Connor Park and Gabe McFarlane confess they were simply looking for an inexpensive way to go rock climbing.

They never imagined what they started would balloon into the biggest sports club on their school’s campus, some 130 students strong.

The OSU-Cascades Rock Climbing Club was founded in early 2018 and is backed by student fees, covering outings and equipment rentals at the Bend Rock Gym in southeast Bend.

“We were just looking for a cheap way to climb, and some snacks in between,” McFarlane said. “But now we are no longer buying snacks. It’s too big.”

Park, a senior business major from Eugene who plans to attend dental school, and McFarlane, a junior in the tourism, recreation and adventure leadership major from West Linn, started the climbing club with only four students. By the second year they had more than 160.

“After the first month it grew to 10 or 15, and it just kept growing from there,” Park says. “On an average night we’ll have 30 to 40 students out here climbing. We provide the day passes and rental stuff that they need to start climbing. It’s completely free for students.”

Branching out from the club is the Rock Climbing Club Sport Team, through which serious climbers can meet for practice and travel to competitions throughout the Northwest.

Several of the climbers, including Park and McFarlane, qualified for the USA Climbing Collegiate Northwest Regionals in Redmond, Washington, originally scheduled for March 28. That competition has since been canceled due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. The club has also postponed its Wednesday night gatherings at Bend Rock Gym, although the club sport team plans to continue to practice as scheduled on Tuesday mornings, according to McFarlane.

“I’m pretty bummed that it won’t happen, but that’s kind of how it’s all going right now,” McFarlane says about the canceled regionals. “Rock gyms are at an especially high risk of the spread of coronavirus. Handholds are swapped every five to six weeks and hundreds of people touch them. So we took the step to cancel our larger gatherings. We don’t want to be a breeding ground for (the coronavirus).”

Park and McFarlane say they hope to continue regularly scheduled events when concerns about the coronavirus dissipate.

Park started climbing a little more than two years ago. He chose OSU-Cascades for college because he is an avid snowboarder and wanted to be close to Mt. Bachelor ski area.

During his freshman year, he took a PAC (Physical Activity Course) in rock climbing and fell in love with the sport.

The sport of rock climbing includes bouldering, rope climbing and speed climbing. Park says he enjoys bouldering the most because of the big, dynamic moves necessary while navigating large, overhanging holds.

“It’s also a huge mental game,” Park says. “I didn’t realize how mentally straining it was. You learn from your mistakes and learn the different movements. It is really addicting. It’s challenging, but there’s a level for everyone. There’s always something for you to be trying no matter how good you get.”

McFarlane is also an instructor and coach for youth programs at the Bend Rock Gym. Organizing events and travel for the OSU-Cascades Rock Climbing Club is an ideal fit for his recreation-focused major.

“It’s an awesome program and right up my alley,” McFarlane says. “It’s really applicable to my career.”

The Rock Climbing Club Sport Team works weekly with an instructor to get the climbers competition ready. Brady Kendrick, assistant director of the Bend Endurance Academy, meets the team on Tuesday mornings. This past week, Kendrick was leading climbers in a series of core exercises (situps, plank, etc.) after a climbing session on one of the walls at the Bend Rock Gym.

“I was excited when Connor and Gabe wanted to start the club sports team, because I kind of see this in the future becoming an NCAA sport,” Kendrick says. “We wanted to work with this team from the ground up and then someday it might be an NCAA sport. That would be really fun to be at the ground level.”

Kendrick adds that with climbing scheduled to make its Olympic debut at this summer’s Tokyo Games, excitement around the sport has increased in recent months, especially locally. Last month, the USA Climbing Bouldering Nationals were staged in Central Oregon at the Deschutes County fairgrounds in Redmond for the second straight year.

“Making its Olympic debut has really made the sport grow,” Kendrick says. “Some people are now tuning in to ESPN3 and watching climbing.”

Park says he loves competitive climbing, but he also enjoys the social aspect of the sport, being around his friends and engaging in friendly competition to see who can climb certain walls.

“When we started the club I had no intention of it being so big,” Park reflects. “I just thought it’d be a cool way to get us all climbing together. It’s cool to see the club grow to be the biggest club on campus. It’s really satisfying to see all the students that fill the gym.”

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