Ain’t no mountain high enough

Bailey Arango

Photo Credit : Fennell

While every day spent at the climbing wall is an exciting one, the last Saturday in April holds a special place in the hearts of Whitman College outdoor enthusiasts; last Saturday, April 24, Whitman College hosted its 18th  Annual Sweet Onion Crank, a celebration of rock climbing and outdoor culture rendered all the more special by the Crank debut of Sherwood Athletic Center’s new indoor climbing wall, which opened to students this fall.

The 40-foot tall, 100-foot wide indoor wall saw over 75 entrants participate in a day full of workshops, tutorials, free-climbs, raffles and bouldering competitions. The festivities kicked off Friday, April 23, with a special screening of “CORE”, a newly-released film about climbing, and culminated in an award ceremony crowning not only the winners of Saturday’s climbing competitions, but also the winners of the Climbing Center Film Contest.

One of the most remarkable facets of the Sweet Onion Crank is that it is and always has been a primarily student organized event. This year’s Sweet Onion Crank is largely the brainchild of sophomore Maggie Massey. Massey says the addition of the new climbing wall and the publicity it’s received enabled her to shake things up this year.

“I changed it a little this year because I wanted it to be more welcoming and not intimidate people, since its the first year at the new wall, so we had clinics in the morning to help people learn different skills,” Massey said.

Outdoor Program director Brien Sheedy, who took his current post in 2001 and was instrumental in the construction of Whitman’s new climbing wall, reiterated Massey’s emphasis on inclusiveness.

“We’re really trying to dispel the myth that the Sweet Onion Crank is a competition,” Sheedy said. “The bouldering competition is just a small part of it. The Sweet Onion Crank is a festival, with tons of opportunities for climbers of all experience levels.”

While Sheedy is impressed with the number of Whitman students who have used the climbing wall this year, he hopes to see even more students climbing in the weeks to come.

“By my last count, we’ve had about 40 percent of the Whitman student body climb this year. I’d love to see that number hit 50 percent by the end of the year.”

Sheedy also hopes that the Sweet Onion Crank and events like it can dispel misconceptions regarding the difficulty of climbing certification or the expense of equipment rental.

“People think getting certified to climb is some long process: after a quick run-through of how the wall works and a brief training video, we can have you ready to climb in 10 minutes. The only expense is three dollars for renting climbing shoes, and if you’re really strapped for cash, you can go bouldering in your street shoes.”

While there was a palpable air of excitement around the throngs of Whitman students both participating in and watching the Crank festivities, the Walla Walla community, an annual fixture at the event, was conspicuously absent, a fact Massey hopes to see remedied in the years to come.

“It was all Whitman students this year because of liability. In the past it’s always been open to the public and other colleges and universities and people in the community, but this year it was just for Whitman students,” Massey said. “The college is going to reassess the liability stuff with the wall, so maybe this summer, maybe next fall it will be open to the public, and then things will go back to normal.”

Massey’s love of climbing began just before her freshman year at Whitman, but she sees climbing’s popularity among Whitman students as being the result of more than just a shared fondness for the outdoors.

“It’s a very intellectual process, because you can’t rely simply on your strength to get up, you have to think about where you’re going to move at the moment, and then where you’re going to move five or 10 feet ahead,” Massey said. “Whitman has a lot of outdoorsy people, so on that level it appeals to them, but it’s an interesting balance between being an individual process and a group process. You have your partner who’s belaying you and you need to have a good relationship with them, but at the same time you’re also up climbing and figuring the wall out for yourself.”

Although the Sweet Onion Crank is over, both Massey and Sheedy hope student enthusiasm for rock climbing will continue to grow as the academic year winds down.

“We have 55 new routes worked out,” Sheedy said. “Now is as good a time as ever to start climbing.”