David Whiteley, pictured on the left, and Jacob Allen (right) are regulars at Veteran Climbing Nights, which are run by CHD’s All In: Barrier-Free Recreation program and held the third Wednesday of every month at Central Rock Gym in Hadley from 5:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
All In, which provides adaptive sports and recreational programs for people with disabilities, already had an established climbing program, so area veterans approached All In Program Director Jessica Levine last year about the possibility of having a rock climbing night of their own because the sport is known as an effective stress reliever for participants. She agreed, and the nights have proven popular—they are free for veterans with a disability, and they can bring a guest for free.
Rock climbing is hard work, but it’s in a veteran’s nature to overcome challenges. Indeed, Whiteley took up the sport of climbing even though he is afraid of heights. He insists that his key to succeeding in the face of adversity is positive thinking, otherwise, his acrophobia would have scuttled his 14-year career as an Army helicopter pilot.
Whiteley was intimidated the first time he looked up at the 42-foot-high wall. Interviewed before his second climb, the former major (Army 1973 to 1977, National Guard 1977-1995) was still a bit anxious. “Climbing for me right now isn’t so much a stress reliever but a stress producer,” he said with a laugh.
Despite his initial nervousness, Whiteley scaled up the wall without too much trouble with Allen holding the belay rope from the mat and calling out instructions. It’s the belayer’s job to handle the climbing rope through a belay device, and pull in slack to hold the climber tight so the latter doesn’t plunge very far when he or she falls. Almost everything in rock climbing is an exercise in trust, especially the relationship between the climber and the belayer. It can be compared to the bond veterans had those they served with in their units while they were on active duty—and the camaraderie veterans have with one another after they have served their country. Rock climbing also in a way mirrors combat, with the wall as an adversary instead of people. Climbers, of course, are not getting shot at, but the wall can certainly “turn” on them if they’re not focused enough. So one can see how the sport appeals to the veterans’ warrior spirit.
Whiteley, who has a hearing disability from helicopter engine and propeller noise, credits All In with providing him with an adventure he otherwise never would have participated in. “I doubt I would have come here if it weren’t for Veterans Climbing Night,” he said. “I used to drive by here all the time and look at it from the road, and say, ‘OK, they must have a wall,’” and then I finally saw it—completely different from what I imagined it would be.”
Indeed, Central Rock Gym is humongous: a cathedral for climbing worshippers, with 24,000 square feet of climbing terrain, and 6,000 square feet of bouldering terrain. In bouldering, ropes aren’t used because climbers scale up to 12-15 feet, and when they fall, padding cushions the blow. A walk inside the facility is an impressive site: rock climbing heaven on earth for climbing rats like Jacob Allen.
Allen, who congratulated Whiteley on a climb well-scaled, is an Air Force veteran—and a rock climbing veteran. A field supervisor and military dog handler from 2005 to 2011, he can be found at Central Rock Gym twice a week. The physical therapist for the Northampton VA Medical Center is a program instructor for Gerofit who loves helping vets learn this sport he said, noting that it’s not as intimidating as it looks. “You can start out as easy as you want—there are climbs that are easy as climbing a ladder,” he said. “I’ve had friends who are not the most physically fit people, and they got out and tried, they struggled, and then they succeeded.”
For more information on Veteran Climbing Night, visit this page.