Whitman follows through with climbing remodel

Tristan Gavin

While there may be value in the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the Climbing Center at Whitman College has thrived by adjusting to the growing needs of its student body.

During August, Whitman built a new addition to the wall, welcoming a more angled slab to the preexisting facilities to better accommodate beginning climbers.

Whitman Climbing Center’s new wall section adds a different slope, particularly useful for beginning climbers.  Photos by Halley McCormick.

The climbing culture at Whitman is stronger than ever. Three years ago, Whitman College opened a state-of-the-art climbing center that is among the nicest facilities of its type in the northwest.  Built by Entreprises Climbing Walls USA, the Center contains 5,600 square feet of climbable area, ranging from boulders to vertical walls over 30 feet tall. The Center has worked to make its walls available to Whitman students and the local community by offering a variety of classes and clinics. Climbing classes generally fill up quickly and have long waitlists of hopeful climbers, and Center employees constantly rearrange holds to avoid monotony for its regular climbers. The new center has become a staple of the campus’s outdoor culture.

So why change what was already the crown jewel of an outstanding Outdoor Program’s growth? The simple answer is that students asked for it. Prior to the remodel, all the bouldering and climbing areas had been vertical or beyond vertical, requiring a combination of strength and balance that often takes great practice to achieve.

“As an instructor, I appreciate how the new terrain offers beginning climbers an attainable challenge and affords them the success that makes people keep climbing,” said junior Kemper Brightman.

“In climbing, the angle of the wall has a significant impact on the difficulty,” Brightman said. The new slab offers a climbing area at a gentler angle, relative to the old wall. This caters to a better learning environment for classes, which is something students identified as an area for improvement as a general response to questions.

Although the wall is still nearly vertical, the slight angle makes balance easier, allowing even beginners to scale heights of over 30 feet. Says Climbing Center Manager Katie Lei, the new slab will “make it much more practical to teach skills like rappelling and multi-pitching at the wall.”

The slab is not just for beginners, however. The combination of an angled ascent and custom walls that mimic an actual rock face allow advanced climbers to get a realistic climbing experience that differs greatly from the experiences offered by the surrounding walls.

“I like [the new section] because it duplicates another surface found frequently at many outdoor climbing spots,” said senior Matt Raymond, an experienced climber and new employee at the Climbing Center. Regional features surrounding Walla Walla like Smith Rock and Vantage offer climbers the chance to practice their newfound skills on real rock.

The remodeling took nearly three years to finance, months to design and two weeks to construct. Construction began Aug. 1 and the newly renovated center is up and running. This semester alone, over 160 students will benefit directly from the new wall in classes offered by Whitman, while hundreds more will enjoy the section in clinics and open climbing hours.

From the continuous adjusting of routes to making fresh renovations, the Outdoor Program and climbing staff are constantly catering to the wants and needs of the student body to make the Climbing Center the most valuable resource possible.