Well, here went nothing.
Dakota threaded the rope through two loops on the front of my harness and then showed me how to tie the knot (he said that I would be tying it myself next time—oh, yay. Because I wanted to be trusting my life to a knot that I had tied myself). Then I was off.
Let me just say for the record that rock climbing looks MUCH EASIER from the ground than it actually is. From the ground, you can see all sorts of nooks, crannies, bumps, and holes in the rock that look plenty big enough to hold on to. When you’re actually ON the rock, it looks like a smooth, slippery lump of clay that not even Spider-man could cling to. Or, sometimes, there will be a handhold, but it looks like only someone with arms like a gorilla could reach it. I swear, I started shouting, “Um, what do I do next?” when I was five feet off the ground.
“There’s a place for your left foot next to where your waist is now,” Dakota would say calmly, and I would look at the inch-deep spur of rock with deep distrust. THAT was going to hold me? Also, how was I supposed to get my foot all the way up there without dislocating my hip?
And then I would take a deep breath and somehow get my foot up there, and it would somehow stay without slipping off and plunging me to my early death.
“You got it. Keep dropping your heel,” Dakota would say.
Or I would put my hand in a giant hole on the side of the boot, only to find that the rock inside was as smooth as velvet, with nothing to grab onto.
“Twist your hand to jam it against the sides of the hole, and then you can put your weight on it.”
Oh, yeah. Sure.
But I would twist my hand until the fingers were kinda sorta maybe braced against the rock inside the hole, and I would lift my foot up, and miraculously everything would stay where it was supposed to be, and I would get my foot to another miniscule resting place, and then the whole process would start again.
After what seemed like an hour of me crawling painstakingly from one tiny foothold to the next, I reached the top of the Cowboy Boot. Okay. I was good. Could I come down now?
But Dean Jr. and my friend had both reached the carabiner, and I didn’t want to be a weenie.
The top of the Cowboy Boot was flat and probably four feet across. Next to the tiny ledges I’d been using, it seemed like a broad plain. I felt safe and secure for the first time in ages (well, minutes, but it seemed like ages). The rock face I was supposed to climb now was pretty close to vertical (or that’s how it looked to me, anyway), and the first sticky-out bit of any kind that I could see was maybe eight feet above my head.
Eep! No wonder Dean and my friend had both asked for help here.
I remembered exactly what Dakota had told them, and I tried to do what he’d said without asking again, but panic did a little tap dance in my stomach and I blurted out, “I don’t know what to do!”
I’m pretty sure my voice, unlike Dean’s, came out all squeaky and terrified. Geez.
“Reach up above your head with your right hand,” Dakota said, “and find the biggest ledge you can with your fingers.”
I reached up with my right hand and felt around. There were no ledges. There was a kind of bump. That was all.
I put my hand on the bump. Maybe when I found a foothold, the handhold would feel better…?
“Now put your right foot up on the rock near where your knee is right now.”
Again, there wasn’t really anything sticking out there, just a part where the rock was a little bumpier. I put my foot up on it. It did not feel secure at all.
“Uh…where do I put my left hand?” I shouted down.
“It’s just going to hang out for a second until you get a little higher.”
NOT what I wanted to hear. I did not want my left hand “hanging out.” I wanted it firmly holding on to a giant handhold. What about my three points of contact?
My left foot was still standing on the top of the Cowboy Boot. The next step, it seemed, was to push myself off the boot, trusting my weight to my right hand and foot, and then find someplace up the rock for my left foot to go. My body was very, very reluctant to do this.
Nuh-uh, it seemed to say. We like it here, where it’s safe.
“Where am I going to put my left foot?” I asked, stalling (although I really could not see anyplace to put my left foot).
“Anywhere that looks good,” Dakota said (gee, thanks). “There’s a place up there near that brown spot.”
“Here?” I asked, dubiously, pointing. The place he referred to was, again, more a bump than anything, and it was so far up and to the left it looked like I’d have to do the splits to get there.
I stood there a moment, considering. My whole body was shaking a little in fear, and I REALLY did not want to trust my weight to some sketchy bumps in the rock. The way I saw it, I had a couple options:
- I could admit that I was a coward and ask to come down.
- I could give it a try. I mean, what was the worst that could happen?
My overactive imagination immediately supplied some helpful images of me losing my grip, falling back onto the boot, and breaking my leg. Thanks, imagination.
