Monday, September 13, 2010
Serendipity 6. Rock climbing outside (again)
Early on this project of New Things my sister Katrinka and her husband's stepmother, Kathy, made the great suggestion of having a special category of things-not-on-the list-but-which-happened-because-of-the-list. These are Serendipity Posts (the name was Kathy's idea). I've been pleasantly surprised to discover that I've enjoyed just about every New Thing I've tried, and want to do most of them again. But probably the biggest and best surprise has been rock climbing, which I never in a million years thought I'd like, let alone love, the first time I tried it on a wall with my friends Cliff, Nicole and Jai in Nepal.
In one sense it's funny that I like it so much, because I'm not very good at it. Based on my very limited experience, the best rock climbers are somehow able to combine ridiculous fitness levels, lean body structures, incredible flexibility and general fearlessness all in the same person. I don't know if I'll ever get there, but I'd love to have some combination of those traits as well, so it seems like a good aspirational activity.
But it's actually more than that. I think rock climbing is a metaphor for life in all kinds of cool ways. In order to do it well, you have to concentrate on what's in front of you and put everyday obsessions away. Every step up is a victory, and most movements are one part effort and one part problem-solving. There are lots of bumps and bruises and scrapes along the way, but you can't let them stop you as you move on your path. And although, on the one hand, you have to rely on yourself and trust your own judgement at very scary moments, at the same time, I think that the person belaying below is a very spot-on representation of what friendship is about. The belayer is an actual physical anchor, stopping your fall if you slip, acting as the eyes in the back of your head when you can't see the next step above or below you, and almost as excited as you when you reach the top. My student/friend/instructor Josh commented that he thinks rock climbing is mostly mental, in the sense that it's about making a decision about you will do next and believing you can (I can't count the amount of times I was stuck and he told that now it was just time to trust my feet and move), and I think he's right. I also think the same is true of life.
Luckily for me, my life is full of past and present students and friends who are avid rock climbers and who have generously shared their experience and expertise with me. I'm particularly grateful to Amanda, Dan, Randall and especially Josh, who have facilitated a lot of my climbing inside and out. A couple weeks ago I took the plunge and bought my first rock climbing equipment -- climbing shoes and a harness-- and this past Saturday I got a chance to go out with the Saint Mike's Wilderness Program to try them out. We went to Lower West Bolton, an area I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, and spent pretty much the whole day there. All our leaders were fabulous, but it was particularly amazing to watch Frank, who set all the ropes for us that day. He moved so fast, and climbed so effortlessly he seemed like a human spider.
I've included three individual pictures of us climbing -- one of me, one of Maura and one of Lyle (who climbs impossibly fast) all on the same route. It's one called Dead Babies and unlike most of the others, its major feature is a giant crack that you need to use at certain points to leverage your hands and feet against at different points to push yourself up. (Maura happens to be a resident of the Ryan Hall floor of first-year women that I am visiting as part of the First Year Visitor's Program this year, and she and I have a master plan to get all her fellow residents up on a climbing wall before the semester's out.) There's also a picture of Frank, Josh and Alex, our great instructors and another of the rest of us (Lyle, Jason -- who is one of my students in American National Politics, Maura, me, Jay and Tom). I've said it before, but I'll say it again. Everyone should try rock climbing. It's not easy (at least I don't think it is), but like lots of challenging activities, it's full of rewards. I am going to start trying to go to Petra climbing gym on a weekly basis, so if anyone wants to try it sometime, shoot me a message. Everyone who's tried it with me so far has really enjoyed it.