Love on the Rocks

And other tales from the urban climbing gym

Rich Cohen

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The wall runs through a narrow, glassed-in atrium and right out onto the sidewalk on Broadway near 62d Street in Manhattan. It went up in 1997, just seven years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Every afternoon and evening, men and women arrive from work, from the surrounding neighborhoods, from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and Forest Hills, Queens, to be with it, sit with it, touch it. Compared to the Great Wall of China, which was built to repel Mongol invaders, it is small — only 2,700 square feet — and cannot be seen from space. Unlike the Western Wall in Jerusalem, it is not a place for people to lament or pray, at least officially. It is merely, mostly, a place for people to climb; one of more than 300 such artificial ramparts in cities across the country and one of five now operating in New York City.

The outdoor section of the wall at the ExtraVertical Climbing Center led a career as nomadic as that of a high-altitude soloist before it arrived on the Upper West Side a year and a half ago. It was built in Bend, Oregon; spent some time in Atlanta; moved to Hunter Mountain, New York, for the 1994 U.S. National Sport Climbing Championship; and then landed temporarily in Newport, Rhode Island, for the first ESPN Extreme Games. Nowadays all kinds of people wander over to see the wall — tourists, TV network executives, homeless men asking for sandwiches, college kids, divorced dads, needy people, people desiring other people. The usual New York street circus. “This spring, three dudes came in, drunk off their asses,” says one of the instructors at ExtraVertical. “One of them starts laying money on the mat. Says he can climb the wall, 50 feet, without a rope. Before we can stop him, he strips to his underwear and starts going. He makes it up four feet and falls. Lost 150 bucks.”

In fact, the wall on Broadway is not just a haven for genuine rock climbers and wannabes, a newfangled place to work out. It is a social universe of sorts, with its own gravitational laws and bodies in perpetual motion. Between the sweating and the grunts of effort and the shouted encouragement, you’ll notice subtle flirting. “It’s a good place to meet people,” says Bill Messner, ExtraVertical’s manager, a small, compact man with powerful arms who learned to climb on Yonah Mountain, in Georgia, while serving in the infantry. “Lots of people come in here alone, so they have to ask for someone to belay. It’s a great way to get through the early awkwardness.”

Some young women come for the wall but return for the instructors, who, as it happens, are all men — mostly good-looking, clear-eyed, and supportive — and who move through the crowd shedding the heady pheromone of remote granite walls and dangerous bivouacs. Some of the teachers are survivors from the dark ages when the only place to mingle in New York was Rat Rock, a 17-foot-high outcrop of mica schist in Central Park where climbers dreamed of Trango Tower and the Salath‰ Wall. Some use the job as a part-time money-maker that frees them up for frequent trips to the Shawangunks and points west. A few dabble in showbiz, taking their charisma on tour as members of an urban commando unit that stages stunts for special events. At a launch party for the Ralph Lauren cologne Extreme at a warehouse building in the meat-packing district, they donned shiny silver bodysuits, rappelled from the roof down the side of the building, leaped in through the eighth-floor windows, and burst through a movie screen to the amusement of the jaded crowd of advertising executives and department-store buyers.

Besides the instructors, about a third of the clientele are serious climbers. The rest come for something else. A touch of virtual nature, perhaps, or a vague intimation of danger, or a sense that all this time in the gym, hauling and striving, is a staging ground for a great someday, high atop a naked rock face in the wilderness. You see it in the way they linger over their rented carabiners or stagger away from the wall, hands chalked, spilling over with the excitement of climbers with stories to tell.

And mixed in with the harmless falls and the endorphin highs and the straining bodies is the ever-present possibility of romance. “In the warm weather, the place is a flesh fest,” says 25-year-old instructor Roberto Herrera. “A lot of people get together at the wall. It’s a physical thing, and you get to show off your skills. People come in off the street and swarm. Novice women climbers flip over the men. You see the guys walk around and flex.”

The wall is in one of the most harum-scarum sections of the city. It is right across from Lincoln Center, three blocks south of Tower Records, two blocks southwest of John’s Pizza, and not far from Madonna’s building on Central Park West.

A snack bar across from the wall sells espresso, animal crackers, and trail mix, suggesting indoor climbers live in something of a dream world. As in every climbing gym, the wall looks like a huge blackboard covered with chalk marks and sloppy erasures. It is covered with handholds and footholds that describe paths from the cushions at its base to its flat gray top.