Well, since my imagination seemed to want a little exercise, I let myself imagine how I would feel if I quit and came back down without touching the carabiner. I was sure it wouldn’t be the first time that had happened on this course.
But I didn’t want it to happen to me.
Taking a deep breath, I dropped my right heel as far as it would go, spread out the fingers of my right hand, and pushed upward. Amazingly, I did not slide back down the rock. My left foot found a place to stand, and I was able to lift myself up to a place where my left hand could find a grip, too. I moved my right foot up to another foothold, and then my right hand, and in a few minutes I was touching the carabiner at the end of the course.
I did it!
With great relief, I grabbed onto the rope with both hands and sat my weight back into my harness, sticking my legs straight out in front of me with my feet on the rock. It was the most comfortable I’d been since leaving our starting point. I walked my feet backward down the cliff, moving to the right side of the boot and heading back toward where everyone was waiting. At one point, I started going a little too fast and twisted on the rope until my hip smacked the rock, but that was okay. Going down was so much easier than going up that I didn’t mind a few bruises.
Once my feet were on the ground, I untied the rope from my harness and then moved away while Dean Sr. took his turn. I sat down, took my helmet off, drank some water, and thought about life and the universe and how much I loved flat, horizontal surfaces.
My rock climbing experience had been interesting, and I was going to enjoy blogging about it, but I was just as glad that it was over now, and…
My thoughts were interrupted by Dean Sr. returning to the ground in record time (and without needing any guidance from Dakota). Definitely the head of our class.
“Great job, everybody,” Dakota said. “Now that you’ve tried the easy climb, we’re going to do one that’s a little more challenging.”
“We’ll be going up the left side of the Cowboy Boot now, where the climb is a little more technical. There are good ledges for the first half, and then you’ll get to the crack up there. You’ll be able to put both your hands and feet in the crack and twist them to keep them in place while you lift yourself up. The climb’s about ten feet farther than the one you just did, about forty feet total.”
I looked at the left the side of the boot. It seemed, to my horrified eyes, like the rock formation there was completely vertical and smooth, a red sandstone wall marred only by a crack that stretched from the top to about halfway down.
No way. No way was I going to climb that.
“Who wants to go first?”
“Me!” Dean Jr. volunteered enthusiastically. Better him than me. He picked up the rope and tied it to his harness all by himself, doing the Boy Scouts proud.
“And does anyone want to learn to belay?”
My friend did, so Dakota clipped a special belay device to her harness. The belay end of the rope (the end that was not attached to Dean Jr.) ran through this device, which basically acts as a brake in case of a fall. It’s beautifully simple: the rope passes through a metal ring at one end, loops through a carabiner, and then passes out through another metal loop that’s side-by-side with the first one. Depending on the position of the rope, the rope can either slide easily through the rings, or it can’t move at all. Physics in action!
The person belaying puts one hand (the “lead hand”) on the part of the rope that comes up out of the device towards the rock, and the other hand (the “brake hand”) on the part of the rope that comes down out of the device towards the ground (ending in the free end of the rope).
When the climber is ready, the climber is supposed to say, “On belay,” or, “Ready to climb.”
The belayer then says, “Belay on,” meaning that they’re ready.
The climber says, “Climbing,” and the belayer replies, “Climb on.”
These signals are really important, especially if you’re climbing a course that’s more difficult than the one we were doing, but every time somebody said, “Climb on,” I kept imagining Wayne from Wayne’s World saying, “Party on, Garth!”
As the climber ascends, the belayer takes up the slack in the rope using a series of movements: pull, brake, pinch, and slide.
First, the belayer moves her hands so that the two pieces of the rope she’s holding are roughly parallel. In this position, the rope can slide smoothly through the device. She pulls the rope so that it slides down, taking up the slack.
Second, the belayer pulls the pieces of rope apart, so they are as close to making one horizontal line as possible. In this position, the friction caused by the rope passing through the brake means that it’s impossible for the rope to move. If the climber slips, the rope will safely catch him.
The number one rule of belaying is never take your brake hand off the rope, so next the belayer has to move her lead hand and put it on the brake end of the rope, next to her brake hand. She pinches the rope in her lead hand tightly.
Then she slides her brake hand so that it’s back up next to the device.
Repeat as necessary while the climber goes up the wall.
