This is the one I’ve been waiting for.
Not waiting in the way I wait for the weekend or Christmas, but waiting in the way I wait for death. It was a passive, begrudging kind of waiting. I waited for it because I knew it was true—because it didn’t appear that I’d be able to come up with a way out. To cope, I pushed it from my mind and thought instead of other things I’d have to deal with first, but it was always there, hovering and wailing and laughing maniacally.
And it was so nearby, too. I knew I’d be climbing indoors because I live in Minnesota and it is November, but I did not realize that the place I’d be doing it in was (rather insidiously, I thought) stationed a mere five blocks from my apartment, for who knows how long. If it seems a stretch to say that Vertical Endeavors’ mere physical proximity to my apartment felt like a threat, then you have not been reading this column closely.
It’s not the scariest thing I could do, and I know that. But among activities I’m actually willing to do, rock climbing is perhaps the most literally oppositional to my twin greatest fears: ascending heights and later coming down from them. From my understanding, falling from the walls is actually going to be required of me. I will be climbing directly upwards, in the exact opposite direction from the one I’m led to believe humans were designed to traverse, I will come to a stop a few dozen feet above the ground, and then, finally, I will be made to simply let go and assume that my fall won’t kill me. You can’t make this shit up.
IT’S JUST SO PERFECT too that they’re playing “Welcome to the Jungle” as Rylee and I walk in—so deceptively menacing, the way it becomes clear soon enough that “fun and games” doesn’t really mean nice fun and games. We approach the young climbers (or, I suppose, climbing fans) working behind the desk and are told to fill out in-case-your-fall-is-a-bad-one waivers at the bank of computers along the back wall. I’ve never seen these forms handled electronically, and it feels weird to sign away my legal rights on the same type of machine I swipe my credit card through when I buy groceries. Poor organization and a lack of instruction make me nervous, but conversely, so too does the slick, near over-preparedness of this place. I’m not always entirely convinced that the things that make me start worrying actually make sense.
While we wait for the next available orientation time slot, Rylee and I walk back through the climbing area, taking note of the hippie-ish, well-muscled climbers already clamoring up and across walls slanted outward from the floor like spider people. The highest of the walls are much higher than I could have imagined. Per their website, the Minneapolis Vertical Endeavors has some of the largest and tallest climbing walls in the country. I’m sure the tallest of these are over 200 feet high but am later told they are 60. Still, when I tell you I climbed certain heights, I don’t want you to take this initial miscalculation to mean that I really climbed only about three-tenths the height I say I did. I’ve got things pretty well figured out up to 30 feet or so. After that, who knows.
We walk back to the lobby to await our orientation, and a three-year-old sits in the armchair next to me. “I’m three,” she says, holding up the appropriate number of fingers. “Haha, acgh,” I say, which is a non-word I had intended to be either “cool” or “okay” or something, only I’m never quite sure what to say to babies who start talking to me for no reason. Least of all this one, who I notice is wearing a climbing harness like the one I’ve put on, only significantly smaller. “Is she climbing?” I ask the girl’s mother, sitting nearby. “Yes,” she says, “She loves it.” I think, that is because she is too young to have developed an understanding of her own mortality, but I say, “That’s great.” It is great. I’m not thrilled that little kids have started following me around on my fear-conquering missions, making a mockery of my pathetic efforts, but it is great. For her.
THE WOMAN WHO GIVES us our orientation starts it this way: “I just want to remind you that climbing is dangerous.” I hear everything else she says, but only as a modified echo of that first statement. “These ropes are checked twice a day,” she says, “but climbing is very dangerous.” “To descend you simply lean back and let go, and the belay will lower you, but climbing is very dangerous.” She asks for a volunteer on whom she can demonstrate the auto belays (which we’ve chosen today both to save training time and because, though I love her, I do not trust Rylee to hold my life in her hands by a piece of string), and I raise my hand. The instructor shows me how to clip myself in, and it isn’t so bad. I could clip things onto my harness all day, no problem.
But then she leaves us, and I am left with only walls straight up. We’re in the easiest part of the whole place, with walls that are “just” 40 feet up and no weird angles or realistic rock jutting to get in the way of the ascent, and still, when I first try it, I only make it about eight or 10 feet up. And at first, that is more frustration than fear. The footholds and the handholds are too small for feet and hands. Why? I know real rock climbing does not have convenient grooves perfectly shaped to our needs, but I chose to do fake rock climbing for a reason. This irritates me until I decide to stop climbing, and that’s because I remember that I’ll have to go back down again. My breath is heavy, half because of the sheer difficulty of climbing even so small a distance, and half because I am suddenly terrified. At only 10 feet, I know this is dumb. It just reminds me of what it feels like to be even higher. And it’s so hard to let go.
When I finally do take my hands off the little rubber pieces, I fall slowly to the ground, letting the belay pull me until I am sinking back onto the tar chips beneath me. I lie there for a couple of minutes. But then, maybe only because I am still clipped in and I paid money for this, I start climbing back up. I make it up 15 feet or so that time, then panic and let myself fall. The next time, I make it up about 25. I watch Rylee summit the 40-foot wall twice, even though I tell her to stop and come down the entire time.
I make another few half-hearted attempts, but I soon grow comfortable with the idea that 25 feet feels like my limit. It is very hard and very scary and though I have so much respect for the acrobats I see swinging around above me, I will never be one of them. I’ll handle the ground-level end of things; you go on ahead. But still, I have this much to say: I climbed twice as high as that three-year-old. At least.
Katie Heaney is a writer based in Minneapolis. She has a memoir coming out in early 2014.