Rock climber scales Iowa


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There are thousands of artificial rocks bolted to the three-story climbing wall at the Campus Recreation & Wellness Center. They're gray and black, purple and rust-colored, highlighter yellow and sea-foam green and covered with man-made holds.

R.J. Randall doesn't need to use them. The 29-year-old North Liberty business owner has been rock climbing on and off for around 17 years — and become serious about it for the last five. He's so experienced on the wall at the Rec Center that he can scale all 52 1/2 feet without using any of the holds; he can use just the natural features — dips, cracks, bulges, and ridges — in the rock itself.

"There's a route that used to have both holds and a lot of naturals, and I could barely climb it," said Amy Barr, one of Randall's climbing partners. "Well, they took the holds off. I couldn't even get past the first four moves, and R.J. just skips up the whole thing. He's like Spider-Man."

Randall is arguably the best climber who frequents the wall, but he says he's inspired by the beginners and the climbers who struggle to scale a height that Randall could master with his eyes closed.

"You sometimes get to this point where you feel like you're better than other people … but then you see people who are just coming in to try it out for the first time or people who are still learning the very basics of climbing," Randall said. "They're humble, and they want to learn. They take advice and ask for help. They're scared, but they try it anyway. I love watching those people."

James Wetzel is one of these beginners. He started climbing in February and immediately began looking to Randall for examples of exceptional climbing. He also asked the veteran climber for advice.

"If you have a question about a rock, you don't have to be shy to ask R.J. how he did it," Wetzel said. "You can learn a lot from him, and it's very inspiring to see him climb a wall with no holds like this. It helps you improve. I've been getting better and better in his footsteps."

Despite Randall's expertise — a talent that developed from a childhood of "climbing trees and houses and the neighbor's garage" — he's still learning. He's learning to not only become a better climber, but he also translates the lessons he's learned on the rope to his life.

He's learned how far he can push himself. "If you're not bleeding when you walk away from the wall, you're not trying hard enough," Randall said and followed with a slight laugh.

He's learned to take "the path of least resistance," to not complicate things, to live simply and freely.
He's learned to love the very details of the rock under his calloused and peeling fingers, the chalk smears on his pant legs, the tightness of his climbing shoes. Climbing is hard work for Randall, but he relishes the struggle.

"He definitely is determined to succeed every day, but mostly, he just finds so much joy in it," Barr said. "You could just pound away at things and never love them and it doesn't feel good — it feels like it's a task. But with this, you have to think about the climb, and use your body efficiently, and really, truly love what you're doing up there. That's when you get good. Really good. R.J. is a perfect example of that."

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