Learning to Rock Climb

Wherein the Author Describes the Beginning

“Let me down,” I said.

“Are you sure?”


“But you are almost there.”

“Let me down,” I said again, this time with the loud but hushed quality of a seriously perturbed person feigning composure.

Nothing matters when you have climbed, with you hands and legs, like childhood days, two stories and have two more stories to go and all that saves you from falling hard—bone rearranging hard—is a rope a half-inch in diameter, a somewhat cushiony floor, and a nylon harness. The rope, sure. Seems normal in such circumstances. A cushiony floor? A very thoughtful safety precaution. But nylon in the equation? A material you have previously known as the straps of bags and perhaps bags themselves. You have seen these fail. You imagine putting a human in a bag: will it hold?

My first time climbing was very much pre-ordained. When my fiancé first told me about her passion for climbing on our first date, I thought two things in rapid succession. One was that freakout moment when you first meet someone you like and have this strong urge to impress them but also a strong urge not to be the babbling impresario of yourself and ruin things. That meant, when she told me about her climbing hobby, I said, “Interesting,” instead of “Cool!” or “I’d love to try it!” This was as honest as political spin. My second thought was that I had already ruled out climbing as a “me” thing. My cousin climbs, and I had asked her curious questions about climbing a couple months prior when their family visited for the holidays. I remember the starkness of my cousin’s nonchalance at falling whilst tied to an anchoring rope and her shoulder-shrugging at being able to grip her entire body to a rock wall using only her fingers.

“Is there a large danger of injuring your fingers?” I asked, because fingers are important. We type on keyboards; we tap on phones. I use my fingers while I drive, hold cups, open doors, sift through clothes in a drawer, pick my nose, and many other daily tasks.

“You can injure your tendons, but usually only if you go too hard.”

I nodded my head, but I wasn’t convinced. Even torturers hang people up by their wrists. Imagine if victims were tied up by their fingers and thumbs. Shudder.

“No thanks,” I think I said to both myself and then to my cousin.

Wherein the Author Describes the Juxtaposition of Climbing and Adultness

Yes. I’ve climbed trees in my youth. I used to be super into picking off the dead carcasses of June bugs on the tree in front of my grandma and grandpa’s old place. I’ve also done monkey bars in various locations. I’ve even climbed various ladders for various reasons. I’ve also had my share of falling, both the unhurt and the hurt kind.

One time, around 11-12 years old, I built a treehouse with a friend in a patch of forest near our houses. There were these cool vines that we would use to swing off the treehouse—really just a wooden platform and not an actual house—and then shimmy down to the ground. One day, while we tried to impress a girl, I demonstrated the way we got down from the tree house and swung off one of the tree’s vines. The vine broke in the middle of the swing. I watched the vine go from taut to falling on my arms like soft-serve ice cream. And then the ground took the wind from me, but somehow, my full backpack, even with a hammer and nails in it, cushioned my fall so that I was unhurt.

I guess I also fell one other time, while stupidly showing off and hanging on the rim of a basketball net, then falling to the concrete ground and breaking both my arms. But that’s another story.

I’m hard-pressed to accuse these two experiences of falling for my fear of anything higher than 10 feet. I am more inclined to blame what I will call “Human Adult Onset Anxiety,” which is basically all the realized anxiety you come to know as you grow into an adult. For instance, worrying about healthcare or rent/mortgage or really understanding that when you drive, you depend on so many random humans who have different definitions of focus and safety than you do.

In my normal pre-rock-climbing adult life, I rarely climbed anything, unless something was compelling and connected to stairs, like a bedroom or a place of work. Ladders were the hardest and most dangerous way I had climbed. And I’ve never fancied the act of trusting the integrity of a gutter as support for a ladder. I didn’t even trust the integrity of my balance, so whenever I cleaned the gutters, I at least got a healthy forearm exercise from the death grip I subjected to the ladder. My last house required climbing onto the roof to clean the gutters. When I did that, I basically reverted to a baby, crawling and butt-sliding around the top of that house, trying not to look over the side as I slang leaves and tree detritus at the ground two stories below.

Sometimes, even now, when I walk on an upper floor with a bannister-enclosed view of below and happen to look down, I get some serious fear in my stomach and, in my conscious mind, automatically act out what it would be like if a rogue element entered my mind, a hallucinogenic phenomenon, stopped my body from walking innocently along a very well designed floor to, somehow, against my will, hurl myself over and off that floor. Doomed to a not-so-soft landing. And then I harangue myself for imagining such inconceivable and totally against my nature things.

Let’s not get into my fear of flying, of looking out the window of an airplane and knowing we are being suspended by the natural weather systems of Earth. Of only feeling a certain sense of safety when the ground below looks Lilliputian and unreal.

