My relationship with the climbing gym, Sportrock, in Alexandria, VA has been a rocky one. Or should I say one fraught with sloping hand holds and overhung precipices escaping the purchase of my sweaty fingertips. When I was a Freshman in college I often went alone to the gym on wintry afternoons to refine my bouldering skills. In those pre-Ipod days, I would listen to my old 18-song mp3 player and arc around the walls of the gym until my forearms felt like I was wearing metal sleeves. This usually happened after 40 feet. Other times I would play around with bouldering problems. But by the end my sense was never that of “play” or “fun.” Rather than completing the V3 problem, my greatest accomplishment would be that I had ground my calluses back into blisters.
My time at the gym abruptly stopped that spring once I discovered I enjoyed running on the trails close to the city: a pastime which as an upside never resulted in dusty blisters. I also realized I was not very good at overhung boulder problems whether because I was carrying around more weight than the lithe 14 year olds crawling all over the gym, or because I was not really dedicating myself to the task of advancement and more likely using the solo time to meditate about boys and school.
Later, as Senior, I became a regular at the climbing gym again. At first I was skeptical when my old outing club instructor invited me along. The gym would still be full of gear heads and sensitive, beefy men bossily dishing out movement advice. Advice is a great thing especially for something like climbing, in which body torsion in one direction facilitates a move, and in the other direction, makes you curse, fall down, and take time out to watch the little kids (the real professionals) climb. But for someone who is discouraged just at being indoors practicing a beloved sport on technicolor plastic in the shape of genitalia and smiley faces verses on opalescent granite in the great outdoors, I would rather avoid these further annoyances of gyms.
However two things were different this time. Besides my partner, who often showed up to climb in business suits, being a fun and encouraging addition, I was already conditioned philosophically and physically to exercise indoors since I had been bench pressing at the gym all autumn. I spent the late autumn lifting some serious weights at our school’s gym, even doing pull-ups on the Gravitron machine. This helped. Not only did I feel like my back looked really good when I climbed, but I could climb better too. And instead of hellish bouldering problems, we climbed longer routes that required endurance more than brute latissimus dorsi strength. Now I had a couple of spectators watching to see how I did a route, instead of me watching gymnastic young Asian girls race around the bouldering problems, wondering where they hid all their muscle. Coming in with muscles already beefed up and conditioned helped quite a lot, as did my general attitude, which had changed since freshman year. I was not there to try and kick ass or take numbers like I thought you were supposed to be. I was there to enjoy the physical sensation of slow vertical ascent. Climbing movements require elegance and finishing a climb with light steps, fluid hip shifts, and paced breathing gives your body a chance to experience the meditative rhythm of grace and athleticism combined. There were still lots of men waiting to give me advice, some buzz-cutted ones even angry when I did not listen to them. They were amusing to watch with their stretched piercings and baggy jeans while they stepped ever so lightly in exaggerated parabolas over the plastic holds, touching rather than gripping, with their hands held up like effeminate T-Rex’s. But that is what the gym is all about, it is what any group fitness initiative is comprised of: people who want to be good, who strive aggressively to be good, who want to note how others are bad. However once I was above the gym floor and my body was remembering to breath and my mind was elastic, I could approximate that feeling that had brought me to climbing in the first place about five years ago way far away during a warm November in Arizona. Even now in the middle of winter at the gym, weaving around the chalky handholds illuminated by fluorescent indoor light, I felt that moment of refined movement and power indigenous to climbing, and I remembered why I loved the sport and for that climb I felt euphoric.