First Ascent: Falling for Climbing

by | Dec 8, 2020

First Ascent

Falling for Climbing


“Don’t look down,” Jay yelled up at me, his voice already far below. 

Well, that’s not helpful, I thought. I couldn’t bring myself to look down anyway, I’d always had a bad head for heights. I could only focus on my hands in front of me and making sure each hold was within reach. 

“Three of four on the wall, you won’t fall.” An old climbing mantra I learned from a children’s book ran through my head, reminding me to move slowly, one hand at a time. 

My legs began to shake, slowly at first and then so intensely it hurt. I called down for tension to be put on the rope and rested against the wall until the shaking stopped. I later learned that this phenomenon is called “sewing machine leg,” an embarrassing thing that happens to every inexperienced climber.

I refused to look up or down, focusing only on the wall in front of me. When I reached the top, I made the mistake of looking down to tell Jay I was “falling” and done with the climb. My stomach dropped and twisted into knots. Suddenly the idea of letting go of the wall seemed ridiculous, I could just climb down right? Nope. The muscles in my arms and hands had had enough and my grip let go.

I let myself be lowered until my back was flat against the mat and I was staring straight up at the route I had just navigated. I tried to untie the rope from my harness, but all of the strength was gone from my fingers. I just laid there trying to catch my breath with my muscles on fire and bright red hands that were peeling even through the layers of chalk. 

I had been climbing for hours and my entire body was exhausted, but there was just one thing going through my head. I want to go again, I can do it better this time. 

I’ll never forget that feeling of intense satisfaction when I completed one of my first “projects” (a route that you work on for several sessions) and hearing my belayer, the person who holds the rope for a climber, say, “Your mask comes off when you climb, I’ve never seen you smile like this.” 

He was right, I was grinning like an idiot without realizing it. That was the exact moment I knew I needed to keep climbing in my life. It’s a very high intensity sport that is a full body workout, but also requires complete mental focus. If you think about anything other than your climb and where your body needs to go, you’ll fall.  

The first time I set foot in a climbing gym was to study muscle groups for a high school anatomy class. My teacher, a climbing fanatic, used this and subsequent trips as an excuse to get back into a gym. I will always be grateful for it. That day changed my life. 

Growing up, I was never one for sports, especially team sports, but I was suddenly immersed in a whole community, meeting new people and learning new slang. It taught me to trust my body and my abilities, but more importantly, I learned to place complete trust in others. As a belayer, the climber’s safety is in your hands, which can be very scary and potentially dangerous. I’ve experienced the dangers of having a distracted belayer, which only adds appreciation for the truly good ones. 

I wouldn’t say that I’ve completely gotten over my fear of heights but now the fear turns into adrenaline and excitement. The holds feel more solid in my hands and I wonder how I ever struggled on such easy climbs. 

Now I tie myself in without looking as I evaluate the route in front of me. I play out the moves in my head until I know exactly what beta (sequence of moves) I need to use. It’s just a warm up climb, something to loosen up my muscles, but it’s miles more difficult than the climb I did with Jay three years ago. 

I don’t have the opportunity to climb as much as I want to anymore, but my love for it hasn’t faded. I now understand when people talk about their passions, because this is one of mine.