That Time We Built a Climbing Wall In Our Backyard…

Alex Lenail
6 min readAug 23, 2015


For me, Climbing is yoga on a vertical surface. It’s a negotiation between your will and gravity, and demands a holistic self-discipline I had been craving without knowing it. And its unfathomably addictive.

I started rock-climbing on a whim. Sometime in early October of last year, a friend invited me to the rock gym one morning. By my third trip to the gym, I was absolutely enthralled.

Around the same time, I found out that just about everyone I knew either was already a climber or had picked it up at the same time I had, including my little brother Max. That winter, the day after I returned from Patagonia, January 7, I went into a long-delayed shoulder surgery. I woke up the next day and understood that the time I had budgeted to “recovery” was going to be very monotonous if I didn’t find a way to fill it. I had three weeks to kill before school started back up. I brainstormed projects with Max, and one of the first ideas he had was that of building a climbing wall in our backyard. I encouraged him to think smaller, but we couldn’t come up with any other viable ideas in the next few minutes so resolved to pitch the idea to the parents.


“Why not?”


We eventually managed to convince the parents this was a good idea because my brother Max needed to learn to “take initiative” and build things, and I would be there “only to guide him”. To all those of you out there who want to do projects at home but whose parents say no: cultivate a tradition of successful projects; your parents will eventually come around to the idea. Start small, and grow steadily more ambitious. I think the parents let us do this in the end because a my brother and I are responsible for a substantial fraction of the furniture in our home.

So we then proceeded, in the customary fashion, to the Home Depot. Some people say they don’t like shopping, or consumerism in general. Those people just haven’t found the right store. The Home Depot is my store.

We lashed some wood to the top of Old Sue the Subaru and we were off.

Lashing took a very long time since we had never lashed anything before, having bought the lashes with the wood. Additionally we had a good time arguing about the right way to do it.

As someone who learned to work with wood on my own, I have some impressively bad habits. One such bad habit is the preference for what I call “Design On The Fly,” which means “Have a general idea of how you want it to look in your head, and then when you find out that doesn’t work, figure out a way around your old design’s shortcomings. Repeat.” This works well for some artists, not so well for engineers. I made a feeble effort to keep those bad habits from percolating down to my brother, so I asked him to draw a design for the wall.

We decided to work on the actual walls first. 2 panels, each of which *might* be manageable on its own. Max learned a lot from these early stages of the project. Initially, the 2x4s which supported the panels didn’t line up (he hadn’t measured their spacing). Once he had re-drilled each of the holes and replaced all the bolts, effectively repeating an hour’s work, he didn’t make the same mistake again. That’s how that works.

After a couple days, we had two very heavy, dubiously secure wooden things. We used polyurethane to seal them, since they would be outside, and it used to rain here.

As soon as the polyurethane dried (and not a moment later), we eagerly mounted the first panel in the chosen spot in our back yard. It only dawned on me then how ambitious this project was.

Before the wall was properly mounted to the base (like in the first of these photos), it kept falling over dramatically, every time we turned our backs.

And that evening, unable to restrain our excitement, we pulled out our craigslist-acquired climbing holds and began to set the wall in the dark. Setting good climbing routes, it turns out, is very very hard.

I set blue and green, Max set red and yellow. Blue was the only climb either of us was able to do in the end.

That weekend, Max invited some of his friends over to help with lifting the wall to join the two halves with some heavy-duty hinges. We set climbing holds on the other half of the wall, and then prepared for the final struggle.

There are no photos of us actually lifting the other half of the wall (400 ibs?) to meet the first, already mounted half, largely because I took all these photos and at that particular moment, I was busy abusing my recovering shoulder by lifting this wall and drilling in the hinges.

Once we had drilled the hinges in, joining the two halves of the wall, we still needed to lift the upper half to the first “lawn chair peg”. That required one of Max’s friends to stand precariously on top of one of the ladders and push the wall upwards with both arms while the rest of us pushed as hard as we could on the beams which support the wall.

The next peg convinced us the third peg would not be achieved by mere mortals. But Max was resolute, and stepped up to the ladder.

And then we had it. An honest-to-god climbing wall. In our back yard.

Of course, upon completion of the wall, the parents were suddenly very enthusiastic about it.

But in the end, what counts is that we got what we wanted, and it’s a beautiful wall we still use nearly every day.

The End.



Alex Lenail

conscious mammalian organism, fanatical tea snob.