When the climber reaches the top and is ready to go back down, the belayer shuffles the rope through the device the other way, giving them slack so that they can descend.
I watched my friend do this, taking notes and pictures. I watched Dean Jr. a little, too, but I didn’t really want to think too much about climbing up the cliff face. Clouds were gathering darkly overhead, with occasional drops of rain, and I was sort of hoping that it would start pouring and I wouldn’t have to go.
Dean, with a little guidance from Dakota, finished his climb and made it back down. He was grinning and happy. I felt sick to my stomach.
“Would you mind going next?” my friend asked me. “My arms are tired from belaying and I think I need to rest for a few minutes.”
What could I say? I couldn’t go, “Well, actually, I’ve decided that wild horses couldn’t drag me up that cliff face, so you’ll need to go next no matter how tired your arms are.”
“Sure!” I said, as cheerfully as I could manage. I picked up the rope and started threading it through my harness.
Dakota, true to his word, had me tie my own knot this time, and then when I was done, he showed me how to test it to make sure it was secure. I tested it three times. You know, just to be safe.
I was steeling myself to start the climb when Dakota said, “Hey, Dean—how’d you like to belay?”
“Yeah!” said Dean Jr.
That almost snapped the fragile threads of my self-control. Dean seemed like a great kid. He was a Boy Scout. He had climbing experience. He had just successfully climbed up two rock faces with a lot more courage than I’d shown.
But he had never belayed before, and he was on the small side for thirteen. Even though I was only 5’3” and about 115 pounds, I towered over him like Goliath over David. If I was going to climb up a rock wall that looked like the Cliffs of Insanity to me, I really wanted tall, strong, and expert Dakota on the other end of my rope.
I stood there, almost panicking, while Dakota showed Dean how to belay. While Dakota was talking, I glanced around (looking for an escape route), and I noticed that there was a crowd of tourists gathered on the walkway outside of the wooden fence, watching and taking pictures.
I opened my mouth to scream that I’d changed my mind.
At this point, Rational Side, who is like a no-nonsense librarian, stepped in.
“Come on,” said Rational Side. “The climbing company has insurance just like everybody else. They wouldn’t let Dean belay for you if there was any chance you were going to get hurt. He doesn’t have to be big and strong. The device does most of the work of braking. He just has to pull the rope if you slip.”
“But what if he doesn’t pull it in time?” wailed Emotional Side, which is a lot like Fear from Inside Out. “What if I fall and die?”
“Pull yourself together!” snapped Rational Side. “You’re not going to die. You’re not going to hurt Dean’s feelings by asking for Dakota to belay, either. Just get up there and climb that wall!”
So I climbed.
It wasn’t until I climbed this second course that I realized how relatively easy the first course had been. Hindsight, and all that. On the left side of the Cowboy Boot, there were almost no well-defined handholds like there had been on the right side. Everything was like the last part of the first climb, where the most you were going to get was a little bump coming out of the rock.
“I’m not sure what to do now,” I said, probably two minutes into my climb.
“There’s a ledge to your right, near your elbow, where your foot can go,” Dakota said.
I glanced down. He must have known a definition of “ledge” that I didn’t. To me, a ledge was a big, stable flat space, like a windowsill. All I saw next to my elbow was a place where the rock bowed out slightly.
I gritted my teeth and swung my foot up to it. “This doesn’t feel secure,” I said.
“Drop your heel.”
If I had a dollar for every time Dakota said either, “Drop your heel,” or, “There’s a ledge right there,” I could live on the interest for the rest of my life.
A couple times, I wanted to shout, “I’m already dropping my @#$%^ heel as far as it will go, you *&^%$#@!”, but I knew that was just the fear talking.
Because I was afraid. Totally, quiveringly afraid. Rational Side kept telling me that I had a harness on, that was attached to a rope, that was being controlled by a belaying device and the laws of physics, but I was still scared nearly out of my mind. There was something primally terrifying about clinging to a vertical rock wall with only my hands and feet. Millions of years of evolution screamed at me to stop if I wanted my genes to get passed on to another generation.
But somehow I kept going.
After what seemed like hours, I reached the vertical crack that ran up the top half of the course. The crack, I saw when I was up close to it, was only a couple inches wide, although it ran back into the rock for more than a foot.
“Good,” said Dakota. “Now pull your fingers together, put them into the crack, and twist until you have a good grip.”
