Rockclimbing 101

My friend Elizabeth and I went on Sunday, January 20, for our experience at an indoor rock-climbing gym in Alexandria.

The class was mainly intended to teach you how to put on the climbing harness securely, how to tie yourself onto the harness, the formal ritual for starting a climb, how to belay (hold the rope that keeps the climber from smashing to smithereens if she loses her grip on the rocks) and how to be belayed (which is rather cool, even when it doesn't work as planned).

I had to be helped into the harness, but I did quite well in the knot-tying section--which surprised me, as I was not particularly deft at that in Girl Scouts. Then again, in Scouts, I was never planning to trust my full weight to a knot I tied, which tends to focus your attention rather completely.

When we pulled up in front of the rock-climbing gym, Elizabeth commented that she was surprised at where it was--one of those big warehouse ghettos in an industrial area of Alexandria. She was expecting a taller building. I had the feeling the building would turn out to be quite tall enough for our purposes, and I think I was right. Inside, there were two sections, the bouldering section, in which the climbing surfaces are only 12 feet tall (and it was closed for remodeling when we were there) and the rope climbing section, which was at least 20 feet high. Maybe more. The walls, near vertical, vertical, or even slightly overhanging, are made of realistic-looking fake rock; attached to the walls with bolts are a variety of hand- and footholds, rock-like, but most looking rather odd and unrealistic, especially when festooned with all the various colored tapes that indicate particular rated routes. Climbs are rated from 5.1 to 5.15, with 5.1 being the equivalent of walking uphill while there are probably only three humans in the world who can do a 5.15. This gym has climbs ranging from 5.4 through 5.12. The initial handhold is marked with a taped V that usually has scribbles on it to indicate difficulty, and you can follow a climb up by noting the other protrusions marked with the same color. Evidently they switch the routes around periodically to keep the patrons from getting bored.

Elizabeth and I were at a slight disadvantage for two reasons--one being that the section where we were supposed to learn belaying had two climbs, a 5.10 and another whose rating had been ripped off but which seemed even harder. I suppose the theory was that they weren't expecting us to finish the climbs anyway; just to learn how to belay and be belayed. And having a climb beyond our skill level certainly guaranteed more belaying activity than an easy climb. The other disadvantage was the two guys with whom we were grouped, who seemed already to have done some climbing but didn't have all that serious an attitude. They were very young, shorter than either of us, and rather slightly built. This mattered later on.

One of the guys climbed first, with his friend belaying and Elizabeth as the safety backup belayer. He was obviously part mountain goat, with invisible but fully functional suction cups on his fingertips. He got all the way to the top, and then cruised down on the rope in a cocky fashion. Then Elizabeth climbed with me belaying, and that seemed to go fairly well, although she wisely chose to stop about halfway up. Then the other guy took his turn, with results similar to his friend. They were about to book before I took my turn, and Elizabeth called them back so one could be the safety backup. I got up about as far as Elizabeth had, and then decided I wanted to see what hanging from the rope was like before I ventured any further. So I warned Elizabeth and she braced. But she still wasn't prepared for the amount of strength it would have taken to keep me aloft, and ended up dangling from the rope herself. For all the good our backup guy did, we might as well have used a houseplant.

The semi-controlled descent didn't really alarm me much--to the extent I had time to think during the descent, I knew I was falling slower than I would without the rope, and even if Elizabeth couldn't stop me she would slow me down, and the floor was heavily padded, and I wasn't all THAT high up.

Elizabeth noted: "The weird thing was, we were both off the floor. Donna wasn't touching, and I wasn't touching, and it wasn't obvious how either one of us was going to get to the floor. Donna somehow managed to jump downward and loosen her ropes -- the problem with this was that we were then essentially in a role reversal while in the wrong gear set-up. I was the belayer, after all, and I was up in the air. But no deaths, broken bones, or ankle sprains, just a bit of awkwardness." I don't really remember doing anything in particular that was difficult or special. I may have used the wall to get a little downward leverage. I think I was much less disconcerted by this event than Elizabeth because I was expecting to fall, and possibly less than smoothly, while she was absolutely not expecting to levitate.

Once I knew how falling felt, I decided to climb again, and this time got a little farther. The two guys decided to belay me the second time, and I actually think Elizabeth did better. I didn't even fall unexpectedly, I warned them that I thought I was coming down now, so they had a chance to brace, and I still ended up hoisting them a little ways into the air, which they seemed to find vastly amusing.

The instructor said that belaying someone bigger than you becomes a problem at about a 50 pound difference, and I don't outweigh Elizabeth by that much; she thinks 25 pounds might be the point where it gets tough, although perhaps for women upper body strength plays into it. And I certainly didn't outweigh the two pygmies combined, so I think taking your belaying job seriously also matters. Elizabeth and I agreed that when we try this again we'd prefer doing it during an UN-crowded time--which apparently is any weekday between noon and 6 at the Alexandria place--so we can have our pick of the easy climbs, and we're going to use a floor anchor instead of a human backup, unless we find a much more reliable and anchor-like third person. Although I didn't find the semi-controlled descents that scary, I think after a while I would get tired of hearing the tinkle of juvenile laughter every time I began descending, and it's probably a faux pas to kill your backup belayer.

Even the 5.4 climbs look harder than the stuff I did in my second caving trip; or for that matter the climb I didn't do. But the wall was very sheer; different from anything in the cave. Not as many foot or handholds for the belayer to brace herself. The bouldering wall might be more like cave experience, although still less three-dimensional than I would consider optimal. I missed being to reach right, left, or up and find a handhold. I'm still not sure I have found the best way to articulate the fact that one of the most fascinating and initially overwhelming aspects of caves is the degree to which they confound many human prejudices about how space ought to be organized. The climbing gym is definitely a well-organized and controlled environment in which to experience some aspects of rock-climbing and hone certain skills; but it in no way even begins to replicate a cave experience; and I suspect it's only a very approximate replication of outdoor rock climbing.

But it was fun. We're going to try it again.