It’s Tuesday night. You’ve just gotten off work and arrived at your local climbing gym. From the Subarus parked in the lot and their bumper stickers (Coexist, the Darwin Fish, J-Tree, Miguel’s Pizza), you can tell that the usual crowd is here. You stroll inside, swipe your member card, and check to make sure your top-rope belay card is girth-hitched to your harness with its rubber band. You smile and think about crushing the purple 5.11+ you’ve been working on, plopping your stuff down in one of the cubbies and waving to your friend, Jennifer, in the corner talking to Sage. Sage tugs at one of his earlobes, saggy from the large gauges he presumably used to wear.
“Sup homie,” he says, slapping your back. His sparsely-mustached upper lip curls. “Ready to crush?”
“Yep,” you respond.
Sage, Jenn’s new boyfriend, has only been climbing for three months but has already adopted an exclusively-Prana wardrobe. You have never heard him speak five consecutive sentences without mentioning the word “Honnold.”
“Man, did you see that new Honnold video? The dude is insane! Like, we’re talking god-like, for sure” Sage says, waving his hands around emphatically. “Anyways, gotta take a leak.”
You and Jenn watch as Sage walks to the bathroom, still wearing his flat-bottomed climbing shoes.
You grimace. “I know he’s new and all, but why haven’t you told him not to do that?” you ask. “Wearing socks with his shoes is one thing, but come on, that’s just unsanitary.”
“Oh, no worries, those aren’t his climbing shoes,” says Jenn. “He has those just for going to the bathroom and walking around in.”
“But they’re climbing shoes…” you start.
“Yeah, but they’re just a spare pair, you know?” says Jenn. “It’s cool. He made all this money in Bitcoin, or something. Crypto-stuff.”
You nod. “Oh, okay.” What a tool.
“You still working that purple 5.11?” Jenn asks.
“It’s 5.11+, actually,” you respond. “But yeah. It’s going down tonight. Can I snag a belay?”
“Ask Alex,” says Jenn. “She’s chilling right now. Pulled a tendon or something. I’m teaching Sage how to lead.”
You look where Jenn is pointing, and see Alex squatting on the mats, stretching her arms. You head over.
“Yo A,” you say, slapping fives. “Belay?”
“That purple 5.11 again?” she asks.
“5.11+” you correct her.
Alex grins. Her face looks surprisingly aggressive in the harsh fluorescent lighting. She flexes her bulging, Crossfit-toned forearms. You’ve always been a bit scared of Alex.
“You’ve been working on that one a while, eh?” she asks.
“Yeah, but I’m gonna send now. Figured out the beta.”
Alex shrugs. “Alright. I can’t climb tonight anyway, I tore something in my arm yesterday.”
You stride over to the wall, Alex in tow, and confidently tie in.
Unfortunately, the purple 5.11+ is not as simple (and your arms are also a bit weaker) than you thought. You hang halfway up the route, stuck below a large sloper on the underbelly of a volume. Is this what passes for 5.11 these days? you ask yourself. Too many damn skinny kids coming in and sandbagging everything. You breathe. Chill out, you remind yourself. It’s 5.11+. That’s practically a 5.12.
“Okay lower me,” you say. “I need to brush this sloper. Some sweaty slob must’ve been on this route earlier.”
A small crowd has gathered to watch your hangdogging. Jenn and Sage are there, and that jerk Mark who always hangs around the bench press, and the purple-haired front desk clerk, who you’ve never seen climbing. “She’s like, really good at yoga… or something,” Alex told you once.
You lower to the ground amidst the crowd of spectators and scan your things for your brush. You have to move fast, so you can crush while the crowd is still watching. You see your ATC, Gripmaster, balm, nail clippers, protein bar, CBD oil, wallet, keys. No brush. Where is it?
“Anybody seen my brush?” you ask. No one responds. “Where’s my brush?!” you repeat, frantic.
“Chill,” says Jenn. “It’s just a chalk brush.”
“Yeah well some loser just sweated all over that sloper and I need my brush, okay?” you respond. “I need my brush. How am I supposed to send without a chalk brush?”
