Friday, December 4, 2009

Rock Climbing

I'm an intelligent enough person, but for the longest time I don't feel I really understood the phrase "rock climbing." I thought this couldn't possibly be a sport where one actually climbs rocks. Pardon me, but I always kind of thought of giant rock faces as very unaccommodating parts of the environment that really preferred you stayed off of them or else.

Then I acquired a boyfriend, a nature-adoring, outdoor-craving, motion-loving boyfriend (who is now my husband). Rock climbing is Jim's forte. He talked about his adventures for months, but I still couldn't imagine it. Let's see. You're safely on the ground, but of your own free will you scale a vertical and nearly flat surface to get 60 feet up in the air, with nothing between you and death but a rope.

Seems reasonable.

I went through my girly worries, wishing Jim preferred safer activities, like reading about rock climbing. Then one day I finally saw him in the gear, and decided that anything that made a guy look that ruggedly fetching had to be worthwhile. That was the day I went with him for the first time to climb. We were in British Columbia, where you can really only take gazing out at the gorgeous vistas of lakes and canyons for so long. After a while you really need to balance that out by staring at hard gray stone close enough to lick.

I had borrowed climbing shoes, which are supposed to be extra tight, so they feel like you've crammed each foot into a thimble. I got all geared up so that if I fell while I was climbing, the rope that was secured through my harness, tied around a tree atop the crag, and held at the other end by Jim would keep me simply hanging around rather than plummeting to the ground. That's the way it's supposed to work. Sounds great! There's just one little problem. When you're a newbie, your survival instinct says it doesn't care what pains you've taken for safety. It thinks that if you let go of the rock, You Gonna Die.

So I didn't get up very far. I kept looking back down at the ground, judging each advance in terms of the severity of injury I'd suffer. Hmmm…if I fall now, it's probably worth a broken ankle. Next stop, I'd say the whole leg's a goner. A few more feet up and the brain damage may be worth a lifelong disability excusal from work. Yee-ha!

Meanwhile, Jim and our other companion got all the way up to the top of the rock. I wistfully watched and wondered if I'd ever possess those kind of guts, or flexibility, or upper body strength. Rock climbing lets you know really fast if your muscles are unforgivably stiff or if like me you've spent most of your years lifting nothing heavier than a box of cereal.

But lucky for me, there's a manmade version of everything. I didn't know until last year that there are rock climbing gyms. Glory be, it has climbing walls with marked footholds and handholds. And for the night I recently spent there, it had me hooked.

Once you really start making your way up the wall, you finally start getting it – that whole "I climbed the mountain because it was there" mentality. You curse everything that gets in your way of reaching the top, whether it be fear, fatigue, or fettered feet. You get down after going only part of the way up the first time, if you're me. But the second time, you reach the top, and look down at civilization 40 feet below you, and you almost don't even want to come back down. You're damn proud. Then you gently rappel back down, stop wondering why anyone would want to climb, and start wondering why they'd want to do anything else.

I enjoyed the obvious metaphor for life. Confront a risk, take it, and bask in the accomplishment. But it's more than that. Climbing challenges a brain in a very different way than anything else I've ever done. It teaches you to reckon with the most unrelenting force there is (gravity), it accepts nothing less than your undivided attention, and it demands that you practice the art of letting go. It also falls into that great category of sports where the most important competitor is yourself.

Author's note: That was years ago. Now Jim and I kayak instead of rock climb, which I doubt I'll ever try again. Just goes to show you, for every new adventure I can wax poetic on, there's a pretty good chance I won't keep up with it. Good thing I'm so proud of my short attention span, damn proud.