What I Learned My First Time Rock Climbing

Few experiences in my life have taught me more than the first time I went rock climbing.

On a warm Colorado day in 1999, I received my first quick lessons on tying knots and a run down of the commands I would repeat to let my partner know I was ready to climb. As a healthy, invincible high schooler, I was pretty sure this was going to be cake. I readied myself – “Belay on? Belay is on.” – and latched onto the limestone face of a beginner’s route – “Climbing. Climb away!”

Initially, I didn’t have much trouble. My rested muscles helped me lurch up the rock, my lanky frame made me feel confident. About half way up the 60-foot route, I ran into a problem which seemed to have no immediate solution. I was stuck and couldn’t see a way forward.

Photo from my first climb.
Photo from my first climb. This was the point where I got stumped.

I clutched the wall against the advice of my belayer on the ground who told me to let go and rest on the rope for a while. I couldn’t. Too many thoughts rushed through my head. “Did I tie the knot right? Will my harness hold? What if the rope snaps?”

Strength and confidence slipped away.

Noticing a bolt in the rock, I removed my right hand and hooked my index finger through its metal loop. It felt good and secure, but it was also a big mistake. My experienced belayer let me know that if I wanted to keep that finger, I would need to put it back on the rock. I guess having you finger in a metal bolt loop is a great way to detach important digits if you slip from the rock.

I returned my hand shyly to the rock face and gripped in again, but now my legs began to shake. Maybe I could just come down and try again later. This was my first time after all and I’m sure no one expected me to make it the entire way. While logical, this explanation didn’t inspire any sympathy from my belayer. He was from the school of not letting people back down unless they made it to the top or truly exhausted themselves. I was left with few choices.

So after several confirmations of whether he had me or not, I let go of the rock and sat back into my harness tentatively with my hands firmly around the rope. Deep breaths. This high up, you could see the valley below and I realized how quickly the ground descended just behind my belayer. It gave you a feeling of being much higher than you were.

I craned my neck up and along the rest of the route. It still looked daunting and unsolvable, but after a short time I let go of the rope and allowed my hands rest. With some encouraging words from below, I put my hands and feet back on the rock and scrambled up the rest of the route.

My memory doesn’t recall much from the moment when I reconnected with the rock and finished the route, but I do remember the equal parts of exhilaration and exhaustion that I felt back on the ground. My hands were so stressed from the experience that I couldn’t close them. I placed my palms out in front of me and sent silent commands for them to close. They did nothing but remain open.

Rigor mortis. My hands wouldn't close.
Rigor mortis. My hands wouldn’t close.

Despite the exhaustion, I was giddy and couldn’t stop talking about the climb. My body and mind were pushed to new extremes and somehow came out the other end safe and stronger (although I needed 15 minutes of rest before I ascended my next route).

A year later, I learned to lead climb.
A year later, I learned to lead climb.

In a short period of time with the Colorado sun beating down on me, climbing forced me through through some of our deepest, contrasting human emotions: strength and weakness, confidence and humility, self-doubt and resiliency, fear and trust.

All of that in one short beginner’s route. I still think back to the first ascent on a regular basis. At work or in my personal life, it reminds me that solutions to problems aren’t always apparent. If you fail the first time, take a break, lean back on the rope and re-imagine a new approach.

Never underestimate the support of others. Although they can’t overcome the obstacle for you, their support is crucial in helping you find the solution.

Most of all, you have to push and challenge yourself to grow. Without challenges and failures, there would be no feeling of accomplishment.

Overcoming challenges: This route put you on a precarious edge with a deep view of the valley below.
Overcoming challenges: This route put you on a precarious edge with a deep view of the valley below.