Do you remember your first time climbing? I remember vividly both my first time indoor climbing and outdoor climbing.
The first time I ever officially went outdoor climbing was when we tried to climb at Brownstone in CT. Neither of us had ever been there, but I heard it had outdoor climbing. Since there would be people setting up the gear and belaying, I thought it was an ideal first place to go. It was fall and starting to get colder, so all the water activities that usually draw people to the place were missing. It was a ghost town. We pulled up to what looked like a nuclear site, surrounded in plants of the industrial kind. We thought maybe we had been lied to by the person giving us directions. This didn’t seem like where an adventure park would be. There was supposed to be hiking trials, yet there were hardly any trees. There were no cars. We almost turned around, when we glimpsed a large lake with wooden bridges. Normally lakes are not a maze of bridges and therefore, we might be there. We saw a little hut with the name.
We were in the right place, but it was nothing like we had heard of or imagined. People really loved this place. Why? Maybe it was different in the fall when everything wasn’t up and running. Maybe the summer with all the people and water activities made it look different. We filled out the waivers, paid our entrance fee, and headed to the climbing and zip lining. I was excited to climb up real rock. I had been on boulders at the beach numerous times and climbing up all sorts of things that were easy. This would be the first technical, real route experience. It was different. I was excited.
When we got to the wall, it was real rock, but rock with plastic holds bolted to it. Essentially an outdoor gym. All the excitement that had built up in my mind was quickly diminishing. Not only that, but I was getting pretty good at gym climbing. These climbs were 5.2 through 5.4. I honestly hadn’t even known grades went that low. We expressed our confusion to the staff. We asked if there perhaps was actual rock climbing here. Maybe they assumed we were beginners. Maybe they were testing us. They were not. They said there was some harder climbing, but they weren’t going to set it all up for only two people. It was also hard to get to since all the water portions were closed. They also said even their harder climbing wouldn’t be what we were looking for. They recommended we zip line back to the office and get a refund. They said to explain our confusion and they would help us out.
Feeling a little let down we made our way back. It was my first time on a zip line. I was scared of heights and absolutely terrified to do it, but I was trying not to let it show. At first I tried to make excuses about how it wasn’t really fair for us to still do it. Ultimately, I gave it a try. After just a few seconds my fear released. There is nothing scary about zip lines. In fact, this one was sort of boring. I imagine they are nice for the view, but when the view is a murky lake and power plants, there isn’t much of a thrill.
Josh had been outdoor climbing numerous times before and had the knowledge and gear, but he agreed to the park thinking it would be much different. Since it hadn’t worked out, he suggested we try Pinnacle. It was not too far off from where we were, and the approach was easy. We would be able to get at least a climb in before nightfall. I was thrilled to have another opportunity to get on an outdoor climb. We hiked up to a beginner wall, he set up a top rope anchor, and I was able to do my first climb.
Right as I was tying in and preparing for my climb, he warned me not to fall in the beginning because there was a lot of rope stretch. It was a very thin rope, a 9.4 I believe. Fear took over. How could I just not fall? I grabbed onto the rock and clung for dear life. I carefully felt around for my next holds. I climbed up slow but with great determination. I never left go. Once I got to the top, I was surprised. I had no idea I was anywhere near the top. I was completely focused on the climb and not falling. I was wiped out from how tightly I was gripping. One thing I do know in climbing is that over-griping really will pump you out fast.
I had made it though. I made it up my first climb. I’m sure it was something ridiculously easy, but it was harder than a 5.2 with plastic holds. I was proud, accomplished, and ready to keep going. I was instantly hooked, yet still a little scared and nervous. It was a great feeling. The more I climb outside, the more I fall in love with it. There is just something perfect about it. Each climb, no matter how hard feels more rewarding to me when it is an outdoor climb.
My first time indoor climbing was an interesting experience as well. A few college friends asked me to join them since I had mentioned liking rock climbing. At the time, I thought the boulder climbing on the beach I did was what people meant by rock climbing. I knew what mountaineering was, but I also knew that was not what they were referring to. There is no way they could be inviting me to a gym to get a climbing Mt. Everest experience after all. I didn’t realize how many forms of climbing and how many levels there were.
