It’s a busy Saturday at Dick’s Sporting Goods. Families with young kids pick out camping gear. New couples adjust the straps on each other’s hiking backpacks. A son wiggles his feet into Adidas slip-ons and grins at his dad. A few feet away, a young girl eyes the climbing wall.
A daunting grey surface covered with colorful pegs, the wall presents a challenge to the 8-year-old. She gets strapped up with the help of a store employee, her younger brother standing watch by her side. And up she goes. Hand to blue, adjust foot, pause, another blue. Pause. Reach. Pause. Adjust, reach. Sigh. Descend. But Kerry Scott isn’t done. She climbs it again, and again and again, until she reaches the top. And then she climbs it some more.
The next weekend, while her parents wander the store, Scott climbs the wall once more. She does this often.
You know, there are whole places made just for climbing walls, and they’re way bigger in there — the store employee says something like that; Scott doesn’t quite remember. After all, this was 11 years ago. It’s been 11 years since rock climbing began changing Scott’s world. Now it’s Scott’s turn to change a little part of the rock climbing world, and she’s starting with Chapel Hill.
Now 19 years old and a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill, Scott is an accomplished climber with a handful of regional medals, two national medals and several trips to international climbing competitions. Scott started competing just one year after discovering the rock climbing wall at the Dick’s Sporting Goods in her hometown of Rockville, Maryland. After hours of after-school practice and weekend competitions in high school, Scott is now one of the most talented climbers at UNC-CH, according to many other UNC-CH rock climbers.
“(Scott) is in the charge of the club and probably the most experienced,” Karl VonZabern, a fellow sophomore in the rock climbing club. “Honestly, she’s a badass climber.”
But Scott’s feats have surpassed purely physical milestones. As president of the UNC rock climbing club — once an informal group of hobbyists — Scott, along with a few other key members of the community, has pushed to grow the sport’s popularity on campus, with increasing success. Because of their efforts, the club is now poised for official recognition by the University.
“It’s really exciting,” Scott said with a smile, her eyebrows raised. “I love all our newbies on the club! And I think the more recognition we get, the more new people might be willing to try climbing.”
Since arriving at UNC-CH, Scott has put in hours of work preparing documents and presentations in the hopes of attaining club sport recognition. Now with 60 total members — about half of which are regularly involved with the group — the rock climbing club is on its way to getting that recognition. The rock climbing club will be in a “conditional” phase during the next academic year, meaning that if it continues to meet, train, learn, compete and grow according to certain standards, it will officially become a club sport the following year. For the climbing club, this means acknowledgement and acceptance from the University, plus funding and additional resources.
“It’s addicting. When new people come in and start climbing, the most common word I’ll hear them say to describe it is ‘addicting,’ because it really is!” Scott said. “It’s a mental challenge but also a workout, like a rush, but for your brain and your body.”
This rush is characteristic of the sport. But the perception of rock climbing as an activity for thrill-seekers isn’t entirely accurate, said Russell Hobart, the director of climbing programs at UNC Campus Recreation.
“It’s thought of, often, as risky or dangerous, but in reality, most climbing isn’t like that,” he said. Climbing, Hobart explained, is actually a relatively safe sport. There are numerous safety measures in place, whether at rock climbing walls or in the equipment and techniques climbers employ outdoors. Hobart manages the UNC-CH programs that help train climbers at various levels so they can improve and expand their skills safely.
Hobart worked in journalism abroad before transitioning into a full-time climbing instructor. He went back to school for experiential education in Minnesota, then taught at Miami University in Ohio. Now in Chapel Hill, he facilitates classes on top roping, belay certification, lead climbing and rappelling.
Between the two climbing walls in Fetzer Gym and Rams Head Recreation Center, a number of trainings and activities exist. But he also plans to expand offerings to include more outdoor technique classes.
“We’re lucky that we have two walls here that are accessible to different levels of climbers,” Hobart said, adding that the wall at Fetzer is well suited for climbers who want to improve their skills, and Rams Head is better set up for lessons.
“I do want to expand our programming because North Carolina has such fantastic climbing locations, from the 1,200-foot crag Laurel Knob to … Pilot Mountain and Moore’s Wall.”
UNC-CH’s climbing programs have expanded in recent years, but the campus walls have a long history of serving students. In 2000, then-student Ron Funderburke spent his year studying abroad in Montpellier, France. His international exchange student roommates were big climbers, and Funderburke caught the bug quickly. Upon his return to Chapel Hill, he picked up a job working at the campus climbing wall, where he could keep up his hobby easily. Now the education manager at the American Alpine Club, Funderburke traces his climbing journey back to these years.
“It was somewhat fortuitous that I took that trip to France as a part of that program,” Funderburke said. “When I came back, I was an avid climber, and my whole life has steered towards that sport since.”
Funderburke also mentioned the many places in and around North Carolina that allowed him to keep up his hobby of climbing and eventually make it a full-time job. While enrolled as a student, Funderburke often took weekend trips with the friends he’d made at the wall.
“We’d all cram into somebody’s Volvo — somebody who I’d just met at the climbing wall,” he said. “You’d get in there any night and ask where people were going climbing, and they’d make a plan, and we’d go.” Though Funderburke points to France as the place where he was first turned on to climbing, he feels a special tie to UNC-CH because of the climbing opportunities it presented him with.
“I felt a real connection to the cliff and the sport and then to the people,” he said. “I felt like I had found my tribe.”
Scott, who also mentioned feeling a “real connection” to the sport, is similarly enamored with the tribe. When she speaks about climbing, Scott, the math major with a generally matter-of-fact and straightforward demeanor, changes a little. Her eyes widen ever so slightly. Her words sound quicker and more excited. Scott goes off on tangents about the beauty of the crags she’s climbed, the sparkling sunlight she sees at the top, the job she worked to fund her three-month-long climbing trip, the confidence she’s gained from the sport. She confessed that she could “go on for hours” about climbing.
“I was doing math homework the other day, and I got thinking about how similar it is to practicing climbing,” Scott said. “Because, like for a math test, you don’t know the questions but you still do practice questions, right? In a climbing competition, you don’t know what the routes will be beforehand, but you practice; you kind of train and build up a toolbox so you can apply that knowledge to the real thing.”
“So climbing is so similar to real life. Plus I get the same nervous pit in my stomach at competitions and math tests, so…” She laughs endearingly, the way one does when talking about a loved one.
But climbing isn’t all just math and mental challenges. It’s physical, and Scott’s gotten strong over the years.
“It’s cool because climbing is one sport where there are less age and gender barriers, because it’s about your strength-to-weight ratio, and even then, being strong isn’t enough to be a really good climber,” she said. Growing up in the climbing gym, Scott recalls older male climbers sometimes scoffing at her abilities in disbelief that a “little girl” could climb so well. But she isn’t fazed.
“Arguably the best climber in the world right now is a 14-year-old girl, so it’s something that women can and should definitely conquer,” Scott said, noting that among the regular climbers at UNC-CH, about half are women. Hobart also observed this, adding that the ratio was much more balanced than a basketball court where mostly men play, or in a group fitness class, which mostly women attend.
Part of what Kerry hopes the club does and will continue to do is grow and attract not only more young women, but also anyone who’s ever been even slightly interested in the sport. “A lot of people see it is as intimidating, but trust me when I say that this community is one of the most accepting I’ve ever been a part of,” Scott said.
“It’s so, so rewarding — I’ll say that and a girl who just started climbing six months ago will too. And I really think people should experience it for themselves.”