I’m not sure if it is possible to have every single muscle fiber in your body working to exhaustion at exactly the same time but I was convinced that was exactly what was happening as I grasped to the almost 30 foot tall fake rock inside of my new place of work. Sweat dripping, making it even harder to hold on, I cautiously crawled to top of what I had seen small children conquer earlier in the day. One more little hold, now just one slight push off of my left leg and I was there ringing the bell to signify my completion of side 1! (the least difficult of all the sides on the climbing wall). As I looked down to the other end of the rope attached to my co-worker he instructed me to “sit back and come on down." Leary of the rope, of the harness, of my co-worker, my motion to let go of the wall and begin my descent was comically slow. With all my body weight now on the rope I heard the terrifying sound of velcro tearing open, my hands and feet quickly reattached to the rock and again my muscles seized. My brain raced and all the terrible things that you can imagine going wrong are and isn’t it fitting after years of working in bike shops and retail that I will die here.
Sure I make jokes from time to time about how the job is killing me but to actually breathe my last breath at work? Where’s the romance? the adventure ? the nobility in dying on a fake piece of granite where people come to purchase sneakers and yoga pants. I called down “I think my harness is coming undone” the room got quiet while everyone thought for a second just before reassuring me that it wasn’t, unconvinced I thought maybe I could just climb down or up the top and jump across to the second floor. I looked down at the harness, the strap was doubled backed just like it should be but I was convinced it was falling apart, I took a deep breath and sat back, the velcro tore again but this time I continued my descent to the ground.
I had wanted to climb because so many of my co-workers and a few of my friends outside of work had been climbing a lot and they made it out to be this great fun thing. With a life long fear of heights I thought climbing would be a great way to tackle it head on. When I was younger I took up snowboarding and the idea of the ski lifts terrified me. After about 10 or so runs down the mountain during my first time out the ski lift became no big deal at all and I thought I could make the same thing happen on the faces of giant rocks. I sat on the padded floor surrounding the climbing area and watched as everyone scrambled to the top of all the difficulty levels, ringing bell after bell to signifying their success. I got up to try another section, but my arms and hands were so smoked from my earlier attempt, I just came down disappointed in my abilities.
Days later I started joining my friend at the local climbing gym, we would plunk around the bouldering section, with the highest wall only reaching around 15 feet so my fear of free falling to my death was no longer a factor and I began to work on getting comfortable while being uncomfortable. It wasn’t long before the weather broke and the cold wet days disappeared and my co-workers started escaping to a local climbing spot brilliantly named Break Neck. It wasn’t long before I casually invited myself to meet them there.
Tucked away in a maze of giant boulders and moss, sheltered by beech and oak trees the main climbing area is a 40 to 50 foot slab of rock. Break Neck was beautiful, this little chunk of serenity and we were the only ones there. I bought a new harness to remove any mystery of failing equipment and began to feel more and more comfortable on the rock higher up. Trust is a huge part of rock climbing, trust in your gear, in your ability, in your partners ability on the other end of the rope, and it takes a while for that build, at least for me.
Trips to Break Neck started to become a weekly ordeal, our days at the rock would often run on until the sun dipped out for the day, dirty and tired we would hike back to the small lot at the end of the gravel road making plans for the next visit. Something happened over the first few weeks of climbing at Break Neck, I stopped concentrating so much on all things that could go wrong and started focusing on simply getting to the top. I have accepted that the rope and whoever is one the other end of it has me and I am free to push and fail, fail without the fear of plummeting to the ground.
I found myself in familiar position this past Friday, my left index finger locked into a minuscule crack high above my head, my right hand searching for any thing to grab onto, my feet fighting over a space the size of a light switch. I was clinging to a spot I have been at least a dozen times before, the crux of a route named ‘Grab Your Balls’. My relationship with G.Y.B. is not a good one, I have failed in every attempt, the awkwardness of the move, the frustration in myself, I have gone home on multiple occasions cursing that route, fingers and shoulders aching from wrestling ancient stone. I took a deep breath and raised my right leg as high as it could go without compromising my balance and began to push my body hard against the rock, sliding up slowly continuing to reach with my right hand until at last —there it was — something to grab onto. Just above me was large shelf, I pulled my self up to look at the bolts in the rock where our hardware and rope were attached and I reached out and touched it, finally conquering ‘Grab Your Balls’
As athlete’s the desire to push our abilities and limits is a never ending quest, whether it’s on the bike or on a rock the desire to go higher, longer, faster is constant. Without getting too philosophical I believe these endeavors are what keep us young, keep the bodies functioning properly and the mind satisfied. Sport is a way to explore our surroundings, take us to new places, whether it’s physical or mental, the possibilities are almost endless.