Students rock the Sweet Onion Crank

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Clinging tenaciously to the Whitman College indoor climbing wall during the intermediate and open climb session of the 19th Annual Sweet Onion Crank rock climbing competition, a climber carefully eyes her next move across the wall.

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Climbers in the open and intermediate session of the 19th Annual Sweet Onion Crank climbing competition traverse a wall Saturday morning at Whitman College's indoor climbing wall.

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The poster child for a gripping competition, climbers in this year's Sweet Onion Crank traverse the indoor climbing wall at Whitman College leaving telltale signs of their clinging presence with chalk residue on the various holds. Climbers use chalk on their hands to secure a better grip for their competitions.

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Whitman College Outdoor Program Director Brien Sheedy instructs climbers about this year's 19th Annual Sweet Onion Crank climbing competition from his lofty, boulder perch outside the indoor climbing walls Saturday morning prior to the start of climbing. The competition, which ran Friday and Saturday, was open to Whitman College students, faculty, staff and their immediate families and any student registered at a Pacific Northwest College.

WALLA WALLA -- The roughly 100-foot-long by 32-foot-high indoor pseudo-cliff, which is considered by some to be the best facility of its type in the Pacific Northwest, was crawling with climbers from several regional universities for the first time on Saturday.

About 100 bouldering competitors took part in the 19th Annual Sweet Onion Crank competition at Whitman College.

While the competition was not the first for the campus, it was the first time the college allowed the new indoor climbing facility to be used by all Pacific Northwest college students wanting to compete, including South Puget Sound Community College student Jimmy Chulich.

"I am a rock climber. I don't climb mountains. I stick to rocks," Chulich joked, but was also serious about the common misnomer of calling rock climbers mountain climbers.

For a brief moment, Chulich's attention was drawn to a fellow climber attempting a difficult route along an overhang.

Then the climber fell from the overhang onto the soft mat below.

"Usually what I lack in strength I can make up in technique, but that is a huge overhang," Chulich said.

Bouldering is the more accurate word for what Chulich and numerous other climbers are doing more and more these days, usually with nothing more than a mat they carry to remote location for a soft landing, a special pair of light sneakers that look like low-top wrestling shoes, and usually a small bag that hangs from the back of the waist that is loaded with chalk to help their grip.

In the winter, however, bouldering is hard to do in the Pacific Northwest, unless you have access to an indoor facility like Whitman's.

On Saturday, access to the new indoor facility was given to all college students who wanted to compete in the Sweet Onion Crank.

According to Whitman College Outdoor Program Director Brien Sheedy, the first 17 Sweet Onion Crank competitions were open to the public, not just college students. But when the new indoor facility opened 21 months ago, college officials chose to limit access to students only. So last year's Sweet Onion Crank was only for Whitman College students.

This year, the ropes were loosened to allow dozens of other non-Whitman college students a chance to hang out and compete at the Whitman climbing wall, as well as socialize.

"It has a strong sense of community, but is also a lot of difficulty," competitor Charlotte Hill said, while studying the wall and watching other climbers attempt the route she would take in a few minutes.

How the competition works is climbers can attempt any of the 59 color coded routes that vary in difficulty and points ranging from 150 to 700. The goal is to follow the exact holding spots to hit a square mark about 12 feet off the ground.

The climbers are given roughly two hours to make as many attempts as they wish, though making too many climbs can often lead to fatigued muscles and failed attempts.

"It's about conserving your energy and determining your style. It's not about time, it's about difficulty," Chulich said.

The Whitman College climbing wall is made of a substance called Durastone, which looks and feels similar to the pseudo-rock edging often found on decorative housing trim.

In addition to the 5,600 square feet of climbing wall, the college also offers a large number of courses, up to 12 per semester, Sheedy said, adding there is a waiting list for many of the classes.

"It's an activity that can be done individually or with a group. It's an activity you can do all your life or outdoors. This is just the tip of the iceberg," Sheedy said.

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