Saturday, March 14, 2015


Okay, let's just get one thing out of the way right now: "Boulderz" is a terrible name for a rock climbing gym. It reeks of early-1990s teen pandering, when things were "rad," people called money  "beans," and "snaps" where given to high achievers. Boulderz, with a flagrant, unapologetic zed, is a throwback name—it's the type of place that would feature in an action movie montage. The final cut of that scene would be Our Hero, flying through the air before improbably grabbing onto a handhold that is smooth, tiny, and bolted to the ceiling. Cut to Our Hero guzzling water and catching sight of his mortal enemy, a Russian who's out for revenge. Cut to them racing to the top of the wall, and fist fighting all the way down. Cut to the love interest, in an shiny white leotard, demonstrating roundhouse karate kicks on the hapless Russian on the floor. We haven't see the last of that Russian, I bet!

Anyway, despite a terrible name, Boulderz has proven to be fun. Oh, sure, my hands no longer work as "hands;" they're now claws that I used to badger open jars. And my shoulders are getting used to a constant ache. Oh, and my forearms haven't been this useless since I started playing squash. And if I ignore the bruises, blisters, and calluses, I'm doing pretty good.

I went into my first rock climbing session with the totally low and reasonable expectation that I would be amazing. I mean, I'm fit! I lift weights. I used to bike to work (until the snow started to fall), and take Nia classes (until my instructor ditched her Tuesday night class).

When we arrived, children were scaling the walls like it was no big deal—literally, children. Teenaged boys who had clearly brokered some deal with their cool moms to stay out until 11 PM on a Friday. Seven year olds who eschewed the handholds to brace themselves against the wall and ascend, monkey-style (or is that monkey-stylez?) up the routes. Three year olds in the world's tiniest climbing shoes who chirped "I'm tall, I'm tall" as their encouraging mothers guided them along the wall. The routes were all marked: yellow for total newbies, blue and green for slightly more advanced climbers, right on through to black, the international colour of death.

I surveyed the landscape. Sports bra engaged, hands chalked to the nines, hair back in a French braid that signaled athletic confidence. I marched over to the yellow beginner's route. I gripped the handholds. I though to myself, Hey, these are really rough! This kind of hurts! Then I swung myself up towards the second handhold. Got it. I was starting to sweat. Then the third. Oh, shit. The fourth handhold seemed to halfway to Australia. The end of the route, four feet away, might as have been on the moon.

I dropped to the mat and spent the rest of my first trip to Boulderz traversing the bouldering wall in the back room, hiding out from all the sleeveless-T-shirt-wearing experts who hadn't climbed a yellow route since they were in diapers. There was grunting. There was swearing. At the end of our 90 minutes, my hands were so swollen I couldn't get my wedding ring off. I could barely lift my post-climb tacos.

It was a month before we went back. Our friend Mark has been going weekly for a few months, and he's tackling green routes with style. His sister-in-law Ania is an accomplished climber; she looks so confident on the wall that she might as well be climbing stairs. M and I are still huffing and puffing, working on our yellow routes and trying not to let the middle-school students intimidate us.

However—and you knew this was coming, because this is a story about sports—I have made progress.

Of course, because this is also a story about me, the progress is incrementally, screamingly slow. Climbing isn't like cycling or Nia. I can't do it for 90 minutes straight, because the effort involved in just holding my body to the wall is enormous. I can go in three-minute burst. Each next handhold becomes its own riddle to solve: how to I get my feet to support me? How do I get my body a little bit higher? How can I coax my arms not to give up?

And, slowly, it's happening.

The yellow route that so frustrated me on my first trip? I climbed it Friday night. I got all the way to the top on my first try. It was an amazing thing, completely unexpected and also 1000% glorious. When I waggle my fingers, the muscles in my forearms have begun to ripple in a way I find most pleasing. I'm starting to tune out the sleeveles tee shirts, the baby-climbers, the experts and, improbably, the voice in my head that says, You'll never make it up there.

Right now I'm just focusing on the yellow routes. My hands, my body, my flyaway hair and the chalk in the air? None of that matters. It's all about yellow routes. Start with the yellow routes. All things happen from there.

Photo via History by Zim via