Climbing Near the Nation's Capital: Where to Go to Get Started

Each of the main climbing walls at Sportrock have several routes, marked by colored holds. Photo:
Each of the main climbing walls at Sportrock have several routes, marked by colored holds. Photo: Sportrock
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Walking through the front door, visitors are greeted by youthful staff members standing in a circular pod. Behind them are several walls of varying heights, speckled with colored shapes. Ropes dangle from what seems like the ceiling.

To the right are shorter walls with angles so severe it seems nearly impossible to get up them without falling on one's back.

People of all different builds, working in pairs, and wearing harnesses, are scattered throughout the cavernous room, some speaking in what sounds like some sort of secret code and others staying silent while working in tandem.

The setting, if you haven't figured it out by now, is an indoor rock climbing gym in Sterling, VA, tucked away in the back of a business park.

Sportrock Climbing Center first opened for business in 1994, in Alexandria, VA. Seven years later in 2001, the Sterling location was opened.

The gym welcomes people of all ages and skill levels, and offers several classes and private lessons for greenhorns and experienced climbers alike.

"We pride ourselves on being able to offer something for everyone, so we see children as young as 6 to adults in their 60s," said Andrew Kozak, the director of Sportrock's Sterling gym.

One class Kozak recommends for beginners is the Basic Skills class, which is offered every day of the week at both of the Sportrock locations. (Author's note: My wife and I signed up for the two-hour class without any climbing experience at all, and came away—nearly three hours later—wanting to come back and do some more climbing!)

Some of the walls at Sportrock are 43 feet high. Photo:
Some of the walls at Sportrock are 43 feet high. Photo: Sportrock

Class begins with an overview of gear used in the class—a harness, locking carabiners, and a belay device.

If you're new to climbing, terms like "belay" and "belay device" are probably foreign. After the Basic Skills instructor demonstrates how to properly feed a rope into the funny-looking piece of metal (aka a belay device), he also shows how the belay device works. By holding the lower end of the rope below the device, the end of the rope attached to the climber on the wall does not move. Raising the bottom end of the rope allows it to flow freely through the device.

The Basic Skills class also includes essential climbing knots—the figure-eight knot and the double overhand knot, the latter of which is a fail-safe—proper commands and pre-climbing safety checks.

It's important to stress that climbing carries a set of dangers, so understanding all aspects of it—the gear, the vocal commands, the technique—is essential. The Basic Skills class does a fantastic job of introducing new climbers to the basics before giving them the opportunity to get in some climbing. Once students have a basic understanding of all the gear, climbing starts on a wall that measures 17 feet high—kind of like a "bunny hill."

First climbs happen in a controlled manner with a climber, their partner on belay and an instructor holding the very end of the rope, spotting the belayer, in case something goes wrong.

The 10,000-square-foot facility includes a massive, 43-foot climbing walls in the main part of the gym, filled with colored holds to indicate routes. They also offer more than two dozen types of classes and programs.

Turns out, the rock climbing scene in the Washington DC area is growing and has been for years.

"While it used to appeal to just hardcore climbers training to get outdoors, indoor climbing has become a sport of its own and appeals to everyone because it’s fun, social, engages your mind, and is that great source of exercise that everyone is looking for," Kozak says.

The "American Ninja Warrior" television show has brought attention to climbers as well, and Kozak thinks that's one reason why the sport has become more popular.

When it comes to outdoor climbing, that's another thing altogether—but the basic premise is the same, as is much of the equipment, commands, and techniques.

And if you're in the DC area, there's no better place to test your outdoor climbing skills than Great Falls Park in Virginia (which also has great hiking and paddling opportunities) and its cousin across the Potomac River, Carderock in Maryland.

Climbing in Great Falls Park offers stunning views of the Potomac River. Photo: <a href="" target="_blank">National Park Service</a>
Climbing in Great Falls Park offers stunning views of the Potomac River. Photo: <a href="" target="_blank">National Park Service</a> National Park Service

Both offer stunning views of the river below, whose waters turn into rapids as they pass through Great Falls. And just like an indoor climbing gym, there are several routes that can suit climbers of all abilities. Sportrock often holds outdoor climbing classes at these locations.

The climbs on the Virginia side range between 25 and 75 feet, while the Maryland side has climbs between 25 and 60 feet.

"With easy hikes to the crags and beautiful views, it’s easy to see why they’re so popular," Kozak says. "Both are great for beginners and seasoned climbers alike."

Rock climbing was once comprised of a small group of thrill-seekers hungry for a challenge that carried a bit of danger. Indoor climbing gyms, however, have changed that. Young kids now test their strength and confidence while top-lining after school. Older folks who want to become more active now like to scramble up walls.

Indoor climbing also serves as a great date night for couples. Skip the dinner-and-a-movie routine and instead chow down on some energy bars while you take turns climbing and belaying. It will certainly build trust between you and your partner while you're having fun.

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