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Like a Rock

[whitespace] climbing

The latest trend in team-building is climbing a giant, portable mountain

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

LAID OUT FLAT on its custom trailer, the mobile climbing wall does not look like a wall at all. It's more like a sculpture of a grotesquely rippling, boulder-strewn beach, complete with multicolored seashells. But then Wendy Silva turns on the hydraulic lift and the wall slowly raises up like some big gray prehistoric beast coming out of the parking lot pavement, higher and higher, finally locking into place with a soft thud, looming above us at its full 20-foot height. A group of onlookers gathers, asking questions.

I crane my neck back and squint up the steep face of the artificial rock. The word "no" comes immediately to mind. But in a minute Lance McCardle and Silva have fitted me into a harness and hooked me to a thick belaying rope, and I am about to make my first climb. Ever. "All right!" McCardle shouts when he finds out I'm a rookie.

The trip up the uneven face of Climb On!'s portable rock is not what I expect. I thought there would be both a sense of fear and a sense of height, but I didn't have time to experience either. Instead, it is more like solving a strenuous mathematics puzzle. The wall is pockmarked with an uneven pathway of those seashell-looking things, which have turned out to be handholds and footholds with the look and feel of bright shells, and it takes all of my attention to concentrate on the next step up.

"One thing you've got to be careful about-- you should maintain contact with the wall at all times with at least three appendages," McCardle tells me from the pavement below. "Otherwise, you might swing out and lose your balance."

He needn't have worried. I am looking for a fifth and sixth appendage to hold on with, if possible, and I am awfully glad that the leanly muscular McCardle is steadying me with a belaying rope. In a moment, after I have clambered to the top and rung the little bell up there that signals victory, he lets me back down.

By the time I hit the ground, Wendy Silva is there like champagne bubbling over. "Wasn't that a rush?!" she asks.

I have to sit down on the edge of the trailer to steady myself. My thighs are trembling. My hands are too shaky to take notes, which is OK, because I can't clear my brain to ask a coherent question anyway. Yeah, I decide. Silva is right. It is definitely a rush.

McCardle and Silva are the co-owners of Climb On!, which rents out the custom-built fiberglass and concrete epoxy composite wall to schools, picnics, private parties, fairs and festivals. Their next appearance in Santa Clara County will be at the San Jose Children's Fair, held April 19 in Guadalupe River Park, next to the Children's Discovery Museum. A lot of their work is done for corporate events.

"Corporations like to use it for team-building programs," McCardle says. "It improves productivity or helps in conflict resolution. We put two co-workers together on the wall, or an employee and a supervisor. One of them climbs the wall and the other holds the belaying rope which keeps their partner from falling. It's a way for them to build camaraderie and trust for each other in a setting away from their corporate environment. You've got to depend upon the person down there with the rope."

"It helps push people out of their mold," Silva says. "They've got to use a different side of their brain."

McCardle and Silva presently operate their less-than-a-year-old company out of Marin County on a part-time basis, but they hope to make it a full-time occupation within a year. The two also plan to relocate the business to Santa Cruz later this year. Part of the company's work is already done in conjunction with Apex Adventures of Santa Cruz, which operates a full corporate physical team-building program that includes such things as kayaking, a rope-climbing course and, of course, Climb On!'s portable wall.

Before the climbing wall is dropped back down on the trailer, McCardle asks if I want to have another go at it, maybe trying a more difficult route. I decline, saying I've had enough excitement for one day, but on the drive back to San Jose I regret my decision. Life, after all, is made up of challenges. This is not like walking away from a ride at Great America or the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, where all you can say is that this is something you have survived. Looking up to the top of the wall after a climb, you are able to say that this is something you have done. I should have done it again, if for nothing else than just to be able to say that I did it again.

Climb On! can be reached at (415) 451-1927 or on the Web.

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From the April 16-22, 1998 issue of Metro.

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