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SEP. 25, 2019

Bouldering with Bigger Impact

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Around here it is not uncommon to see students latch onto an idea and make something spectacular happen very quickly. In fact in many ways that is what our whole school is built upon. From the perfectly balanced spoon to an eloquent poem, the well reasoned english paper to the finely seasoned dinner. Craft and work ethic are a core part of what we do and they’re ideas we don’t just talk about, we live.

But the recent flurry of activity around our climbing wall was something else. A dinner conversation between students and faculty lamenting the amount of time until our next climbing trip hatched a plan to make climbing a part of everyday at OA. Looking around our campus these students and I realized that we already had what we needed to create a bouldering wall perfect for a quick climb during free periods or after lunch.

The next week was a blur of plastic holds, wood chips, Allen wrenches, and climbing chalk. In just four days a dedicated group of students used their choice periods and snippets of free time to transform our climbing tower.  Although fun to climb, the 60ft tower took too much setup to be used regularly during the day. We stripped off all the climbing holds, sorted them, and got to work creating new short bouldering routes to challenge our friends. Contrary to most types of rock climbing, in bouldering you’re rarely more than a few feet off the ground. Instead of long routes high into the air, bouldering “problems” are comprised of only a few moves that are intentionally difficult and requires precise technique. Climbers work their way through the moves putting together the puzzle of the route. 

We raced down the hill after class and left our climbing shoes stashed beneath the overhang to maximize our time. We laughed as we flailed on each other’s creations and talked constantly about our ideas for what moves would be fun to craft next. By Friday, the walls were filled with holds and tape. After lunch we shared our work with everyone. The student routesetters showcased the climbs to their peers and coached them on proper technique. A new post-lunch hangout was born and we were all excited. For most places, this might be where the story would end. A group of students sacrificed their time to create something special for their community, the community enjoyed it and we were all happy.

But as a faculty member I saw something a little deeper happening. In snippets everyday that week I watched OA’s principles come to life in moments big and small. First period Wednesday morning one student crafted a particularly delicate problem that required the climber to put their hands and feet very close together before gingerly reaching far overhead for a bad handhold. I was privileged to watch as another student spent all of third period trying to nail the move barely slipping off time and time again. Each time she learned a little more, angling her toe this way and putting her hips that. After an hour she stuck it and let loose a squeal of delight. The joy on her face was matched only by the smile of the climb’s creator when she found him at lunch to tell him that she’d been on his work all morning. Gratitude in action.

Friday morning one student counted it up and realized they’d spent almost 6 hours creating new routes on the wall a testament to their serious work ethic. Another student came down to the wall two mornings in a row not to climb but just to watch their peers and offer support. Their curiosity pulled them to examine and offer small but crucial suggestions to make climbs better. On Thursday morning, a group of serious student climbers looked at the wall and realized that they didn’t have enough climbs for their less-experienced peers, so they dedicated all of their time to putting together easier climbs, living the idea of stewardship for their community.

I think this is why so many OA alumni cite this school as changing their idea of what’s possible and what they should expect from others. Why those of us privileged to teach here are dedicated to what we do and are so regularly humbled by our students. At many schools, a climbing wall is just a climbing wall. A place to spend a few minutes between classes and a fun activity to do with your friends. But here it can’t help but becomes so much more. It is the hub of a community, a place to show care for others. Living in intentional community means that relatively simple acts become imbued with greater meaning. Surficial connections are pushed deeper and the little things each of us do make ripples in everyone’s pond.

OA Boulders is now open for everyone. I expect some of us will spend many an afternoon pulling on plastic and working through difficult climbs. Maybe we’ll lie on the soft ground pads and debrief a busy day of classes. I’m left feeling sure OA students will keep finding exciting ways to reinvent this place and maybe even a little part of themselves through hard work, craft, a dash of gratitude, and the support of those around them.

By David Morgan