I did. This was an interesting new experience. I definitely didn’t feel like my hand was going to slip, but having it jammed into a crack with all my weight on it didn’t exactly feel great, either.
That was doubly true for my feet when it was their turn. I pointed my toe and put my foot into the crack sideways, and then I twisted my foot so that the sole was more or less oriented downward again. Then I put my weight on the foot and heaved myself upward. All sorts of joints (my ankle, my knee, my big toe) were pointed in directions that God never intended. It was like playing a giant, vertical game of Twister.
I slipped my second foot into the crack a little higher up and then tried to free my first foot so I could move it.
It was stuck.
“Calm down,” snapped Rational Side, while the rest of me was trying to decide whether throwing up or screaming was the better option. “Twist your foot a little more and pull a little harder and your foot will come out.”
It took two tries, but my foot did finally pop out of the crack. Thank goodness!
I stood there and leaned my forehead against the rock for a minute, my free foot dangling. My other foot and my two hands were reasonably secure right then, so I wasn’t in any danger of plummeting to my death. Which was a good thing, because I was having an existential crisis.
Here’s what it sounded like:
Emotional Side: “I’m terrified. I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m going to tell Dakota that I want to come back down.”
Rational Side: “But you’re almost there!”
ES: “The crack gets smaller right above my head, though, and then I have to do the grab-onto-ledges-that-aren’t-really-there thing with my other hand. I don’t want to do that. I want to go back down to the ground where it’s safe.”
RS: “For crying out loud. I can’t believe you’re scared. You wrestled alligators!”
ES (wailing): “That was EASY compared to this!”
RS: “Oh, yeah, right. Come on. Dean Jr. climbed up here. Are you telling me that a thirteen-year-old boy is braver than you?
RS: “Besides, if you go back down now, you’re going to have to tell everybody in your blog that you QUIT halfway up.”
And that thought, right there—the thought that I would have to tell you in this blog that I’d quit on an adventure—was what made me finish the course. Pride goeth before a climb, I guess.
You know what’s funny? It was after that, on the last ten feet or so of the second climb, after I’d almost given up, that I finally started to understand what Dakota had been telling us.
I put my free foot up on the rock, on a gentle curve of red sandstone, and instead of clinging to the rock and trying to avoid putting my weight on my foot, I shifted my weight squarely over that leg. My heel dropped by itself, and the rubber sole of the shoe gripped the rock with a firmness that I could feel. The rope was almost taut, ready to catch me if I slipped, but I knew right then that I wasn’t going to slip. I stood up on that leg, moved the other foot out of the crack, found another foothold, and then moved my hands.
Oh! That’s how I was supposed to be doing it the whole time!
I felt kind of like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, when she finds out that she has had the power to go home since the beginning.
Not that it wasn’t scary. It still was. But I suddenly felt like I actually understood how the technique worked, and I finally trusted my equipment—and myself—to get the job done.
In that triumphant spirit, I climbed the last few feet and touched the carabiner.
I’ll fast forward through coming back down to sweet, sweet terra firma, and through my friend and Dean Sr. making their climbs, and through Dean Sr. telling me that if my arms were sore (they were) it was because I wasn’t using my legs properly (gee, thanks). I didn’t take my turn belaying because my arms were shaking so much that I didn’t think it was safe. I sat on the rock and took pictures instead. When my friend finished her climb, her hands were so dirty from the rope that she didn’t want to touch anything, so I fed her almonds from a bag like I was giving a dog some treats. That made us laugh really hard, and I don’t even want to know what the rest of the group thought.
My friend’s rock climbing experience was very similar to mine (as in terrifying), and we talked about it as we drove home to Denver. We decided several things:
- We were very glad we had given rock climbing a try.
- We were very, very proud of ourselves for not quitting even though we were terrified. We were awesome.
- We were never, ever going rock climbing again.
If you are thinking about trying rock climbing, I think I would suggest trying out an introductory class at an indoor rock climbing gym first. I just Googled indoor rock climbing classes in Denver, and there are a lot of different options; it looks like it might be a more controlled environment, with the routes clearly laid out so that you don’t have to make your own decisions about where to put your hands and feet while you’re still learning….
I know I just said that I was never, ever going again, but maybe I’ll give indoor climbing a try. You know. Just to see what it’s like.
Never say never, right?