Getting to the top; Sport: Rock-climbing is taking off, as thousands of enthusiasts meet the challenge and discover the serenity.


It's not the adrenalin rush that excites Brian Bovaird when he partakes in one of his favorite activities. Rather, it's that feeling of inner peace he loves.

"For me, it's really meditational," says the 20-year-old Towson University student.

Inner peace. Tranquillity. Serenity. These are not qualities that spring to mind when one thinks of rock climbing.

"The perception is that it is real extreme," Bovaird says. "And, yes, there are some aspects that are. But it's the meditative part of it I love. There are no deadlines. No phone calls. No interruptions."

It's just Bovaird meditating on the rocks.

Rock climbing, both indoors and out, is a sport that continues to grow, according to research by the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America, a trade association. It is difficult to track just how many people are enjoying rock climbing on a casual or consistent basis, but ORCA research estimates that 4.5 million have tried it in the past year.

There are many different types of climbing, including rock, ice and snow and indoor. Like most sports, climbing has its own language. It includes words like "belay," which means to safeguard another climber with the rope, and "ascender," which is a mechanical device that can be attached to a rope and used to ascend the rope.

"Most climbers start out on simple rock scrambles or, increasingly, at indoor climbing gyms," state ORCA researchers. "As they gain experience, they find they've entered a sport with many varieties and a 125-year history. For many people, it becomes a lifelong pursuit."

Bovaird and his roommate, Jeff Comotto, believe it will be that for them.

Comotto is treasurer of Outdoor Adventures Unlimited, an organization affiliated with Towson University. Bovaird is president; the two are climbing friends. (Park rangers advise always bringing a friend when rock climbing.)

Comotto began climbing about 2 1/2 years ago. Rather than the meditative aspect, it's the challenge of rock climbing that appeals to him.

"If you don't get it right the first time, you have an unlimited amount of chances to try again and again," he says.

Recently, it was the rocks at the 900-acre appropriately named Rocks State Park in Harford County -- 8 miles northwest of Bel Air on Route 24 -- that inspired Bovaird to contemplate the oneness of the universe and Comotto to challenge himself.

Rocks State Park is the location of the popular King and Queen Seat, a formation that hangs 190 feet above Deer Creek.

There are other places in the Baltimore-Washington area to climb. Byron Bradley enjoys climbing in Great Falls, Va., or at Carter Rock, which is south of Potomac.

Bradley, a 38-year-old Washington resident, has long been interested in mountaineering. Rock climbing, he says, reinforces his technical skills.

"I took a beginning rock-climbing class in 1993," says Bradley. "It's fun to try to figure out how to climb up. I like it because you're outdoors, and it's like being a kid on a jungle gym."

Bradley, a field engineer for Bell Atlantic Mobile, is a member of Journey -- African American Outdoors Sports Association and the mountaineering section of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.

But sometimes, it is simply more convenient to take the climb indoors.

There are more and more places to do that. The REI stores, including the one in Timonium, have climbing walls. Earth Treks, in Columbia, is a climbing center dedicated to the sport. There's even a climbing wall at the Baltimore Zoo.

Jason Kehl, 22, has won many climbing competitions. "The competition is who makes it to the highest level and the difficulty of the climb," he explains, "not who gets there the quickest."

Kehl says he is not into climbing for the thrill of it.

"I like pushing my physical limits," he says. "It's more about control."

Matt Bosley, 20, was at Earth Treks recently perfecting his skills. He has been climbing for about 3 1/2 years. "I meet great people, and I get to travel," he says. Bosley used to lift weights to keep in shape, but now he doesn't have to.

"I do this about three or four days a week," Bosley says, minutes before making a graceful climb up the wall.

Climbing is a good way to maintain or build up strength, says Greg Nerses, director of adventure sports at Gerstung, in North Baltimore, which has climbing walls.

"It does help to keep you physically in shape," he says. "It's not cardiovascular but anaerobic activity."

Yet, climbing is not primarily about the physical aspect, Nerses explains.

"It's mental," he says. "You're constantly thinking of the moves ahead of you. I say that it is actually 75 percent mental and 25 percent physical."

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