When I first started bouldering—indoors, at a gym in Somerville, Massachusetts—I was struck by how closely my experience sending a problem tracked with how I solve crossword puzzles. Often, a stiff V3 could be unlocked with just the smallest input. “Turn your knee in a bit” or “match that pinch and then step up” might be the insight that unlocked an entire route. It’s an elegant bit of symmetry that crossword solvers often refer to the first answer they’re able to enter into a puzzle as a “toehold.”
Five letters for “Rapper Nicki” MINAJ! And we’re off!
M-I-N-A-J. Just five boxes filled out of a couple hundred in a standard crossword, but often that toehold is all a solver needs to cruise through the rest of the grid. The J turns out to be the first letter in JUMP SCARE, and that A helps you see HAHA, and so on.
I started constructing crosswords in earnest the same year, 2016, that I joined the climbing gym, and the two obsessions flourished together. My laptop’s keyboard became choked with chalk after months of building grids between attempts at whatever problem I was projecting. Look closely at some of my New York Times puzzles, and you’ll notice the climbing jargon that inevitably finds its way into my clues.
Eventually, I started writing bouldering-themed puzzles—including the one you see here—on a whiteboard at the gym. Occasionally, a climbing friend would watch me writing the clues below the grid and say, “I’m bad at crosswords. I only know like two of these.”
“Do you know this one?” I’d ask, pointing at “‘Free Solo’ subject Honnold.”
“Now this one,” I’d say, pointing at “Top of a grandfather’s face?”—three letters starting with the X from ALEX.
“What does the question mark mean?”
“It means that one of the words has a double meaning.”
“Oh. Oh! Grandfather like grandfather clock! It’s X-I-I!”
“I thought you weren’t good at crosswords.”
“I’m not. But the Honnold clue gave me a, like…”