South Salem freshman Abe Orozco works on a bouldering route during a Salem-Keizer Unified Climbing Club practice at Rock Boxx climbing gym on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

When Abraham Orozco gets home from his weekly rock climbing session, he can’t stop talking about it.

The 15-year-old South Salem High School student chats about his friends, the club’s adviser, how much fun he had - “he just goes on and on,” said his mother, Pamela Orozco.

Abraham, who has Down syndrome, is one of the regular attendees of Salem’s Unified Climbing Club, a program that invites high school students with and without disabilities to rock climb together weekly at The Rock Boxx.

At the beginning, Abraham would only make it halfway up the wall, Orozco said. Once he got more confident, he started practically shooing his parents away at the start of each session.

“He was kind of like, ‘OK Mom and Dad, you can go,’” according to his mother. Now, they swing by for the tail end of the sessions to watch Abraham climb.

“He’ll show us the new things he’s learned, and the walls he’s learning to climb and how brave he’s gotten,” Orozco said. “He’s very excited when he can get a little higher.”

South Salem junior Joshua Barraza works on a climbing route as members of the Salem-Keizer Unified Climbing Club look on at Rock Boxx climbing gym on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The high school rock climbing club is around five years old, but the idea to offer adaptive sessions started last year with just a couple meetups. A Rock Boxx employee and then-South Salem student named Alexandra Kirk was instrumental in getting the program off the ground, said Brennan Young, the climbing club’s current adviser.

The joint sessions proved a hit. The combination of climbers with and without disabilities fostered a supportive and positive environment, and the Unified Climbing Club was officially born last year. Today, meetups can include as many as 30 people, though they’re usually attended by around 10.

According to Young, who’s also a teacher in the developmental learning center at South, the group focuses on bouldering, a type of climbing that doesn’t involve ropes or harnesses. Participants never rise higher than 12 or 15 feet above the mat below.

Bouldering is essentially a problem-solving exercise. To complete a route, the climbers need to figure out what their bodies can and can’t do through trial and error. It’s equal parts physical and mental challenge, with an emphasis on body awareness and building strength through “micro-movement,” he said.

“Each route is set in a particular way where there’s a right and a wrong way to do it,” Young explained. “There’s that mental aspect, to unlock the right movement for you.”

There’s a social component to the sport, too. Young said club members spend much of the session time on the mat, trying to help each other complete the puzzle and “send” the route.

If you fall, no big deal - get back off the mat and try it a little differently.

“That creates a cool sense of community as you’re trying to solve the problem in a group setting. It really does cater to climbing together,” Young added. “They’ll give each other feedback and cheer each other on.”

Wintana Elias, a senior at South Salem High School, boulders with the Salem-Keizer Unified Climbing Club at Rock Boxx climbing gym on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

According to Orozco, Abraham’s consistent participation is helping him improve his physical coordination, especially the finicky, precise hand movements needed to scale a wall.

“He’s always had a lot of issues with his fine motor skills and using his fingers,” Orozco said. “It’s really given him a lot of strength and allowed him to do other things that he’d otherwise have a little more trouble with.”

But while her son and his peers are strengthening their physical, mental and social muscles at the rock climbing meetups, Orozco emphasized that the club is equally beneficial for its other members.

“They get just as much out of these programs as Abraham does,” she said.

There’s a camaraderie among climbers. In addition to tackling all the same physical and mental challenges that come with bouldering, the other members are practicing patience and warmth. They’re connecting and communicating with people different from themselves.

“It’s just going to help them to grow up to be better people, too,” Orozco said. “They’re a lot more alike than they are different.”

Unified Climbing Club meets from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays at The Rock Boxx, located at 3895 Cascadia Canyon Ave SE. in Salem. Gym passes cost $14 per day for high school students or $55 for a monthly membership.

Joshua Barraza, left, discusses a climbing route with members of the Salem-Keizer Unified Climbing Club as well as advising teacher, Brennan Young, back, at Rock Boxx climbing gym on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Deliyna Elias, a senior at South Salem High School, chalks her hands while climbing with the Salem-Keizer Unified Climbing Club at Rock Boxx climbing gym on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Brennan Young, adviser to the Salem-Keizer Unified Climbing Club, works on a bouldering route at Rock Boxx climbing gym on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Joshua Barraza, left, and Abe Orozco, of the Salem-Keizer Unified Climbing Club, high five after topping out on a bouldering route at Rock Boxx climbing gym on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Brennan Young, advising teacher to the Salem-Keizer Unified Climbing Club, works with freshman Abe Orco on a climbing route at Rock Boxx climbing gym on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

CORRECTION: The names of students Alexandra Kirk and Abraham Orozco and parent Pamela Orozco were misspelled in the original version of this story. Salem Reporter apologizes for the errors.

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