By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor
BIG SKY – Charlie Lerch, a 16-year-old would-be sophomore at Lone Peak High School, will spend the 2017-2018 school year as a student of The Climbing Academy, a traveling rock climbing academy and accredited school that combines academics, athletics, travel and cultural immersion. He leaves for the program Sept. 2.
Not a traditional brick-and-mortar school, The Climbing Academy will take this year’s 12 students to Barcelona, Spain; Las Vegas, Nevada; Bishop, California; and Kentucky’s Red River Gorge region before concluding the school year in Greece.
Lerch is excited to see the world while pursuing his passion for rock climbing.
“I’ve never really been [anywhere] other than Big Sky,” Lerch said. “Greece and Spain are crazy international climbing destinations that a lot of people don’t get to [experience] and I get a chance to do it when I’m 16.”
Lerch has Tourette syndrome, a nervous system disorder involving repetitive movements or unwanted sounds. For Lerch it first manifested as involuntary tics, then progressed from physical to verbal symptoms. Anxiety exacerbated the situation and being a student at a traditional school was not easy for him.
When he was 6, Charlie’s mother Ann and her climbing guide friend took Lerch to the Gallatin Tower in Gallatin Canyon. It was a three-pitch climb that was difficult for him at the time, but it sparked a love for climbing that remains with him today. Soon after that first climb, Lerch joined a climbing camp at Spire Climbing Center in Bozeman.
“The kids didn’t notice my tics and I fit in,” Lerch said.
When he went back to school that year, Lerch once again struggled with his tics and the social isolation he felt as a result of them. At the end of that year his parents signed him up for the Bozeman Climbing Team, which he has been a part of ever since.
Lerch found that climbing eased his challenges with Tourette syndrome.
“A part of it was I couldn’t get out most of the energy I had,” Lerch said. “It was kind of hard to stay sitting, and it was a big deal that I could do something where I was moving all the time. With climbing I could just do that and nobody would care.”
By the time Lerch entered sixth grade his tics slowly started to recede. He no longer has to take medication to manage his symptoms.
“When you’re up on the wall you just have the clearest thinking and everything you do is up to you,” Lerch said. “You don’t have to worry about what anyone else is doing; it’s all in your power. It’s like any sport you love—it’s the best feeling you ever have.”