Pitt Magazine

Pitt's independent rock-climbing team challenges students' bodies and minds

A climber scales an indoor rock wall
Three times a week, more than 30 undergraduate and graduate students gather to practice scaling the Trees Hall climbing wall. Photography by Tom Altany

Zac Dallal, a junior neuroscience major, clutches the hold, contemplating his next move. He’s careful not to scale the rock wall at Trees Hall too fast. With practiced patience, he reaches for the next hold above his head. Rock climbing has taught him to approach life “one move at a time” — a lesson he remembers as he helps prepare team members for their first competition of the spring.

Dallal, who hails from Ambler, a rural area not far from Philadelphia, has been a member of Pitt’s competitive rock-climbing team since his first year on campus, and he’s now a team leader. After running cross country in high school, he wanted to try something different and has been climbing ever since.

Three times a week, he and 30-some undergraduate and graduate teammates come together to hone their skills, celebrate each other’s victories and encourage each other’s growth. Dallal’s brother, Zayne, a first-year student in electrical engineering, is also on the team, but he says, “I consider everyone on this team family.” 

At the first competition of the spring season, Dallal and other board members are busy setting up and keeping all the events on time. Climbers are out to test their skills. Together, they warm up and analyze the wall, figuring out what beta (or path) they’d like to take. It’s a collaborative sport that challenges both body and mind.

It’s also one of the world’s fastest-growing sports and was added to the Olympics in 2020. Pitt’s team won USA Climbing’s Mid-Atlantic Division in 2022, for bouldering and lead, making it one of the best on the East Coast. Despite this success, climbing is not yet considered a National Collegiate Athletic Association sport, and the Pitt team remains an independent student organization.

The students don’t feel alone, though. They are supported by other rock-climbing enthusiasts in Pittsburgh and see each other at least three nights a week for training at Ascend, a local climbing gym. There, they work out and socialize, sharing strategies and forging friendships.

They also embrace a broader lifestyle of sustainability. When not climbing, some team members are out rebuilding trails and cleaning campsites. 

"What we love is the environment," Dallal says. "We need that to be okay in order to do it all. We've got to give back to the world if we want to do what we do."