Yesterday, I went rock climbing at Metro Rock in Everett for the fourth time. I had heard many wax poetic about the wonders of this sport, not least Norman Mailer in Harlot’s Ghost, and the writer whom I’d love to have as a closer friend, Kij Johnson, who seems to have had her life saved by the practice. But I never quite understood it until I tried it for the first time, with a loved one, and then kept going with wonderful, supportive climbing partners.
I have never been much of an athlete. Early in life, taller than everyone in my class and enduring a rapid see-saw of growth – chubby, then stretched tall and thin, then chubby, then stretched again – I received the imprint that I was slow, clumsy and graceless. I couldn’t run nearly as fast as my cousin, even when he gave me a ten-second head start; I’m fairly sure I had exercise-induced asthma that made me wheeze and taste blood after just a few minutes of running, but they didn’t treat asthma back then unless it was acute and obvious. I didn’t pay attention in the outfield, so I was useless at tee-ball. My mother pulled me out of ballet when I was four, just because I told her I didn’t like it; I could never get my heavy legs over my own head to do a cartwheel, a prerequisite for proper girlhood. Gym class was the usual nightmare; picked last for kickball and so on. By high school I had decided that the safest thing to do was make fun of myself for how useless I was at physical activity, and skip gym, claiming menstrual cramps, as often as possible.
Some time in college, though, I discovered weight-lifting, and then yoga, martial arts, and tai chi. I learned that using my body in these ways felt good, and that physical effort didn’t have to be about team sports and competition. I so wish to this day that someone in my youth had taught me that there are other ways to play and be physical, and how fun and fulfilling it could be. But nobody did. I had to learn it as an adult, with big, heavy bones and underdeveloped muscles and loose joints. I’m now 36, and it has been and continues to be quite a journey, listening to and getting to know my own body in movement and effort, progress and injury.
But this was a post about climbing.
Of all of the things I’ve tried since finding myself as a physical creature – aerial silks (hated it), yoga (still doing it), contact improv dance (still looking for the right class), Krav Maga (scared the crap out of myself with the level of violence), Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (re-injured my neck in warm-ups; haven’t been back) – rock climbing feels the most holistic. There is enormous physical effort; mental problem-solving; emotional strain, elation and trust; and spiritual fulfillment.
For the uninitiated, the climbing I’m talking about is top-roping. This means that you are climbing a vertical surface with various holds on it, rated for varying levels of difficulty between (for some reason) 5.5 and 5.12. You are wearing a harness, which is tied in to a rope that goes up to the top of the wall, over a pulley, and down to your partner, who has your life in his hands through a process called belaying. Having a partner belaying you means that you have the freedom to try hard things and fall, and if your partner is paying attention the worst that will happen is you will slip and bang against the wall a little.
The first few climbs, 5.5s and 5.6s, are a bit like ladders. They’re designed to be very easy, and to get you used to the idea. Still, there’s a certain triumph, even at the beginning, to getting to the top. Once you get into 5.7s and 5.8s, the routes start to be trickier. Climbers call routes “problems,” because a big part of it is taking the long view and figuring out how you will need to use your body to get to the next height. These problems always have more than one solution, but the harder the route, the less you can rely on brute strength or simple movements. Skill building happens quickly, and it’s a total-system process.
Body. I’m hyper-aware, as I begin my first 5.8, of my strength limitations. I already know what it’s like to be on the wall, know what I need to do next, and feel that I just don’t have it in me to do it. I’m not yet used to pushing so hard with my legs, trusting them to throw me upward to that next hand-hold. Not yet used to falling when that doesn’t work. Nothing at the gym prepares you for the kind of explosive effort that is so often required on the wall: that place where you have to gather all of your strength and all of your will and push yourself to the next hold…then do it again. But doing it brings elation, and an ever-increasing self-belief. My partner, Chris, said afterward that there are some climbs where you spend 3/4 of the time going, “Okay, there’s no way I’m going to reach that next thing, but I’m going to try it anyway,” and then making it, and going through it again for the next hold. Eventually, you start to believe that you can do it. Riding that edge, over and over again, brings a sense of strength I’ve never before experienced.
Mind. There are moments where my brain is so full, my body so tired, that I don’t know what to do next. I’ve begun to call this state “climbing brain,” where I am in a daze walking around the gym, looking for the next adventure to try, and realize that my brain just isn’t working. Up on the wall, though, there are moments when my body and mind come into harmony, moments that are like putting the last piece into a puzzle that’s been fighting you for days. Top-roping with a trusted partner allows you the luxury, sometimes, of giving yourself a breath: backing up from the wall, hanging and resting your hands, and looking at the problem until it comes into focus. Sometimes, a hold appears where you didn’t realize there was one. You picture your body doing the move, and the restoration of just 30 seconds of rest gives you the strength to do it. The activity joins the mind and body in ways I’m not used to: suddenly my body is smarter, my mind stronger than before.
Emotions. Climbing is teaching me what to do with frustration. On my first attempted 5.7, I tried and tried and simply couldn’t beat it. All the humiliation of gym class, my idea of myself as a klutz and total non-athlete, came back to me. “Forget it, I’m coming down,” I yelled down, and, dejected and pissed, bumped my way down the wall to the ground. Back to 5.6s. Yet that same day, later, I managed it. It was a short wall, but I hit the top. Triumph filled me, and frustration was forgotten. Now, when I feel frustration, I know that it’s a choice point. I can take a rest and go on trying, or I can stop, do something else, and come back to it with a fresher mind and body. Frustration can be a motivation-killer and a stopping point, or it can be a sign that you need to go in another direction for a while, then return to difficulty. Yesterday, I climbed two 5.7s with such apparent non-effort that Chris joked to me, “Okay, you’re only allowed to climb 5.8s from now on.” The joy and the thrill of that was hard to measure in numbers.
Spirit. Despite the above, after defeating my first hard 5.8, I took a hard 5.7 as my final climb of the day. My hands were becoming non-functional, and climbing-brain had set in pretty deeply, but I knew I had one more in me. My partner gave me permission to fail, which is a deep gift, and I went for it.
Most of the way up the wall – a sideways climb over an outcropping, ending leftward – I ran out of steam. “Take!” I cried, the invaluable, one-syllable command that means “I’m about to fall” or “I need a rest.” “I’ve got you,” I heard.
There’s an astonishing level of trust and bonding that occurs here, in the place where your partner is holding your life by a string. I feel the tenuousness of it in how reluctant I am to fully let go of the wall, to let myself truly hang. I have felt, before, the profundity of being at the other end of this, of catching him in the air when he falls. It fills me with a feeling I seek wherever I can get it: awe.
I soldier onward, but reach a place where the fight goes out of me, and I say, “Bring me down, I’ve stopped caring.” “But you’re so close!” he says. “Want to take a rest for a minute?” It’s a lovely offer, an option, not a command or an imprecation, the soul of gentleness. I say “Sure,” and swing out a little. “Let go of the wall,” he says, and I do, shaking my hands out. I breathe, and he is silent, just holding me there. I look up at the wall, at the top, less than ten feet away. I take a few more breaths.
Then I swing my right leg up to that little chip, push my left hand to the next hold, pull myself up, slap the top of the route and say with force, “Now bring me down!”
As I lowered to the ground, my spirit flew skyward, then came back down to embrace me on the bouncy blue floor of the gym. I still haven’t stopped smiling.