We went to the gym and it was huge! It was the Carabiners at New Bedford, MA, which has 70ft walls. It wasn’t mountaineering, but it definitely wasn’t beach boulders either. My first few attempts at climbs left me shaking and filled with anxiety. I was very scared of heights at the time, and I hadn’t known how high a gym could be. The flat walls felt very exposed to me. I took falls at varying heights to get used to the gear and feel safer. It helped a little. What helped a lot was climbing in their cave. I had walls all around me, everything was dark, and I was just climbing to light from a look out above. I felt very secure there, and quickly earned the name Bat girl. My first few months of climbing, I didn’t want to do anything by the cave. Then I started feeling more bold. I found other corners to climb. Anywhere I could stem, was a climb I would thrive on. Slab, flat wall, or overhanging were all really out of the picture at first. I was only in caves, corners, or places with little roofs.
Gradually, like all climbers, I progressed. I started experimenting with all the different walls and types of climbing. I even started lead climbing. I can’t quite remember the first time I did a sport route. Though I know it was outside to skip needing to take a class in the gym. I remember starting out really confident and having an easy time with it. It took a few big and bad falls to humble me into fear.
It is interesting to periodically look back on your start to climbing, and to see how far you’ve come. I can see things I wish I had held onto about being a beginner and areas I am glad I improved. Of course, it is a great feeling to become stronger. I truly love training because of that joy and motivation to be getting stronger. It feels good to surpass your own expectations of yourself. Nothing makes me happier than completing a climb I never would have thought I could do. I do, however, miss some of the innocence of being a beginner. As a beginner, there are no rules and no restrictions. You really do whatever you want with the rock or plastic. Beginners rarely have a concept of beta, eliminates, etc. It feels more freeing and much more laid back.
In the end, I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m happy with where I am. I know there are always ways to incorporate some of that desired behavior and thoughts into my current state. We can spend most of our time trying hard and working hard, but we also need to take time to goof off and not be so serious. It is good to make achievements and push past limits. When the pressure is really on and things are feeling stressful, we also need the perspective that as much as we love climbing we are just people climbing a rock. Really our whole sport is a goofy, not serious thing, that we take very seriously. It’s good to have some fun with it too.
Sometimes, it is good to harness our inner beginner and remember what brought us to this sport anyway. At one point, we were just trying something out with excitement that felt mixed with uncertainty. Then we loved it, we craved it, and we couldn’t get enough out of it. Now we are pushing hard and doing it all the time. It is filled with confidence boosts, set backs, humbling experiences, gratifying experiences, joy, frustration, passion, and disappointment. Climbing is mixed with a lot of feelings. We can be coasting by with adrenaline filled adventures, peaceful satisfaction, and blissful love. We are thriving, having fun, making connections, feeling completed and secure. Then next thing we know there are those moments of frustration. Why am I not getting better? Why do I spend all my time doing this? My body is beat up, I’m injured, and maybe I should stop. Maybe we feel burnt out by a particular aspect such as competition climbing. Maybe we are struggling to manage our time. Maybe we are feeling insecure about where we are.
You can try to leave climbing, but I bet it will pull you back. We all have hard moments with things we love, but there is this intrinsic value and deep rooted connection we form with our adventurous activities. Whether it is climbing, fishing, hiking, surfing, etc. The bad moments, no matter how few or how many, just feel far and between. The personal growth and gains far outweigh them. Many of us become addicted for life, and ultimately find a place where we are always trying hard but have settled in our expectations. When we pass them, we are delighted, when we meet them we are confident, and when we fall a little behind we can keep peaceful with it or at least get past it.
We can remember the first time we tried it with clarity, but can you remember the first time it became something more to you? That question is a little harder to pinpoint. I cannot say exactly where climbing became as special as it is now. I think it was a combination of things. There are moments when I can feel for sure it is, and then most of the time I’m not actively thinking about it; like a natural, unquestioned part of my day, I’m just doing it. If I’m not doing it, I’m missing it and thinking about it. When I’m breathe in that fresh pine filled air, admiring that beautifully colored and textured rock, driving to a new climbing destination, or achieving a self inspiring send, I can just feel that this is what I want to be doing all the time. Even when I’m repeatedly falling and feeling defeated, that determination, desire, and belief I can and want to do this, shows me. This is where I am supposed to be.
What was your first time like?