An Ode to Climbing

It was in the Philippines that I fell in love with climbing. I’d never stepped foot on a climbing wall before, but when Sarah asked if I wanted to sign up for Wednesday afternoon climbing sessions at the school’s state of the art climbing wall, I figured, why not?

For two years, I hauled myself up the wall at the encouragement of our coach and the small handful of friends who continued to show up. This usually included Sarah, my petite and graceful BFF from Nottingham; Gene, a lithe and springy middle school teacher who once ascended blindfolded; Rey, our cheerful and persistent co-coach; and Jao, the head coach-slash-best climber in the Philippines-slash-number two in Asia or something. Jao seemed to think that I could accomplish anything, including breaking laws of gravity. I would be clinging desperately to the wall at an awkward, limb-contorted angle, and he’d be calling up commands like, “Just match hands!” or “Go for the red hold!” which sounds innocuous, until you find the red hold and it’s twelve feet out of your reach and less of a hold than a nubbly screw.

In any case, I climbed for two years, until I hit a plateau. In two years’ time, Sarah could climb every route on the wall, including these steep overhangs. There was one wall in particular, the middle wall, that was super overhung and difficult, that we ridiculed for years as being laughably impossible. Before Sarah left ISM, she sent it, and I was still struggling over a pink overhang.

So I quit for a while. Then Kristen joined ISM and dragged me back. Kristen’s approach to climbing was one of thoughtful consideration, determination, and a dry New York sense of humor. She was also a fan of bouldering, and it was because of her that I braved a 20-minute, nauseating taxi journey every Sunday morning from BGC to Mandaluyong to spend two hours bouldering at Climb Central. Every week, from 10-12, we’d tackle boulder problems, spill the tea, and chat with other climbers about technique and beta on routes we could not figure out. Often, we were joined by her husband Andrew, a powerhouse of a climber, and sometimes Mel, our traceuse friend whose approach to the wall was less grace-and-tactic and more how-can-I-dominate-you.

Up until this point, my relationship with climbing had been a rocky one. (Ha, ha.) But something changed. Climbing for four hours a week was one thing. Practicing the technique required to turn against the wall, to reach for out-of-reach holds, to learn what it feels like to balance on a small hold with the toe of one shoe, to feel strong enough to pull yourself over an overhang — all of it made me a better climber.

The other piece that endears me to the sport is the fact that it is the only time I feel in the moment. For some people, coming to a yoga mat is enough to still those racing thoughts, to quiet the long list of anxieties or to-do’s that your brain is pounding out like some fiendish dot-matrix printer gone rogue. For me, it is climbing. I cannot think about a single other thing while I’m climbing. Every route – especially in bouldering – is a puzzle: figure out a way to the top using only these holds. Routes are set in ways that challenge you. In order to get up, you’ll need to match hands here or mantle there, or step out wide and hope your groin muscles are flexible enough to get your foot on that hold.

The other great aspect of climbing is how easy it is to meet people. Climbers are friendly, helpful, and non-judgmental (at least not verbally, which is enough for me). In Manila, we befriended Ken, a Filipino architect who climbed by himself every week and sent the toughest routes on the bouldering wall like they were ladders. In New Jersey, some guy helped me figure out a challenging bouldering route and then ended up belaying me on this cool chimney climb I couldn’t have done on my own. (Free soloing ain’t my thing.) In Grindelwald, I met a guy called Sven at a bouldering gym, and he’s since added me to a Jungfrau region climbing group on WhatsApp.

I began researching climbing gyms before I took trips. In Bali, we found a small gym not far from our villa and climbed there one morning. On a Professional Development weekend in Hong Kong, I found one next to my hotel (Attic V) and went – alone – on a Friday evening. Talk about nervewracking. The gym was tiny, and it was crowded with shirtless men mapping out routes that had lines of climbers waiting to try them out. It’s the most intimidated I’ve ever felt in a climbing gym. But I stuck around and did one anyway, cheered on by a small group of women who had been trying to get one move toward the top.

It was around this time that Katie, Kristen, and I managed to convince Jao to organize an outdoor climbing trip to Montalban, an hour’s drive from Manila. It was the first time climbing outdoors on real rocks, and I loved it. Since then, I’ve climbed outdoors in Montana, Hawaii, and now Switzerland.

Before I moved to Manila, I researched the rugby clubs and showed up on the touch rugby pitch a few days after I landed. Now, it’s climbing. Before moving to Switzerland, I found the local climbing gym and luckily happened to snag an apartment a few blocks away. (Unluckily, the gym is closed due to COVID.)

Through my friend Nat, I was added to a WhatsApp group for climbers. This was also intimidating, because I never know what my skill level is compared to other people in these groups. I’m also used to meeting people in gyms or through friends, so it was daunting to send out an introductory message to the group. But I did, and soon I found myself at the climbing gym with a guy named Shafeeq, who kindly belayed me and went for a beer after.

Through Shafeeq, I ended up climbing at Gempen with Dominik and Oliver, where I tried lead climbing for the first time. This was somewhat terrifying, but felt amazing once I pulled the rope through the final anchor. (I had only ever climbed top rope outdoors; Jao had us practice lead climbing indoors, so I’d done it once or twice, but not enough to feel confident. Top rope is when a rope is secured through an anchor at the top of the wall, with one end safely secured to your harness and the other to a belayer below. If you fall, you just sort of dangle there without dropping. Lead is when you climb with a rope secured to your harness, but you need to place it into the quickdraws as you climb up. If you fall, you fall farther than just dangling.)

Shafeeq spoke highly of a climber named Dina, whom he said had advanced meteorically over the past month. So I found her number on the group chat and met her at the gym a few days later.

This is the thing about climbing in Switzerland. I went from years of consistent, weekly practice in Manila to inconsistent practice here, but a crew of people who would climb every day if they could, and climb outside often because it is so accessible. They have challenged me to abandon the security of top rope and try lead climbing, or to stick with top rope and try more challenging routes.

In the few months I’ve lived in Switzerland, I have climbed outdoors several times in both the Basel area and in Germany. I’ve sent several routes on lead and, most rewardingly, climbed my first multi-pitch, a 10-pitch ascent in Solothurn.

The gyms have closed due to COVID and the weather is colder, so it’s been a while since I’ve been on a rock or a wall, and I miss it. I miss solving boulder problems. I miss the thrill of reaching the top of a route and looking out over the world – miles of palm trees in a Philippine jungle, the teal Pacific ocean on Oahu’s sandy shores, the grey rocks and green pines of northern Montana, a valley dazzling in autumn’s colors with the shadow of the Eiger on the horizon – for just enough time to catch my breath before returning to earth again.

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