The wooden box seemed innocent. It stood as high as my knee and had chipped grey paint with inverted triangles cut into opposite sides that reminded me of large slices of pizza.
“We call it the eligibility box,” said Regina Race, manager of Albany’s Indoor Rockgym (AIR), one of several indoor climbing gyms in upstate New York. “If you can climb through it, you can go in the caves.”
The caves, in this case, are the dark, twisting passages that wind through the gym’s manmade climbing walls – the only indoor cave system in the nation. I visited AIR with my 10-year-old son, David, to try something new and vary our workout. We’re experienced with outdoor caves but haven’t done much climbing aside from rock scrambles on Adirondack hikes.
The eligibility box sits just inside the front door of AIR, and Race introduced us to it as soon as we mentioned the caves. As an avid caver, I’m used to very tight spaces. I’ve been through passages so small they required maximum effort to move an inch at a time; passages so tight they left scrapes and bruises as mementoes from the struggle. But the eligibility box? That looked like something we call “not doable” in caving parlance.
“It’s about the size of the Gunbarrel,” Race said, referring to a famous section of rural Albany County’s Knox Cave that is considered a rite of passage for North American cavers. I’ve been inside the Gunbarrel but didn’t even attempt to make it through. The eligibility box looked even smaller.
Reluctantly, I dropped to the floor and put both arms over my head. I laid on my side and slipped my hands into the hole, wriggling forward as my arms slid farther and farther into the box. Trouble came soon after my head entered the opening. After a few lurches, my shoulders reached the rim and were wedged so tight that the whole box moved when I tried to cram into the opening.
David laughed and I surrendered without much fight, retreating from the hole to regroup. I wasn’t even close to succeeding but had one trick left. From caving I’ve learned that the smallest passages can sometimes be negotiated by placing one arm overhead and the other down to the side, lengthening the body even more.
I laid on the floor and took a moment to catch my breath, then I extended one arm overhead and began my final attempt. Inch by inch, I wriggled farther into the hole. Finally, my hand poked out the other side. A breakthrough? My head entered the box, then my bottom shoulder, then with a grunt and a shove my top shoulder began to slide inside the pizza slice-shaped opening.
Suddenly, my progress stopped. Far short of my goal, before my chest could even fully enter the box, it became clear that I would not be caving today. Too much pizza, apparently. I gave a final, halfhearted shove and the box once again skidded across the floor. David laughed and I exited the eligibility box, defeated.
Things went smoothly after the ominous start. David decided not to cave alone but conquered the eligibility box anyway in an act of one-upmanship. Then we strapped into our harnesses, filled out a waiver, and received instructions from Race.
Using safety harnesses requires two people – one to climb and one belayer who stays on the ground and secures the climber by controlling the tension of a rope tethered to both people through a pulley on the ceiling. Belaying entails trust and concentration. If the belayer doesn’t operate the handheld device correctly, tension is released from the line and the climber loses the safeguard should he or she slip and fall. A more advanced form of climbing, bouldering, includes no safety harness. Instead, the climber puts thick mats under the climbing route to help soften the landing in case of a fall.
David couldn’t belay me due to the size disparity, so he did do most of the climbing. For his first attempt, we chose a simple route and he slowly made his ascent. He’s s built more like a linebacker than the prototypical climber but was able to traverse the wall in less than a minute, touching his head to the ceiling to complete the climb – an unofficial rule according to Race.
After another successful climb, we walked around a corner to a more difficult section of the gym equipped with smaller handholds that were spaced farther apart. David experienced his first “fall” about 10 feet from the ground and I lowered him down to rest and start again. He completed the climb on his second attempt, making it official by tapping a blue X on the wall.
Back on the ground, we walked around the gym and watched a few people bouldering on a more difficult section. David chose his next route and it quickly became clear that his muscles were spent. He fell early and often, even on routes he had completed previously. As he rested, I did some bouldering and soon understood why he had tired so quickly. Strength and balance are tested with every move under the force of gravity. It wasn’t long before my legs, arms, back, and more were screaming for a break.
Exhausted, we removed our harnesses and vowed to come again. David wants to check out the caves and try some new routes. I want to bring another adult and climb higher with a belayer. As we chatted about the experience and the quality of the workout, I decided to restore my pride after my failed effort earlier. I didn’t give the eligibility box another try – I’m most definitely ineligible – but in what felt like a small victory, I sat on it to tie my shoes before we left.
Interested in indoor rock climbing?
There are a number of indoor rock climbing facilities in upstate New York: