Can you think of a more weather-beaten metaphor than climbing a mountain? Even if literature hadn't turned the mountain into a cliché, popular culture sure has. Ads featuring climbing, striving, fearless adventurers sell everything from allergy relief to SUVs. And no corporate handbook is complete without at least one summit symbol. The reason? The image works, the stereotype holds up, right down to the melodramatic part where the hero overcomes doubt and pushes onward to scale lofty heights.
Despite the allegory, some people still can't quite comprehend the appeal of climbing. What's the point? Why bother? Isn't it dangerous? Seems like a lot of work, not to mention a stupid way to die. Maybe. But to those who give it a try, climbing is more than that. Climbing is an instinct, an art, a tool, an escape, game, reward. For some, climbing is not a metaphor for, but the meaning of, life.
For me, climbing started with trees, friendly, smooth-barked beckoning maples, and successively taller, pointier pines that bled sticky resin and swayed in the wind under my weight. There were also serious competitive bouts of a game called "not-touch-the-ground." My brother and I would cling like monkeys to doorjams and stretch our toes to chairbacks, then onto formica, over the range to the sink. We'd swing from window frames and lever off bookcases as if the floor were a bubbling swampful of toothsome crocodiles.
There were other influences, too, like driving all the way to Minneapolis to see "The Sound of Music" with my mother, or those yellow-spined National Geographics that came every month. Mountains were more than an idea, they were "it." I knew someday I'd visit those alpine meadows where tempests lived. And I can't forget my Brothers Grimm, who made tramping along and using only cleverness to get by seem like the best kind of life imaginable.
Family trips and summer jobs in the Rockies presented my first "real" climbing possibilities - for terminal screwups. Scrambling up buttes and little peaks and bigger ones came as natural as breathing. But there would come moments when I'd find myself a little too far out there, holding my breath and thinking how stupid it'd be to fall. It wasn't until a college rock-climbing class that I tied myself to a partner and learned the rules of the rope. Once I learned the mechanics of protection and experienced the total synergy that happens between climbers linked literally by a lifeline, my world became exponentially taller. And deeper. My path suddenly included the bluest of blue glaciers, shimmering quartz spires and sinuous, water-carved canyons. Geology loomed up out of textbooks and weather became something to forecast, not just react to.
Obviously there's more to climbing than just keeping your balance as you solve the puzzle in front of you. Sure, you move, you may push yourself physically, but there are intense mental leaps and strides to be made. First, there's the gear, the technical appeal of all this hardware designed to keep you safe even as you venture farther than you dare to tell your mother about. You must invest more faith in the rope than you do in your automobile brakes or the "stop" button on your elevator. Then there's the legendary trust between you and your climbing partner, with whom you must learn to communicate clearly, honestly, efficiently. Revealing basic, blubbering fear in exchange for total support is known in some circles as therapy; in climbing it's often how you make your way up a rock face.
Perhaps because climbing is so darned unlikely - after all humans are designed for a horizontal world, not a vertical one - it seems unacceptably dangerous and foolish. Remember, people fear what they do not understand. When you understand the mountains, the weather, the climbing gear, and your partner's logic, your knowledge displaces that fear.
Climbers break down the dangers into two categories: subjective things you can control (how you tie in, your state of mind or physical fitness), and objective dangers outside your control (weather, rockfall or avalanches). As you gain climbing skills and awareness, subjective risks can be minimized, while the judgment that develops with experience helps measure the objective dangers. Converting your concerns and fears into focus and coming out on top keeps you interested and hungry for more. As my friend Scottie, a deeply committed, expert climber, observes: "the more I climb, the more mental it becomes."
So you understand the metaphor: maybe you have some secret goal of your own, like topping out on the local cliff or tackling some snowy dreamscape. Where do you start? Rock climbing isn't exactly the best thing to learn by trial and error - especially when errors can be fatal. Fortunately, there's a host of reputable guides out there who can show you the ropes, unravel some of your misconceptions and demonstrate the mysterious purpose of all that gear. Within a few sessions you should be conversant in some of the basic knots and signals that climbers use, and have a basic understanding of how the systems work to keep you safe and sound as you move over the stone. A guide may seem like an expensive proposition at the outset, but it's a sound investment. Think of it as life insurance. And you'll find out if climbing is really for you before you spend the big bucks on the initial outfit of harness, helmet, shoes, rope and belay/anchor hardware, which will set you back about $500.
You can get a taste of climbing by taking a course or hiring a guide. But once you find climbing's under your skin and you want to make real progress, you have to get out there and put in the time getting scared or sandbagged or stormed off the rock. For that you need a partner you don't have to pay, and preferably one who is more advanced than you. Here's where the learning curve turns vertical: your partner may be happy to lead most of the pitches and check your anchors, but she will also expect you to be fully responsible for yourself--and more vitally, for her. True partnerships do not include signed damage waivers or require liability insurance. Not only is it counterproductive to try to mask ability or skills, it's downright dangerous. Climbers ascribe to the rule that a system is only as strong as its weakest link. In the quest for clarity and safety, climbers constantly compare and share information and techniques about routes, conditions, equipment and each other. Experience is hard-earned. Experience makes you a teacher. And anyone who climbs more than a few seasons will find themselves teaching someone else.
Whenever I teach anyone, young or old, a new skill, my own perspective becomes refreshed. As a guide and de facto climbing instructor, I've had the great pleasure of seeing wide-eyed first-time climbers of all ages top out on a sun-drenched ledge. There's nothing quite like sharing in another person's thrilling achievement to remind even the most jaded, crotchety old alpinist what the pure unchecked feeling of climbing is like. After leading groups of wannabe rockjock dudes in their 20's, women friends and teenagers skyward, I've learned that climbing is a wonderfully egalitarian sport that transcends age, gender, language and even disability. Everyone starts out on the ground and moves up at his or her own pace and comfort level.
Take Bev and Ida, two well-turned-out 50ish women who meet weekly for a Tuesday Adventure, when they try new things: they fly, canoe to islands, crawl into caves, explore the wonder of a frozen marsh. One Tuesday they asked me to take them rock climbing at our local crag.
"I've always seen people climbing there, and I wondered what it was like," explains Bev. "Maybe it was a menopausal inspiration, I don't know. But I do know that Everest isn't necessary for me; I like the idea of short-term goals that can be reached, that make you feel good about yourself. Things that make you want to go on, nothing discouraging. Anytime you have any goal and you reach it you will feel better about yourself."
Bev's interest didn't surprise me, and neither did her fearlessness. Knowing next to nothing about climbing, she didn't have any blocks about trusting the gear or me. As I watched her grunting and gritting and scraping her way from hold to hold, I knew just how she felt. She was working as hard as she could; thoughts of recipes or her friends or whether the rope would arrest her fall were the last things on her mind. She was focused, determined and ferocious. This meditative benefit was not lost on Bev, who marveled at her "total sense of feeling present."
Once she reached the top and I asked her to help belay the more timid Ida she took the responsibility in stride, even comparing it to motherhood. Unlike parenting, however, she feels she's at a point in her life where she can take more chances. "When you are a mom and you give so much and you don't take risks because of the tremendous responsibility you have, then suddenly you see your kids are on their own and off challenging themselves, you want to do that too. It's nice to be in my fifties and not fixate on those kinds of responsibilities."
When I asked Bev if she'd climb again, she paused for a moment. "Yeah, I might do it again. Mostly I want to try other things. We're thinking about the Appalachian Trail."
Will, my ten-year-old client, wasn't sure he wanted to try climbing at first - some other kids talked him into it. But when he reached the ledge, he was the only one of the group to remember to check out the panorama. Will concedes it was fun, "but most interesting to me were those shoes … they really gripped! Also, I learned that when you are climbing, it's not just running up and coming down; you really have to plan it out. What was great was I knew the whole time that I couldn't fall down the mountain; someone was there ready to help me, and that was a nice feeling.
