In college I started lifting for the first time in my life. My track coach introduced the concept to us long distance runners. Pull-ups. They were good for us. Do them. Then, do more.
Of course there was more to it than that. Hand weights. Squats. Crunches on medicine balls. But pull-ups were the hardest. It was just a metal bar and you trying to throw your chin over it. No cheating. No bad form. Just core strength. And a touch of badass.
The last time I could recall doing pull-ups I was middle school. And I was actually pretty good back then—for a girl without any breasts or hips and an extra 40 pounds. Plus the football team wasn’t working out next to me.
In the beginning my teammates and I had to help each other complete just one pull-up. Two hands on a back more or less hurling each other over the bar. Our coach told us to work the negative. Meaning, control your descent, don’t just drop. Because coming down makes you stronger too.
Gradually we needed less pressure. Eventually just the hint of a touch on your skin was enough to force quaking arms to obey. Then one day we were doing them by ourselves. That was a good feeling. Being able to pull yourself up and out of your lowest point is a beautiful thing to accomplish.
After I graduated I only lifted sporadically. With teammates I lived with. Then boyfriends. Then no one. I miss those days.
So I recently started climbing. It’s similar to lifting. But better. You get to use your feet. And your brain. You have to find your line. You have to figure out how to defy gravity using a few holds on a wall. At its best, it is a vertical ballet. At worst, you hulk, burn up, and fall off the wall.
My introduction to the sport was during a weekend trip to Boulder to visit one of D’s friends. We rented me a harness, some shoes, and drove in search of some rocks to ascend. That trip I found myself clinging to a mountain while trying to free my rope from the teeth of rocks pinning me to its side. There was no way down but by going up first. By that point I was tired. I was scared. And no one was coming up after me. So I held on, forced myself to breathe, and freed myself from my own tangled mess. I was sold.
For the past six months I started going with some girl friends to a local gym. I started the same way I started lifting — nervous about my own incompetence, and weak. At least in the muscles groups required to grip oddly shaped holds and balance for extended periods on tiptoes and fingertips.
But I am getting stronger. My forearms no longer burn within the first few ascents up the wall. And if they do, I can now push through them. I like to think I am becoming more graceful too. When I put on my climbing shoes it brings back memories of the brief years I danced en pointe. My ballets shoes were stiff, tight, and perfect for making precision movements. I kept them long after I stopped dancing because they were beautiful. And reminded me that I used to be able to do something hard.
When I started climbing I did a lot of hulking, burning up, and falling off the wall. I said a lot of can’ts. I can’t start this. I can’t figure out how to get to the next hold. I can’t do that. I’m not strong enough. Not tall enough. That route is impossible. Then one night one my climbing partners called me out. “Stop saying ‘I can’t.’ You can.”
It’s good to get slapped in the face every once in a while. Every time I catch myself repeating that phrase, I force myself back to the start. I reassess my route. I say that it is hard. And then I look for someone better than me to show me how it’s done.
That may be my favorite part about climbing. You get to see how people problem-solve in real-time. Often they have an entirely different approach. Simply watching someone else begin a climb facing another direction can be the most enlightening experience. I’ve learned that I often need to change my mindset. That I’m often making something harder than it needs to be. That the next hold is never as far as I think.
I’ve also learned that some people are just good at reading a wall and understanding how their body will move along it. Other people act first, think later. (I am one of those other peoples.) For these folks, it helps to have a strong core. Because your movements aren’t as clean and you spend the time you could have spent planning your path, holding onto the wall, burning out. Chickening out of your next move.
But I am working on all that. And I think it is helping. For instance, last night I had a small breakthrough and climbed into a new difficulty category. Part of is simple. I am climbing more; therefore I am getting stronger and able to complete more complex routes. Part of it is mental. I am climbing more and becoming less afraid of falling off the wall.
Lately I have stopped using the numbering system to explore new routes to climb. Instead of looking for paths I should theoretically be able to complete, I am attempting lines that look fun. That’s how I found my breakthrough climb.
I discovered it last week and got within one notch of the top of the wall, but could never bring myself to reach for it. My arms were a little too tired and I was a little too scared to let go of my hold. But last night I located the climb and stepped back. This time I was finally able to see my line. And this time I was strong enough to follow it.