What images come to mind when I say the word Florida? I recently posed this very question a friend who lives out of state and she responded with a sad, yet accurate description of arguably one of the weirdest places in the US. “Florida? Um…the beach, Disney World, hate crimes—Oh! Didn’t a guy eat someone’s face off there? That place is a disaster!” Too true. One thing that certainly never comes to mind is mountainous terrain. Florida is primarily a flat state, the majority of which barely peeks above sea level. Its highest point is a pathetic 345 feet (a fourth of the size of the Empire State Building) and even this may be overreaching as the hilltop, located in the panhandle, basically belongs to Alabama. With all the flatness surrounding Floridians, I was surprised to learn that Tampa has an avid and active rock climbing community.
It’s probably not a stretch to say that Vertical Ventures (VV), a rock climbing gym on Pioneer Park Boulevard, is at the heart and center of Tampa’s climbing community. When I asked gym owner Chris Brown what made the climbing community in Tampa unique, he said “A better question is what makes the climbing community in Tampa, period. This place. This is where people can come to build relationships and have fun. It’s the nicest facility in the area.”
I’d visited the gym on a Friday night to interview climber and ultimate gal pal Gina Larsen and experience the gym first hand. I wanted to find out why so many people in Tampa are crazy about a sport that seems counterintuitive given the environment in which they live. Like most good things, it is hard to describe. “I don’t know,” said Gina. “You just fall in love with it and it becomes part of who you are. I couldn’t imagine my life without climbing.”
As I walked into the gym, almost all of my senses were tantalized. Multicolored patterns of hand and foot holds representing varying levels of climbing difficulty were fixed to every available surface, a DJ was pumping some heavy bass into my ears, a squishy padded floor added extra bounce to my step, and the smell of sheer determination (aka sweaty ball sack) smacked me in the face. I was immediately intimidated by what I saw.
It seemed like almost everyone there was a living example of the perfect human form, a eugenicist’s dream. I was surrounded by men and women who might as well have been sculpted by fucking Michelangelo himself. Gina could probably read the fear on my face and told me not to worry about looking stupid or out of place. While I’ve never been afraid of looking stupid, I have almost always been afraid of falling off a wall and breaking my back in front of attractive strangers. For this reason, I prefer a lower-key climbing move that I like to call “scuttling”, but is apparently called traversing in legit climbing circles. Traversing involves using hand and foot holds to climb across a wall, in my case the lower portion of the wall, a very safe and comfortable distance from terra firma.
As I scuttled along, I observed people using harnesses or their bare hands to climb colorful paths up, across, and down each surface of the gym. Some thoughtfully watched as fellow climbers slowly and meticulously followed the paths. Others worked independently, concentrating on some secret problem or goal that only they understood. The more people I observed and met, the more I could understand Gina’s love affair with climbing. Not only is climbing physically challenging, it also requires significant mental acuity and problem solving skills.
Brown explained, “Rock climbing is all about solving problems. You need to build the requisite physical strength, but after that it’s all about your mental abilities. For whatever reason, being able to follow these pieces of colored duct tape on the wall gives people a sense of accomplishment that maybe they don’t get in their everyday lives.” I could see this play out as I watched a shirtless Ian Sutherland try repeatedly to get past an orange plastic foothold that had been giving him the business all evening. Witnessing his determination and defeat, I could imagine the sense of accomplishment he would feel when he finally overcame that orange, plastic bastard.
Sense of community seems to be another major draw for climbers at VV. All of the gym regulars know one another and spend time together out in the real world. When I asked about the possible incongruity of such a strong sense of community surrounding a very individual sport, Gina explained that although people at VV “definitely have their own individual goals, it’s really important to have a community and feed off of each others’ energies and work through problems together.”
Fellow VV climber Aroldo Vitorio, who recently moved to Tampa from Washington DC, said that the climbing community in Tampa is much more appreciative and laid back than in other places he has lived. “The cool thing about the community in Tampa that I have noticed is that when you go on a climbing trip it is super epic… [everyone] comes out because they don’t always have the opportunity to do outdoor climbs. They don’t take it for granted.”
Although the Tampa climbing community seems to be tight-knit, it is not exclusionary. According to Brown whose personal motto is probably “be cool”, his goal was to create a welcoming space with a “cool vibe…like a tree fort for adults. Whether you are a seven year old kid or a thirty-seven year old kid, you can come here to have a good time with cool people.”
If you are interested in trying your hands and feet at climbing, I’d definitely recommend visiting Vertical Ventures. If you are nervous about climbing for the first time, try visiting the gym with a few friends on a Friday night. A lot of newbies along with some regulars climb on Fridays and the DJ makes the whole experience seem more like a party than a work out. Also, I highly recommend the scuttling.
Rock Climbing Lingo
Here is a list of rock climbing terms that you can memorize so you don’t look like an asshole if you decide to try climbing. Thanks to Gina Larsen, Aroldo Vitorio, Ian Sutherland, Kendall Melendi, and Chris Brown for defining these terms for me. I hope they are all real and I wasn’t being bullshitted…bullshat…whatever.
- Route – A path used to reach the top of a rock or wall
- Beta – A sequence of moves that help you get to the top
- Sending – Short for “ascending”; solving or finishing a route;
- “Let me give you some beta” - T ell you how to solve the problem
- Spray – When you are telling someone how to complete a route but they don’t want help.
- Sprayed down/ throwing beta - W hen someone tells you how to tackle every part of a route
- Dirt bag climber - Someone with a pair of shoes and a chalk bag who hangs out or lives in climbing areas.
- Crux – The hardest part of a route; a route can have multiple cruces.
- Ticktacking - Grabbing smaller parts of the wall
Vertical Ventures is located at 5402 Pioneer Park Blvd Suite E Tampa, FL 33634.
Open Tuesday – Thursday 2pm – 10pm, Friday 2pm – 12am, Saturday 10am – 10pm, and Sunday 10am – 6pm .
All images courtesy of photographer and Vertical Ventures owner Chris Brown. To see more of his work, visit www.highexposures.com.