On December 28, 2023

Lessons learned through indoor rock climbing

 

Dear Editor,

Don’t look down, just breathe, I told myself. Breathe. Just admit you’re scared and breathe.  Slowly try to make just one simple move. Just move one foot. One hand. Breathe. Another foot, another hand. Breathe. You’re going to be OK.

If you can climb a flight of stairs you can begin to climb walls. The strength in your legs and your sense of balance are key. The upper body strength can come with time.

But why would you even think of climbing up walls? I had thought of indoor rock climbing as a kids’ activity, or something for daredevils whose outdoor precipice climbing actually terrified me. But there I was in the gym giving it a try. One of the members of my hiking group suggested it as something different for the group of us to try and to find yet another way to spend time together. What I hadn’t expected was that it would not only become one of my favorite activities but that it would change me and my understanding of trust, failure, and perfection.

We were five women ranging in age from mid-50s to mid-70s, with me at the upper end. That first morning I found myself strapping a harness around my waist and hips, donning a pair of thin un-soled shoes, and staring at 25-foot high walls covered with colorful hunks of odd shaped “rocks.”

Our small nervous group learned how to tie onto the ropes that go through a pulley at the ceiling so that we could be supported as we climbed and then as we were lowered (belayed) down. We also learned how to belay our partners. 

On my first climb I got halfway up the wall, stopped and looked down. The floor looked so far away. What had I gotten myself into? My stomach and chest muscles tightened and I knew fear. But… I made it to the top, and the thrill, the exhilaration surged through me. I had accomplished something that I thought I absolutely could not do.   

We call our little group the Badasses but we had encouragement and inspiration from another group in the gym that morning, the Flailing Fossils.This amazing group climbs some incredibly challenging routes up these walls, most of which were designed by their own members. They are our peers in age but light years ahead of us in experience, strength, and skills.

The routes up the wall are color coded for different levels of difficulty. When we started we grabbed any color rock we could. But as we progressed we limited ourselves to the one color of the route we were attempting. The rocks come in a wide variety of sizes and one wall usually contains several routes. 

Ascending the wall called for courage and determination, but being belayed by a partner provided lessons in trust. My partner’s harness was hooked onto the other end of the rope that was holding me. As I climbed my partner pulled the rope through the device attached to her harness and kept the rope taut. When I was ready to come down, she slowly released the rope through that device and lowered me as I walked my feet down the wall to the ground. Our actions were synchronized and flowed together. 

There is something even more remarkable about this partnership though.That happens when you fail, or fall off the wall. Your partner holds the rope and it catches you in your harness and securely holds you aloft. You get to retry your climb right from where you fell. For me being caught in a fall is second only to the rush of tapping my head on the ceiling at the end of my climb. As I fall I have a split second of fear followed by the exhilaration of being truly saved. Failure has become something that happens; something I expect as part of learning, especially when I want to expand my skills. 

Yes, it’s sometimes frustrating. But that too is such an interesting thing to observe in myself. How do I react to failure?   It’s actually led me to reflect on whether I’ve chosen not to do other things because I was afraid of failing. It’s caused me to learn yet again that what matters is the trying, the attempting. In the gym we hone our skills over time and make our climbs look more flowing and graceful, but there is no “perfect.” 

It is not often that you get to work in tandem and be so dependent on another. It is a humbling and bonding experience. We support one another by offering suggestions, where to put a foot or a hand, or sharing atta-boys when one of us makes a skillful maneuver. 

The strength in your arms, your legs, and your core grow as you progress.  With time and practice you become more attuned to slight differences in your body.  You may start off feeling cold, or stiff, weak or off balance, and come to notice how taking some easier climbs warms you up. And soon you may find yourself doing something that didn’t feel possible when you first arrived. Or, like this morning for me, you find your body is not at peak, perhaps needing more recovery time from the last day climbing, or needing more sleep. 

There’s no pressure to compete. If some people want to, that’s a choice, and many find that lots of fun. But at this point in my life I really enjoy when I can do more than I’ve done before, and happy, too, when I do as well as the last time. 

When I climb I am totally engaged. I’m laser focused on moving and balancing my body, and solving the puzzle of how to get up that wall. It’s a vacation from all my other thoughts. Concerns about the tasks on my to-do-list get left on the gym floor. I’m a kid again. 

Pat Hunter, who climbs at the Green Mountain Climbing Gym on Woodstock Avenue in Rutland

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