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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Tim Jones of Westminster College sets his sights on the top of the wall during the competition.

Hand over hand, with the stealth of a spider, students made their way up the wall.

Having learned mostly by doing, the ambitious group climbed Tuesday night on one of Utah's greatest climbing walls, demonstrating focus, determination and perseverance to round artificial boulders and reach the top.

"Every fall is a ground fall," said Marvin Seale, director of fitness at Westminster College, adding that the idea was to keep off the ground and on the wall. The private school hosted students from four other colleges and universities in Utah to see who could best the wall at the Dolores Dore Eccles Health, Wellness and Athletic Center, best.

The 15-foot climb, scattered with various "problems" set on the wall, proved easy for some and more difficult for others. Obstacles, Seale said, included pockets that could only hold two or three fingers, dime-size edges on 45-degree overhangs as well as variable smoothness throughout. More than 40 of them were interspersed on the wall, demonstrating as close to a real scenario as possible.

"Climbing is a lot different than most sports. It feels more natural to me," said University of Utah student Zak Liles, who learned to climb while participating in Boy Scouts in his hometown of El Paso, Texas. Liles currently works in a climbing gym and heads to the hills as often as he gets time to.

"Anybody who wants to climb can do it. You have to have the desire," he said, adding that climbing has its frustrations, including not knowing what to expect from location to location.

Utah is known for great outdoor recreation opportunities, one being climbing, with popular locations scattered throughout Big and Little Cottonwood canyons and elsewhere in the state.

"You can get to fantastic climbing spots within a two- or three-hour drive from anywhere in this state," said Westminster's outdoor recreation director Liz Rogers. Location is one reason for the success of climbing programs at Utah schools, she said. "They are definitely growing in popularity."

Several local indoor climbing gyms offer a place to practice with a soft landing, allowing climbers of differing levels to increase their skills.

"I was afraid of heights after I had my daughter," said U. student Natalie Winn. "She was in the hospital for three months, and my friends got me into climbing to help relieve the stress."

Winn climbs at least twice a week — mostly for the workout — but she likes that the sport leaves room for improvement, "there's always something to work for and get better at."

"You have to be willing to fail, but it will teach you perseverance," she said.

Utah State University student Chad Christensen said in addition to ambition, trust is a major issue.

"You've got to trust your belayers," he said. Although Tuesday's climbs were unroped, students spotted each other and scored each run.

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"It's not about speed, it's not even about grace," Seale said. "It's about getting to the top."

Trust, focus, determination and endurance learned from grasping onto a boulder's edge at undetermined heights, Seale said, can also be implemented while taking a test in school or working through problems in everyday life.

"The act of climbing demands your focus," he said. "You learn to breathe deeply and focus on the task at hand. And you walk away realizing there was nothing interfering with your destination."

Collectively the students scaled the wall more than 100 times, no climb being exactly the same. Officials appointed point values to each climb and determined winners for the competition. However, the experience, Christensen said, "is worthwhile just to practice somewhere new."

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com