One of the benefits of being off on injury is that I get a lot of time for contemplation. I remember a lot, I get inspired, I relive memories, and I think about things that went right, and things that went wrong.
Something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, was looking back six years ago, to the beginning. When I first learned to climb, first top-rope, first time seeing fear in someone’s eyes when I told them I’d only belayed someone once before and needed practice. It’s looking back at all the firsts and how they eventually got me here. Not the part of sitting on the couch with a broken leg, but how I got to being bold enough that I’d have the privilege to sit on the couch with a broken leg. So this is the story of how I learned to climb.
The first time I learned that people could climb mountains, I was 11 years old. I was living in Miami, Florida, and my mom took me to see Everest, the IMAX documentary about the 1996 Everest Disaster. Besides the freezing cold, the death, the uncertainty, the danger of it, something in my head switched on. I think I always had a mind for exploration. I had been obsessed with space travel, I knew the names of astronauts the way people know the names of baseball players, I had spent two summers at Space Camp, and the idea of jumping into the unknown was fascinating. For the longest time, I thought I would be an astronaut. Unfortunately, math was never my strong suit, and that dream quickly fizzled out, but the IDEA of exploring a new and unknown part of the universe just stuck with me.
When I was growing up, I was surrounded by copies of National Geographic dating back from the 1940’s, which were collected passionately by my father. I always read the ones about space, but also the ocean, and at the same time, here is the Golden Age of Himalayan mountaineering, where the first ascents are being recorded like they had just happened yesterday. There was excitement, heroics, beautiful places, and to my teenage mind, this is what I wanted in my life.
But it would be years before I would get started.
In college, I travelled across Europe with parents and University, and curiosity was always at the forefront. I discovered things personally that were known to most people, but for me exploration is as much about discovery of self as it is being the first to see something. I was driven simply by the need to try and see something new.
Then Nepal happened.
I’ve told and retold every detail of the six months I spent there, but what is hard to describe, was how many books I read about the great mountaineers, the climbers, the expeditions, and of course, the feeling of being thrust into the center of the Himalayas. Trekking to Everest Base Camp, I talked with climbers, and fellow trekkers, and suddenly here was this whole new world to me of young travellers who were out here for the sake of nothing else than seeing it. I at the time knew next to nothing about climbing, or hiking, or trekking. I didn’t realize the significance of stone markers recounting lost expeditions, or famous names. But I knew right there that I wanted to be a part of this. I wanted to climb, I wanted this to be my job, and I wanted more of these days.
But I still lived in Miami.
When I got back home, within a month, I looked up our only gym, and the one that would eventually become almost a second home: X-Treme Rock Gym next to Tamiami Airport. I didn’t know anyone who climbed. Rock climbing in Miami doesn’t carry the lifestyle that it does out west, in Miami, other than a core dedicated group of individuals who showed up every week, travelled, worked hard, and developed, it was seen as a fad; a workout, not unlike the latest fitness trend.
In my life I had only climbed once before. I was eight years old and it was at summer camp. I had learned how to tie a figure-eight but it never actually stuck. So here I was, my first belay test. I took the class, learned to tie myself in and how not to drop someone. This was all so…mechanical.
And weird. I never felt responsible for someone’s safety until this moment.
So the question is – how do you practice a belay? You might ask a climber friend. Of which I had none. You ask the management. Of which I had no idea how to. Or you walk up to a couple in the middle of their climbing date and ask the guy if you can belay his girlfriend because you’ve had no practice except the class that you just took about 10-minutes ago.
Which I did.
With the fear in their eyes, and the glee in mine, it was a near perfect match. I learned how to brake the rope, how to lower, and how to barge into a climbing date.
…and that’s how I learned to belay.
Then I started climbing.
I asked the same couple if they would mind belaying me for one climb. I knew the concept of color coded routes but had no concept of the numbers. I mean, it’s climbing. How hard could it be?
I chose a 10a.
I grabbed the first holds. Nice and juggy. Kicked my feet up, started moving upwards. Then it all changed. Suddenly there are these tiny nubs I have no idea what to do with. The route is wandering all over the place. I didn’t even know it could do that. I’m comically scrambling my feet up, as my basketball shorts swayed. I pulled myself into the wall and tried to hold myself in with all my strength. Was this climbing?
Finally, with sweat dripping down my brow, I gave up. I had probably climbed a grand total of 20 feet. They lowered me down and I splayed out on the mat, catching my breath. I was told about the numbers, and came to the conclusion that I was really going to have to work for this.
From then on, I learned to boulder, I worked on harder grades, and eventually I learned to lead. I asked every newbie question, I thought I was the hottest thing on Earth even though I’d never touched real rock, and I was proud. I was real proud. For the first time, in a period of my life where athletics was the last thing on my mind, climbing just stuck. It was my sport, and it was mine to discover and to own.
This isn’t one of those stories where I did something great or even groundbreaking, but I had learned to love something simply because I failed at it. There were eventually other firsts. My first outdoor climb on Ancient Art, my first crag trip to New River, Rainier, but that first day, that day that I first climbed, is the reason why I’m where I am, and the reason that you are reading this today.