Despite my adult-gained height issues, absent in my youth, my fear of heights isn’t debilitating: I clean gutters; I fly; I climb stairs and use elevators. These are necessary things. A few months after my future wife and I first started dating, we were hiking with my sister in Hocking Hills when we came across a rather tall metal and wooden structure: a fire tower. I think I may have suggested going up it instead of following our current path that took us around it. It looked pretty unintimidating from a distance, and we had taken quite a lengthy car ride to see some spans of uninhabited lands. It looked fun.

My sister bowed out when we got to it. It was an automatic nope for her. I felt the rise of fear, but it was manageable. Then I read a sign: only 6 people allowed up at a time. I did my gulp, and I trudged up that thing, feeling the give of the structure, which I hoped was like that of a tree, engineered to be durable but necessarily bendy. I gripped anything I could to feel anchored. At the top, I had to command my face to force a smile when we took a couple’s selfie, one that I really like to this day although I know I am not completely happy in the couple’s photo: I still had to go down the thing. But it was beautiful up there. The serenity, lovely. Oh, the heights that humans have gone! And then all quashed by a heavy dose of irrational fear as I started back down the steps.

I remember a similar experience when I walked up the last levels of the Empire State Building. The elevator’s numbered ascent already got me a little. But when I was walking up those last steps, I felt like the building was swaying though I know that it barely does. I know it’s all me because I felt the same walking up the last levels of Carew Tower, the tallest building in Cincinnati that is very much overshadowed by the Empire State Building by a ratio of 1:2 and 50 floors as the difference.

After four months of climbing, I heard the same sort of voice panic that mirrored my own halfway-up-the-wall terror from my initial attempt as a climber. But this came from a climber much better than me, who was lead climbing, which is what serious climbers do. Furthermore, she was climbing the ceiling part of a route, having started from a vertical wall. Rather than scare me from my own lead climbing lessons two days from then, I felt part of the group. We all get scared. And that’s partly what climbing is about: pushing the fear, feeling the conquering.

Wherein Climbing Itself Is Discussed

Climbing is really a redefining of planes. You must put your focus squarely on a plane, vertical or horizontal or in between, you are attempting to traverse. And when you do, you feel grounded. You feel like you are not in an unnatural predicament, two stories up in the air. The fears of slabs, overhangs, sidehangs, corners, and other mid-wall acrobatic features go away when you redefine your orientation to the ground. Kids are often at climbing gyms, climbing things really easily. They have an edge: they weigh less and have less experiential fear. I remember being very chagrined by their completion of routes I was having trouble with in my first month of climbing. It could also be their focus, their natural wonder of the world, their passion for newness, honed in on this brilliant activity with all its colorful and interesting avenues up into the air. For kids, redefining of planes is normal. It is their learning growth. For adults, it’s a reversion.

A climbing gym looks like a stalled game of Candy Crush or a bunch of collected troll noses like the sanctuary of the Game of Thrones “Many Face” cult. These are the things you need to grasp with hands and fingers and also use as small pebble-like platforms for your feet. Sometimes, the “holds,” which is the formal name for the troll noses, can be as easy as grasping a handle of a kettle. Other holds are as hard as grabbing the conical shape of an airplane nose, if it was generously reduced in size. Sometimes, the holds are as small and as narrow as a smartphone pressed screen-side to a wall.

The holds for feet are drastically smaller and sometimes almost imperceptible, which makes sense, otherwise climbing would be more like going up the stairs. So rock climbers wear special shoes that create a sturdy platform so that they can balance their weight on the edges of their feet, including, most of the time, their toes. With their sturdy soles and with the help of holds for the hands, climbing shoes can grip and hold you up by a small pebble of a hold that juts out about two centimeters or less from the wall.

I must say, sidenote-wise, that climbing shoes are weird. I can only imagine them being more related to ballet slippers than anything. For one, they are supposed to be tight. If you have any empty shoe space, you could bend your toes badly or prematurely wear out the shoe. Now this tightness I speak of doesn’t mean around the foot only, it’s all about the toe box. When I run, I wear a half size up so that I have plenty of room in my toe box. I hate the feeling of ramming my Morton’s toe foot to the front of my running shoe when I’m going downhill. In climbing, there is no toe box. You have less space so that your foot can naturally go into this claw-like position that your toes naturally go in anyway when they are climbing. This means that you don’t want to wear your climbing shoes to the grocery store afterward. I only wear mine for as long as I’m climbing, and then off they come, velcroed (another kid aspect) for easy removal. Then, I put on sandals, which makes the whole experience casually weirder.

There are two general types of rock climbing: bouldering and rope-related climbing. The first place I went was mostly a bouldering gym, which was the best in terms of my fear of heights. Bouldering only takes you up to a height where you can hang, let go, and safely land on a generously cushioned crash pad. Although, at this particular gym, there were rope-related areas to climb, which, by nature, are higher walls, every one of these roped-up walls featured incorporated bouldering “projects” or marked pathways to complete.

