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Climbing virtual mountains

A Montana company sells climbing walls that can connect to the Net to give climbers the experience of scaling mountains all over the world.

Ever wonder what it feels like to climb, say, Sea of Holes in Hueco Tanks, Texas?

Now you can climb it--at least, virtually. Introducing one of the first pieces of exercise equipment with an Internet component: a climbing wall that accepts downloadable programs of different climbs.

Just a year ago, Martin Coleman was a bond trader on Wall Street looking for a way to satisfy his urge to climb mountains while stuck in New York City.

He found it: a mechanical, programmable climbing wall that he bought from Chad Charles and James Thompson, who were putting the walls together on a per-order basis in their garage. Coleman liked it so much he bought the company and moved to Bozeman, Montana, where he started a company, Ascent, to manufacture the walls en masse.

The walls, used in professional settings because of their size and cost ($11,500), mimic the grade and angle of a mountain, Coleman said.

"What it's for is to most closely replicate climbing from the physical aspects of your muscles so you can continuously practice a roof climb that you have trouble with," Coleman said.

And while it won't mimic the look and feel of a mountain, including wind chill, snow storms, rain, and earthquakes, it does provide something the authentic experience can't: "When you fall, you're going to fall three feet," he said.

Coleman said he has delivered 26 walls so far, mostly to "fun centers" and gyms.

To use the Internet, the user has to hook a PC up to the Internet and a climbing machine. He hopes that users eventually will create their own climbs and share them with each other through Ascent's Web site.