginning climbers, Karr said.

In addition to the crack Ciosek was climbing, the wall features two chimneys, which are small vertical spaces similar to a chimney that climbers can wedge themselves into and climb up by using their backs as leverage, like climbing out of a chimney, as well as a roof, a flat overhang that climbers must climb from underneath.

A committee of local climbers helped make recommendations on the wall, which is a combination of fiberglass and plywood panels with hand and foot holds of all shapes and sizes bolted to them. Climbers can put up or move hand and foot holds to create new routes.

"This is as close to a rock wall you could hope for in Fairbanks in the winter," said Tav Ammu after receiving his certification card on Wednesday.

Ammu, a 22-year-old English major, was certified on the old wall but hadn't climbed in the past two years because he's been on exchange.

"A couple of my rock climbing buddies from my freshman year and me were going to start coming down on Tuesdays and Thursdays to climb but it was under construction and we wondered what was going on," he said. "When we saw it, it was like, 'Wow."'

Though he didn't get a chance to climb much on Wednesday, Ammu was excited about the new challenges the wall offered compared to the old, vertical concrete walls.

"It's a lot different if you've got something sticking in your gut or you have to reach over the edge of something," he said, referring to the three-dimensional terrain features.

Mike Ruckhaus, senior project manager at UAF's facility services department who oversaw construction of the wall, called it "a first-class climbing wall."

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