"Partway up I had this sort of feeling like I might not be able to do it, but if I pushed myself a little - I even ripped my hand - I found I could do it and it got easier. When you've done it, you feel a lot more better. You get a very big sight, looking down on the lakes and things."
Signing with Shari, a deaf and mute 36-year-old single mother, I was a little surprised when she mentioned that her favorite part about climbing is the communication. But it makes sense: using the entire body to communicate is how she gets through life. The biggest hurdle for Shari, and her biggest reward, she says, is the trust. This is a woman with a long history of trauma and abuse, and climbing has opened a new way of looking at life and relationships. "First you trust the gear," she signs, "then you trust another person, then you trust yourself."
Self-reliance is a big appeal to Betcie, who took up the sport when she married a climber, a common reason why many women start. She revels in becoming "proficient in the language of climbing, the confidence that comes from it."
It's that confidence, that centered sense of knowing that you're in control, that you bring home with you. Then when you feel like you're stuck in a maelstrom, when everything around you is spinning and whirling, you can apply the focus you use when you're eyeballing that next toehold. As you move forward, upward, over the obstacle, through the chaos, you'll understand why climbing works.
You've done it. You're committed. You've signed up with a guide, and now your palms sweat just to think about it. Relax. You're in good hands. There's no substitute for learning the basics from a competent instructor. But there are a few things you can do to prepare:
• Start by sticking to your regular fitness routine. Even if you're not keen on stretching, now's the time to loosen up. Simple relaxation and breathing exercises, situps, leg, and back stretches are helpful. Contrary to popular myth, you're not going to be clinging by your fingernails to tiny ledges.You'll start out on low-angled features with plenty of holds, and for this you can rely on gluteal and leg muscles, something with which humans are well-endowed.
• Wear comfortable, trim-fitting exercise clothing to your first session - stuff that's easy to move in, but not so loose it'll get in your way. Leave jewelry at home. Rings, earrings, bracelets can snag on rope or rock.
• Show up rested and well-fueled. Bring a snack and a water bottle to keep your energy up during the lesson.
• Most climbing schools provide loaner rock shoes for first-timers, or you can rent a pair until you're sure you like climbing. These sticky-soled slippers let you grip the rock like a lizard. They may feel uncomfortably tight at first, but the close fit gives your feet better sensation of rock features.
• You will also be required to wear a helmet, which protects your noggin from airborne stones or debris.
• Your instructor will fit you with a harness and teach you how to tie into a rope. You don't climb the rope; you climb the rock. Harnesses, ropes and hardware are there to back you up if you fall.
• After some practice moves close to the ground, one of the first things you'll learn is how to "belay" a partner, who's tied to the other end of your rope. This involves good communication, awareness and the correct use of a simple belay device designed to brake and arrest a fall. You'll practice efficient and clear climbing signals with your partner.
• You will try committing your weight to the rope, being lowered on the rope, and perhaps even try your first rappel, with a safety backup from your instructor. Rappelling is not like the Army ads portray it. It is a speed-controlled means of descending the route using the belay device to slow or brake your passage.
• Climbing is the easy part. After filling your brain with all sorts of new information and language, moving over the rock will feel natural and instinctive.
• Have fun! After all, isn't that the point?
The plethora of shiny climbing equipment can be
pretty overwhelming to the novice. There's nothing like the sight or
heft of a wall-rat's rack of gear to make anybody pale. But after you
master the basic movements, knots and safety procedures, you'll
probably feel ready to purchase some of your own gear. It's okay to
purchase used climbing shoes, but when it comes to harnesses,
carabiners and ropes, and helmets you need to buy new. Falls, age, care
and storage are all invisible aging influences that can't be reckoned
with. That said, here's a starter's list, enough gear to make you a
ready partner. As you progress along the learning rainbow, you'll need
to replace worn or questionable stuff and add new elements to your