“Well, did you have fun?” my sister asked me.
“Yeah, I guess. I wouldn’t call it fun. It was interesting though. I don’t think I ever really have fun.”
She had been pestering me to go indoor rock climbing with her for about a month. I’m terribly averse to doing anything too adventurous without plenty of prior warning. I can’t spontaneously do anything like indoor rock climbing without it being scheduled at least a week in advance. I could tell she really wanted to try indoor rock climbing, something that neither of us had ever done, and I was trying my damndest to make clear my aversion to spontaneous events. Let’s just set a date like three weeks out and then I won’t have an excuse. She agreed and we set a date for February 29th.
And I guess I should say that I did have “fun,” but I wouldn’t call it fun in the same way that other people seem to have fun. I don’t even recall the last time I had pure, unadulterated fun; at the very most I find things “interesting” or something that I “learned something” from. I’m insanely curious and always loved to learn and analyze new things — maybe this is my form of “fun” — but this is about as close as I ever come to “enjoying myself.”
The first downside to indoor rock climbing was the fact that my sister planned to go to a place near Chicago. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here before, but Chicago is about 60 miles away and I despise going there. Luckily the indoor rock climbing place, Vertical Endeavors, is in a Chicago suburb; we didn’t have to drive all the way to Chicago. The thing with going anywhere near Chicago is that the pain-in-the-ass factor increases exponentially the closer you get to downtown. A trip to Marengo or Hampshire — about halfway to downtown from where I live in Rockford — is a leisurely twenty minute drive down Interstate 90. Not a big deal at all. Elgin, still quite a ways from downtown Chicago, is a slight hassle because traffic usually picks up around there, but it’s still not a huge problem to deal with. And Schaumburg, a suburb right outside O’Hare Airport, is about the same, albeit with more traffic/insane drivers, terribly timed traffic lights, and complicated intersections. Anything near and past O’Hare is a legit nightmare. Slight rant aside, Vertical Endeavors is roughly in between Elgin and Schaumburg, so the pain-in-the-ass factor for the trip there wasn’t too bad, but it wasn’t a peaceful, enjoyable, relaxing drive down country roads either. It took about an hour to get there. Luckily my sister drove so I didn’t have to deal with the stress of actually driving in the mess.
We get there and awkwardly stand near the counter until one of the two girls working there noticed us. She asked if we had been there before. A silent “nope” of head shaking from my sister and I. She asked if we signed the waiver form online yet. Another silent shake of the head. She pointed us to a row of iPads and told us to take care of that first.
I was mildly surprised that we were required to sign a waiver form for indoor rock climbing. It seemed right on the border between being legit dangerous — like skydiving — and being something totally harmless like bowling or golfing. But line one of the waiver warned against the “possibility of injury or death” and by signing the waiver I or my family agreed to not sue the fuck out of the place if I was injured or killed. I really didn’t expect I’d get injured/killed/maimed so I signed my literal life away without much thought about it.
We finally paid, got our harnesses, and my sister rented a pain of climbing shoes. Me, being a total badass, decided that I didn’t need fancy shoes and would climb in my goddamn Chuck Taylors. Looking back it was probably a mistake, but at least I saved some money on shoe rental fees. Us being new to anything remotely related to indoor rock climbing, we were told we had to have an “introduction to the equipment” or something like that. We sat down in the waiting area and watched seemingly professional climbers scale walls tilted like 20 degrees inward from vertical like goddamn bugs or spiders. I had no clue how these people stayed glued to the wall like they were doing.
The first order of business was putting the harness on. It looked like a belt with a few other loops added, green and red, which I (correctly) assumed went around your legs. We casually looked around at people who seemed to know what they were doing and deduced that the red loop went around the left leg and the green loop went around the right leg. Maybe we weren’t so ignorant after all? A TV nearby gave “tips” on how to properly fall, and the guy demonstrating looked like he was either deep in mediation or deeply baked out of his mind — his eyes displaying some vague blankness which was hilarious as he was deliberately falling off ten foot tall climbing walls demonstrating how to fall and how not to fall. Don’t break the fall with your arms. Don’t keep your knees together. Do bend at the knees. Do fall down like a sack of potatoes. Do place your mind outside of consciousness. Do smoke a massive amount of weed (now legal in Illinois!) before you climb. Etc.
Our “instructor,” named Tim, showed up. (I say instructor with quotes because I don’t think it was a formal “teaching lesson.” He just showed us how to hook up to lines and not do stupid shit.) He told us there were four types of climbing at Vertical Endeavors. The most basic, bouldering, was climbing up a wall with a mat below you without any lines or safety harnesses required. Obviously these areas didn’t get too high off the ground; if you fell you literally fucking fell onto a mat. That sounded terrifying. The second kind was, well I forget the name, but it was where you hook up to lines coming down from the ceiling. These lines were hooked up to hydraulic machinery to provide an upward pull of 50 pounds or so; these kept your ass safe if you did fall off the wall by slowly lowering you back to the ground if something did happen. Most people seemed to be doing these. Tim showed us how to hook up the carabiners from the ropes to our harness and, once again, how not to do anything stupid that might get us injured/killed and unable to sue thanks to the waiver we had signed.