“I dunno, man,” says Sage. “Do people even do that?” You can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic or not. Everything this guy says seems slightly ironic.
“Just go send,” says Alex. “You’re close.”
You scramble back up to the sloper, flail around a bit more, and lower in defeat. It’s too slippery. “I need the brush! Where is it?”
You scan around, but your brush is gone. Your circle of friends shrugs their shoulders.
“Knew you couldn’t do it anyway, chump!” says Mark Gates. “You’re a 5.10 top roper, and you know it! Who would’ve thought you could climb 5.11?”
I’ve climbed like eight 5.11s, you want to say. Two of them on lead! And this is a 5.11+!
But it’s not worth it. Mark is an asshole. He’s always hated you, ever since you left a bad Yelp review on that stupid paleo protein bar he’s a brand ambassador for.
“If you like, need a chalk brush or whatever, I can sell you one for $8.99. It’s like $7.99 with the member discount,” says the pink-haired front desk girl.
“Someone is deliberately sabotaging me!” you exclaim. “One of you stole my chalk brush!”
“Ok, psycho,” says Jenn. “Who would even do that?”
“Umm, maybe you, Jenn?” you say. “I know you’ve had your eye on this route for a while. We’ve been working it for like three weeks.”
“Dude, I’ve been over there with Sage until just now,” Jenn says. “I was teaching him to lead. Also, you’re crazy.”
“You’re not really doing a lot of teaching,” Sage says to her, tugging at his saggy earlobes. “Mostly just yelling in my ear about ‘short-roping.’ But hey,” he turns to you. “I deffo would never take your brush, homie. I’ve got like a zillion of those. My buddy picked up a sponsorship. Remember? After he crushed that V9 highball?”
You remember. Sage showed you the video 14 times.
“Just chill,” says Alex. “It’s a brush. They’re like five dollars. You can climb without it.”
“They’re $7.99 with the member discount,” says the front desk girl.
“You don’t get it, Alex,” you say. “That sloper is like, seriously slippery. I mean, I can totally borrow someone else’s, but it’s just pissing me off, you know? Someone is sabotaging me.”
“Dude, I’m tired of watching you hangdog,” says Alex. “I could be climbing right now. I wanna go get on that pink 5.12. Get back on the wall or get off the rope.”
You sigh. “Sage?” you ask again.
“I didn’t take it!” he says. He pulls at his earlobes.
She rolls her eyes. “You’re insane.”
“I didn’t take your brush, but maybe you could climb this route if your muscles were bigger,” he says. “You know, like mine are, from the protein bars.” He smirks.
“If you need a brush, they’re like $7.99,” says the front desk girl.
Suddenly, you realize who stole your brush…
Who stole your chalk brush? Scan the story for clues. To reveal the answer click below.
“It was you, Alex!” you say. “You said you pulled a tendon and weren’t climbing, but just now you said you could be climbing instead of belaying me.”
The crowd gasps. Or maybe the gasping is in your head. Either way, Alex is angry.
“Fine! Yeah, I took your brush!” she says. “I didn’t want you finishing this 5.11+, because I’ve had my eye on it for like a week now, and that pimply routesetter said he was gonna take down all the purple routes tomorrow. And yeah, I went up and sweated all over that sloper to stop you, and yeah, my tendons are fine! I do Crossfit, remember? I just wanted an excuse to belay you all night and watch you fail.”
You want to punch her, but you know she would knock you out. Either way, you’re vindicated. Alex unclips from the belay and storms off.
You breathe a sigh of relief. You know you’ll send now.
“I’ll belay you, homie,” says Sage. He hands you a brush.
You tie in. You stretch your arms. You chalk up. You queue WAP by Cardi B on your phone. You turn to the wall.
“Wait. 5.11+?” says the front desk girl. She points to the route card. “You guys do know this is like, 5.11-, right? That’s a minus sign. See? Minus?”
You peer at the card. You scan the scribbled Sharpie. 5.11-.
“Hah,” says Mark. “I knew it. Basically 5.10.”
Owen Clarke is a writer currently based in Tennessee. He is a Contributing Digital Editor at Rock and Ice and Gym Climber. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is afraid of heights.
Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.