Special Reports

Soldiers test their limits with homemade climbing wall

KIRKUK, Iraq — Life in Iraq has Bravo Company soldiers climbing the wall.

That's OK. That's what the Idaho soldiers had in mind when they built it.

"I planned it before we left Idaho," Cpl. Warren Wing of Boise said of the 16-foot-tall climbing wall he and his climbing buddies in 3rdPlatoon built with lumber and plywood inside the walls of the Kirkuk patrol base that is home to the 100-plus soldiers of Bravo Company for their year in Iraq.

A recent sunny morning made for perfect climbing weather. With a slight breeze and temperatures in the mid-70s, the climbing wall had a summer vacation vibe. An iPod hooked to speakers blared Van Halen. And Cpl. Wing had Spc. Jared McKenzie on belay — ready on ropes if McKenzie slipped — as the Pocatello soldier hung upside down trying to tackle a 4-foot-deep overhang.

The plywood climbing wall goes up vertically 12 feet, juts out horizontally for four feet before turning vertical again for the top four feet. The overhang is the crux move — the hardest move on the wall.

McKenzie worked his hands up the final vertical rise. He raised his feet above his head to get his toe into the stone-like holds bolted into the plywood. Gravity tugged hard at McKenzie's fullback-sized body and he lost his grip. Wing supported McKenzie's weight on the rope, lowering him to the pad at the base of the wall. McKenzie lay on his back, the veins in his arms bulging and his face glowing beet red. McKenzie was enjoying the endorphin rush, laughing as he tried to straighten his clawed hand.

"Oh God, my hand cramped on that hold," he said.

Next to the wall are practice areas where climbers can hang from holds and do pull ups to strengthen their hands and arms. A plywood "chimney" — a narrow, three-sided chute — is in progress. So is an 8-by-20-foot horizontal "traverse wall."

"It's actually a climbing gym that we're building here," Wing said.

Wing and McKenzie traded places and Wing took the wall. He smoothly moved his 210-pound body up the holds. He cleared the crux by slipping his leg inside his outstretched arms overhead and dropped his foot onto a hold just as pulled his hand away from it.

Wing has been climbing for about two years. His 8-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, got him started.

"She saw a wall and wanted to climb, so I figured I better learn how," Wing said.

Wing's fellow climber, Spec. Jacob Smith of Boise, built the frame for the wall and the other structures used to suspend the practice holds.

"It was my design and he put it together," Wing said.

Bravo Company Spc. Chris Chesak of Boise has friends in the climbing industry who gave soldiers discounts on gear and holds, as well as free ropes. One of those is Metolius, a climbing equipment company headquartered in Oregon.

"When (Wing) told me he was going to build a climbing wall, I said he was crazy," Chesak said. "He's a great guy. When he gets something in his sights, he goes after it and pulls everyone in with him."

Wing spent $1,000 to buy the holds and hardware for the wall, and fellow soldiers kicked in more money. "We easily got $3,500 in equipment," Wing said.

With the wall completed, soldiers now need more climbing shoes — slim, specially soled shoes made to grip tiny holds — so they don't have to keep loaning theirs to all the other soldiers.

"There are other guys who want to climb here, and they could use shoes," Wing said. About 10 other guys in the platoon have gotten the climbing bug and ordered their own.

He may have converted another climber this day.

Spc. Lucas Revaul of Boise took a break from doing mechanic work on Humvees to try the wall.

"I've always wanted to do it," Revaul said.

McKenzie strapped Revaul into a climbing harness. Revaul pulled off of his suede desert combat boots and slipped into climbing shoes. Wing belayed him as he climbed.

After a few minutes figuring out the holds and the best route up the wall, Revaul made it to the top. He straddled the apex of the wall and pumped his fists into the air. Wing lowered him back to earth.

"Thanks for the little thrill," Revaul said. "That just made my day."