The Next Reach

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LGBT rock-climbing club Out on the Rocks introduces friendly strangers to a challenging sport.

Text by Martha Cheng
Images by John Hook

Getting to the Volcanic Rock Gym at night involves driving down Kapa‘a Quarry Road, an unlit thoroughfare on O‘ahu’s east side, and then navigating through rows of dark warehouses and auto body shops with all the warmth of The Walking Dead set. The location of the gym reveals itself through sight and sound: fluorescent light and dubstep (fittingly, on a recent visit, “The Cracks Begin to Show”) spilling out from an open roll-up door. Inside, it’s as lively as its surroundings are quiet, the space crowded with lean, muscular bodies, who watch as other lean, muscular bodies scale the turquoise and bright green walls, their arms and backs stretching in displays of strength and flexibility, their feet finding improbable holds.

For a newbie climber, the scene can be intimidating, like wandering into a karaoke bar and discovering that everyone is a singing champion (with great abs, to boot). Which is why the LGBT climbing organization Out on the Rocks offers a foothold. “It’s geared at the gay community, but it’s open to all climbers, or non-climbers, to come in and try the sport,” says Melissa Viray, a regular at Out on the Rocks’ climbing sessions. “It’s an entrée into the community.”

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Ryan Johns founded Out on the Rocks after working in London, where he was inspired by Outdoor Lads, a gay outdoor activity club. “It’s not that climbing is a homophobic sport,” he says. “We’re just trying to breed a safe place, to show the climbing community that we do exist. And that we can crush it just as hard as they can.”

He points to other LGBT climbing groups in the United States: Crux in New York City and Homoclimbtastic, which hosts the world’s largest queer climbing convention in West Virginia, attracting almost 100 climbers annually. For Out on the Rocks, 20 climbers is a large turnout—other nights will see a handful of people. “The gay community is small, and climbing in Hawai‘i, we’re an even smaller community,” Johns says. Military and people new to the islands tend to find Out on the Rocks, he explains, and most have never climbed before. “We’re a bridge between the two different worlds. We offer something different for the gay community that isn’t the bar.”

Matthew Hawk moved to Honolulu from San Francisco in 2016. At first, he didn’t have much of a social life. But, encouraged by Johns, he started climbing regularly. “I love it because it’s a sport that’s very encouraging—it’s similar to bowling, there’s lots of high fives,” he says. “Everyone’s supportive.”

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For all its display of brawn, the sport in Hawai‘i is welcoming: Strangers cheer each other on, whether they’re starting on the easiest route or American Ninja Warrior-ing across the wall. And every climber will tell you that the sport requires more than muscle. “Some people equate climbing with brute strength, but it’s not about that,” Viray says. “There’s a lot more to it.” She says she draws on her abilities as a woman, using finesse for certain climbs that require an almost ballet-like grace.

“Sure, part of the draw of climbing is the eye candy,” says Johns, as we both gaze at the shirtless climber ascending above us. He notes that body type doesn’t necessarily determine climbing success—the sport is equal parts strength, balance, flexibility, and body awareness, keeping tracking of every part, from your butt to your big toes.

“Climbing is a really great challenge,” Viray says. “It’s a total-body workout, but it’s also about solving puzzles.” At times, completing a route can feel like a chess game, figuring out where to position your body best for the next reach. Climbers at the gym spend as much time staring at the wall as they do actually being on it, plotting where they will put their feet, their fingers. Even sitting, they are visualizing their moves, their hips and shoulders twisting, their hands reaching, as if climbing the air.

Volcanic Rock Gym is located at 201 Kapaa Quarry Pl. For more information, visit outontherocks.com.

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