From 70 feet below, I hear a shout: “That’s it!” Jagged granite is biting my fingertips, each sharp point like the top of a miniature mountain. Sweat is slipping into my eye and I blink hard. My arms shake as I drag my foot up along the vertical rock face I’m clinging to, and my rubber-tipped toe finds a tiny divot, the width of a stick of gum. I try to stand up on the small indentation. That’s not it, and my foot skids out and cortisol hurtles through my limbs and I’m falling, calling out as I drop like a coin in a well. The rope catches and whips me around like I’m a marionette. I inhale, exhale, feel my heart bang against my ribs.
Then I turn myself around, shove two fingers into a crack, and start climbing again.
It all started in late 2020, when I messaged a cute woman whose Hinge profile included a thirst-trap photo of her bouldering (i.e., climbing tricky routes near the ground without a rope; think super-low-altitude Free Solo). My now-partner invited me along for a day of “top roping” — climbing gyms were open, after all, and cavernous enough that we could all socially distance — where she and a friend patiently helped me knot my borrowed harness into hanging ropes so I could ascend the easiest routes.
My heart pounded each time I climbed a wall, thanks to some combination of exercise, adrenaline, and all-out panic: The prospect of falling was terrifying, even with the reassuring pull of the harness around my hips. And when I successfully reached the top, getting down meant letting go, leaning back, and hoping for the best — an instincts-defying feat that still occasionally makes my pulse canter. The whole venture was tricky and tough and fun, a few sweaty hours that combined physical exertion with focus, the mental effort of figuring out where to put my hands and feet next.
I’d like to say I felt alive after that first go, but I was mostly exhausted. Still, my partner gifted me an intro class over the holidays, and in early 2021 I learned the basics: knots and shiny metal equipment and belaying (securing the other end of the climber’s rope so they can’t hit the floor), the standard call-and-response shouts between climber and belayer, when to catch your partner mid-fall, and how to lower someone many stories above the ground. I invested in climbing shoes and joined her climbing gym and learned the terminology, words that gave me acid-rock vibes, like nicknames in a Grateful Dead song: jugs, smear, crimps, dyno. Shyly, my delts and lats made themselves known. I found myself ascending vertical paths with tougher and tougher ratings as I got better at hard-to-grab holds and tricky maneuvers. I marveled as I summited routes that once looked unworkable.
Rock climbing is one of those full-body, entire-mind activities: All you can think about is how the hell to get over this ledge. And especially in this era of what feels like political impotence, it’s satisfying to be strong, to feel my arms or abs or hammies propel me in a new way. Climbing is also the best couple activity ever — we coordinate our schedules, leave our phones in a locker for a couple hours at a time, chat between climbs as we tie into the next rope, and cheer each other on as we “flash” hard routes.
Today, I’m regularly summiting routes at the Cliffs’ climbing gyms or, when possible, at Mohonk Preserve or Minnewaska State Park a few hours upstate. Outdoor climbing is more physically exhausting, hauling yourself up a sheet of rumpled rock that was designed by the elements, not a professional route-setter. At the gym, it’s clear which hold, bright as a crayon, to put your foot on next; in the great outdoors, when you look down, all you see is rock.
After experiencing so many rounds of stay-at-home orders, official and self-imposed, being out in the Shawangunk Mountains — ancient and indifferent to all our human bullshit — feels humbling in the best way possible. And, again, there’s satisfaction in outwitting a vast, impenetrable slab. Even when I feel paralyzed at the foot of a tsunami of fuckery (a.k.a. the American news cycle), here’s something vast and cold and seemingly unassailable that I can tackle with my bare hands, picking my way upward and, eventually, conquering it.
Next, my partner and I will learn to sport-climb so we can be those trailblazers (routeblazers?), the ones who fearlessly scramble up a virgin crag, jamming a spring-loaded clip into a crevice every few yards so that if they slip, they won’t hit the ground. Right now it feels outrageous, unfathomable. But then again, so did everything else about the last two-plus years — and here we are. I’ll take the temporary centering I get from picking my way up a mountain or wall … and if all hell breaks loose, I’ll be glad I know how to rise above it all.
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