For this past summer I have been dipping my toes into what I have found out is the incredibly vast pool of the sport of rock climbing. Turns out there is much more than just some shoes, a harness, and defiance of gravity as the name might imply. There is trad climbing. There is sport climbing (commonly known as lead climbing, or for those of amateur status, top roping). There is bouldering. Equipment to familiarize yourself with. Pro names to become enamored with. Legendary routes to fantasize about. Jugs, crimps, a gaston, burley-ness, beta, flashing, sending, under-clinging, side-pulling... the list goes on.
For the majority of the summer, my experience was strictly limited to a local climbing gym. Although it's a simulated climbing environment, the gym allowed me to quickly realize two things -- the two things I have come to appreciate most about the sport. The first is the vibe. Except for extreme cases, climbing always involves at least one other person, more commonly a whole lot of people, and even more commonly a whole lot of friends who are hanging out and having a good time. That's how my venture got started in the first place. One quick question from a friend, "Hey, want to go climbing this afternoon?", soon snowballed and before I knew it we had a consistent group of five or six people going two to three times a week. And it was a blast. Because as a group you can work on one route together. You can push each other and motivate. Offer advice or technique help (that would be the "beta mentioned above, but cardinal rule of climbing -- beta is only given if beta is asked for). Plus, misery is better with company; it's good to have someone to compare ruptured calluses and pumped forearms with.
The second aspect is the problem solving. I am a hands-on learner; I need to do the things myself to figure it out, and I am all about trial and error. In that sense, climbing is gold. In a climbing video I watched, the climber referred to the route he was working on as a problem, and how he had been working on it for years. The analogy was perfect. Just as an algebra problem can be set up to find out how 'X' and 'Y' = 'Z', how do 'You' and 'The Route' = 'Standing At The Top'. The progress is incremental, and the thought process tangible. Try a move and fall off the wall; that clearly didn't work so you get back on and try something different. And slowly, move by move and mistake by mistake, you continue to work your way up until finally your fingers grip down hard on that top ledge and you've made it.
Just this past weekend I finally got my chance to climb on real rock for the first time. Two immediate takeaways: I love it; it's incredibly hard.
The hard part. Climbing in a gym can certainly be physically and technically challenging. I still look at the majority of bouldering routes in my home gym with a chuckle and think "Yep, maybe one day...". But, I do have going for me the fact that the routes are laid out. I might not be able to get to the top, but some kind route setter has gone through and said "using these same color-taped holds will allow you to get to the top." And they are very easily identifiable protrusions from an otherwise flat wall. Not so on real rock. Though there are the logical holds that have been chalked up from years of use, it is up to the climber to decide what their fingers can or cannot cling, and more importantly what your toes can or cannot stand up on (because the latter typically ends in a fall). So on my very first 5.7 route, that was steep learning curve number one: figuring out how the organic, natural shape of the rock translates into those defined side clings, jugs, and crimps I had begun to recognize in the gym.
Why I loved it. Nothing gets your heart jumping like your first fall (or intentional equipment test... whichever you want to call it). And nothing makes you focus on not falling like your first fall. For all those minutes I was on the wall, I was hyper-focused. Through that focus becomes a pretty incredible sense of awareness s you are completely honed in on every part of your body. Every muscle cramp, every bead of sweat, every line in the rock, it all comes into focus. It wasn't until after I got back down that I realized that whole time, not a single other thought had crossed my mind. Rarely can you get that kind of focus. We live in a world of being distracted. Signs and lights are constantly flashing. Phones buzz and ding incessantly. We are never tuned in to one thing, and one thing only with such an intensity. But to be out in the quiet of the woods and to be honed in for those fifty vertical feet was incredible. I'm hooked.
I brought my camera and lenses along with me to complete my wanna-be-Jimmy-Chin experience. I found black and white filters were able to capture the incredible detail of the rock and atmosphere so much better. As with climbing, I am still beginning my foray into photography, but, as with climbing, I am already hooked. It's such a cool experience to be able to capture the essence of a moment, or in this case the skill, determination, and personality of a climber, and preserve that moment forever.