There is a phrase from an old book that comes to mind when I think of what it feels like to wear the gear -- the waist-and-leg harness, the tight-fitting shoes, the length of knotted rope that runs from the harness to the top of a wall and back down and serves as your safety linethat you need when you rock-climb: in dreams begin responsibilities.
For climbing, an intensely personal form of expression for those who have committed to it, also is a sport in which you put your life in the hands of those who are with you, and that can be the scariest part of all.
You are dependent when you climb, at least when you begin. Last weekend I spent two days learning the basics, one day indoors in a gym, the second at Carderock Park along the Potomac River in Maryland, with instructors and students from Earth Treks Climbing Center in Columbia. I knew next to nothing but was intrigued, for I had seen many people inching their way up the rock faces of Mather Gorge last summer as I passed in my kayak.
Hanging from sheer walls, their fingers jammed into cracks and pinching holds that were barely there, the climbers in the gorge looked to me as if they had lost their marbles. In fact, they often think the whitewater kayakers who pass beneath them are the crazy ones.
I floated up I-95 in my car as I had done so often, on my own and generally distracted, and walked into the gym at Earth Treks, which is owned by the well-known Alpinist Chris Warner, knowing full well that I tried and failed to learn how to tie a figure eight retrace knot in the one climbing lesson I had taken about a year ago at another gym. That knot, with its loops and folds, is crucial. It keeps the rope hooked to your harness and prevents you from plummeting when you slip off the wall.
In the gym, a song from the Smashing Pumpkins echoed throughout. Climbers of varying ages and shapes scampered up and were lowered by their belayers (the person below who pays out and takes in rope as needed) with ease and regularity. I slipped on my lime-green rental rock shoes, whose sticky soles are made out of the same material as airplane tires, and went upstairs to the lesson determined to tie a figure eight retrace.
Pat, my instructor, efficiently ran us (there were two other students with me) through on how to loop and secure the harness, how to attach the D-shaped carabiner that locks to the belay loop attached to the front of the harness and, with the simplicity of long experience, how to tie a figure eight retrace in the rope and get all this stuff lined up with the belay brake device.
Within a short time we were climbing. I had gone in thinking that rising above the floor would be the major challenge. It was not, at least on the very modest routes we took hold of (other parts of the gym are filled with many difficult paths set by a top-notch climber). Even at our level, you are so focused on what is in front of your face, what bump on the wall you can reach, that the growing distance between your feet and the floor hardly is noticed.
I made it to the top of a beginner's route. Then the real challenge started. The quickest way to get down is to be lowered by the belayer, who never takes his brake hand off the rope and is anchored by a carabiner to a loop bolted to the floor that keeps him grounded in case you fall. I knew all this, but I did not know the belayer or the person serving as backup, and that kept me glued to the wall high above. If I fell, and the rope accidentally slipped away from them, I would end in a big pile of hurt. Or worse.
People talk about taking leaps of faith. In descending you take leans of faith, moving away from your secure point on the wall and letting the rope and harness absorb your body's heft. All sense of control is lost, which can be tougher to handle than a pinch-sized grip on a cliff. Because of this I waited, imagining bad outcomes. Finally I let go, put my hands on the knot I had just learned how to tie and slowly came back down to the floor. I did so a few times then and many times the next day at the top of the ledges at Carderock, but it got no easier.
Climbing in the gym has its rewards, but climbing outside was a revelation. The Smashing Pumpkins were replaced by gusts of wind in the trees, by sunlight, by bursts of orange and red leaves falling past as you looked for holds on rock that was once on the bottom of an ancient ocean, thrust up long ago by tectonics. The rock felt different from the indoor walls, greasier, colder; you ran your palms along its ever-shifting contours as if trying to read by touch.
We worked in groups of three, taking turns climbing, belaying and serving as backup, your grip the last defense to prevent someone's fall. We made our way up lines set by Earth Treks' Chris Jenkins and Don Caporale. Jenkins had climbed for years, in places as far away as Ecuador; Caporale loved to climb, especially on ice (which has its own techniques), and both moved with deliberate grace on the rock.
Outdoors, there was an energy that fed itself. I wanted to climb harder routes. I would scrape my knee and finish a climb with hands covered in dirt and sweat. When time came to go again I would clean the mud off the soles of my shoes (veteran climbers next to us never seemed to place their rock shoes in the mud; before they began they stood on the sneakers or sandals they had changed out of), breathe deeply -- and then look up, trying to visualize the holds I would use.
Sometimes, 30 or 40 feet above, the holds vanished and I tried to move by smearing my shoes against the rock-face and pushing my hands in to generate friction. I would feel myself slipping, but somehow did not fall. I would get to the end of the route, get set to lean away, and trust.
People I met that day, who I may never see again, would do the same. I could feel a climber's weight hanging from the rope that wound through my hand as we lowered them down. My shoulder would get sore from paying out the line, from making sure those we were with were safe. It was rich and strange, that feeling, one I look forward to having again.
Earth Treks Climbing Center, located at 7125-C Columbia Gateway Dr. in Columbia, is the biggest indoor climbing gym on the East Coast (the company is building an even larger one in Timonium, Md.). and offers a wide variety of instruction for indoors and outdoors climbing, ice climbing and mountaineering. For membership, lesson schedules, trip information and other questions, call 1-800-CLIMB-UP or visit www.earthtreksclimbing.com. Also, there are Sportrock Climbing Centers in Rockville, Alexandria and Sterling.
Visit www.sportrock.com for more information.