Climbing to new heights
Story and photos by Kathy Eastwood
It’s a well-known fact that West Point cadets must be involved in at least one sport as part of their physical development program to emphasize a lifelong pursuit of fitness. They choose from a club sport, intramurals, varsity or competitive team sports.
Cadets who choose rock climbing are usually the adventurous type, who enjoy challenges or simply want to conquer fear.
“With rock climbing, we hope to give the cadets the ability to analyze and manage risks and make good decisions,” Dawes Strickler, Department of Physical Education instructor, said. “There is real danger. It makes sense that rock climbing is good training for officers in a world that is not flat.”
There are two ways cadets can experience rock climbing at West Point. One is the Competitive Climbing Team, which currently has a 20-cadet roster, and the Cadet Rock Climbing Club, which also has 20 members. The Class of ’79 Rock Wall at the Arvin Cadet Physical Development Center is open to the cadet club twice a week and the club is invited to ClimbFests, along with civilians and the West Point community.
“We usually climb outside when on a ClimbFest,” Maj. Julia Brenna, Department of Systems Engineering instructor and officer-in-charge of the team, said. “We climb the rocks south of South Dock by the railroad tracks.”
The cliffs they climb there have been dubbed the P.I. wall, due to the poison ivy that grows in the area.
“We also go out to the “gunks” or Shawangunk Mountain in New Paltz with the cadet club,” she said. “A club member can be a team member if they go through and pass the tryouts we have every fall.”
The gunks are mountains that Strickler knows well as a former guide there, but he has been an instructor at West Point for eight years.
“There are basically two segments of rock climbing,” Strickler said. “Safety is first and your gear is second so you can keep from falling. We teach the cadets safety, and they must become safety certified.”
The rock wall is made of moveable footholds and anchors where a climber belays (secures) his rope. Cadets can set their own routes and Strickler tries to change the wall once a year.
One cadet who is an experienced climber in “traditional” climbing, or climbing outside mountains, has a hard time getting used to the indoor rock wall.
“I started climbing in my senior year in high school,” Class of 2015 Cadet Leyla Baggson said. “I dated a guy who was a climber and he introduced me to the sport and I’ve been hooked ever since.”
Baggson prefers outdoor climbing and the exhilaration of being 200 feet up while seeing the landscape below. She can see how her sport can also be good leader training.
“It’s about trust, you must trust your partner,” she said. “Half the time you can’t see your climbing partner. Another thing you learn is how to conquer fear by making it into something else, like energy or exhilaration. That is definitely good training to be an officer.”
Strickler said the club is unique because cadets join to learn rock climbing but they also teach.
“Cadets often run the open sessions, supervise and teach their peers,” Strickler said. “No other club does that. We all work as a team and we teach the right way to climb. It is a good opportunity for training as future officers.”
Maj. Tom Hanlon, an instructor at the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, helps the team out as a mentor and also sees a crossover in rock climbing and leadership.
“Your life is on the line,” Hanlon said. “You must trust your partner, learn how to solve problems and make decisions. There is a constant process of risk evaluation, such as making decisions based on the equipment you have, not what you need.”
Hanlon said risk can come from everywhere, human error, the elements, equipment failure––there’s just so many things that can go wrong.
Class of 2014 Cadet Michael Eack has been climbing since he was a freshman.
“I like climbing because of the adventure,” Eack said. “Climbing is like combining a lot of different sports. You can have ice, long routes and bouldering, which is climbing 10 or 15 feet with no rope. It’s like gymnastics.”
Eack said climbing provides leadership training because of what it teaches about fear, risk mitigation and planning.
“There’s a planning process you need to think about when climbing; what equipment is needed and analyzing the climb so there’s a lot of parallels to becoming a leader,” he said.
Class of 2013 Cadet Mauri Dimeo threads his rope through the holds he bolted into the cliffs located south of South Dock Sept. 19. The cliffs are called P.I. for the poison ivy that once grew on them. The climbing team had a bit of a challenge as they climbed higher. Parts of the cliffs were still wet from a recent storm during this climb.
Class of 2016 Cadet Zhaina Myrzakhanova learns from Class of 2014 Cadet Daniel Spies about belaying, or securing a rope for safety in climbing, at the Rock Wall at the Arvin Cadet Physical Development Center Sept. 12. The climbing team also works with the Cadet Climbing Club on outdoor climbing outings. The Rock Wall is open to club members twice a week for practice. The climbing team has tryouts once a year to become a team member.
Directorate of Cadet Activities