November 8, 2000


Challenge and teamwork drive a diverse group to climb

By James Morton Turner GS

Tucked away in a corner of the armory is the university's climbing wall. Hundreds of brightly colored climbing holds - some the size of a fist, others the size of a finger - stretch 35 feet into the air. On any given afternoon, Princeton's climbers ascend the wall with graceful moves, desperate grasps, and the occasional fall. But far more binds Princeton's climbing community together than the nylon ropes and metal carabiners they use to catch each other.

"We are a markedly eclectic group," says Eric McGlinchey, a graduate student in politics. On one Wednesday afternoon, McGlinchey is joined by a postdoc in string theory working the yellow route 22 feet up, a junior architecture major belaying from the floor, and a freshman stretching before beginning her ascent. What they share is an affinity for the vertical. "That to me is one of the great joys," says religion professor John Gager. "These differences don't seem to matter."

The wall itself is a testament to the climbing community's cooperative spirit. "It's been a huge community effort," says Rick Curtis '79, director of Outdoor Action, which manages the wall. In 1983 volunteers built the first climbing wall. Since then, the wall has been shaped by successive generations of Princeton climbers. The wall's earliest and slipperiest holds were made of metal machined in the E-quad and rock filched from a scrap pile in the geology department. On the wall's right side, a large overhanging ridge, or arête, has loomed like the prow of a ship since 1989. And new overhangs and bouldering walls went up in 1997 and in 1999.

Despite climbing's technicalities and the close-knit nature of the climbing group, Princeton's climbing community remains remarkably open to newcomers. "I rarely go to the wall to climb," says molecular biology graduate student Sue Schweinsberg. "I go to the wall to teach people to climb." For John Gager, learning to climb inverted Princeton's pedagogical hierarchy. During introductions in a fall precept, two undergraduates described themselves as rock climbers. The William H. Danforth professor of religion remembers asking urgently, "Will you take me sometime?" Gager became addicted immediately.

Waihong Tham, another molecular biology graduate student, has seen it happen before. "You go to the wall and you see someone new and you can watch them getting hooked. You get that hint." She smiles. "They keep hogging the rope."

This afternoon at the wall, comparative literature major Shannon Linzer '00 tries the arête's overhanging blue route. After one fall, a chorus of support pours forth from watching climbers. To the uninitiated, it is unintelligible. Slopers, dynos, crimps, and mantles only begin to capture the vocabulary. Tham remembers her first trip to the wall, wondering, "What are these people talking about?" Gager agrees: "Climbing has a language all its own."

For all their talk, climbers have trouble standing still. Mention a move, and a climber will begin describing it with his body. With Linzer headed up the arête, her supporters appear like marionettes below, calling out their support while mimicking her every move. After a layback and a dicey sloper Linzer tops out. Cheers from the crowd.

Starting from Princeton, current students and alumni have taken their skills around the world. Last February, Naomi Haverlick '01 and graduate student Rob Townley successfully summitted 22,834-foot Aconcagua, South America's highest peak. Bobby Starke '01 spent his summer climbing in Yosemite while researching his anthropology thesis - which was on calculated risk. And Eric McGlinchey recently returned from Kyrgyzstan's high Panirs, which he climbed while researching his dissertation on the political structures of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Princetonians have also participated in two benefit climbs on Mount McKinley. The 1993 Climb for the Cure helped raise $250,000 for American Foundation for Aids Research; five years later, a team of Princeton alumnae took part in the Breast Cancer Fund's Climb Against the Odds.

Despite this impressive international résumé, more than one Princeton climber will claim a covert ascent of some of Princeton's most visible buildings - so many made of hand-hewn stone - as his or her finest technical achievement. Rumor has it the biggest challenges, such as Nassau Hall, McCosh, and the Graduate College, were conquered by the early 1970s. Still, Schweinsberg says, "You walk somewhere with a climber and they are staring up at the buildings."

In these litigious days, Public Safety is hardly amused by climbers' attempted feats. Wilmot Kidd '01, a philosophy major, recalls the Spiderman incident, now a running joke among climbers. "I was hanging off the tiger's foot in Campbell Arch, and I saw the next hold," Kidd says. "Then Public Safety drove by. All I heard was, 'Hey, Spiderman, get down from there.' "

For most Princeton climbers, though, New York State's Shawangunks are geologic Mecca. The pilgrims gather weekend mornings at dawn outside the U-Store and carpool the 120 miles north to what they call the Gunks. There, in the Appalachians, the Shawangunk escarpment rides up over the underlying shale at a 22-degree angle, leaving two miles of 200-foot-high bare cliffs. Nowhere else east of the Mississippi is there such a range of climbs, from easy 5.1s to challenging 5.9s to nail-biting 5.13s. By 9:00 a.m., with the sun up, the Princeton climbers fan out in pairs for a day's climbing. On a warm day, they join hundreds of other climbers, all dangling like ornaments from the sedimentary cliffs. What the Princeton climbers realize, and most other climbers don't, is that earlier Princeton climbers pioneered the routes they now follow.

"The history of Gunks climbing," explains Gager, "can be written as a history of Princeton climbers." Princeton's first well-known climber was Jim McCarthy '55, who enjoyed a small measure of fame for establishing many Gunks 5.9s and 5.10s. While no other Princetonian climber can match McCarthy's 61 first ascents, later alumni have bested him on difficulty. In 1974, Steve Wunsch '69 awed the climbing world with the route Supercrack, which for 80 relentless feet follows a finger-wide crack straight up. At the time, it rated 5.13, making it the hardest climb in the world. A decade later, when Mark Robinson '75 began climbing, few easy climbs remained, so Robinson turned to charting out such ridiculously difficult routes that Gager says "no one else would have ever considered climbing." Princeton's last first ascents came in the early 1980s, when Mike Freeman, a technical draftsman in the engineering department, helped put up routes called Nectar Vector and Rings of Saturn.

For today's Princeton climbers, following these routes usually proves challenge enough. But in October 1999 a handful of Princetonians did chalk up one more first. Taking advantage of a full moon and a warm autumn evening, they made the first night ascent of a Gunks route called Gelsa.

For some climbers, a road trip to the Gunks can be an escape. "When you go to the Gunks and then come back to Princeton, it's like coming back to a foreign place," Kidd says. "You feel disconnected. Climbing is a subculture. Your allegiances change. The weekend life at Princeton can be so immersing -- the Street, the fraternities -- but when you go to the Gunks, it's all in an entirely different context."

Now the climbing subculture faces a new challenge. Princeton's storied climbing wall will soon be torn down to make way for campus construction. Outdoor Action and Princeton alumni are making efforts to raise funds for a new facility, but so far less than one-sixth of the estimated $150,000 cost has been raised.

Although the new wall will lack the accumulated history of the old, it will still express climbing's community spirit. The project is in memory of Joe Palmer '83, who died in a Yosemite climbing accident a year after graduating. After all, as Tham says, "Climbing is not about rock, it's not about ropes, and it's not about cams." No, as any Princeton climber will tell you, it's about people.


James Turner GS enjoys climbing when he is not pursuing his Ph.D. in American environmental history.

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