I decided, regardless of the type of gym it was, to pay for belaying lessons. I did not do any “How to Climb” YouTubing before I went, which probably would have been best as anxiety and learning in a potentially life damaging environment don’t really go well with me. But it was okay, largely. My fiancé only needed to “test out” to be able to belay at the gym, which makes sense since if you are a negligent belayer, it could hurt or kill the climber. So I did have a bit of a panic when I was told right off the bat to climb a wall. I was like, “Am I qualified for this?” I was. I had signed a lengthy disclosure. So, in their eyes I was a consenting adult who had probably climbed things when they were young and knew the routine.

After my lesson, we bouldered for the rest our time at the gym, and that was like becoming a kid again. It was largely without dangers. I wore out quickly, and that was a pleasant surprise. Climbing is a super good workout. And because of it, the only other strength exercises I do on top of climbing are push-ups (because you really don’t use your triceps or pectoral muscles at all) and core workouts (because this is basically the main thing you use, and you need it like crazy when you are climbing). This, for me, is a super win. Lifting can get pretty formulaic. And yet, still required if you want to be really good at anything. But, amateur me is happy to opt-out.

After our hour and a half climbing session, I wanted a repeat. Two days later, we visited the other gym in town, one that was geared more toward rope climbing. Despite the new muscles used in climbing, I didn’t feel that sore after my first session. I felt confident for the next. I was, in fact, in shape! But when I woke up the day after my first day of top-roping at the second gym, the day included at the introduction of this essay, I had lost the ability to control my left arm from shoulder down. If I moved my arm in any way, I felt that I would lose it, that it would rip off and tumble floppily in a hot mess to the floor, like Grendel. I had to practically swing my arm into all upper body clothing, all with a healthy dose of pain. To this day, it’s the worst case of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) I’ve ever had.

Such a bodily reaction only emboldened me. This was surely good exercise. So, I went on, and, by trusting in my fiancé, I’ve had some pretty stellar strength-training workouts. You push yourself when you have a goal: the top of the wall. Your personal trainer is now gravity. And, slowly, my fears began to abate. I got better, and I enjoyed all of it.

Falling, the thing you worry the most about became normal. I remember my first time getting to the top of a top-rope route. I was tentative to let go even though the rope was taut and my fiancé had me. I was thinking of nothing but the equipment I relied upon failing all at once. I held on to the rope attached to my harness and made constantly renewed backup plans of being close to a passing hold in case the rope or my harness broke. I dragged my feet all the way down, as if this would help. Took me a few climbing sessions to get rid of that. When I first let go of an autobelay, which is a self-lowering device that allows solo gym climbers to “top-rope,” I scrambled and clawed until I realized my fall was only the length of a short second before the device caught me in its grip.

I started making bigger risks, climbing up the grades or difficulty levels of climbing. I’m now a certified lead climber at my gym. Falling on lead climbing, especially since I’m a tall guy, is much more pronounced. You can fall, easily, 10 feet on a lead belay and chalk it up to a normal fall. And the margin of dangerous errors becomes much larger for both belayer and climber. You need to know what you are doing. But it’s largely safe at that, supposing you stick to safety habits.

Wherein Retrospect Is Introduced and Completed

In my youth, I participated in most all formal sports: soccer, basketball, football, basketball, baseball, swimming, golfing and tennis. I even dabbled in a squash club when I lived in England. And then, as an adult, I have amaterually played racketball, whiffleball, softball, and soccer. This is the normal arc of an active person’s relationship to exertion.

And then, at a point in my late 20s when I realized I was not invincible anymore, I realized that running and lifting could be habitualized to keep in shape. Then cycling and just general walking/hiking.

And that’s how things were from my late 20s until more than a year ago. Of course, running isn’t without its dangers. You can get hit by a distracted driver. And biking is probably the worst of it since you can get to some up there speeds, especially down a hill, and if you fall, your medium of cushion is hard pavement. No one runs with a helmet, but they do when you bike. Even hiking has the danger of ticks if you go remote.

If you’ve ever been to the Red River Gorge, you may have come across some climbers. They are all sorts; technical climbers that are looking for some challenges, Zen artists who like the feel of enjoying nature through many ways, and even a sort of “Bro” culture. (This list is far from exhaustive and intentionally so.) Climbers even have their own community campsite devoted to their hobby (you have to be a climber to camp there) at Miguel’s, a place for good pizza and for picking up climbing gear. You can get climbing “tours” complete with a guide. Climbers with means have donated their money and time to preserve sites for current and future climbers. You might not think Kentucky is that much, but it is a lot to the climbing world (and by world, I do mean it).

When I go to the climbing gym, I’m amazed at the range of age in climbers. It’s a sustainable sport. One of those weird moments of human existence where technology and sheer simplicity come together to create something interesting, athletic, and community-building. Climbing is normal in there. And it’s becoming normal for me. We humans do some weird things in our lives, and we all go through the norming process. And if that process of a “thing” zens me out, shows me the fears and obstacles of normalization, makes me examine my life as a human who really doesn’t have to do any of it all, that’s a process I’ll take and repeat. Not for the danger, mind you. But for the new heights.

Yeah. That happened.