Reaching for the next hold

What no one told me about rock climbing is how useless it renders your hands. Ten hours later and squeezing a tube of toothpaste is challenging. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Having never climbed a rock wall before (and not being very sporty in general), I was pretty nervous on my way to the facility. I fretted about getting injured, how my harnessed butt would look suspended in the air, and the young, athletic employees taking one look at me and smirking, “Um, you need to be fit to do this.”

A very sweet and encouraging graduate student named Liz was my belayer, the person who maintains the tension in the rope and protects the climber from plummeting to injury or worse. She checks the harness, knots ropes, clicks carabiners, all that jazz. She was a perfect guide for me, since she became a climber to overcome her fear of heights. Love that.

While Liz adjusted my harness and explained that tight climbing shoes that curl your toes are a good thing (something to do with not wanting any extra shoe to squeeze onto a foothold the size of a quarter), I chattered and giggled nervously, half hoping to be excused on the grounds of sheer craziness.

Liz covered the basics—carabiners, figure 8s and grigris and other stuff I don’t remember since I was staring up the wall in terror. She urged me to push with my legs more than I pull with my hands, which was easy to remember when my fingers turned into sweaty spaghetti strands after five minutes. At one point, after twice trying and failing to climb past an overhang (a section that is angled beyond vertical), I asked to come down. The belayer lets out the rope so the climber can descend, although in Liz’s case only after she is satisfied that you really can’t climb any higher. Here is a sample of our dialogue:

Me: I want to come down now!

Liz: You can do it!

Me: You are sweet but I want to come down now.

Liz:  Are you sure?

Me: Yes, definitely.

Liz: Try moving your right leg up to the hold above your knee.

Me: [scrabbling at a hold the size of an orange slice] Can’t get it.

Liz: Push up from your left leg.

Me: I really think I want to come down now.

Liz: Grab that hold that looks like a doll head.

Me: That is really creepy.

Liz: I think it’s cute.

Me: Also, it is high.

Liz: You can do it.

Me: I tip you when this is over, right?

Liz: Focus on the wall.

Me: Please let me down.

My next move would have been to let go and just hang from the rope. I am not above sulking.

Thankfully, I spent no time thinking about how my butt looked – what a nice change! Instead I thought: How will I ever get up there? That handhold is too high! That foothold is too small! My feet hurt – ouch! I can’t do this!

Sometimes I couldn’t do it. But most of the time I could, and I did. And that was amazing.

Sweaty and tired, after climbing five different routes, I removed my climbing shoes and coaxed my toes (gently) back to their usual position. I whacked at my shoelaces with my spaghetti fingers, but it didn’t do much good. Climbing was a wonderful experience; the only downside is that I may never be able to open a jar again.

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