NORTHSHIRE - An untraditional sport is on the rise in popularity with several schools in the southern end of the state beginning to individually recognize it as a varsity program.

Rock climbing - a sport that has been in existence at some schools for multiple years - is now beginning to gain some traction with more teams being formed at the high school and middle school levels. Additionally, a greater number of students seem to be taking an interest in the sport.

"The sport is elevating in legitimacy, as more schools get involved and more people get to understand sort of what the competitions are like and the training is like for the kids," said Long Trail School coach Scott Worland.

Burr and Burton Academy began competing toward the end of last season with six to seven students consistently attending the last three monthly competitions. That number has more than doubled this year with 15-16 people already showing interest, according to BBA coach Andrew MacArthur.

"The increase in popularity I'm getting students that don't have a winter sport and they want something to do this winter to stay in shape and students who aren't involved in sport at all who think that rock climbing is different," said MacArthur. "It's an alternative sport. It's something they can do after school and get involved with."

MacArthur said he was approached by students last year who had competed in the league in middle school at the Green Mountain Rock Climbing Center in Rutland. About 6-7 students started consistently going to competitions about midway through last season before the program took off this year.

This year, MacArthur he said probably has too many kids interested with 15-16 students on the roster as of press time. The problem, MacArthur said, is that bus can only transport 14 students at a time to the Green Mountain Rock Climbing Center in Rutland where they will practice twice a week and compete once a month beginning Nov. 20.

For Long Trail School - which has been competing in regional competition since 2009 - rock climbing is the sport that generates the most interest among students.

Worland said there are 14-18 students interested in participating in the sport between middle school and high school and like BBA they sometimes have issues centering around transportation.

Along with Long Trail and Burr and Burton there are five other high schools that also participate in competitions at the Rutland facility throughout the winter. Four of those high schools - LTS, Mill River, Rutland High School, and Otter Valley - also have middle school teams that compete along with Black River and Rutland Town School at the Rutland facility throughout the season.

Another seven teams compete at the Green Mountain Rock Climbing Center in Quechee and last year manager of the Rutland facility, Matt Digan, said they held the first state championship in which teams from the Quechee gym and the Rutland gym competed against each other to determine a champion.

While many schools are individually recognizing the sport among its varsity programs, the Vermont Principal's Association has yet to do so.

In January there was suppose to be a vote about whether or not to make rock climbing a varsity sport. However, according to Associate Executive Director of the VPA, Bob Johnson, the vote was tabled.

"The reason for that was because even though they did a very good presentation, what Activity Standards realized was that basically this is a very limited opportunity since there are only two rock climbing walls, one in Quechee and one in Rutland and their concern was in order for it to be sanctioned as a full sport statewide they had to have more centers and more opportunities for other students to participate," said Johnson.

Although he was not sure exactly how many more facilities would have to host and serve as practice facilities for teams, Johnson estimated that at least two would be required and that both would have to be located in the northern part of the state.

There are at least three other rock climbing facilities located in the north. Steve Charest - who along with his wife owns Petra Cliff's Climbing Center in Burlington - said that while some schools have shown interest in starting programs there hasn't been much progress. If schools showed interest though Charest said that his facility would be interested in hosting practices and competitions.

"It's something we've wanted to do," said Charest. "It's just getting the right people in each of the different schools spearheading it. Each school would need to have someone on faculty. There's quite a few teachers that climb at our gym that are interested in it. It's just a matter of them trying to get the funds."

While there are six or seven schools in the area that Charest said could easily have a team, he said Champlain Valley Union High School, Mount Mansfield Union High School and Burlington High School were the closest to that becoming a reality.

Though there is nothing on the agenda to reconsider making rock climbing a varsity sport at the moment, Johnson said it is still a possibility.

"If it comes back to us that there are more centers that are now interested and would be willing to consider it, then ASC (Activity Standards Committee) would take it up again and take a look at it again," said Johnson. "There is no specific timeline in terms of it has to be done by this time or that time. There is no timeline at all."

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