Getting a Grip

Upside-down smooching with Kirsten Dunst?

Not included, so put away your pucker, pal.

Otherwise, this is Spider-Man Central.

“I tell people that climbing is dangerous,” says Bill McLemore, manager of the Red Rock Climbing Center, apparently not the savviest salesman until he adds: “It may cause you to quit your job and live in your car — because it’s so addictive and fun.”

Scampering up, down and across walls like junior (and several senior) Spideys, harnessed climbers scale the indoor rock face with intensity, swing off the surface like monkeys, dangle as if daring the fates and slide down ropes, some utterly cool, others cautiously slow.

All with sweaty determination.

“It’s better than a gym. Gyms are boring,” says climber Jen Costa. “Look at the bodies in here. Pretty good, right?”

It’s not all P&A (pecs and abs). This mini-boulder city is an age/gender equalizer.

“Some guys don’t really have a grasp of how difficult it is,” McLemore says. “I see people come in here on dates and these big, strong guys are looking to impress, and they go, ‘What’s the hardest thing in the gym?’ They don’t have a clue what they’re saying. They’d be lucky if they get up the easier stuff.”

Meanwhile, 6-year-old Elizabeth Kwak, quick (and cute) and agile, heads steadily toward the ceiling 35 feet up, a “belayer” on the ground, steadying her by doling out and pulling back rope as she ascends, her proud papa gazing up from the safety of the foam-padded floor. “This seemed like a good place where she could release her energy,” says Sam Kwak who, acting with parental prudence, tested out her harness beforehand. “This is her first climb and she’s doing pretty well, she almost made it to the top.”

A dab of estrogen can defeat a dose of testosterone? That’s athletic democracy.

“We’ve got this French guy who comes in, he’s in his 70s and he’s still rock climbing,” McLemore says. “I counsel parents that kids under 5 generally don’t do well, though there’s the occasional 4-year-old or 3-year-old who can do it very well.”

Brightly colored “holds” — jagged steps used to literally get a grip — crowd walls that look like they’ve been spackled with rainbow sherbet throughout more than 8,000 square feet of climbing space, with a central arena topped by two smaller, upstairs chambers. (Watch your noggin, ducking under overhangs while your feet bob on the bouncing floor.) Mapped-out “routes” can exceed 95 feet in a layout designed by two top climbers of the 1980s, Tony Yaniro and Doug Englekirk.

As if blessed by the seal of Wholesome Americana, the center also hosts Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts who can earn merit badges by honing their rock-scaling skills, and serious climbers band into leagues.

“We do a whole bunch of training as a group,” says 15-year-old AJ Retke, a member of the junior climbing team. “There are competitions they have nationwide. It’s a great sport. Not many people do it, but the people that do it, they do it really well.”

As with most sports, rock climbing thrives on its own jargon with a nearly 250-phrase vocabulary, so if you climb the climb, you should sling the slang. A few of the quirkier catchphrases:

The Elvis Leg: “The uncontrollable shake of a leg during a climb.”

Belay Monkey: “Someone recruited for long periods of belaying.”

Gumby: “An often derogatory name for a novice climber.”

Screamer: “A very long fall.”

(That last one didn’t require much imagination.)

“Most of the time, I climb outdoors,” says Savath Angelo, newly earthbound after a workout up the wall. “But indoors is where you learn to trust your feet. And I feel more secure with all the protection.”

Protection doesn’t guarantee safety. Beware twisted ankles, torn ligaments and any number of ways the human body can mangle itself.

“A person made a mistake recently and hit the floor from about 20 feet, got right back up and started climbing again, which wouldn’t have happened outside, where you’d at the very least have twisted an ankle,” McLemore says, crediting the springy padding below. “But a kid fell four feet and hit the edge of a pad and tore ligaments in his ankle. It’s how you land.” Climbers, he adds, must sign a waiver confirming they comprehend the dangers.

“Climbing is very hard on the tendons, which don’t get the same blood flow that your muscles get,” he says. “Be wary of trying to climb three and four days in a row, because you’ll end up with elbow or shoulder tendinitis. I warn people about overuse.”

Presumably, the waiver does not address certain activities performed either right-side up or upside-down.

Smooch at your own risk.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at or 702-383-0256.

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