What Makes a Climber?

I have this distinct memory of going to the park near my house when I was four years old. The other kids were on the playground. Do you know where I was? I was up a tree on the far edge of the park having a good time. A helpful stranger walked by, “Miss! Your daughter is up that tree!” To which my mom shrugged. “If she falls, she just hops back on.”

Flash forward a few years at recess. Where was I? I was on top of the monkey bars, getting asked by a teacher to come down.

A few years later? I was begging my Dad to drive 1.5 hours to a mall that had an indoor climbing wall, where you paid per climb!


Flash forward to three years ago. I was in my third lesson of the climbing class my college hosted. In the other two classes I had learned how to tie my figure 8 follow through, fisherman knot, water knot, and figure 8 on a bite. I knew the types of basic gear. Very importantly, I also knew how to belay without taking my brake hand off the rope.

We finally earned the privilege of climbing outside! I had hiked up this location quite a bit before this. I always took breaks along the way to shamelessly stare at the climbers. Envious that I was not climbing with them.

This. Was. Amazing.

I grabbed a harness, but left the chalk bag (what is the point of a chalk bag?) 😉 I hiked up with the class where the TAs had set up top ropes before class started.

I waited a few climbs not wanting to seem as eager as I was (seemed better than pushing the others out of the way). Finally I could not take it anymore! I asked the student standing next to me to belay, and climbed the first outdoor climb I had every climbed. I still remember waiting for my partner to be ready standing next to the wall in my yoga pants, white t-shirt, and sneakers (What a scam climbing shoes. I have perfectly good sneakers!). 😉

The first part on the the route was a scramble. I went to fast and my partner had a hard time keeping up with the scramble. I got about 5 feet above my partner when I had to start using my arms. Especially after that I was a little nervous about not going the right speed for my partner and falling off the rock. I took a big breath in and found a nice crack to follow up. And then, my feet left the ground! I put one foot against a sister crack just to the side. The teacher stopped the class to point out how flexibility make girls some of the best climbers. I tried to ignore the whole classes now undivided attention as I kept going. I worked my way up as efficiently as one can do in sneakers. You bet I had three solid points on the rock before I moved any limb. No way was I about to go up on anything less than ideal.

I reached the top, and had no idea what to do. All I had were chains and carabiners above me. The rope was not going higher. I sat there about 30 seconds before the teacher yelled up, “Are you going to touch the chains to finish the climb?” Oh yes. That is how one successfully finishes a top rope! Having touched the chains I clung to the wall. My partner yelled up at me, “Let go of the wall!”. Slowly I let go of the wall and hung there like a Raggedy Anne doll. “Lean back!” Yelled my partner. Eventually I leaned back an appropriate amount and realized it helped to put my feet up on the wall.

Finally, due to my limp belay style, I reached the ground. Almost as soon as my feet hit the ground I was looking at the other routes wondering what I could try next. Quickly I caught myself, and thanked my partner for belaying me. I then did the polite thing and offered to belay him. As I was belaying him I couldn’t stop myself from smiling like an idiot. I was so happy! I finally did it! I climbed to the top of a real rock climb!

At what point do you become a climber?

Are you born with it? Or is it when you take your first climb outside? When you skip class (or work) to hit up the crag? Maybe when you realize how awesome your peanut butter sandwich is as you sit with some buddies enjoying the day outside? Or when your fingers thaw out after starting the day before the sun could warm it up? Is it when you start doing push ups and pull ups at home to become a better climber? Secretly using a stress ball to make your fingers stronger? Do you have to invest in your own gear to be a climber?

I never knew a sport could be so exhilarating, emotional, and satisfying.

When did you realize that you were a climber?

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