I'll just put it right out there that I am a fan of terra firma. I like my feet on the ground in places like restaurants and stores that sell pretty things. I haven't gone on a roller coaster or a ferris wheel in years, although every summer I start to psych myself up...and it doesn't happen. (Maybe someday.) Beach sand is generally the most porous surface I'll stand on for an extended period of time. I don't even wear very high heels unless the outfit really warrants it.
So when I had a chance to go along on a rock climbing session at the women's retreat where I taught nature photography last weekend, of course I said yes. I mean, why not apply the "Alice through the looking glass" philosophy every day from here on out? You know the backwards one? The one where you take the thing that makes sense and turn it upside down and do or say the opposite? I'd say I'm pretty much embracing that philosophy lately (with admittedly spotty results, but still. It does make my life much more interesting.)
In the case of this past Saturday, it appears that it's the best way to work through any existing fear of being hoisted up on a rope for the purpose of scaling a fifty foot wall, which is to say: a lot of fear. I stood outside on a genuinely beautiful Maryland spring day, one of the precious few we get every year before the humidity melts us all into the pavement like Dali clocks. I signed a waiver that said it was okay if I died doing this rock-climbing thing, after which there was a brief instructional period. It's always helpful to learn how to navigate your impending demise, it seems. When asked about my climbing experience, of course I said "stairs" because I am oh so very funny. Our impossibly fit instructors had heard this before, I believe, and smiled politely before they showed us how to get into our harnesses (yes, there were harnesses) and how to tie knots in the ropes that would hold us to each other and also to the ground. I basically failed Girl Scouts (culminating in the Great Humiliating Skirt-Making Incident) so my fingers had to push through that 10-year-old-girl memory to go "I'll get you, bastard knot. You'll be able to pilot the SS Minnow when this is all over." Which is to say, it might last for three hours before it runs you ashore, but not much more.
Still, a knot was made. See? Also, my girls are not this large at the appropriate distance. Here they're kind of distracting me with some sort of optical illusion that I know to be untrue because I'm looking down at them right now in person and the contrast is rather disappointing.
Oh my God.
Hottie climbing instructor showed us how to belay for each other, which actually keeps the person climbing stable in the harness as she climbs (or in my case clings pathetically to, seeking some kind of foothold, any kind of foothold would be nice, thanks) the wall. He didn't seem alarmed by the relative...flatness of the wall we were standing in front of,
which was of course the flattest wall in the history of walls, oh dear Jesus, and of course my only thought at that point was could I go join the other small groups who were clearly standing in front of walls with a plethora of little ledges and places to actually STAND ON?
Belaying was hard for me too, because I am so not coordinated at first when trying anything, what with the mental blocks and all. I also seem to have a chemical imbalance that makes my hands do the opposite of the orders being barked at me, while I scream "SIR YES SIR" at a dude who has never been will never be in the military. This belaying involves this directional motion of pulling and stopping and braking, and even when told "DO NOT MOVE YOUR HAND OFF THE BRAKE AT ALL," of course I moved my hand off the brake because, well, screw you guys, this is the first TIME I've ever TRIED THIS and it's DIFFICULT and there's a HUMAN BEING on the other end of this rope, so whatever, I'm freaking out just a little bit and I could really use a cold drink so shut it.
Eventually he said my belaying technique was good enough to send this poor nice lady in my group climbing up the wall. She looked at me with my clearly faulty belaying technique with fear in her eyes. It is a testament to her sheer faith in humanity and also her extreme stupidity as a mother of small children who would get no insurance money because of that f'ing waiver we signed that she didn't say, "Nu-uh. That girl is NOT hauling my ass up this rock. Look - she's staring at the lizards again." (They were everywhere! And some were blue! And so pretty! Sorry.)
But somehow I managed it. It is also hard. People, generally speaking, are heavy - those of the normal adult-size anyway. My coach was all pleased because eventually my brain and my hands started working together, and I was a belaying fool. Belay I could, all the livelong day. It was nice out, for real. But then when she was done, after I'd gotten into this rope-pulling groove, he wanted me to climb this wall. (I don't know why that picture won't flip, by the way. Tried everything. It just won't.) Of course I said no, because that is what I do. After careful consideration and a break for a Diet Coke and to take some pictures of lizards and snakes, I told him I wanted to climb the one next to us, which actually looked doable for me. I knew that if I started on what he readily admitted was the most difficult wall there (Oh REALLY? The FLAT ONE? On my first day? Right!), I'd never make it, and therefore hate it, and never do it again. So I tried the second one.
This was still without a doubt the most difficult physical activity I have ever attempted. It was really, really hard, a hard that I couldn't have imagined from the ground, even. And I am at a place in my life where I am just too heavy, and also, more upsetting to me, clearly lacking my formerly reliable level of flexibility. I started off okay, but then about halfway up, things started not to make sense, and I lost my center of gravity. My knees banged into the rock, and I got nervous because you have no idea how much I need my knees right now for a variety of things. And I looked down, which is a mistake for me as well. I tried really hard to keep my feet in the crevices and to work with my hands also to move myself up, but beyond a certain point, the crevices were few, my limbs weren't working in concert and I guess my mind wasn't focused enough to make it work. I made it about 3/4 of the way up the wall before I asked to be let down, because literally my legs couldn't hold me up anymore, and I knew I wouldn't be able to do it in my current condition. The fact that I'd had about five hours of sleep in two nights didn't really help either.
You're supposed to be able to yell "TAKE" when you need a break, and the belayer lets the rope go slack so you can sit back and ostensibly relax in your harness, take in the view and whatnot. I apparently wasn't ready for the concept of relaxing in that particular venue yet. Maybe if I had, I could have gotten a reserve of strength back and made it up. Maybe next time. I was disappointed I didn't make it up the whole way, but the fact that I tried this at all is pretty amazing, which you'd probably agree with if you knew even a little bit about me and my general lack of participation in most activities where people on the ground can watch me struggle with my insecurities about success in physical challenges, and also, let's face it, see my ass. The fact that these things don't really bother me so much anymore is quite nice. I'll rent out the billboard when it's completely conquered.
On Monday I was ridiculously sore. I mean...so sore that every step brought a litany of bitching that I couldn't really control, so I mostly kept it to myself. My ears were sore. Bruises sprang up on my knees, which I involuntarily went down on about halfway up the rock because I was like, "My feet? I'm supposed to scale this with my feet?" It's such a collection of movements and choices, like some lazy metaphor for life, that's what it is.
Tuesday was a little better, so I decided to ruin it by going back to the gym. I realized while clumsily ascending that wall that if I were a. still practicing yoga and b. down by about thirty pounds I could knock that sucker into next week. I've always been pretty flexible for someone who isn't thin, and the fact that I didn't feel flexible AT ALL when I tried to reach over for the next available ledge to grasp onto really bothered me. I'm in NYC for the week, and walking around last night I kept discovering new, painful muscles that I think had been curled up in horror since they confronted fifty feet of sheet rock, so that's been fun. Today, it's my shoulders that are finally unclenched, and my biceps hurt. From Saturday, can you believe? Serious business, this rock climbing thing, and seriously out of shape = me. I guess now that I'm moving into a house with three men and eight bikes (not even kidding) I need to catch up.
That sissy Tobey Maguire is so lucky special effects exist, because the only wall he's climbing has steps carved into it, I know for sure.
All the photos (including the snake and one of the lizards, plus some super flattering shots of my aforementioned ass!) are here.