Clinging to a steep overhang, he reaches out to the next hold, but loses traction and falls.

He hits the crash pad and jumps up. Repositioning himself, he starts again.

That’s what bouldering, a form of rock climbing, is all about. Working a route, or problem, which is marked by different colors of tape, over and over until you master it. It might sound grueling, but for many rock climbers, it’s part of what makes the sport so appealing.

“You actually have to think about it, and it’s hard when you don’t get a problem,” said Merry Armstrong, junior in nutrition who works at HPER’s climbing wall said. “You can have a goal, and just work it and work it. It’s a really big confidence builder when you get the problem.”

Another climber, Taylor Blackstone, a junior in chemical engineering, agreed that finally completing a problem is the most rewarding aspect of the sport.

“Seeing progress is probably my favorite,” Blackstone said. “Looking at a climb, trying it and not getting anywhere, and then working on it and finally sticking a move.”

Climbing is not just physically difficult. It also requires mental strength.

“Just mentally, it psyches me out sometimes,” Armstrong said. “Not only is it physically demanding, but mentally you have to give yourself a pep talk sometimes.”

Armstrong explained another type of climbing called sport climbing, which is only done outside. It involves a leader who clips the rope into bolts along the way for themselves and everyone else.

If the leader falls, they not only fall to the last bolt they clipped into, but also the length of rope they have traveled since that bolt.

“That’s one thing that really freaks me out sometimes,” Armstrong said. “I can get defeated thinking, ‘This is too hard.'”

Beau Jackson, a junior in food science, has been climbing for three years and still occasionally struggles with self-doubt.

“Overcoming, ‘I can’t do this,’ versus, ‘I can do this,'” Jackson said. “I feel like, and this goes for anybody, the majority of the time you’ll try it (a move) and then you’ll feel like the move could actually be possible. I think it makes you want to try harder things, and become a stronger climber.”

Small in stature, Blackstone has faced – and overcome – similar challenges.

“Watching professional girl climbers, there’s plenty of them that are 5’1″, 5’2″ and they all work around it,” Blackstone said. “They can do the move, so that just means that I need to work harder to do it as well. It’s mental.”

Climbers at UT also have the benefit of encouragement from the other students, many of whom spend their free time together.

“I’ve met so many people at the wall, and I feel like there’s a good community,” Armstrong said. “Other climbers will be working on the same problem or they will see you, and they’ve done that route. They might tell you, ‘You might want to try getting your hips in more,’ or ‘Try this kind of movement,’ so they’re really encouraging. It’s not just the physical part, but the whole environment.”

The largest climbing wall in the area, the space offers a real advantage to rock climbing enthusiasts who attend the university.

“UT’s climbing center is really, really good,” Jackson said. “I think we have a good grasp of how to set good problems, and then also we’ve got a lot of features, different angles and degrees that keep problems interesting.”

Armstrong agreed that certain features set UT’s center apart from other climbing gyms.

“I like that we have not only the bouldering walls that are overhanging, but we also have slab, like straight up and down, and then also the top rope,” Armstrong said.

Climbing in the Knoxville area is not limited to walls like those in HPER. In fact, many of the climbers prefer to take the skills they learn in the gym outdoors.

According to Outdoor Knoxville, Knoxville is the “perfect hub” for rock climbing, as it is located within a three-hour drive from 5,000 different climbing routes. A favorite is the Obed Wild and Scenic River, which is about 50 minutes away near Wartburg, Tennessee. UT climbers also typically go to Little Rock City in Chattanooga to enjoy bouldering.

Those who have never climbed before may want to first start back at the gym. Beginners can take belaying classes and then start climbing the top rope wall in a couple of days, or they can jump right into it on the bouldering wall.

Blackstone explained that the climbing center is always open to new members.

“The staff is always more than willing to show people around,” Blackstone said. “I think we make it as easy as possible to get into because we want to spread the sport. We don’t want to keep it exclusive or anything like that.”

But would-be climber, be warned; climbing seems to be addictive. Jackson and Armstrong were both “hooked” from the first day, while Blackstone personally has long term plans for climbing.

“I’m probably going to climb until I can’t walk anymore,” Blackstone said. “I want to be one of those old, greying women climbing up the wall in Yosemite or something. I think that would be awesome.”