As the sun goes down, as the shadows in the atrium shift, ExtraVertical fills with musicians, writers, pilots, architects, secretaries, high school students, sullen bartenders, actors. Some get looked at, and some look with a kind of frank hormonal assessment. The sound system plays Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, Green Day, and the wall bristles with climbers in too-tight pink bicycle pants, blue jeans, sweats. They cling like spiders or else give up, sitting in their harnesses, dangling to the soft nautical creak of rope. Occasionally a big fella gets stuck on the wall, his legs splayed and vulgar, like something from Playgirl.

“From a woman’s point of view, the ratio is good, with far more men than women,” says Vanessa Marchetti, 27. Vanessa is from Montgomery, Alabama, has a delicate, fine-featured, upturned face, and works as an editorial assistant for a book publisher. She started coming to the wall after she saw ExtraVertical’s Web site.”And there are a lot of regulars, so you keep seeing the same 10 or 15 faces, and you start talking. But if you date someone at the wall and it doesn’t work you have to see them again and again.”

“This is a terrible place for a first date,” says Miriam Mezei, 20. “You’re up there and your ass is hanging out and everything else.” But then Miriam is not looking for love at the wall. She climbs with her boyfriend, Howie Abrahams, a 21-year-old senior at Yeshiva University who hopes to attend dental school next year. (“My father happens to be a dentist,” Howie says. “It’s established in the house that a good set of teeth are important.” Looking at his girlfriend, he adds, “I wouldn’t even talk to her if she didn’t have good teeth.”) Howie discovered the wall four months ago, when he was on his way to dance at Swing Night at Lincoln Center, before he and Miriam got serious.

Others have found the wall to be a fine place to hook up. After all, ExtraVertical can give you an angle on a person that normally takes months of intimacy to approach. Instructor Ben Caudle, a 26-year-old from Oregon, met his girlfriend, health-club manager Anne Cohen, 30, when he gave Anne and her then-boyfriend a lesson. “He loves to tell that story,” says Anne.

“I went to Europe for a month,” says Ben, “and when I came back she showed up alone and we went out to a movie. It’s kind of bizarre. I went on my first date with my last girlfriend to a climbing gym in Oregon.”

“At one point health clubs were becoming the bars of the ’90s or whatever,” continues Anne, who climbs four or five times a week. “And now a climbing gym provides the same thing. ExtraVertical has a whole slew of regulars, but it’s very informal, things are really dynamic, and it’s not like anything is set in stone.”

Vanessa Marchetti and her friend Mare Armstrong are sitting at a table by the snack bar, recovering from a session on the wall. “Never climb two days in a row,” Vanessa says, looking seriously bushed. “Normally I’m really unmotivated when it comes to exercise. I knew I needed to do something that would be more of a game.”

In her first lesson, Vanessa was paired with Mare, a 26-year-old architectural designer, and now they meet a few times each week, rope up, and climb. “I don’t like exercise classes,” says Mare. “I like to do things on my own. And climbing is cool. It’s like being in the school band and playing the trombone because the trombone is cool.”

As Vanessa and Mare describe relationships at the wall, the situation seems to resemble grade-school experiments with going steady, where since you’re going to see each other regularly in the same place (school) for the same amount of time (bell to bell) anyway, you might as well try it out. A few months ago, a climber asked Mare on a date. She agreed, and one night they met at the wall. They climbed. There was no follow-up. Back at the wall, they carry on as before, their evening climb together just a pleasant memory. “Nothing extended beyond ExtraVertical,” says Vanessa. “The friendship stayed here.”

On the other hand, anything’s possible. Climbing with someone, you see things — how they react to success, to failure, what they’re like. It’s a shortcut. Not long ago, Mare was belaying a man she’d never met before. From below she watched him ascend. A foot from the top he lost his grip, cursed, and fell. As Mare caught his weight, he flew into a rage, screaming and kicking the wall. He was temper on a string. “Spinning and kicking,” she says. “Kicking and spinning.”

“I wouldn’t want to belay someone like that,” says Vanessa. “It would make me too nervous.” She glances at Mare and asks, “Would you ever do it again?”

“I wouldn’t mind,” says Mare, looking toward Broadway, where yellow cabs streak through the steel-blue evening. “I wouldn’t mind at all.”

Rich Cohen is the author of Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams.