Weekend adventure: The Climbing Wall


The word came out of my mouth with precision and intention, uttered forcefully, yet calmly. Sometimes repeatedly, just in case it wasn’t picked up on the ground.

It was the piece of climbing jargon I picked up immediately. “Take” is what the climber says to the guy on the ground (known as the “belayer”) when he or she is ready to come down. And for my first time ever strapped in a harness and scaling a wall, there were plenty of times when immediate descent seemed necessary to me.

My first climbing experience was a Christmas present from Mark. He took me to Rock Ventures in Rochester, N.Y., and the introduction package included a belay lesson, safety instruction, equipment rental and climbing time. While Mark has not spent much time in a climbing gym he has gone rock climbing and actually prefers ice climbing. Bottom line, dude knows what he’s doing and the patience he showed with me as I worked my way through the lesson and my first climb attempts was not only appreciated, it was encouraging.

There are times when I cherish the opportunity to get out of my comfort zone. And oh lord, was I out of my comfort zone with this adventure: strapped in a harness with a helmet on, jargon to learn, safety to always remember and, for good measure, a bleeding thumb within the first two minutes of my lesson.

But one of my new Tweeps, The Climber Girl, gave me these tips:

  1. Have fun.
  2. Have more fun.
  3. Smile
  4. Repeat steps 1-3
  5. Wash your hands after.

And this was the frame of mind I kept as I entered into my first climbing gym.

While the first 45 minutes or so was spent getting outfitted in equipment and learning safety, basic skills and jargon (key for those times when I wanted to return the ground immediately), let me say it I spent a lot of mentally energy. Sure, I heard many of these terms before when Mark described his adventures, but it’s much different listening to someone talk about belaying and then actually being the person responsible for your partner’s safety. And for the record, belaying is freaking hard work. At least when you’re new, not particularly strong and are working with someone who climbs pretty easily.

For my climbs, I chose yellow and green routes, which signified the easiest routes. While I’m not afraid of heights per se, there were times when I realized my placement on the wall and quietly hid a freak out. Granted, I never really got that high on the wall, only completing one route — what I called the baby route, since it was cut short due to a structural impediment on the wall. But the point wasn’t to make it to the top. It was to see how far I could get, see what I could do, see if I could stop being afraid and be in the present moment.

Some attempts were better than others. As the evening wore on, my hands became sweaty and slippery, despite my use of Mark’s chalk. Physically, my biceps and shoulders were getting a bit sore (mostly from the belaying) and at times my legs were shaking on the foot holds. Mentally, I was getting tired too, and thinking through my moves became difficult. But two hours in the gym, learning and practicing, left me intrigued, energized and eager to try climbing again.

Out of my comfort zone, some valuable lessons were reinforced for me on that simulate rock wall:

  • Climbing is as much about problem-solving, about thinking and looking ahead, as it is about physical strength and agility. Your body and brain actually can work together.
  • The instinct is to reach up with your arms, yet most of the time, starting with your footing actually produces a better boost and more options. Knowing where to put your feet, where to “ground” yourself on the wall, can allow you to find your way through the route easier.
  • It’s not always a matter of reaching the end of the route, but going further than you thought possible in the first place.
  • Surrounding yourself with people whom you share trust, respect, patience and encouragement not only helps you through the challenge safely, it makes the entire experience that much more joyful.

Note: A correction from ┬áMark who tells me that “take” is “used to describe anytime the climber wants the rope ‘taken’ in, not when they’re ready to come down.” This is an important distinction. To me in the gym, it was what I yelled when I wanted down and got me the result I wanted. And hey, one lesson does not an expert make, even in jargon. Which is why going back is so interesting to me.

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