“No,” I said, then clarified: “Well, once when I was like six or eight, we went out to Hinton with a church group, but I barely remember it.”
At the rock climbing gym, we stood in front of a wall covered with handholds and a colourful array of tape pieces. My cousin said that each tape colour marked a “route.” She explained the rating system—5.6 is easy, 5.10 is hard—and asked if I wanted to try.
I would have preferred to watch her go up first, but there was no one around to belay her—you have to do a course first—so I said, “Sure.”
She showed me how to tie myself in and pointed out a 5.6 route. I grabbed the holds and pulled myself up.
The first few feet weren’t too hard, other than the occasional comment from my cousin that I was stepping on a hold that wasn’t part of my route. Then, splayed in the corner of the wall, I got stuck. A glance at the floor shocked me with how high up I’d climbed. I felt myself starting to breathe faster as my hands got sweatier.
“I can’t do this,” I gasped.
“You’re doing great,” she encouraged. “Move your left foot up to the red one by your knee.”
I squinted down. After a couple attempts, I got my foot there. My fingers were aching and I realized I didn’t trust my arms; I wanted to keep my weight on my feet. Finally, I reached the top and wrapped both my hands around the hold marked with two pieces of tape.
“Okay, now push your feet straight against the wall and let go with your hands,” my cousin instructed.
In a moment, I was eight years old again, hanging out on a rock in Hinton, with my mom telling me that very thing. I don’t remember how long I argued with Mom that I simply couldn’t do it, how long she tried to tell me that she was holding me, or how they finally got me down off the cliff.
In the climbing gym, it was a fight between my intellect and my emotions; I knew that my cousin was holding me and wouldn’t let me fall, but I couldn’t seem to communicate that to my fingers and arms.
Slowly, with more encouragement from my cousin, I pried one hand off the wall and grabbed the rope. I sort of pushed myself backwards and dropped, jerkily, down. On the floor again, I smiled shakily at her and said, “That was good.”
A friend of hers—a tall Englishman with long blonde dreadlocks—joined her then, and they discussed the relative merits of new routes in the other room. Finally, she picked a 5.9 and they tied themselves onto opposite ends of the rope. I watched as she went up, noting the way that she grabbed the holds, pushed herself off lumps on the wall, even used the wall itself.
When it was the Englishman’s turn, he went up the 5.10 route like he was Spiderman. In less than a minute, it seemed, he rang the bell at the top and said “take” to my cousin and dropped back down to the floor. They suggested a 5.7 for me and coached me up. It felt easier than my first climb and inspired my confidence, so that when my turn next came around, I was eager to try again. Watching them helped me get some ideas, and two more climbs went easily.
For my last climb, I picked a 5.6 in the corner. The holds looked big and the wall itself was formed into rocks that allowed you to grab anywhere. When I got up there, I found it was deceiving. My fingers slipped off the rocks despite repeated dips into my chalk bag. A glance down showed the Englishman splayed like a starfish below me, watching while my cousin belayed me.
Then, as I lunged up towards the spot my cousin suggested, I slipped and fell. The rope went tight as she caught me. I thought, “There—it’s over, I’m okay.” However, after a few more tries to get over the rocks, I decided I was just getting shakier and asked to go down.
Back on solid ground, I watched them and listened to their rock climbing talk—chat about old routes, previous attempts, challenging climbs, the little ways they coached each other up the rocks, the rock climber’s lingo that they tossed about. There were red spots on my hands from where I had clung to the holds and my fingers felt stiff. I hadn’t realized that rock climbing was such physically hard work. Yet as I watched them, I wanted more.
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