Firsts are always hard. First time on a bike. First date. First time at a climbing gym. And it’s even harder if you’re alone.
I was 59 the first time I tried gym climbing. I knew no one there, had no skill, no information — nothing but the desire to try what my son, Alex Honnold, always talked about with such passion.
For him, it was more than just a sport; it was his whole life. And I wanted to share his life. So I knew I had to try it.
Ten years ago, while he couldn’t climb because of an injured arm, Alex took me to Pipeworks, the gym where he trains in Sacramento. He showed me how to put on the harness (how can a simple bunch of straps be so hard?), how to tie in (not intuitive, at least for me), how the holds were arranged and what to do with them (back when colored tape was affixed under each hold, with things scribbled on them that my old eyes could barely make out).
It was a lot to process for a brain that had arrived at the gym with so many misgivings.
After our brief intro session that day, he left on another climbing expedition. I was on my own.
It took me more than a month to gather the courage to go back to the gym alone. (He was still off on expeditions.)
The harness was trickier than I’d remembered. I couldn’t tell whether the rental shoes really fit (if my street shoes were that tight, I’d get rid of them). The figure-8 knot eluded me for quite a few tries. But I had decided to try this, I’d given up my evening after a long, long teaching day; I was invested. And when my son got back from this trip, I wanted to be able to come here with him and climb.
At almost 60, I knew I would never be able to keep up with him. Most of the world couldn’t keep up with him! But it was something we could share, at whatever level.
But… how to start?
From the safety of the front desk, I looked around as I tried hard to convince myself to go into the climbing area and make a fool of myself. All I saw around me was perfect bodies. The back muscles of the climbers on the walls rippled with their efforts. Mine, I knew, didn’t ripple. Jiggle, maybe. My thighs were decidedly lumpier than the legs I saw reaching for holds or striding across the rubbery floor. And everyone was at least a decade (or several) younger than me.
I did some arithmetic. Each top-rope required two people. So I would look for groups of an odd number. Maybe someone would be tired of waiting for their friends.
I wandered as nonchalantly as I could around the perimeter of the climbing floor. At the first group of three people, I stopped. I hesitantly approached the one who was waiting for his friends to finish.
“Would you like a belay?” I asked.
“Sure!” the third guy replied.
I quickly explained how new I was, but Mark didn’t seem to mind. He wanted to climb, and was willing to be patient. And vigilant. He watched as I set up his belay, offered help when needed, and trusted me.
Ten years later, I’m still friends with him, and many other climbers. We all climb at different levels. Climbing is different from other sports in several ways. In most sports, people compete to be better than the others. Win the game. Get more points. Go faster than everyone else.
Most climbers, though — outside of the competitive circuit — only compete against themselves. That allows them to be patient and encouraging to beginners, to older climbers, to anyone attempting what they know is a wonderful experience. Every climber I’ve encountered has been excited to share that enriching, rewarding adventure with me.
You don’t need to be super-strong to be a climber — when I started I couldn’t do a single pull-up or push-up. But climbing will definitely improve your physical condition. I’ve climbed with people who were tall, short, skinny, large, tiny, frazzled new moms with babies, retired men with shoulder issues, diabetics…. None of my climbing partners over these last ten years fit the image of ‘climber’ that the public imagines as they watch movies like Free Solo. My son’s world of climbing doesn’t even remotely resemble mine. And that’s fine. We both benefit from it, at our own level.
One of the biggest fears people have about climbing is that it’s dangerous. I was no exception to that misapprehension. But I quickly learned how wrong I was.
Most beginners start with top-rope climbing; the rope goes from the climber up to a bobbin, or spool, at the top of the wall, around the bobbin and back down to your belayer. If you’re careful, thoughtful and follow instructions, climbing on a rope (in a gym or outdoors) is safer than many other sports. If you tie in correctly and your belayer is attentive, the only thing that happens if you fall on the rope is that you dangle on the rope, right there where you fell off the wall. You get to rest as you hang there, and then your belayer can lower you slowly back down, or you can get back on the route and finish your climb. Simple. Safe.
When you climb, your mind has to be 100% focused. It’s impossible to think about your job, your kids, or your house when you’re trying to figure out how to move from where you are to where you want to go, up the wall. It requires a zen-like concentration. I was still a teacher when I started going to the climbing gym (I’m retired now), and climbing quickly became like a mini-vacation I looked forward to every Tuesday and Thursday evening. Once I walked through the doors of the gym, all the worries and tribulations of the faculty meetings, the exams I had to grade, the calls I needed to return — all of it began to slough off my psyche like an old scab. Once I stepped up to the wall and started climbing, my mind was empty of everything but the next handhold or foothold. The only other place I experience such a flow state is at my piano, or seated at my easel.
It’s not purely a cerebral ‘flow,’ though; it’s an edgy, exhilarating state of intense satisfaction. The knowledge that you’ve conquered your fear, that you’ve beaten back your perceived weaknesses and dug deep enough to finish — I know no feeling quite like it. It’s what keeps me planning climbing trips, and makes me visit climbing gyms wherever I travel. At all the gyms I’ve climbed in, the personnel have been friendly and wonderfully helpful in helping me get on the wall.
No matter your shape, age or mindset, climbing in a gym or outdoors can help you learn things about yourself you never imagined could be true. And you might smash some fears in the process. A heady mix.
All it takes is that first step.
Maybe, like mine, your adventure can begin with that simple little question:
“Would you like a belay?”