Up Against the Wall, America
Once the sport of loners, rock climbing is coming in from the cold and catching hold

The last two decades have given us dance aerobics, interval training and enough human-powered machinery to run an electric utility. But no matter how we kept the beat, the monotony could be numbing. The '90s has a gripping antidote: walls. The growing number of Americans who have forsaken floora firma for the challenge of indoor rock climbing are discovering that the nervy business of ascending or—yikes!—coming unglued from 20-to 60-foot sheer walls can be riveting. Perches ranging from slanting ramps and generous handholds ("buckets," in hardman lingo) to aspirin-size nubbins can be unbolted and rearranged on the sculptured fiberglass or plywood surface to refresh the challenge. Best of all, the arduous activity aerates the mind. "You narrow your focus to your hands and feet, and you forget everything else," says Michael Frederick, 36, a Seattle accountant who started climbing when a chronic hip problem curtailed his distance running.

Climbing taxes forearms and fingers especially but can lather the whole body. "After my first session," says Frederick, "I was sore for four days." Novices needn't worry: The gyms use a time-tested protection system in which the rock jock ties into a rope that runs through a loop at the top of the wall and back to the floor. A belayer takes up slack as his partner ascends. Reports J.D. Murphy, one year after installing a wall at his Health-works in Fort Collins, Colo.: "It's safer than racquetball."

Frederick works out at Seattle's Vertical Club, which today has 400 members ($225 a year for unlimited use)—30 percent of whom are women—after opening two years ago as the nation's first rock gym. Since then, climbing emporia have sprung up throughout the West and in New York City, Boston and Atlanta. Sporting Clubs of America is building a 10-story facility for Chicago executives (dues $100 a month, plus a $750 initiation fee). The Chicago cliff is being erected by Entre Prises USA, the Bend, Ore., arm of a major French wall maker. Some of the most artful surfaces and holds are those designed by Carp Mountaineering of Boulder, Colo., whose president, RAMSAY THOMAS (hanging on, above), is taking the aerobics movement full circle: He is choreographing a dance to be performed on the vertical.