Skipping town: GW TRAiLS combats urban malaise by getting outdoors

Video: Rock climbing with GW TRAiLS

Climbing rocks.

It’s not just what members of GW TRAiLS do with their weekends. It’s also how they feel about it.

Puns aside, the growing group of adventurers has set out to fix problems most GW students can likely identify with – crowded classrooms, desolate dorms and the need to expel some energy.

“I think a lot of people come to GW to get to the city, but sometimes they feel like they need to just get out,” TRAiLS guide Kanika Metre said during Saturday’s rock-climbing trip to Great Falls National Park.

Formed in 2002, TRAiLS has grown from a few former Project Exploration attendees to an organized unit that sends out two trips each weekend, with activities ranging from hiking and camping to mountain biking and paint-balling. The group has seen a rise in applicants for guide positions this year, a change that coincided with its attempts to legitimize and form a “TRAiLS community.” Guides with more experience have taken a backstage role, spending their time promoting the group and balancing its tight, Student Activities Center-funded budget.

Each trip is led by one of the group’s 12 certified guides, who help set up the sites and supervise the activities for a stipend that must be used to purchase outdoor activity gear.

Saturday’s trip took participants to the edge of the Potomac, where the fall sun reflected off the water as whitewater kayakers paddled by slowly. The group’s nemesis: Romeo’s Ladder, a 150-foot crag.

Along with Dan Kirkwood, a recent GW graduate and geology department staff member who works with Georgetown’s outdoor group, Metre taught the 10-person group climbing techniques and strategies, as well as skills like wearing a harness and belaying a climb. But when the time for climbing started, the inexperienced participants found it to be both physically and mentally more difficult than they expected.

“It’s physically exhausting,” said first-timer Matt Spangler, a GW graduate student, in between climbs. “I like to do outdoorsy stuff and I work out pretty regularly, but this is a lot harder than I expected. I’m using muscles I didn’t know I had. I haven’t felt this much overmatched physically since I was a kid.”

Graduate student Andrea Leal used the trip to “recharge” and get out of the city.

“I climb in the gym sometimes, but being outside on the rock and by the river really gives you a chance to breathe,” Leal said, adding that the endless space afforded by the park was cathartic.

Metre, who started climbing occasionally while growing up in the San Francisco area, said climbing outdoors provides a more mentally stimulating experience than what one finds on the Health and Wellness Center’s automatic wall. While the indoor walls have specific places for a climber to put his hands or feet, real rocks weren’t made with scalability in mind and thus present the additional challenge of finding suitable “holds.”

But that’s not the reason the rookie climbers decided to spend seven hours in a harness that can be politely described as uncomfortable. Spangler showed his inexperience by wearing shorts and suffered the consequences – red cuts and scrapes on the lower part of his legs. Still, that price and the trip’s $25 fee were nominal considering the overall therapeutic benefit.

“It’s much less stressful out here,” graduate student Ksenia Dmitrieva said. “The whole day I didn’t think about studying or my midterms – “

“You think about trying to stay alive,” interjected Spangler.

Staying alive may have been the immediate goal while hanging 100 feet off the ground, but the reason Spangler went on the trip was slightly different. More than simply surviving, what provoked him and others to join TRAiLS on the trip was something nearly as important: feeling alive.

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