I have been climbing lately. During my undergrad, and even grad, when I had the time, I would go over to the University of Idaho climbing gym and boulder or, if I could find a partner, rope up and try a route. I always felt sort of like I was pretending; goofing off and trying not to injure myself in the process. I climbed outdoors a few times in Post Falls with a group of people, the culmination of which was watching them lead-climb a 5.10-something, which seemed impossibly difficult at the time.
Fast-forward several years, to the beginning of this summer. I hadn’t even put on my climbing shoes since 2007, never having had a reason to. I went down to Post Falls with some friends, expecting to be terrible, but, to my surprise, found that I wasn’t. The extra 10 pounds I’d lost seemed to have made up for my sabbatical from working out. I remembered, in a rush, the brief feeling of exhilaration I would get when I nailed one of the bouldering routes in the gym, or when I topped out on anything. I have to do this more, I thought. I really like it.
Those who have never experienced this may wonder what there is to like about inching up a sheer rock wall. Especially when you have to drive to get there, hike in, set up your semi-expensive gear, and then endure cold, heat, scrapes, bruises, falling rocks, a crick in the neck and fantastically dirty hands from belaying, potentially pulled tendons — heck, potentially, even death, particularly if your partner isn’t paying attention.
But it’s all part of the experience; the drive out in anticipation, music blaring; the hike in, with the sun flickering in the tree tops, the ritual of set-up, the gritty details that remind you that this isn’t some plastic undertaking, this is life and death you’re talking about. Probably not death, though. Not if you’re careful and have someone you can trust. And that’s part of the ritual. And then the climb; the gaze up at the cold, hard, unmoving wall, the reach back into the chalk bag for comfort, the first move. The second move. And so on. Everything is escalated if you’re lead climbing. You have to stop, let go with one hand long enough to set the draw, pull the rope up, clip the rope. And with every tentative moment, you have to talk yourself into continuing, have to determine how much you trust your belayer, your savvy, the rope, the equipment. It’s amazing how much of it is talking yourself into it, relaxing into something rather than fighting it, finding the right body position, the right balance. Perhaps this becomes more fluid the more you climb, and even now, when I’m trying a familiar and relatively easy route, I am much calmer than I was initially. I must have improved somewhat, because last weekend, I lead-climbed a 5.10-something at Post Falls. It was an easy 5.10, but still.
To improve, I’ve found the following work well: practice, deciding not to freak out, experienced friends who goad you into trying something for your own good, and inexperienced friends whom you have to be responsible for. Overall, a desire to be capable of doing stuff you’ve never done.
None of this may sound particularly appealing, but it’s a good metaphor for life. Maybe that’s why I like it. More than the strain of my forearms or the lichen chips in my eyes or the smell of feet, I like the feeling that on a good day, improvement, camaraderie and challenge are all possible. Realism and idealism high-five when you finally touch those anchor chains.