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Rutgers Rock Wall hangs in balance

The Rock Wall, which has lived in the College Avenue Gymnasium since 1996, is in danger of being demolished to make practice space for another athletic group. – Photo by Edwin Gano

The Rutgers Department of Recreation is in ongoing deliberation over the potential demolition of the University’s sole rock wall, and the Rutgers Climbing Team is taking action as the fate of their practice space hangs in the balance.

The 25-foot Rutgers climbing wall, located in the College Avenue Gymnasium, has served as a recreational climbing space for skilled and novice climbers alike since its construction in 1996.

During the fall of 2013, Anne Kavalerchik, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, and fellow student climbers founded the Rutgers University Climbing Team, the University's premier climbing organization on campus.

The wall itself attracts between 20 and 50 visitors a day, and the team is comprised of over 60 members. Last year, the team placed third in the 2014 Northeast Regional Championships.

Kavalerchik, who began climbing at the age of 13, is the president of the climbing team as well as an employee at the wall. She said the recreation department’s consideration of re-appropriating the space in favor of granting another team access to the practice area has been cause for alarm.

“The wrestling team wants an upgrade from the basement of the gym,” she said. “Many spaces have been proposed, but our room is the only option being considered right now.”

Stephan Pappas, sport director at the Recreation Department, confirmed that the department is in talks over the space, and said he expects a decision to be made by semester’s end.

The destruction of the Rutgers rock wall would have vast implications on a growing community of climbers, both competitive and recreational, Kavalerchik said.

“Our gym isn't huge, but we’re very much a community here,” she said. "I've been climbing for years, and for all those years the community has been my favorite part. It's what got me into it, it's how I found my home in this sport."

TJ Ricci, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore and employee at the wall, stressed the social nature of climbing at Rutgers as well as the lengths he and his fellow staff members go to encourage newcomers to keep climbing.

“It’s the greatest … Everyone knows everyone here, and it’s not like taking a class at the gym,” he said. “We even scan IDs to remember names and faces better to create that tight-knit community. We get new people all the time.”

Kavalerchik said properly introducing novice climbers to the sport of climbing as well as to the wall has been crucial to fostering the inviting community Rutgers prides itself on.

“When we get a new climber, we set them up with a harness, their own chalk bag and climbing shoes, all for free, and we give them three free climbs belayed by a staff member," she said.

Janna Qiao, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, attributes the friendly atmosphere surrounding Rutgers' wall as how she involved herself in extracurricular activities.

“This is my happy place," she said. "If I’m stressed out, I climb to get out of my head a little. It's remarkable to see how we're very much a community that comes together. It's all about learning to challenge yourself."

Kevin Rojas, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, climbing team member and former varsity wrestler, said the climbing community is unlike any other.

"There's very little competition, in a sense," he said. "It's more about helping each other and getting everyone better at the same pace. Growth is about seeing the whole team grow, instead of seeing yourself individually grow."

Qiao, an employee of one year at the wall, said the wall also holds events, most recently, "Yoga for Climbers", serves as a rental space for group bonding activities and offers local middle school students the opportunity to climb through the New Horizons program.

In an effort to boost awareness of the impending decision, Kavalerchik penned a petition, “Keep The Rutgers Rock Wall Open,” three days ago. The petition has already accrued over 1,200 signatures from students, alumni and climbers across the nation, and has rapidly become an outpouring of support for Rutgers climbers.

One signer, Jeremy Pronchik of Highland Park, climbs as a replacement for his long term physical therapy regimen and has been climbing at the Rutgers Rock Wall for the last nine years.

Another signer, Benjamin Suh of Princeton Junction, wrote that the Rutgers Rock Wall embodies “all of the best aspects of the Rutgers spirit,” through generosity, kindness and support.

From a practical point of view, the space is much more suited toward climbing, Ricci said.

“It’s so tall, it’s the perfect size for us,” Ricci said. “You can put mats down anywhere, but you can’t just put up a rock wall.”

Emma Brush, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences first-year student, said if the wall were to be torn down, she would be "devastated."

"I don't have a car on campus," she said. "I can't go to local gyms. It's so convenient here."

The Rutgers Climbing Team remains hopeful that the wall will persevere as the recreation department edges toward a settlement. Kavalerchik said although the wall is nearing its twentieth year, there is no foreseeable reason why it should be knocked down.

“It might not have another fifteen years left, but our wall has a lot more years left in it,” she said.

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