The other two types of climbing were only for srs business climbers and required actually classes/certification to do. Once again I forgot what they were called. One type required two people and basically functioned like the hydraulic climbing lines except these lines were supported by your climbing buddy standing on the group providing the support in case you fell off. Teams of two stood around here and there with one climbing and the other poised in a firm and ready stance to catch their climbing compatriot’s weight via rope if they did fall. Fuck, that seemed like a big responsibility and I wasn’t interested in it at all. The other type was similar but involved the climber using carabiners on the wall to latch their rope into; this allowed them to scale horizontally and vertically across walls with a safety mechanism in case they fell. Like the previous unnamed technique, support was provided by a climbing buddy on the ground ready to support the weight of the climber if they fell.
Easy enough. We signed some more
papers iPad screens saying we knew what the hell we were doing, at least enough to not endanger our lives. But then what?
We wandered around the place trying to find an area where there wasn’t many people. Sadly, these areas were complex climbing walls with unbelievably tiny bits of fake rocks on the wall to climb on. You could barely fit your hand or your feet on the things. Some of the few pros around were somehow still climbing up these tiny rock bits like goddamn spiders. We eventually stumbled onto an area which I called “the kiddie area” because that’s who was mostly there: kids. I’m talking like five- and six-year-old kids spider-climbing all the way up to the ceiling. These walls were obviously easy, large “rocks” to hold onto closely spaced in even intervals. No challenge at all. It looked like it would be as easy as climbing a ladder for about 30 or 40 feet. So there my sister and I were hooking up to the lines on the easiest wall we could find, well aware we were about to look like total amateur assholes in from on these kids and their obviously climber-enthusiast parents.
I climbed up about five feet, realized I was scared of heights and should probably “fall” off the wall just to know how it felt. I leg go and slowly drifted back to the ground. Easy. I tried again, maybe making it seven feet before my arms started to give out. My arms were tired? What the hell? Why? Climbing ladders is easy. I climb ladders all the time at work. Why were my arms tired? Once they gave out I dangled back down, rested for a few minutes and tried again. This time I made it maybe ten feet before I realized my arms were shaking, my hands could barely grip the rocks, and that I was scared of heights (again) hanging onto a vertical wall for some reason. Back down to the ground.
This is when the fact of climbing really hit me: climbing is hard work! It sounds stupid to say, but I really expected the main issue I’d have would be my fear of heights. It’s one thing to realize you’re hooked up to a harness and line but it’s another to turn off your fucking anxiety and logically be calm about being so high up in the air. I was especially worried about actually falling: giving my nervous system and flight or flight sense to kick instantly into full-pancic “I’m going to die!” mode well before my logical brain could kick in and say, “No, we’re hooked up to a line and aren’t falling to our death.” Going into climbing I was worried about my fear of heights and nothing else. The physical act of climbing was nothing I had even thought about. Once again it’s like climbing a very tall ladder to the ceiling. Go up, come back down. Done. Climbing complete. No. Apparently climbing is physically intense. It requires immense upper body and arm strength. My arms are useless so once I made it at most halfway up the wall I was done. Not done scared-of-being-high done, but physically done. I could not hold on any longer. I could not go higher up. My only choice was to give into my muscles’ protest and ride the line back down.
And the more I climbed the worse I was due to exhaustion. The highest I ever made it was maybe 20 feet, and it was on my like seventh or eighth climb. Anything after that and my arms would be shaking jello that wouldn’t allow me to get more than ten feet off the ground before I’d be forced to give up. My sister and I eventually scurried away from the “kiddie area” and tried some more technical walls. These were fun as I had to think about my foot placement (once again made difficult by my footwear choice) and hand placement — it was like a puzzle — but we never made it very high up the wall.
So maybe I did have fun, but once again fun in my own way. I learned a lot. I learned that I’m probably not cut out for climbing. It would be nice to be good at it, but like golf, I’ve decided I’m past the point in my life where I want to dedicate so much time and passion to something that I’ll suck at for a long time before I become slightly good at it. And climbing? Well, I learned that it’s really hard to do and requires a fit upper body, which I don’t have by any means. My legs are fantastic — I used to run and bike all the time last summer — but my arms are fucking useless. And apparently climbing requires you to use both your arms and legs. Rock climbing was “fun” I guess but boy was it a pain in the ass.