Like a graceful tree frog, Arabella Jariel, 11, clings to the climbing wall and pulls herself up, up, up with astonishing ease and speed. A competitive rock climber, the sixth-grader at the Montessori School of Northern Virginia trains five days a week, including workouts with her youth team.
Most days after school, Arabella, from Annandale, Va., arrives at Earth Treks Climbing Center in Rockville, Md., and slips on her rock-climbing shoes, which look like lime-green ballet slippers with tough rubber soles. She steps into the leg holes of her lightweight nylon harness, rubs powdery chalk on her palms and attaches a safety rope. She checks in with her "belayer" (often it's her dad, Ike Jariel), who holds the other end of the rope. She looks up and studies the three-story climbing wall, making a mental map of her route to the top. Then she springs. Arabella's fingers grasp the colorful holds stuck in the wall as she pulls herself up. Her toes grip and push.
At the top, she sits back into her harness, dangling 40 feet above the gym floor. Depending on the difficulty of the course, she can climb the 40 feet in four to seven minutes.
From up top, "everyone looks tiny and small," Arabella says. "I don't really look down."
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She has plenty of experience with falls (the safety rope protects her from hitting the ground but not from crashing into the wall), but she has never broken bones and she doesn't worry about it too much. "After falling over and over again, I'm not scared anymore," Arabella says. "It's more like a roller coaster and I can feel the air all over my body."
When her dad lowers her to the floor, Arabella picks another wall and does it all over again.
During team workouts, she and her team build endurance and speed by "climbing again and again and again," says Arabella, who competes at the local, regional, divisional and national level in two rock-climbing sports: bouldering (climbing shorter walls without ropes) and rope climbing (higher walls with safety ropes).
There are as many as 120 kids on Arabella's Earth Treks team, but they also compete individually. Most of the competitions are held on indoor climbing walls. Scoring in a climbing competition is mostly based on how high you can get on courses of various difficulties.
This year, Arabella, who started climbing when she was 7, qualified for world-level competitions, but she needs to be at least 12 to compete. The good news is that rock climbing is really about fun, friends and family. "When I compete, I like how my team supports each other," Arabella says. "I get to travel and meet all these cool people from across the country. I like that, too. It's not always about the competition."
For spring break this year, she and her parents traveled to Kentucky to climb in the Red River Gorge. "I loved the fresh air," she says. "And I love how kids and adults can climb together. It's a very social sport."