He never goes up without a plan.
Dominic Solomito slaps the chalk dust on his hands and approaches the boat-shaped rock wall at Hoosier Heights. Standing before the wall, Solomito examines it up and down, his eyes narrowed.
“Beat It” plays quietly in the hall. Before the wall became the main attraction at Hoosier Heights, the building housed a church, and old pews covered in chalk dust line the sides of the room.
“Let’s go worship,” Solomito said.
After staring at the wall for a minute or two, he begins to climb.
His powdery hands grip the rocks and he quickly ascends the wall. The chalk keeps his hands dry – sweaty hands are the enemy of a climber.
Solomito is methodical – he climbs quickly but he considers every move. Halfway up the wall, he pauses. He often contorts his body when he’s climbing, and now all his limbs are stretched apart from each other, like Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man,” and he is still. Solomito reaches for a pink rock on his upper left.
He falls to the ground.
It doesn’t hurt to fall at Hoosier Heights – the floor at the foot of the wall is heavily padded. Solomito lands on his back and sits up quickly. He doesn’t rise to his feet right away. For several minutes, he examined the route he took. In the background, Michael Jackson is singing. “No one wants to be defeated.”
“I think I know what I did wrong,” Solomito said. “My right foot was too low.”
He finally stands and begins to go up again. There’s power and grace in Solomito’s climbing – after a few seconds of hanging and plotting his next move, he leaps diagonally in midair to a rock on his right. The muscles in his arms are bulging.
After this stunning motion he finds himself paused once again, this pause even longer than the others. Solomito never goes up without a plan, but he realizes that his plan isn’t going to work.
He falls again.
He doesn’t get up right away – again.
He studies the wall.
When Solomito was 14, his mother got him a Rubik’s Cube for Christmas. He can’t remember asking for one, but he was instantly obsessed. He was unable to solve it on his own for more than two weeks, but he isn’t embarrassed about this – he points out that it took Erno Rubik a month to do it.
Solomito is enamored by puzzles. For several of his teenage years he collected Rubik’s Cubes and would work on them every single day for hours after school. He eventually became quite good at solving them, and his record speed is 13 seconds.
Today Solomito is a senior at IU studying journalism who’s traded in Rubik’s Cubes for the daily New York Times crossword and climbing. For Solomito, climbing combines his love for puzzles with his desire to be strong.
Solomito has been an athlete his entire life. In high school, he played baseball, soccer, golf and tennis. In the bathroom of his childhood home in Indianapolis, there was a pullup bar Solomito used every morning with glee, building up his muscles.
But eventually, Solomito had enough of team sports. After playing baseball his entire life, he began to find it alienating to compete with his teammates for better positions on the team. He said he no longer enjoyed spending three or more hours a day with people who were only interested in talking about “sports and girls.”
He was 16 when he stopped playing baseball and took up climbing. He owes his interest in climbing to the YouTube algorithm – every day he would watch recommended videos with titles like “Climbing Shenanigans with Alex Megos and Liam Lonsdale” and “The Insiders: Sasha DiGiulian, Ashima Shiraishi, Paul Robinson Shred in the Climbing Gym.”
“It got to the point where I just couldn’t watch them anymore without trying it myself.”
He decided to join his high school’s climbing club, and not long after, found his affinity for climbing far surpassed his peers. While his fellow club mates were still figuring out beginner’s routes on the school’s rock wall, Solomito would spend most of his time working exclusively with the club’s instructor on more difficult climbs.
With climbing, Solomito had found his passion. He stopped participating in all other team sports. Competing with people who were supposed to be on his team depressed him. Now every time he puts his hand on the wall, willing his body to reach the top, he’s only competing against himself.
In October, Solomito got a job as a setter at Hoosier Heights. In addition to his course load, it’s his third job – he also works as a host at Samira and delivers the Indiana Daily Student early on Thursday mornings. As a setter, Solomito designs the courses patrons climb at Hoosier Heights.
“I’m trying to make it extra hard,” Solomito said.
It’s Friday, Nov. 10, and he’s wearing a pink shirt that says “Hoosier Heights” on it and has a black tool belt around his waist. In one hand is a power drill and in the other is a slab he’ll place into the wall for the climbers to grab. He says the course he’s making is like a crossword puzzle – other people have to figure it out based on the shape you give it.
