A couple months before the Oscars, I was scrolling through YouTube when I came across the trailer for Free Solo, the documentary about climber Alex Honnold’s mission to free solo El Capitan. The 3,000-foot-tall vertical rock formation, located in Yosemite, has been climbed many times by experts with proper ropes and safety gear. However, he was the first person to free solo it. That is, without any ropes or safety gear. The film is equal parts terrifying and exhilarating.
With only a couple failed attempts at those 50-foot fake walls they have at theme parks under my belt, I was nonetheless inspired to give climbing a real try. My girlfriend, Jill, wanted to give it a try too, as part of an active and healthy lifestyle we’ve embraced together. So, after a quick internet search, we were off to what we assumed would be the cozy, structured environment of an indoor rock climbing facility, complete with nice and easy fake rocks.
Walking in, it was unlike anything I had seen before. The ceiling was maybe 100 feet high. Not quite 3,000, but still daunting for a couple of novices like us. There were walls upon walls of various fake rocks leading to the ceiling, which looked impossibly high from where we were standing. Like 90 percent of the rocks in the building, I was in over my head. We walked up to the front desk and had to fill out the typical it’s-not-our-fault-if-you’re-stupid waiver. Then the friendly staff member explained our options.
If you climb the super high walls, you have a rope with an instructor there to belay, or manage the rope, for you. That way you can climb to heights beyond a safe falling distance. This seemed a little too advanced and complex for us, so we opted for the second option: free soloing…a 15-foot wall. We were encouraged to try these, “walls in the back” which also have large padding underneath for when (not if) you fall. We were also a little self-conscious about our beginner status and didn’t want an instructor giving us “the look” while we fought our way off the ground. “Just remember,” said the staff member before we made our way to the back, “to make sure you land properly- bend your knees when you fall.” “Right,” I thought. “Use your brain but don’t literally use your brain.”
Then we actually climbed. Rather, we attempted to. Here’s the thing: this is way harder than it looks. Like a lot of other sports (skiing comes to mind), it’s easy to get discouraged when you’re struggling just to get off the ground and an eight-year-old darts past you all the way to the ceiling. It also felt a little awkward; everybody else seemed to know each other, so we felt a little like we were crashing someone else’s party. But that was probably just the nerves talking. Outwardly, everyone was rather friendly and helpful.
Wall patterns were color-coded, so if you wanted easy, just follow the rocks with the orange tape. Difficulty increased depending on the color. But there are a lot of rocks, so there was a lot of tape, which made following a specific path confusing. Plus, if there’s a blue rock nice and close, I’d rather just grab that one, not the next orange one that’s three feet away around some corner.
Although, the more difficult the rock, the harder to grab. The easiest rocks had just enough of an indented edge to actually grip them with the first joint of your finger. But something to actually wrap your finger completely around? Yeah right. That meant that not only do you need a lot of upper body strength to do this, but you specifically need finger strength as well (which is not a muscle group most people work out, if at all). “My fingers are exhausted,” is not something I’d ever heard myself say before that day.
After bailing and falling a lot, I happened to find one vertical path that wasn’t exactly correct, but, with my last bit of strength, I was able to find a way to just barely reach the top of the wall. I slapped the top edge with my hand and promptly jumped down, not in any kind of shape to attempt climbing back down. Not that I could remember how I got up there anyway.
Moderate success felt nice mentally, but we were physically shot. It was humbling. We’d like to try it again someday, but we really need to pump some more iron first. That being said, it’s hard not to feel optimistic about the potential of those walls. Those experienced climbers gracefully made their way up, methodically working their way ever higher, ever forward. With enough work and dedication, that can be us one day too.