From the Ground Up

A beginner tries his hands at rock climbing

March 30, 2000

There is such a thing as healthy fear. In fact, it is perhaps nature’s greatest gift. It prevents you from trying to re-wire your kitchen, after what happened the last time. It keeps you from calling up the cheerleader in physics class who can never remember your name and asking her out on a date. And in certain situations, it can manifest itself as a white-knuckle grip on whatever is keeping you alive. For sure, the value of undistilled terror cannot be begrudged. I am reminded of this just now, as I cling to a fake rock face some 20 feet above ground.

The situation up here is dire. I can no longer feel my forearms. My feet are about to slip off their perches. My hands cannot reach the next rubber-coated, psychedelic-painted grips that are bolted into the column I’m supposed to be climbing. My right leg is darting in place like the needle on a sewing machine. I have reached, as they term it in non-rock-climbing circles, the wall. On the advice of my forearms and my fear, I inform Jeff that I have to come down.

There is a pause. It is not the first time he’s heard this. “Just stop and relax,” he says.

Relax. I look down to give him a disapproving look. Instead, what I see, for the first time, is just how high up I am. I am so high above my trainer, and so directly positioned on top of him, that as I look down, all I see is his upturned face with the tips of his toes sticking out underneath. If I were able to summon any breath, I would laugh.

But I can’t. This is my own fault. Harking back over the hour-long lesson that led up to this precarious point, I realize that I have not really absorbed anything that I thought I understood when I was on the ground.

At the time, Jeff Shapiro was walking me through the safer stretches of The Rock Garden climbing gym, where he is the general manager. We were striding through the marquetry of fake phenomena that are re-created here for climbers to test themselves on—cambered arches, sheer walls, vertiginous overhangs, synthetic waterfalls, and a four-story column in the center that didn’t look so big from below—but I was impatient. I just asked Jeff what was the one thing that every beginner should know.

He looked at me pointedly. Jeff is young and hale, and his face has the clarity that you see in the faces of most athletic people. “The thing to remember,” he said, “is that rock climbing is the art of hanging on just strong enough.”

The key, he explained, was to use your hands to keep yourself on the rock, but not connected to the rock. After all, you have to let go eventually. Besides, he added in about as many words, hanging on for dear life uses too much energy.

Two stories above where he said this, the idea seems hard to grasp. Let go in order to grab on. It rings with the hidden logic of a Zen koan. But as I ease up my terror-stricken grip, I feel my arm relax and I realize that there is a red-streaked plastic hold within reach, in the half-saucer-shape of a tree fungus. I reach out and remember another tip.

“You gotta use the power of your feet,” he said. “A lot of people think of climbing as pulling yourself up.” He slapped his calves through his cargo pants. “But you have to push yourself up.”

Again, Jeff emphasized, it’s all about making the best use of your body, not overusing the wrong parts. He began to demonstrate by vaulting himself up on a wall and spidering around until he was almost upside-down. Foot. Hand. Foot. Hand. “The key to safety,” he said, “is effeciency.”

This is all very difficult. There is too much math involved here. I failed physics in high school. The cheerleader could never remember my name. But, the fact is, there’s a ruddy brown plug just a few inches above my right foot. If I could just let go and grab on and push and pull, all in the right order. Releasegrab pushpull, releasegrab pushpull.

Slowly I begin crabbing my way along the stuccoed surface of the pillar. Hand. Foot. Hand. Foot. I am making it. I am nearing the plywood pinnacle. Releasegrab pushpull, releasegrab pushpull. I start to feel so impressed with my newfound ability, I’d feel like I am the first person ever to reach this height, were it not for the red piece of tape on the top hand-hold. It says in Magic Marker: “Put your foot here and stand up.”

I can’t reach it. I certainly can’t stand on it. My leg begins to twitch again. My forearms begin to tingle. Jeff says something reassuring that I can’t hear. I look down at him. Now I can’t even see the tips of his toes, just a distant face with indistinguishable features. I feel what I think is my heart sliding down into my stomach.

Jeff sighs. “OK,” he says, “come down when you’re ready.”

I haven’t made it all the way to the top. I haven’t put my foot where the piece of tape is telling me to. I reached the point of no return, then kept going, only to reach that point again. But maybe I should consider myself lucky. I accomplished enough to become truly horrified, and then made friends with my horror, if just for 20 feet. Now I am paying the wages of fear.

I work the muscles in my throat to force myself to swallow. “OK,” I say. “Coming down.”

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