Meet a Teen 'Addicted to Climbing'
I quickly glance up. My hands are shaking, my arms are burning, my legs hurt, and I'm breathing as if I've just sprinted seven miles. I need to move my left foot so I can reach the next handhold and swing to the next two footholds. I lean, shift my weight closer to the wall, and grab onto the slick block of wood. I curse quietly as I realize this particular hold is smooth and there's nothing for my sweaty, shaking fingers to grip. I look frantically for another as I begin to slip. Just to the left, below my waist, is my salvation. I grab for it and miss.
Time seems to slow as gravity coaxes my body toward the ground. My left arm flails as I attempt to regain my balance. My left foot slips, and my body swings around. In slow motion, I unintentionally pivot on my right arm and leg a full 180 degrees, like a door on its hinge, and smack into the wall, now facing the empty space that holds my fate. I quickly glance to my left, amazed I am still on the wall, and find a handhold. With luck, I'll be able to turn myself around and try again.
I started this sport in eighth grade, when my father took me to my first climbing wall. I could barely make it past a few handholds without falling. I definitely never made it to the top. I went home that first day feeling sore and defeated, and vowed never to climb again.
That is – until ninth grade when our high school offered a Project Adventure program, and I decided to try climbing again. In the first few weeks we learned the basics: knots, belaying, harnesses, and other equipment. Then we got down to business.
We started with the easy wooden climbing walls on either end of the gym. I discovered I was a natural. I began to enjoy it and relished the challenge of conquering the harder wall, mostly because it required a lot of strength. After a few tries, I made it to the top, and I had discovered a new favorite sport.
Then the teacher gave us more difficult challenges, like the caterpillar (which resembles a telephone pole with rungs broken into three pieces that swing wildly as you climb), the trapeze (you climb a wall to get to a platform which you jump off to reach a slick steel bar, hung vertically or horizontally), and the swings (where you climb a flimsy rope ladder to get to swings that hang from the gym ceiling). It was there that I became addicted to climbing.
The class lasted a semester, and I didn't do any more climbing that winter. My dad suggested we try the rock-climbing courses at Cornell University. It was very different learning to climb on an indoor rock wall rather than a wooden wall. The procedures and safety regulations were similar, but the shoes weren't. Rock climbing shoes are supposed to fit so tightly that the manufacturer suggests wearing several sizes smaller than you normally would. They are extremely uncomfortable but helpful because they can grip just about anything. On the wooden wall at my school, we wore sneakers, which worked fine on the fat wooden blocks, but on a rock wall, sneakers would have equaled disaster.
On the rock wall, I learned a lot, including that a climber's worst enemy is sweat. When your palms perspire, the rock becomes slick and hard to grip. But dusting your hands with chalk will fix the problem quickly. Being macho or showing off is the number-two enemy; when you act strong and powerful, you climb too fast, which tires your arms and makes you fall.
While climbing, I also learned many techniques such as the dyno, the hand jam, crimping, the chest jam, chimneying, smearing, edging, and high stepping. The dyno is my personal favorite; it allows you to move swiftly up the wall to a handhold out of your reach. You actually leave the wall for a split second, performing a sort of pull-up and jump at the same time to reach the handhold. If you miss, your injuries can range from a few bruises to broken bones, but the feeling of exhilaration when you succeed is amazing.
Cornell's climbing wall is one of my favorite places. Because it is indoors, you can use it in any weather. It's huge and extremely challenging, with endless boulder problems and techniques to try. Other climbers are always there, and people help each other by giving tips or offering to belay you. If you happen to fall and injure yourself, somebody is there to help and, more often than not, tell you how to avoid the mistake next time.
Another great thing about climbing is that it is safe. I know, you are probably thinking, There's no way this sport is safe, but, in terms of equipment safety, it is the safest sport on earth. Did you know that no climber has ever died as a result of a defective rope? Sure, ropes have broken and people have died, but only because the rope was frayed or someone tied knots incorrectly. In 2003, only 118 climbers died, nearly half the number in 1986, which saw the largest number of deaths. The sport has become much safer and more involved with other extreme sports, like base jumping, freestyle skiing, and mountain biking. It is part of what makes climbing such a great and addicting sport.
This year, two years after I began, I decided to take the Project Adventure class again, just to get some practice. While I was on the wall, I noticed how the Cornell course had changed my climbing. I skip the easy handholds now and find myself using tricks, spotting new routes, crimping here, high stepping there, trying a dyno when I feel daring.
I may climb very differently now, but there is one thing that has not changed: the feel of exhilaration when I reach my goal on a wall. And, for that reason, I think I will be climbing the rest of my life.
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