Discovery Happens at the Edge

New research compares human energy costs between routes of varying difficulty

Central Oregon’s Smith Rock attracts rock climbers from all over the world. But even the best athletes are looking for ways to improve their climb. Can more frequent rest periods get a climber back to optimal performance? Instead of shaking out hands, can active recovery methods improve grip? Can climbing techniques be adjusted to be more efficient? 

A new study funded by the Layman Fellowship program and led by OSU-Cascades kinesiology instructor Tim Burnett is looking to answer these questions and more.

 “We’re in the Wild West of rock climbing research,” said Burnett. “It’s been difficult to get data on rock climbers in the past, and in this study we are using new equipment that allows us to take metabolic measurements during the entire climb.”

The kinesiology program is partnering with Bend Rock Gym to conduct the study. The staff at Bend Rock Gym sets climbing routes for national competitions and worked with the OSU-Cascades research team to set two routes for the study. One route is intermediate in difficulty and one route is easy-to-intermediate.

On a recent weekday, the gym was filled with climbers scaling 50-foot walls practicing grabs, twists and turns.

Down below, kinesiology student researcher and Layman Fellow Sherri Dean was calibrating the metabolic equipment that will measure a climber’s breathing and heartrate. Fellow student researcher and Layman Fellow Kelsey Peters stretched out, then strapped on a backpack and face mask. As Peters climbs, Dean monitors her data on a laptop.

Over the course of the study, researchers will measure subjects on the two routes up the wall. They will look at energy expenditure and muscle fatigue.

Researchers will use this study as a baseline for future studies, including a study of how equipment and training can affect a climb. They are also interested in comparing rock climbing to high impact exercise like running and cross fit.

Andrew Hawley is an instructor in the Tourism, Recreation and Adventure Leadership program and is co-investigator on the study. He’ll use the data to develop training programs for climbers.

As Peters jumps down from the wall, Dean reviews spikes in the graph where Peters was breathing hard.

“It’s fun to geek out on the data,” said Dean.