A Bittersweet Goodbye
I can’t believe I am here now; working my last shift here at Sportrock Climbing Centers before I prepare to move out West to Boulder, Colorado. It seems like just yesterday I was taking my first Basic Skills class here and making my first steps into a sport that would change my life forever. Now I am getting ready to take steps into this next adventure of my life and I am flooded with emotions. I am a bit scared and crazy excited, but I know one thing for sure. The community that is Sportrock is the reason I am able to make this leap of faith and follow my dreams.
Growing up, my dad engaged my brother and I in many alternative sports to encourage us to get out of our comfort zones and try new things. Climbing was one of the many sports we were fortunate enough to give a try. We spent quite a bit of time when we were young playing on the rock wall in the local gym and spending some time on real rocks in upstate New York. I remember loving the sense of accomplishment I got from climbing, but as I grew older other sports overshadowed climbing. It wasn’t until I was much older that I would come back to climbing.
A few years ago a friend of mine took me climbing on New Years Eve at a climbing gym in Los Angeles. I was excited to try climbing again, but also had by now developed a healthy fear of heights and was a little nervous. My friend explained the grade system and I got on a couple of 5.5s. They seemed almost impossible and I felt like I was flailing all over the place, not to mention I was terrified being at the top of the 30ft walls. After a while of my friend patiently belaying me on a couple of climbs, we gave bouldering and their traverse wall a try. I felt more comfortable being closer to the ground, but still enjoyed the challenge of having to follow the path that the tape left for my hands and feet. That night my hands burned when I tried to touch the steering wheel driving home and even more when I washed them. But the next morning, I woke up and wanted to go right back to the gym. I knew then and there that I was hooked.
Upon arriving home in DC, I knew that I wanted to make climbing a part of my life so I researched local gyms in the area and decided to give Sportrock Alexandria a try. I signed up for a Basic Skills class one day after work and looked forward to that day all week. My Basic Skills class was taught by Voltaire Valle, who still teaches Basic Skills for Sportrock, and I had a blast. I learned all about how to tie the correct climbing knots, safe belay technique, and how to climb the walls. I was immediately sold on this new sport. I showed up the next day, took (and passed) my belay test, and then without a second thought bought my annual membership and all of my climbing gear. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.
The only downside I found was that none of my friends at the time climbed, so I often would show up at the gym, take a yoga class, and boulder by myself. I sometimes put my name on the belay partner board and climbed with strangers. While I am outgoing person, I felt super intimidated as many of the climbers seemed to be extremely talented and I was struggling on the easiest of easy climbs. I wanted to get better so I decided to take Fast Forward 1, taught by Liz Stitzel, and then Fast Forward 2, taught by Molly Donelan. These classes changed my whole experience climbing. Not only did I gain technique and learn how to be more efficient on the wall, I met a couple of the girls who would become some of my best friends.
I quickly went from visiting the gym once or twice a week to almost daily. I loved climbing; top rope, bouldering, and traversing. I quickly progressed grade wise and before I knew it I was climbing 5.9 – 5.10 and not falling. All my time in the gym was certainly paying off and I began to feel like a real climber. Then one of my friends, who was also a Sportrock employee suggested I apply for a part time job at the gym since I was “always here anyway.” I think I put in an application the next day. And then within a week I was happily a new member of the Sportrock team.
For Sportrock, I was given the opportunity to wear many hats. I started as a Birthday Party and Kids Night Instructor where I belayed little kids getting their first tastes of climbing. I found this so rewarding because I remembered what it was like when I was a kid trying out climbing. I worked the front desk as a staff member greeting customers, helping them check in, and talking about how amazing this gym and climbing in general are. After some time, I was given the opportunity to teach the class that started everything for me, Basic Skills. This meant the world to me, because this class changed my life and sealed the deal on my becoming a climber. Being able to show folks how amazing this sport can be by teaching them the integral parts of climbing safely in our gym made me so happy. I found myself starting to think, maybe I can have a career in climbing as an instructor.
