Sarah Fountain gains strength and finds community in rock climbing.
Sarah Fountain recalls a moment when her life as a rock climber seemed to pause, she held fast to the rock face, her grip tightened and her muscles tensed. It was her first time sport climbing outdoors, and panic halted her ascent.
I was on a route that I am physically able to do, but because I was outside, I was just freaking out,” she says. But Fountain had learned a few things about overcoming fear from her climbing practice. “My belayer, Steve Barry, was like, ‘Sarah, you can do this,’” she says. “So I did it. Getting to the top was the most rewarding thing.”
Fountain’s arrival on that summit at Rumney Rocks in New Hampshire’s White Mountains last fall seems like a natural development now, but it would have been hard to imagine a year earlier. She’d been living in California, traveling often to visit friends, never staying in one place long enough for it to feel like home. But by the fall of 2014, she knew she needed to be in Portland with her brother, John Fountain, a well-known Portland musician whom Sarah calls “a true inspiration.”
John was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in May 2014. He was doing well then, but the prognosis was heartbreaking; Fountain’s big brother was dying. That October, Fountain moved to Portland. Day by day, she found herself transitioning from sister to caregiver.
One afternoon, Fountain found herself walking into EVO Rock and Fitness in Portland, not long after the indoor climbing gym on Warren Avenue first opened. She had only climbed a few times before but didn’t stick with it. “I just heard by word-of-mouth that it was opening. Literally it was just like that, just walking in,” she says. “I don’t know what sparked me to do it other than gut instinct.”
With over 17,000 square feet of climbing and 42-foot walls, EVO dwarfs Portland’s previous climbing facility, the Maine Rock Gym, which served southern Maine climbers for two decades before closing in early 2015. But Maine Rock Gym’s heart still beats inside the larger EVO. Scott Howard and Keith Morris, owners of Maine Rock Gym, are two of the partners in EVO’s Portland location, and the EVO team includes many former Maine Rock Gym staff, says Hilary Harris, CEO and founder of EVO Rock and Fitness, which also includes locations in New Hampshire, Indiana, and a fourth slated for Colorado.
The climbing includes beginner-level routes as well as advanced lead climbing, speed climbing, and bouldering. There’s also cross-training equipment, cardio machines, free weights, a kids’ area, and Zumba, tango, yoga, and aerial yoga classes.
A few miles down the turnpike, Salt Pump Climbing Co. in Scarborough opened the doors to 13,000 square feet of climbing walls last summer. There, too, climbers will find steep features, bouldering, cross-training equipment, yoga classes, and a pond and outdoor deck to boot. But more important are the people, says program director Vince Schaefer. “Climbing is very rooted in having a space where everyone’s looking after each other. We try very hard to share that very welcoming vibe. It’s a natural attribute of climbing. You’re on a rope; your life is in your partner’s hands. I think it’s a hugely rewarding community to be a part of.”
The members of greater Portland’s climbing community run the gamut, says Harris. Youth programs are popular, but she also sees families climbing together, and young professionals trying a new sport. The climbing gym is a place where beginner and experienced climbers alike feel welcome. “The community here is very strong,” says Harris, who credits Maine Rock Gym’s 20-year tenure for today’s growing contingent of climbers.
Fountain was immediately smitten with the sport. “After the first day in the gym I’m like, ‘Give me a membership,’” she says. “And I went every day after.” Quickly, fellow climbers became Fountain’s close friends. They offered advice on her technique (“move your right hip in towards the wall”) and lent a supportive ear when Fountain needed it. She celebrated her birthday at the gym. The climbing wall became a place for her to refuel, and a kind of therapy, too. “I felt embraced,” she says. “When I first moved here, John was doing well on his own. And as he got sicker, it became harder on me and harder on him.”
Some days, Fountain gained clarity from a talking session on the bouldering pad. When she didn’t feel like talking, she could come into the gym, “crush” a challenging route, and bring that emotion back to John. She took her climbing outside, facing her fear first at Rumney Rocks and later at Acadia, Camden, and Shagg Crag, and found the challenges amplified, and the healing strengthened by nature. “It was interesting because I found something that was making me physically strong, and my brother was getting physically weaker,” says Fountain. “I’d ask, ‘Are you sure you want me to go to the gym?’ and John would say, ‘This is what life is all about. Go do these things. Go to Acadia. Go to Rumney.’”
“Since I’ve become a climber I’ve gotten stronger in other aspects,” Fountain says. “And more willing.”
It’s a point Harris echoes. “There are so many lessons you learn on the rock, like patience,” she says. “Climbing is a moving meditation. You’re battling with being frightened and having doubts. You learn to clear your mind and negotiate through the next problem. Take your focus off the summit and focus on the here and now, on climbing efficiently and calmly. If you’re thinking of the end result, you’ll never get there.”
Lessons learned on the rock and the people she met there helped Fountain cope when John died this past December.
“I wouldn’t have gotten through losing him or taking care of him without them,” Fountain says. “I think there’s something about the climbing community I haven’t found exists somewhere else.” As for climbing, “it’s a whole different part of my life, not just a hobby. It’s so much about what it means to wake up in the morning,” she says.
As John said, this is what life is all about.