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Climbing the Walls

Even though the simulated rock face is 25 feet tall, the beginner's route is a simple scramble. In fact the hand- and footholds are so close together, it's like climbing a ladder. But once I'm up top, my hands clutching a fake rock, my feet clinging to a narrow ledge, a feeling of accomplishment sweeps over me. Proud to be here, I take a breather.

But Robert Christensen, a climbing instructor and the owner of Coral Cliffs Indoor Climbing Gym in Fort Lauderdale, snaps me right out of my revelry with his seemingly insane instructions. He's way down there, on the ground, but the nylon rope attached to my harness is also attached to his, by way of a pulley in the ceiling.

"Let your weight fall into the harness," Christensen booms. "Let go of the wall, and lean back."

Excuse me, what did you say?
"It's the most unnatural feeling in the world, the thing you most don't want to do," Christensen admits.

You can say that again.
Just before I make my move, I feel exactly the way I do when I'm about to fall from some great height in a dream. But it lasts for only a moment, because when I do let go, the harness holds me up, allowing me to "bounce out," or push off with my feet, as I descend. Before long, I feel like a seasoned commando repelling into action.

Christensen says that a few times he's had to talk first-time climbers into simply letting go of the wall, which stretches about 1400 feet across the warehouse-sized facility. Christensen's goal is one day to provide climbers with 7000 feet of faux rock.

The wall is plastered with so many different colored strips of tape that it looks as if a giant, after eating mixed vegetables, did some serious projectile vomiting. The tape is actually used to mark 23 routes. White tape is stuck to the hand- and footholds for the easiest climb. The cup-shaped holds -- also called "jugs" or "pockets" -- are just wide enough for fingertips, and, on the white route, they're within easy reach of each other. The tougher routes are marked with yellow, green, red, and blue tape. The colors, however, do not indicate degrees of difficulty; they simply send climbers in the right direction. Degree of difficulty is measured, as it is in just about every sport, in numbers.

Somewhere along the line, climbers started giving the routes nicknames, Christensen says. On the Coral Cliffs wall are titles such as "Thrombosis" (the medical term for heart attack), "Delusions of Grandeur," "What the Hell," "Spread 'Em Wide," and "Thin Ice" (so named for the thin, barely graspable "crimper"-style holds that lead up the wall).

If you're a beginner, and you've conquered that initial fear of letting go of the wall, you realize that the invigorating ride down is the reward. Advanced climbs, however, require what's referred to by climbers as "commitment." Already fatigued from hanging in one place and trying to figure out their next move, they have to decide whether or not to give up their grasp for one spine-tingling moment and leap to the next hold.

Even if a climber misses a hold, the harness saves the day after just a few feet of free fall and a perhaps a face-scraping bounce off the wall. It's during such moments of clarity that the sign behind the front desk of the gym makes the most sense. It states simply: "Climbing Is Dangerous." Therein lies its appeal.

-- John Ferri

Coral Cliffs Indoor Climbing Gym is located at 3400 SW 26th Ter., A-4, Fort Lauderdale. Admission is $12 per day, and re-entry is allowed. Equipment rental costs $8. For more information call 954-321-9898.

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