“If I told you exactly what to do, it would be really boring,” Solomito said.
Every Friday, Solomito shows up at 8:30 a.m. to begin constructing his routes on the rock wall. After a lunch break at 2 p.m., he and the other setters test out their creations, often finding them too difficult and requiring adjustment.
When he’s designing his routes, Solomito has to imagine the shape people will be in when they climb it, and place exactly the right holds so the course feels good to patrons. He wants to give them the weightless feeling he craves when he climbs.
Solomito has a mild fear of heights, but the fear is overcome by the weightless sensation he gets from climbing. When he’s pulled himself far from the ground, he is forced to trust himself. On the ground he feels heavy, but when he climbs it’s only him up there – he alone must prevent himself from falling.
“When I fall – that’s adrenaline in a ‘oh my God I’m gonna die’ kind of way,” Solomito said.
Solomito steps onto a ladder now on the soft, wobbly padding lying before the rock wall. Though the ladder isn’t on solid ground, he isn’t worried – he’s fallen on the padding so many times he trusts it with his life. At the top of the ladder, he pauses and peers at the holes in the wall, looking for the perfect spot to finish his puzzle.
His co-worker Sasha Wiesenhahn approaches to check out Solomito’s latest creation. He’s not the only one interested; since his start as a setter, Solomito’s routes have been popular with patrons, with many attempting to climb his courses rather than some of the other setters.
“I don’t know if that one’s happening,” Wiesenhahn says looking up at the tail end of Solomito’s route.
“Yeah,” Solomito answers with a grin. “It does seem pretty brutal.”
He adjusts some of the slabs with his drill and climbs down to take in what he’s just made. For several minutes he just stares at it. He says he feels a little selfish – he gets to make the kinds of courses he enjoys. But when he says this, his face betrays an obvious giddiness.
Solomito, now satisfied, grabs a sticker that says “Finish” and climbs to the top of the ladder to stick it to the wall. He rushes back down.
“I think this one’ll be great,” he said. “It might even be impossible.”
Normally the setters will wait until after break to test their routes, but Solomito excitedly begins to chalk up his hands and step to the wall.
Halfway up, he falls down.
Solomito, flat on his back, stares up at the wall he’s just made, saying nothing. Erno Rubik, sitting with his cube.
Now Solomito is taking the hard lessons he’s learned at Hoosier Heights into the outside world.
It’s 10:56 p.m. on Saturday. Solomito is dressed in all black in the side parking lot of Fresh Thyme at College Mall. On the side of the building are steel beams leading up to the roof. It’s about 40 feet from the ground to the top of the grocery store, and Solomito has come to climb.
He said he’s wanted to climb Fresh Thyme for a while. He’s always on the lookout for structures to conquer, and he noticed on his IDS delivery route that the store was suitable for climbing.
Night is the time for outside climbing. Solomito is always seeking that weightless feeling, and it’s never better than when there are no padded floors beneath him – he must trust himself completely. He’s spent many Bloomington nights climbing trees, statues, the marquee outside of the Upstairs Pub, even residence halls.
It has to be night. Not everyone appreciates Solomito’s need for the puzzle, his need to feel light. He once had the cops called on him, but he was able to get away before they could catch him.
The night is a little chilly, worrying Solomito. If his hands are too cold, he won’t make it to the roof. He eschews chalk for this climb – the beams are the perfect texture for his hands. He steps up to the side of the building and he finds the beams fit into his hands like a book. He eyes the building up and down for several minutes – he never goes up without a plan.
After finally concocting his scheme, he begins rapidly making his way up. Solomito is a wonder to watch – you would think he’d climbed the grocery store a million times the way he shimmied to the top. In exactly 57 seconds he stood on the roof looking down.
When he’s up there he says everything looks small. He starts to feel a little woozy – when there’s no padding, the trust in himself is harder to come by. But mostly he can feel his heart pumping. The heaviness of the ground is a distant memory.
“This is the sort of thing that feels like something you can’t do, but you can. There are no rules in life. You can eat dirt if you want. You can climb a grocery store.”
When trucks pass by the side of the store, Solomito ducks under the wall of the roof. He’s taking no chances tonight. For a while he stands at the top, having conquered another structure, basking in the glory of another puzzle solved.
Then, he comes back down.
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