Student athletes get a grip on the climbing community


The walls slant at unconventional angles all the way up to the ceiling of the gym. Other walls were deceptively less grand but each wall was speckled with other strange rock-shaped protrusions in a mirage of different shapes, colors and sizes.

“When you walk in, it’s just huge,” sophomore climber Faith Zirkelbach-Ngai said. “You smell the sweat and the chalk, which is just lovely.”
Zirkelbach-Ngai climbs at the Berkeley Iron Works Gym on an intermediate team about twice a week in between other sports she participates in throughout the year. Junior Aviv Ratinsky can be found scaling walls at the Great Western Power Company climbing gym in Oakland most days of the week.

“Climbing is a great way to find your strength and just work on getting better,” Zirkelbach-Ngai said.

Ratinsky said one of the methods for building that strength is practicing on the challenge wall on the upper floor of the Great Western Power Company in Oakland. He said that this particular wall was often too difficult to complete, which explained the two layers of thick foam mats that lay beneath the short wall slanted at a 45 degree angle. The holds were more like finger grips than places for hands or feet.
“I’m not actually expecting to be able to reach the top on this one,” Ratinsky said.

His movements were swift as he reached for the tiny rocks. With a grunt, he swung his body upward and gripped onto the top ledge with his fingers before letting himself fall to the mats.
“Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever done that before,” Ratinsky said. “That was a first.”

The next few times he fell before making it to the top but he continued to throw himself at it until another climber took a try. He stretched his arms in between climbs and scoops of chalk.
“You use your whole body when you climb so you get pretty used to the wear and tear,” Ratinsky said.

Ratinsky said it is great to have a community of people who are also passionate about climbing and can converse using climbing lingo. Though climbing for Ratinsky is a community and team-oriented sport, there are also individual aspects to it, Ratinsky said.

“You’re only really competing against yourself,” Ratinsky said. “There’s no having to do better than other people, for me it’s just how good I can get.”
Zirkelbach-Ngai said that even though she is on the wall alone, her teammates are there to back her up.

“Everyone’s at their own level in climbing,” Ratinsky said. “No matter how good you are, the climbing community is motivating and supportive.”
Teammate and friend Jonah Kelsey has been climbing for twice as long but said that Ratinsky learned the ropes pretty quickly. Ratinsky currently spends anywhere from 15 to 17 hours in the gym each week, either with his team or on his own.

“My coach actually doesn’t recommend doing 15 hours a week but I do it anyway,” Ratinsky said.

Ratinsky said that people are discouraged to start climbing because they think that you need a certain skill level or that climbing is some obscure sport. He said that even he was unsure about climbing before his mom had encouraged him to check it out.

“But here we are, four years later,” he said. “The exhilaration of being on the wall just with your shoes and your fingers, it’s such a good feeling that you can’t get anywhere else.”