Around this time, I was also starting to find myself disinterested in my other full time job as a Research Analyst for a government health contractor. It was a desk job where my cubical walls were plastered with pictures of climbing, mountains, and the beautiful outdoors. I could feel a change was coming. Then I was fortunate enough to be offered the chance to be a Closing Manager here at Sportrock, and I decided to quit my desk gig and make climbing my full time career. It was the best decision I have ever made work wise and I have never been more grateful for that opportunity. Being able to help manage this gym, tell folks why I love this place so much, and instruct classes everyday was amazing. I loved coming into work, which most people can’t say about their jobs.
The problem with falling in love with climbing is that when you get outside on that real rock you fall even deeper in love. Last spring, I went to Red River Gorge with two of my Sportrock co-workers and best friends and I had another climbing related life changing experience. If you have never been to the Red, you should go. The rock there is sharp, gritty, and Amazing. I had so much fun over the few days that we were there, in the wilderness sweating our way up the most beautiful walls I had ever seen. When we returned it was all I could think about, getting back outside on real rock. Climbing had sunk its teeth even deeper into my soul. I knew this was a good thing, because it meant that climbing was and always would be my life. However, I also knew it meant that I couldn’t stay in Virginia where the access to decent outdoor climbing was at least a several hour drive away.
This brings me to where I am today, moving to Boulder, Colorado. Climbing is my life, ask anyone who knows me. It is the thing I look forward to when I wake up in the morning and what I dream about when I fall asleep. Nothing makes me happier than pulling together a sequence, breathing through a nerve wracking lead, and on sighting my first 5.11. I am still somewhat scared of heights, but I have learned to use that fear and turn it into strength when I am on the wall. Nothing comes close to the way I feel about climbing, it is what defines me as a person. Climbing is what drives me everyday to be stronger and conquer my fears and follow my dreams. Boulder, CO will give me more access to climbing (literally up the street from my new apartment), and will allow me to follow my dreams to make climbing my life and work. I am beyond excited for this new adventure and all the amazing moments of this next stage of my life.
However, I also am painfully aware of everything I am saying good bye to and leaving behind here in Northern Virginia. Please let me take this moment to say a few thank yous because the best friends I have EVER had in my life, I made through climbing, specifically at Sportroc,k and the staff here at Sportrock Alexandria are like family to me. I know that I will miss them all like crazy. Thank you to Lillian Chao-Quinlan, Garrick Mercer, and Molly Donelan for being the best bosses a girl could ask for. Lillian, the President of our beloved gym, always makes our staff here feel awesome about our jobs. She is the kindest, most respectable, amazing woman I know and I am eternally grateful for her kindness toward me during my time here. Garrick, the Director of our Alexandria location, has been an incredibly supportive boss; always there to lend a hand and help you through any challenges you encounter. Molly, the Assistant Director of Sportrock Alexandria, has also been an amazing boss, but also has been a dear friend who showed me the ropes (literally) and helped me grow as a person and as a climber. I cannot tell you all how much your positive energy and support has meant to me during my time here.
I also want to thank Jason Monteclavo, the Director of Outdoor Programs and the FFX Coach, who has not only been an amazing friend, but who changed my whole workout experience with his FFX and Fast Forward Progression classes. I can attribute all of my physical strength to his classes, teachings, and encouragement. To the rest of the amazing staff, you guys are all dedicated incredible people and you made this experience a ton of fun. I will miss you all more than you know. Lastly, I would like to thank the incredible Sportrock community. Next time you are in the gym, take a look around. There are folks at all different levels of climbing, each on a journey to better their technique or push the grade, and each of those people love this sport like you do. We are all here trying to get stronger, fitter, and be better climbers, all while having a great time. We are a family, with all of our quirks. I love that I have had the wonderful opportunity to meet so many people here and that I’ve become so close with so many of you. You had made the experience here for me, you have made this place the amazing community that it is. And for that I want you to know I am eternally grateful.
So this is good bye Sportrock. I love you and will think of you fondly always. Thank you for all the support and life changing experiences. I hope you continue to be a phenomenal business establishment and continue changing folk’s lives as you did mine.
Keep climbing and being awesome!
Emma Nicole Meistrich