When you picture rock climbing, you probably visualize someone 20 feet up in the air, on an exposed rock wall, chalky hands gripping granite as they pull themselves up to the next ledge. The sky stretches behind them as they stop to take in the view from their vantage point.
Perhaps you think of Alex Honnold in the award-winning documentary “Free Solo,” climbing Yosemite’s El Capitan without the safety of a rope.
You probably don’t picture a plywood wall in a greenhouse in the middle of a city, but that is exactly what Jordan Saunders and Nellie Suthers imagined when they built a climbing wall in their home.
Suthers is a third grade teacher in the Seattle School District and Saunders is an electrician. They started rock climbing when they took an intro-to-climbing class for Saunders’ birthday eight years ago. Now they are avid climbers, spending up to 12 hours a week at the climbing gym.
“I’ve been climbing so much since we (first) started. It’s really become part of both our lives,” Saunders said. “I’m basically obsessed.”
Those 12 hours a week are spent at Vertical World, a climbing gym south of Ballard. Like other fitness centers around the country, Vertical World had to close its doors when the coronavirus pandemic hit Seattle. At the same time, Saunders was laid off from his job as an electrician.
Now with time to spare, he decided to bring the climbing home.
“Jordan had definitely been talking about building something like this at home well before quarantine,” Suthers said.
Even though he works as an electrician, Saunders has a background in construction. With his experience, and some advice from friends, Saunders and Suthers set off constructing their wall. They ordered their lumber, plywood and plastic holds online and after about two weeks they had their own at-home climbing gym.
“This project really marries the two ends of my life: construction and climbing,” Saunders said.
While many home climbing walls are free-standing, Saunders and Suthers’ home has a greenhouse attachment with an exposed frame, which made it perfect for what they needed. They could attach the wall’s structure directly to the frame of the room. At 13 feet tall and sloping downward to around 9 feet, the roof of the greenhouse was also tall enough to accommodate their wall.
The face of the wall is made from three 4-by-8 plywood sheets with holes drilled 6 inches apart, which plastic climbing holds are fastened to.
Thanks to a tip from one of his friends, “I laid all three plywood on top of each other and I got clamps. Made my grid on one of them and then drilled through all three,” Saunders said.
They also designed their home climbing wall to lean forward at a “pretty steep” 30-degree overhang, Suthers said. This overhanging incline means that the climber’s upper body and core takes more of the strain, giving the climber a workout in a smaller space.
Saunders and Suthers’ training usually consists of climbing back and forth, up and down on these holds for about 5 minutes at a time.
“I haven’t set anything too hard that I’ll fly off in any direction,” Suthers said. “With circuit training, the object is to stay on as long as possible, you not like pushing yourself to the absolute limit.”
And to ensure that they are safe while climbing, they’ve placed an old mattress below the wall. “It’s good enough for Tommy Caldwell,” Saunders joked, referencing a professional climber who has established many routes around the world and also uses old mattresses in his home gym to cushion his falls.
Even as they joke, Saunders and Suthers make sure to stay safe. They noted that changing temperatures can cause the wood to warp and, without the controlled atmosphere of a gym, sometimes holds become loose.
“Keep your impact gun handy and make sure you are tightening down holds … these suckers can spin on you,” Saunders said, speaking from experience. “I’ve had one spin on me a couple feet up and I’ve landed square on my side.”
They expect this wall to be part of their training routine for quite a while, even after quarantine is over.
“I’m looking forward to having it for when you get off work late and the gym is busy. You can just come home and work out here,” Suthers said.
“The whole social distancing … is going to affect things for quite a long time. So spending a little less time inside [crowded gyms] is not the worst idea.” Saunders added.