Get a Leg Up Climbing Gym Offers a Taste of the High Life

By JiJi Russell

If your New Year’s resolutions involve trying something new, how about this: Change your perspective by getting further off the ground. The contemplative arts like meditation aim at helping us gain objectivity over our mind, and by extension, our habits and our way of being. However, one very literal way to rise up above our midst might offer a rewarding reach of faith: Climbing.

At the end of the summer, an indoor climbing gym opened outside of Martinsburg, W.Va. Climbing New Heights, as it’s aptly named, offers a warehouse-style gym with walls reaching from 18 1/2 to 26 feet; a “bouldering” wall for free climbing (mats placed in fall zones); a gigantic, vertical cargo net; a climbing rope; and a slack line, which challenges even a well-balanced yogi.

Gym owner Brance Keesecker, a part-time Guardsman for the Air National Guard, has parlayed his experience as a combat survival trainer for aircrew members. Serving as both an outdoor climbing guide and indoor gym operator, Keesecker says of climbing: “I like the whole aspect of figuring it out. When you climb outside, you can’t change anything; you have to figure it out as you go.” Indeed, many climbers note the single-pointed focus required to climb effectively.

Harpers Ferry-based chiropractor Alissa Harris has been going to the gym for a little over a month. Starting out as a beginner, she has noticed much improvement in her strength and coordination. And, she said, “Brance and Luke are really good if you can’t figure out a route. They’ll give you tips on how to hold or where to put your feet.”

Luke Badley, a gym employee, who likes “getting up there and puzzling . . . having to think,” appreciates climbing for its power to move one through fear. “Anytime you get to overcome fear and overcome failure, it can be metaphorical for good living and good life skills,” Badley said.

He has seen and appreciated such triumphs as he works with children in the gym. On the afternoon I took my family to the gym for a trial session, Badley’s positive and easy manner nudged my hesitant eight-year-old son right on up the wall.

The gym offers a great cold-weather opportunity for families to stay active and physically engaged together. And with party-hosting services, winter birthdays can take on a new vibe.

“I think it’s a fun way to get exercise and strength training. It’s like a playground for kids and adults. You gain a lot of strength, coordination, and balance,” Harris said. “And with the rappelling, you work on trust and teamwork.”

Keesecker and Badley hope that the gym will become a hub for recreation in and around Martinsburg. In the near term, Badley, who has hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, would like to expand the gym’s offerings by leading hiking excursions outdoors near to the gym.

For those who might feel concerned about safety, from a practical standpoint the “top roping” style of climbing ensures a ready catch if you need it. Additionally, Keesecker is certified by the Professional Climbing Guides Institute, or PCGI. And, as Keesecker says, “I’m not going to climb on something I wouldn’t let my kids climb on. All the holds are structurally engineered and the anchors are certified by an engineer.”

Sometimes a change in perspective is just what the body, mind, and spirit might enjoy.

JiJi Russell, a yoga instructor and Integrative Nutrition health coach, manages the corporate wellness program for American Public University System in Charles Town, W.Va. Reach her at