It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment it happens.

One minute we’re adventurous 8-year-olds, knocking our friends out of the way to be the first one up the neighborhood climbing tree. Then, without warning, we’re 40 and having a panic attack just looking up at the Ferris wheel at the county fair.

That fear of heights is a sneaky little bugger. And while it does come in handy some times (like “Hey, hiking is rad, but heads up there’s a ledge over there and you could slip and die so STAY BACK because you are crazy clumsy and maybe move away some more please!”) it can also talk us out of some really cool experiences.

Like climbing the walls at an indoor rock gym.

First-time climber Bethanie on the wall at EVO Rock + Fitness during an Intro to Climbing lesson. Shannon Bryan photo

Indoor climbing is a ton of fun (something the kid you already knows). And at a rock gym like EVO Rock + Fitness in Portland, it’s also supremely safe. So if visions of free soloing El Capitan are sending you into waking terrors, you can feel free to escort those visions elsewhere.

At EVO, you’ll be in excellent hands (and a harness, because #safetyalways), and while many climbers do start learning at an indoor rock gym and then take their skills outdoors, you don’t have to. You can climb inside ’til your hearts content. You can climb only as high as you feel comfortable. And you can have an absolutely fabulous time, even if you’re totally sure that you’re afraid of heights and won’t get more that 10 inches off the ground. Spoiler: Methinks you’re going to surprise yourself.

You’ll show up despite your nerves, you’ll take that first step up onto the wall, and you’ll probably climb a little bit higher than you thought you would. And then maybe higher after that. You’ll challenge yourself, no doubt about it, and you’ll be a whole lot of proud of yourself, too.

But first things first – you’ve got to give it a try.

Climbing at EVO Rock + Fitness in Portland. This is not the beginner wall, so don’t panic. But looks pretty sweet, doesn’t it? Shannon Bryan photo

EVO is pretty spectacular to walk into. It has 17,000 square feet of climbing, including beginner, intermediate, and advanced routes, as well as lead climbing, speed climbing, and bouldering. Walls vary from 24 feet to 42 feet and there’s climbing for kids and adults. Also: it’s downright cool to look at.

But don’t let those tall walls freak you out – first-timers start on walls that are more beginner-friendly, and then you can progress and experiment on more difficult routes when you’re ready.

Climbing at EVO Rock + Fitness in Portland. Shannon Bryan photo
The bouldering wall at EVO Rock + Fitness in Portland. Shannon Bryan photo

For new climbers, EVO Rock + Fitness offers an intro to climbing class every day of the week (twice a day on weekends). It’s the perfect way to dip your toes into climbing. All the gear is included and you’ll have a knowledgeable instructor who’ll walk you through every step, show you how to tie your climbing knot, properly belay, and start attacking that wall. You’ll glean some pointers and have someone to cheer you as you go, whether you make it two feet off the ground or twenty.

This spring, I had the pleasure of seeing some beginners experience climbing for the first time when the Fit Maine Social Club headed to EVO Rock + Fitness for an into to climbing lesson.

Checking in and getting climbing shoes and harnesses before an Intro to Climbing class at Evo Rock + Fitness in Portland. Shannon Bryan photos

Weekday lessons run from 7-8:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 12-1:30 p.m. and 3-4:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The cost is $35 per person, which includes a harness, climbing shoes, and a belay device. You just show up in comfortable clothes. We arrive a few minutes early to make sure we’d signed the waiver (you’re encouraged to sign it online in advance) and get the right size shoes.

Our instructor for the day was Julia, a welcoming and experienced climber who led us upstairs to where these beginners were going to get started. (Also known as the Kids Climbing Area. Hey, we all gotta start somewhere.) She started with the basics, explaining top rope climbing (see that rope that goes up and over that anchor at the top and then back down?) and lead climbing (because apparently rock faces in the wild don’t always have ropes just hanging there for climbers to use). She showed everyone how to get into their harnesses and pointed out a few routes on the wall and the signs next two them that said things like 5.5 and 5.7. The numbers refer to each route’s difficulty on a scale that goes from 5.0 to 5.15.

Climbing instructor Julia, second from right in the gray sweatshirt, walks everyone through the figure 8 knot. Shannon Bryan photo
Learning the ropes during at intro to climbing class at EVO Rock + Fitness in Portland. Climbing instructor Julia, right, shows Nicole how to tie the figure 8 knot. Shannon Bryan photo
Figuring out that figure 8 knot during an intro to climbing class at EVO Rock + Fitness. Shannon Bryan photo

Then she moved on to the figure 8 knot – the tie-in knot used most by climbers. She demonstrated how it’s tied and then had everyone try it themselves a few times. Actually, many times.

Everyone learned how to belay, too (because if you’re going to climb, you’ll need a belayer, and you’ll need to return the favor).

And then, it was time to start climbing.

Wendy climbs first – and with gusto! Shannon Bryan photo

Wendy volunteered to go first. (Damn straight. Wendy’s bold like that.) She had climbed years ago when her kids were little, but still, it was amazing to watch her get on that wall and motor up like she was on a mission.

Then she suddenly stopped and said, “Okay, I think I’m ready to come down now.”

Nicole climbing higher and higher every time. Shannon Bryan photo
Kim was nervous as all get-out when she arrived. Now look at her. Shannon Bryan photo

The first climb was pretty much like that for everyone: a quick, short climb and a sudden need to get down immediately. But on the second go, when everyone started to get a feel for the wall and to trust the equipment and the belayer and themselves, that’s when the magic started to happen.

Kim, who was terrified to climb (but who still showed up because a part of her knew it’d be awesome) got on the wall and went up, up, up, way higher than she expected to. Nicole and Wendy went higher every time (I even have photos of Nicole smiling on the wall with such cool ease, like she hangs out up there all the time). Shelby, Juliette, and Bethanie climbed right up to the top (Juliette even wowed us all by maneuvering over an overhang, with some guidance from Julia below).

Juliette having a terrible time. Shannon Bryan photo
Shelby on her way to the top. Shannon Bryan photo
Juliette climbing over that overhang. Impressive! Shannon Bryan photo

Basically, everyone killed it.

And it was fantastic to watch that fear change over to this newly kindled climbing confidence, and those nervous smiles switch to proud “yea, I just climbed that, and it was awesome” smiles.

On the way out the door, a couple of these brand-new climbers were already planning their next visit. (Following an intro class, you can come back and climb on your own – with a day pass/membership and rental equipment available – or check out some of the other programs meant to keep you learning and climbing, like the 10-week and 5-week adult training sessions and the Women Crush Wednesdays and women’s bouldering clinic. See them all here.)

And one-by-one, some grownup folks are rediscovering the superb thrill of climbing things. Our 8-year-old selves couldn’t be prouder.

The Fit Maine Social Club crew at an intro to climbing class at EVO Rock + Fitness in Portland. That’s a look of pure post-climbing pride right there. Shannon Bryan photo

Intro to climbing class

Evo Rock + Fitness, 65 Warren Ave, Portland. Directions.
7 p.m. daily Monday through Friday and noon and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
$35 includes instruction, harness, belay device, and climbing shoes. Once class is over, you’re welcome to continue climbing for the rest of the day. Class size is limited to 6 people and there is no weight limit.
FMI or to sign up for a class:

ALSO COOL: If you want to keep at it after an intro class, check out the adult training sessions, Women Crush Wednesdays, and women’s bouldering clinic, among other programs meant to keep you learning and climbing. See them all here.

Climbing, climbing shoes, and a great figure 8. Shannon Bryan photos