On the Up and Up

If dangling three stories above the ground secured by only a thin nylon rope doesn’t sound like a typical gym experience, you might not be thinking big—or high—enough. Enter the world of indoor rock climbing, a total-body workout that challenges and improves strength, balance and flexibility. Once climbers get past acrophobia that is.

Long Island residents looking to climb shouldn’t be deterred by the Island’s lack of actual mountains—rock climbing gyms like Long Island’s Island Rock bring the peaks indoors with a series of man-made climbing structures. Island Rock boasts 9,000 square feet of state-of-the-art climbing designed by world-renowned climber Christian Griffith, famous for redefining the technique. At its highest point, the walls scale 30 feet, and there are over 100 different routes climbers can choose to take from the floor to the ceiling. There’s even a sauna for soothing sore muscles after a climb.

All lessons are offered on a first-come-first-serve basis, but the staff does its best to minimize wait times for all climbers. Michael Simonetti, one of Island Rock’s climbing instructors and route setters, has been climbing for over four years on outdoor courses everywhere from Colorado to Canada. He said climbing is one of the most effective workouts he has ever experienced. “Instead of a normal gym where you’re lifting weights, which can get redundant, [climbers] experience a workout with an adrenaline spike that helps push them beyond their mental and physical limits.”

And while the workout is intense, beginners shouldn’t despair—Island Rock has hosted climbers from less than 2 years old to 96 years old. “Most of our customers don’t know anything about rock climbing when they come in, so we start them from scratch,” Simonetti said. Scheduled classes start by teaching new students the three necessary knots for climbing: The figure eight, the figure eight retrace and the fisherman’s knot. All students master these knots before the class is finished. Next, the instructor teaches belaying, a climbing sport that typically requires two people. The climber has a rope tied to his harness that is strung through a clip and then run down to a partner on the ground.

The person on the ground, the belayer, is responsible for ensuring the climber’s safety by tightening and loosening the rope as the partner ascends the wall. By the end of the class, each climber is belay certified and can climb without the assistance of an instructor during any subsequent visits to the gym. “All of the skills we teach can be taken to real rocks outdoors, but we recommend hiring an experienced guide the first few times you do that,” Simonetti said.

Even acrophobics don’t have to fear strapping in—the pros at Island Rock said there’s no better way to overcome a fear of heights than facing it in the gym’s controlled environment. The experience also helps participants to focus on the goal above and not on the distance below.

For the fearless looking for more of a challenge, bouldering, or climbing without the use of ropes and under 20 feet, is also an option. Sound scary? That’s because it is. “Climbing is a dangerous sport, but we teach safety and techniques to minimize the risk of injury,” Simonetti said. That includes a vast assortment of crash pads, spotters and instructors members can hire to assist them. “There are risks, but overall the experience is extremely rewarding,” Simonetti said. “I’ve done snowboarding, surfing and other extreme sports, but no other sport challenges me this way.”

The nature of climbing indeed lends itself to other adventure-based activities. “We get a lot of people who are marathoners, snow boarders, skaters and more who come here looking for adventure,” Simonetti said. “It’s a communal hub for like-minded people.” Many of those people tend to link up, organizing outdoor climbing excursions in upstate New York.

Beginners might also benefit from a more low-key experience, like the one available at the YMCA in Patchogue. The facility features a 25-foot indoor climbing wall with pre-attached rappelling cords. The set-up is perfect for those looking to get a taste of the heights.

Most importantly, potential climbers shouldn’t look at climbing as an easy workout. “We get a lot of people who come in to climb after going to the gym, and they burn out too early,” Simonetti said. “Climbing is more physically demanding than people expect.” Fresh muscles and a positive attitude are crucial for getting through a full climb where every part of the body is going to be pushed to its limit.

Climbers looking to tackle the wall should come dressed in traditional gym attire. All clothing should be comfortable enough not to restrict movement, but fitted enough not to get in the way while climbing. Harnesses are provided and climbing shoes are rentable, but there is also a shop to purchase professional gear.

Want more of a challenge? Climb these NYC-based “mountains.”

The Sports Center
at Chelsea Piers

Pier 60, 23rd St
@ the Hudson River
(212) 336-6000

The Climbing Gym
The Manhattan Plaza
Health Club
(212) 563-7001

Brooklyn Boulders
575 Degraw Street,
(347) 834-9066

justine lorelle lomonaco

Born in California and raised in the Midwest, Justine Lorelle LoMonaco spent the last four years indulging her East Coast side on Long Island and in NYC. She has contributed to a variety of lifestyle magazines and websites and maintains a blog, StopMeIfYouveHeardThisOne.com. In her spare time, she loves reading, running and eating in her Astoria neighborhood.