When Shea McGill started her sport more than a decade ago, she wasn’t the confident climber she is today. She was afraid and intimidated.
Some of that came from frequently being the only woman in a group of men. A common misconception about the sport is that it requires a tremendous amount of arm strength—not exactly what women are stereotyped as having. Also, climbing up a rock face with nothing but a harness or rope to secure you isn’t exactly our natural state.
McGill definitely conquered her fear.
She became so skilled that she coached the rock-climbing team at Climbnasium, a popular Mechanicsburg climbing gym, for eight years. She enthusiastically repeated the pep talk she frequently gave her athletes.
“Listen, how many rock climbers do you know? None. How many people do you know who ride their bike or play basketball?” she said. “It’s not a new sport, but it is just so hard. It’s hard for a 6-foot-tall male to succeed let alone a 5-foot-nothing girl who can’t do a pull up.”
While coaching and traveling to climbing spots across the country, McGill has seen the central Pennsylvania climbing community grow, welcoming experienced and novice climbers alike.
“It’s crazy because you wouldn’t think that central Pennsylvania would have such a strong climbing community,” McGill said. “But because it is so small and it is such a niche activity, it draws people who are really unique—young, old, the most interesting people I have ever met.”
For those who haven’t tried to make it up a wall or boulder, climbing may seem straightforward—you climb up the wall using the available mounts and holds around you.
That’s true in a way, but a big challenge of climbing is following the set course. Color-coded markers typically lead the way to the end of the path. It’s like the yellow brick road, just vertical. Unlike the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach we’re all familiar with, you may find yourself gripping a hold while ever so gracefully adjusting the position of your feet to make the next move doable.
Problem-solving and critical thinking are core to the sport. You may see climbers staring at the wall making mental notes and envisioning each move before they begin their journey. Or, you may spot a climber holding on to the wall as they calculate their position and how to move to the next hold. It’s this mental workout that is just as much a test of endurance as the physical exercise is.
“You’re not losing that much strength day-to-day but, depending on where you are mentally, you are going to perform completely different,” McGill said.
The mental challenge is what brings James Emery, a frequent climber at The Cave in New Cumberland, coming back for more.
“It’s a mix of athletic exercise and mental problem solving,” Emery said. “It’s a nice foundation.”
Evan Bates, owner of The Cave, opened the gym after experiencing climbing with his young nieces and nephews.
“My niece was very much here and there—a classic toddler,” Bates said with a smile. “Her climbing on the rocks really gave her perspective and the ability to get some of that energy out. It really helped with her coordination, which was important for her mom and dad. She became really confident in herself, and now that she has a wall at her school, she’s the superhero.”
Bates partially attributes some of the rise in the sport’s popularity to climbing’s grand reveal in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. In addition to adult athletes like Emery, The Cave welcomes many parents who identify climbing as a sport their kids can progress in. So, it’s just not a weekend hobby.
“People are really wanting to climb,” Bates said. “There’s even more of a customer base and more of a community.”
The Friendship Center opened a climbing wall in January 2018 after a survey found that Lower Paxton Township residents wanted to have a local option.
Rachelle Scott, director of the Friendship Center, sees the wall as another activity that families can do with their children. The wall at the Friendship Center is also the only one that is fully accessible. So, it is accommodating for all levels, as well as for adaptive climbing.
Devon Linville, rock climbing team lead there, has seen a variety of ages and backgrounds take to the wall.
“A lot of people never thought about rock climbing before as an accessible thing they can do,” Linville said. “Now they’ve come here and other places and have really gotten into it.”
Where to Climb
Central Pennsylvania has a growing number of locations for those interested in giving rock climbing a try. Here are the locations mentioned in this story.
The Cave Indoor Rock Climbing
400 Bridge St., New Cumberland
339 N. Locust Point, Mechanicsburg
The Friendship Center
5000 Commons Dr., Harrisburg (Lower Paxton Township)