Rock climbing is a full body workout. Climbers must perform a carefully choreographed vertical dance to successfully scale a surface that’s oftentimes unpredictable and unreliable. It’s no wonder then, that midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy are drawn to this challenging sport. Throughout their career at Navy, midshipmen strive to accomplish the all-important physical mission despite the difficulties and impossibilities–and rock climbing is an excellent way to achieve that.
A Community of Climbers
The USNA Rock Climbing Team, Navy Rock, first came together at the Halsey Field House indoor climbing wall years ago. Initially, they were a group of experienced climbers that stood watch over those who wanted to climb. By 2009, they had formed an official Naval Academy Club, or extracurricular activity (ECA), with Josh McCauley (‘09) at the helm as president. That year, Navy Rock made trips to outdoor crags in the Annapolis area and took part in their first competitions in the USA Climbing Collegiate Series.
They’ve grown significantly since then. Now, the team has 20 rostered members, and about 50 showed up for tryouts early in the fall semester. There are so many enthusiastic climbers at the Naval Academy in fact, that the club welcomes climbers not on the team to climb during their practice times when Halsey is open to the Brigade. Practices run from Monday through Thursday each week from 4:00 PM - 6:00 PM. But that’s not enough sometimes. Climbers who want more action travel to a local gym called Movement in Columbia, Maryland or they venture out to nearby crags.
Climbing in the Ratings
Their hard work has paid off. In 2019, Navy Rock won the Regional Championships (now called Divisional Championships). Then came the COVID pandemic, and the competitions stopped. Since last year was the team’s first foray into competition since 2019, transitioning from recreational climbing to the higher stakes competition climbing was difficult. Still, the team put forth a tremendous effort. It was the first competition for many members, and they came home with some wins. Nine climbers competed at the Divisionals Championship, and the team placed fifth overall. One of the midshipmen, Molly Jones (‘23) qualified for and went on to place 59th out of 72 at Nationals. It was an admirable showing, and the future is bright.
Captain Molly Jones (‘23) and VP Zack Tieng (‘23) lead the team currently. Professor Max Wakefield of the Math Department is the faculty lead, and has climbed with the team for almost 10 years. “He is part coach, part mentor for all of us,” says Jones. Lieutenant Wiechec and Lieutenant Sampayan, both in the Mechanical Engineering Department, serve as officer representatives, helping with paperwork and traveling to some of the local competitions and outdoor climbing trips.
Rocking the Season
Navy Rock currently competes in the USA Climbing Collegiate Series, Mid-Atlantic Division, against teams from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia and Virginia. They have two seasons: The fall season, which allows climbers to take advantage of the weather for outdoor climbing and get experience on real rock and the spring season which is full of competitions.
This year, their first outdoor practice trip took them to the Shawangunk Mountains in New Paltz, New York. Their first location competition was in Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania; it was important to the team because the registration fees helped pay for local access funds that keep the outdoor climbing areas open and safely maintained. The second local competition was on December 3, versus Army. Even though the USNA team was not victorious, Jones remarked “This competition was a good way to restart the relationship between our teams.” Jones explained, “We haven't competed against Army in at least four years, possibly more, and we're excited to see them again next year!”
By the spring semester they’re taking their talents to more and more competitions, working toward the ultimate contest in their league, the Divisional Championships at the end of March. Climbers that qualify at this level can move on to the Collegiate National Championships in April.
Belaying for Each Other
There is more to the sport than the competition, though. Through its challenges, rock climbing engenders a strong sense of community. Jones explains, “The best part about the team is the community and the places we get to go. Climbing has a really unique culture because of how dangerous—but also rewarding—it can be. We all love to push ourselves and each other, but we make sure to have each others’ backs when we’re out climbing in the woods. When you climb with someone, you’re putting your life and safety in their hands. That kind of trust in each other builds a really special bond. Our trips also often involve long drives and very cold weather, so we get really close pushing through the tough conditions.”
The danger is real, but the teamwork is strong. “During my plebe year, the team was at Seneca Rocks, West Virginia, an area known for traditional climbing and occasionally loose rock,” Jones says. “A rock fell and hit the belayer of another party nearby on her shoulder. The climber was fine but the belayer was in so much pain she could no longer keep her climber protected. The captains at the time, CJ Vandellen (‘20) and James Truong (‘20), quickly led the group to help them. One person took over the belay and lowered the climber to safety while another group hiked about two miles back to town (there is no cell phone service in that area) to get help from the local climbing shop and EMTs…. Climbing teaches us the mental skills to handle stressful situations in a calm manner, which I would say is one of the most valuable skill sets a person could have.”
Navy Rock epitomizes calm bravery and heroism in the face of tremendous physical challenges and ever-present danger. With excellent teamwork, they also show that anything is possible. For more exciting photos and information about their adventures, check out their Instagram page.
Support the Team
At the NABSD we are honored to support the Rock Climbing Club and about 140 other USNA clubs and activities offered on the Yard. You can support them too. When you visit the Yard, take our tours, dine in our restaurants and shop here, the profits go right back to the Brigade to fund these incredible opportunities. We look forward to seeing Navy Rock climb even higher and we’re proud to be a strong belayer for them too.