Up A Wall

Rock Climbing 101

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Although I managed to see, experience and, for the most part, get accustomed to a ton of extremely weird stuff during the one academic year I managed to attend college in England, probably the single most impressionable adventure I undertook during my extended tutorial across the pond was learning how to rock climb.

It was late in the unduly inclement throes of late October when I suddenly found myself standing face to face with a brick wall full of bolted resin handholds just inside the back entrance of the Earth Sciences Building at University of Birmingham.

Behind me stood my incorrigibly encouraging mentor, a 21-year-old civil engineering undergraduate named “Maddy” who happened to be serving as the self-appointed “Initiation Officer” for the West Midlands Rock Climbing Club.

“Well,” Maddy said, loathe to detect my ever-intensifying apprehension to make any verifiable semblance of even the faintest upward move over the previous 10 minutes. “It’s all up to you now, mate. Nobody else is going to prove you’re not a punter. Don’t let the fear swallow you up. Be brave. There’s no better time to exceed your own expectations than the present!”

“My god,” I thought, barely able to hear myself think over all his incessant promulgations. “I’ve got to do something just to shut this windbag up.”

And then, just like that, it happened. I lifted my left climbing shoe off the double-sized mattress (a.k.a. “crash pad”) on the floor, edged it onto the nearest, bomber-looking foothold in my visible vicinity and lunged myself bodily upward, both arms fully outstretched.

It felt exhilarating. It felt empowering. It felt absolutely fan-freakin’-tatstic. With that single, precursory movement I’d finally managed to set a viable course toward vanquishing my lifelong fear of heights. 

Only problem was, there didn’t appear to be any sort of grabbable-looking handholds anywhere on the wall above me.

“Just overhead to your right,” Maddy advised, “a juggy knob at two o’clock!”

Barely having a clue as to what exactly he meant, I craned my neck to the general vicinity he seemed to be talking about and found it—a chalk-smeared, fist-sized handhold protruding from the bricks.

Purely on instinct, I reached for it.

Confidence surging, I wedged myself onto another foothold and, thusly braced, kept climbing until finally—about five feet off the floor—crushing waves of dizziness finally overtook me. 

“Shouldn’t I at least be tied into a rope?” I chattered, wincing grimly below at the puny-looking mattress.

“Ha!” Maddy said. “The top of your route is exactly 12 feet off the deck. So technically speaking, you’re bouldering and I’m spotting you.”

“Bouldering?” I said, only marginally satisfied to see that he was, in fact, shadowing right below me. “Call it whatever you like, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s climbing!” 

Whatever he called it, it was right up my alley. From there on in, I’ve been hooked.

Fortunately, in the 20-plus years since I first crawled up a brick wall, the comfort level of indoor rock climbing facilities has advanced considerably. 

Lately, I’ve watched with mounting anticipation as the folks at Bellingham’s Vital Climbing Gym have constructed a fully modernized, 4,900-square-foot, climate-controlled space where climbers of all types and skill levels can build strength and gain confidence regardless of uncooperative weather. I can hardly wait to give it the old college try.  

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