Trying Not to Bail

In which our heroine rock climbs without quitting. Sort of.

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At the bouldering gym my instructor was wearing a shell-and-nut necklace. A choker, really. He was ripped and humble like most climbers, with the defined veiny forearms of a heroin addict, but the good nature and good looks of someone who gets high the natural way: from climbing rocks and walls.

I hadn’t been at all sure about even moving from my futon to the floor in the morning. But when I feel that way, sometimes I make myself leave my bed, get out of my house, and pursue some activity anyway, just to make things better. I left, the morning faded, and by late afternoon I was at the bouldering gym deciding that a sport like this, something done by healthy, hip people who probably love to get out of bed in the morning, sounded promising, so I decided to take a beginner’s lesson.

But how the instructor started the class made me think that my plan to leave my house and try something new that day was overly ambitious. He began not with an exchange of names, but with a prolonged period of eye contact with me, his only student, while he described what my quad was and why it was important to stretch it. The lesson suddenly seemed like a dumb mistake. The bouldering gym was a pretty obvious place; it consisted of a spongy floor and walls to climb. Did I honestly need someone to hover over me and introduce me to walls while I stretched?

“Now, monkeys already know how to climb….” My instructor said with glee, and I nodded like I often thought the same thing and was fed up with people who couldn’t see it. I’m pretty sure he only had one spiel for his kids and beginner classes. We stretched our calves. “Now this is a calf stretch,” he said as we leaned against the wall, and then stretched our other calves. He made prolonged eye contact over his shoulder and said, “This feels good, huh? It’s going to feel even better later. Just wait.” Then we did our groins. “You’re going to find out it’s great to stretch your groin,” he said, and while he stretched his groin, he got that same blissful look he had when he was talking about monkeys.

On the floor, in front of a kids climbing structure, he gave an intricate description about how sometimes when monkeys are off the ground, they shift their weight to one side before grabbing for a handhold on the other side of their bodies. “And what else can you say about monkeys?” he asked, and I looked down at my groin. I was prepared to agree with him and his observations about monkeys, but I wasn’t prepared to finish his sentences about monkey-climbing techniques. I was out of my house, I was exercising, I was making eye contact with a new person, but that was pretty much all I had to give. “They….” I started, but I trailed off and let him finish my sentence. He said they stayed close to walls, they took weight into their legs, they got the best grip possible on little surfaces, etc. There were a lot of right answers.

We stood up in front of the child’s wall, which was lousy with children. We waited a while for them to get the message that we wanted to use it and kind of had priority, but they didn’t get it. They just kept climbing obliviously, and I felt weird standing in line behind children waiting for a turn on their climbing apparatus.

“Look how naturally children climb,” my instructor observed. He seemed taken with them, like it was the first time he had watched them climb. He pointed out how naturally they shifted their weight and kept their bodies close to the wall. I noticed how naturally the kids ignored us, until eventually some parents took the hint and made their kids move to another section of the climbing structure.

I was told to climb a route to the top of the wall without my hands, using the rubber surface of my shoes and the monkey/child-like weight shifting we had talked about, so I climbed to the top of the vertical wall without hands. I came down, and my instructor gave me a high five and told me I was awesome.

We moved on to an adult wall and he pointed out hand and foot holds called jugs, cracks, and crimps. He showed me how to get the most surface area on a hold and how to make a fist around it or to put my thumb on top of my index finger to get a better grip when there wasn’t a lot of room to hang on to. Then he showed me a route, told me to scout it out, and then to climb the wall. I looked up and was now grateful for the stretching and introduction to the wall. He said, “Routes are sort of problems, like puzzles. People do them different, but there’s no wrong way to do them.” He said not to worry when I was going to fall, but to just be prepared to fall. He had me practice a little fall on a crash pad underneath us.

I put chalk on my already sweaty hands, and I climbed. I stretched and gripped until my arms shook some and I was surprised when I made it to the top. But I tried not to act that way. My instructor called up that I should tap the top of the wall to signify that I made it up a route, and when I got back down to the ground he gave me a high five and said I was awesome again.

We moved on to other walls, and when my arms gave out he showed me how to take more weight into my legs — how he would do it “like a monkey.” When I made it to the top of the next wall — a more complicated one with a little bit of an inversion — and then came back down to the ground, he said “Now you’re climbing.” Although I know he must say it to kids and beginners all the time, I really felt like I was climbing. I wondered where I could purchase — or maybe how I could make — my own shell-and-nut necklace.

Now anyone who has been on the receiving end of the game “butts up” knows sports are not as inherently ennobling as some sportscasters would like to read to you off their teleprompters. I always want to throw up a little in my mouth when they talk about morals, values, and the human condition and liken a court or field to a battleground where athletes conquer their enemies.

Really, sometimes all sports teach you — as any product of a soccer team in a non-litigious school district knows — is what it feels like to be hit in the ass with a ball when it’s raining, 40 degrees outside, and your coach is watching, laughing, and in fact shagging balls so it can happen again.

But honestly the vibe at the climbing gym was different. After climbing a few walls, and receiving a few high fives, the shift in neurochemicals in my head actually made it difficult for me not to say out loud, “It’s like it’s the journey, not the destination.”

In bouldering, as you struggle on a route with all of your body weight and fear, you experience tiny moments of elation and pain. There might be a friend or teacher below spotting you in a half-assed way, calling up, “Don’t bail, dude.” Or giving you way-too-specific technical advice about what to do next so you can keep going. Or there might just not be anyone down there watching you at all.

The people who are good at climbing, like the people who are good at living, don’t know exactly what’s coming up next any more than a beginner does; they’re just a little bit more comfortable with panic because they’re used to testing their physical limits and playing around with fear. They breathe, and concentrate when they’re stuck in difficult places far from the ground, and they stay with shakiness rather than freak out like most of us.

I’m not sure how far I can take the metaphor before I gag and throw up in my mouth. I doubt I’ll ever learn how to breathe in shaky moments in my life instead of freaking out, but I like the bouldering gym. Maybe because the people are involved in a sport where they naturally develop respect for the skills of monkeys and children and a daily groin stretch feels damn fantastic. More seriously, I think bouldering might ground people because it puts them in touch with the feel of their heartbeat in those moments when it takes all their will and strength not to just give up and bail. I want to climb some more before the two-week pass that came with my lesson expires. • 25 March 2008

When Emily Maloney is not traveling the globe, she lives at home with her mom in Oregon. Her column Emily’s World appeared weekly on The Smart Set. She can be reached at emilymaloney@yahoo.com.

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