By MEGAN JAMES
MIDDLEBURY — Fifth- and sixth-graders from Ripton Community School were climbing up the walls — and even across a ceiling — at Mary Hogan School on Thursday morning.
Kids packed into harnesses and helmets scaled the gym wall, which is painted like a mountain range, and pulled themselves up on platforms jutting out from the snow-capped peaks. Around the gym, others were hoisted up to the ceiling and descending down toward the floor like spiders on threads of silk.
Mary Hogan physical education teacher Mike Quinn was busy belaying a boy who dangled from the ceiling, slowly pulling himself across a rope. Quinn and guidance counselor Wes McKee started Mary Hogan’s climbing program about 16 years ago.
“We’ve been very lucky,” Quinn said, never taking his eyes off the boy suspended above him. “We have a great administration … even before (Principal) Bonnie (Bourne), they were really supportive of the program.”
The Ripton students started coming to Mary Hogan to climb about five years ago, the first year Steve Lindemann began teaching sixth grade in Ripton after previously teaching — and working with Quinn with the climbing program — at Mary Hogan.
“We couldn’t afford this up in Ripton, of course,” Lindemann said. “So I thought why couldn’t we take advantage of it, if it’s available.”
Quinn and Bourne said of course it was available, and they extended an open invitation.
Almost every year since then Lindemann brings his Ripton fifth- and sixth-graders down to Middlebury on a school bus in the morning and back to Ripton at lunchtime on an Addison County Transit Resources bus.
Each year they make two trips, giving the kids a chance to get over any fears they might have on their first visit.
“It might be a little overwhelming the first time, so (on the second time) they have some time to reflect and say, ‘Ok, so how am I going to challenge myself this time,’” he said.
Two of his students were pretty anxious on Thursday morning — they had missed the first session the previous week — but they were able to get over their fear before lunch.
“It gives some students a chance to show strengths that maybe they normally aren’t able to show in the classroom,” Lindemann said. “Also, it’s really a way for them to challenge themselves.”
Sixth-grader Anneke Jewett and fifth-grader Jesse Wulfman were fearless from the start. The girls, helping belay another student, said they had learned to climb before coming to Mary Hogan.
“We climb at Petra Cliffs in Rutland a lot,” Jewett said. “It’s fun, you get exercise. It’s not scary.”
Petra Cliffs is an indoor wall, like Mary Hogan’s, Jewett said, but she has also climbed outdoors near the Falls of Lana in Leicester with an instructor from Middlebury Mountaineer.
She said she loves the sessions at Mary Hogan because they’re infinitely more fun than regular gym class.
Wulfman, who was working on tying a double figure-8 knot in her belay rope, said that a good climber has to learn how to cooperate with others.
“You need to know how to work as a team,” she said, pointing to two other girls who were negotiating what looked like an extra-wide rope ladder hanging from the ceiling. “You have to help each other get up, so you have to be able to work together.”
The two girls climbing up to the ceiling were having a bit of trouble. Fifth-grader Jennifer Cyr had made it up to the highest rung — there were four thick beams between the floor and the ceiling, and the space in between each beam was about the size of the girls — but her partner, fifth-grader Meghan Mulholland was stuck one level below her.
A team of kids and Lindemann belayed from below, moving back and forth to let out the ropes as the girls ascended and descended. They watched as Cyr climbed down to her partner’s rung and propped her leg up so Mulholland could use it like a booster step and finally reach the top beam.
The group belaying below cheered when the two girls reached the top.
“You can’t be mean to your partner, like ‘Come on!’” Cyr explained when she and her partner returned to the ground. “You’ve got to be really, really nice. I told her to believe in herself. I could tell she wasn’t believing in herself because her palms started to sweat.”
“Yeah, I was really freaked out, because I was upside down,” she said.
But Mulholland was proud of climbing as high as she did.
“I want to come back again,” she said.