On Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays, a group of women can be found scaling their way up the 40-foot walls of the Earth Treks indoor climbing center in Timonium. The women started climbing for different reasons, but they all have one thing in common: a complete willingness to put their safety into others' hands on a weekly basis.
What they do: For about two hours each session, the women meet at the gym and alternate between climbing and spotting for one another. The number of women in the group varies depending on the day.
They start out by ensuring the rope is properly latched into the belayer's metal braking device, sometimes called a gris-gris, and then tying the rope with figure-eight and stop knots.
Timonium resident Joan Hellman says they typically warm up with the easier climbs, which are color-coded and numbered based on difficulty.
"Climbing," Hellman said to her belayer, Kathy Feroli, before beginning her ascent. "Climb on," said Feroli.
It is a brief but essential exchange between climbing partners. Carol Dix, 53, and Stephanie Gibson, 58, both said they have been climbing for about seven years and remain aware of the risks the sport poses.
"You always check your climber, and your climber checks you," Dix said as she stood next to Feroli and watched Hellman from below.
In standard rock climbing, the belayer wears a harness that secures the rope attached to the climber. This allows the belayer to bear the weight of the climber and control the tension of the rope. If the belayer lets go of the rope, the climber will fall.
"It's really interesting," Gibson said, "because your lives are literally in someone else's hands."
But the women have their reasons to keep climbing, despite the chance of something going wrong.
Why they like it: Hellman said she started climbing about 11 years ago when she was in her mid-50s.
"Women of my generation were not encouraged to do competitive sports," she said. "Most people aren't climbing at our age, so I'm just happy to be doing it."
Hellman said she used to be afraid of heights but that climbing is a stress-buster and has taught her to focus and relax.
"I can't think of anything else while I'm doing this," she said.
Beyond overcoming her fear, Hellman said, she likes climbing because it helps with flexibility, strength and balance.
Feroli said she also feared climbing when she first started in 1995. She said that watching her husband and two sons having fun while climbing persuaded her to give it a try.
"I decided, 'That's what I have to do. I have to join them,' " she said. "Anything you fear seems worse than it is."
Feroli said she often meets her son at the Earth Treks center in Columbia so they can climb together, and that over the years her relationship with him has developed a different kind of trust because of climbing.
Gibson and Dix said they enjoy the social interaction, the challenging nature and the versatility of the sport.
"The great thing about climbing is it's really gender-neutral," Gibson said. She said she also likes the task of maneuvering her way to the top of a rock wall.
"It's like a puzzle," Dix said. But that isn't her main reason to continue climbing.
"I wouldn't keep coming back if it weren't for the friendships," she said.
How to get involved: Earth Treks has three Maryland locations: Columbia, Timonium and Rockville. Visit http://www.earthtreksclimbing.com for more information.