Climbing the walls of our backyard playground

A couple weeks ago I mentioned a report from the Center on Everyday Lives of Families at UCLA that found, among other things, that middle class American families have spacious backyards that they rarely use. This got me reminiscing about those halcyon days of my youth on South Boston Court when we did everything from play the World Series and Super Bowl (which hadn’t been invented yet) to tight rope and play endless games of hide-n-seek without leaving the block. And that got me to thinking about our own backyard today and how underutilized it is. Which spurred us to do some updating over the past couple of weeks.

The pool was a pre-existing condition.

OK, to be fair, that pool you see was already there, as was the teak lutyens bench to the farther corner of the pool. We lucked into a house with a small backyard pool that we have made good use of. The kids use it to whip themselves into an early bedtime, my wife swims laps in it, and I use it for 15 minutes a day to tread water. Actually, it’s more than just treading water: it’s 15 minutes a day of weightless physical meditation that does as much for my mind as it does for my body.

What’s new in the past two weeks is the climbing wall, which isn’t so much a climbing wall as it is a kind of rock climber’s monkey bars. Ever since we moved in, the kids and I have been looking for ways in incorporate a climbing structure into the house. They saw the two-story chimney as a natural; I saw it as a series of lawsuits stemming from my long history of not being able to drill and install firm anchors into mortar. Instead, we settled on the underside of our second floor deck, where a series of 2 x 8 supports and end beams seemed to offer a multitude of low-climbing (and thus, low-falling) options.

The easy part was finding the climbing holds. If you’ve been to a climbing gym, you know that climbing holds come in all kinds of shapes (some whimsical)  and sizes (some requiring the finger strength of a Vulcan Nerve Pinch). At our neighborhood REI, I scored a set of 5 Metolius Drips Holds for $34.95. It’s a good starter set because, as prefabricated climbing holds go, these are big and easy. As our under-deck climbing gym blossoms, perhaps we’ll add a Vulcan Nerve Pinch or two.

The not-so-easy part was the installation. We were planning to anchor our holds into the 2 x 8s, but the hex bolts that came with the holds were only two inches long, long enough to anchor through a 3/4-inch sheet of plywood, the typical surface of a home climbing gym, but not long enough for our 2-inch-thick (1 1/2-inch in reality; a quirk of the lumber industry). We concocted a variety of schemes that involved building out a thin plywood fascia around the lower deck, schemes that all would have been laborious and all in violation of numerous local homeowner covenants. Then a friend said we just buy longer bolts.

So now we have the beginnings of our under-deck climbing gym. As funds allow, we’ll add holds (including some of those itty crimpers) which will allow us to work our upper bodies, especially our  fingers, our hands, our forearms. The best thing: Most of these climbing workouts will be impromptu. Come back from a trip to the store — drop the groceries and climb for 10 minutes (5 if there’s ice cream). Head out to water the flowers, work in a 15-minute routine. Need to blow off some steam? Twenty minutes under the deck oughta do it.

It’s the best kind of workout: one you don’t even know what you’re doing.

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So far, our backyard playground is coming together cheap. To date, it includes a pool (included in the cost of the house) and climbing wall ($34.95 for the holds, another $9.95 for anchor bolts and nuts). As we contemplate our next move, we want to hear yours. Tell us how you’re turning your under utilized backyard into your personal rec zone.

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