Climb On!

By Lisa Katayama

I want to entertain an offhand theory that I've had ever since I became obsessed with indoor rock climbing two and a half years ago: It's great for geeks, and we should all be doing it.

The concept is simple: you tie into a rope that hangs from the top of a wall and climb that wall according to color-coded fake rocks that are bolted into it. Within this simplicity lie some great life lessons that you can experience all while having an amazingly fun time: conquer your fears, solve puzzles, stay fit.

1. Conquer your fears: A lot of people are scared of heights. Most of us are scared of falling. None of us want to die. When you climb, you have to push these fears out of your head. It takes focus to be 40 feet high and pulling up on two fingers or balancing on your toes while trying to get higher up the wall; you have to use that focus to breathe through the climb and push past your fears.

2. Solve puzzles: There's a huge problem solving factor to climbing; it's like a giant physical algorithm or brain teaser that you solve by knowing how to use your body as your mathematical tool. "Climbing is like solving a giant dynamic first-person 3D puzzle," says Tantek Çelik, author of HTML5 Now: A Step-by-Step Video Tutorial for Getting Started Today and a competitive climber himself. "Your body is a flexible puzzle piece and the wall is a puzzle. You have to figure out how to fit your body into the wall, how to twist, turn, stretch, grab, hang, push to climb up the wall hold by hold. It takes spatial reasoning, body self-awareness, balance, and fine motor-control."

When I was a kid, I played a lot of sports. I also played a lot of Tetris. The two were always separate. Climbing feels like playing Tetris with my body. In other words, it's like being inside a video game. Kind of.

Some of the most badass rock climbers in the world are total geeks at heart. Matt Wilder, the guy in the photos, is a professional sponsored rock climber and the author of the most up-to-date guide book on bouldering in Yosemite. He's also a speed cubing geek who is currently doing a double degree in computer science and applied math. When he was in his early 20s, Wilder spent two summers hanging out at San Francisco's Pier 39, next to the silver Statue of Liberty guy, speed-cubing for tips. On a good day, he made $25 an hour; he saved up the cash and spent the rest of the year climbing in Yosemite or Tahoe. "Cubing is a good mix of dexterity, problem solving, and rapid thinking. In that way, it's a lot like climbing."

Image: Jason Kehl

Science has yet to prove the relationship between climbing and Tetris or the Rubik's Cube, but Berkeley neuroscientist Jack Gallant says there's a chance they could be linked. "Both rock climbing and cube solving require some form of spatial reasoning, so it isn't out of the question that they share some common neural substrates in the brain. The extent to which these tasks use overlapping versus distinct processing mechanisms simply isn't known at this point."

3. Stay fit: Climbing is a lot less strenuous than running on a treadmill or doing bicep curls. You never lift more than your own weight, and since you're using all your muscles at once, your body becomes strong and evenly toned. Depending on the route, it can be a total balancing act, a cardio-heavy endurance challenge, or a series of pull ups. Yoga is a great complement to climbing; I try to do one or the other at least every other day to keep my core strong, my breathing steady, and my strength and balance intact.

The trend is clear: geeks are climbing. Every other person I meet at my gym is a software engineer. At SXSW and at other tech events across the country, conference-goers gather together for Geeks Love Climbing, a regular indoor rock climbing outing that Çelik helped found a couple of years ago. "A climbing problem pushes all other thoughts and feelings out of your head," he says. "This is very similar to a tough programming problem." Çelik would know — he is, after all, one of the guys who led the creation of IE5 for Mac.

You don't need to be a natural athlete to be a good climber. You do need to be persistent, obsessive, and determined to solve problems. If you like programming, Tetris, or Rubik's Cube, there's a good chance you'll become as much of a climbing junkie as I am.

Here's what you'll need to start indoor rock climbing

1. Climbing shoes: Try La Sportiva's Katanas or a pair of custom-designed Evolvs for comfort, style, and performance.

2. A harness: I use the Black Diamond Lotus harness, it has lots of gear loops and fits swimmingly.

3. A belay lesson. You'll need to know how to tie a couple of basic knots and learn some safety measures. A seasoned friend could teach you in half an hour, or you could take a class at your local gym.