Non Sequitur Fridays

Climbing Rocks

This post is part of our Non Sequitur Fridays series, which will feature a different Wistian's take on a non-Wistia-related topic each week. It's like our "employee of the month" but less "of the month"-y. Robby Grossman is an engineer at Wistia. His last Non Sequitur was about journaling for self-improvement.

I first went rock climbing in summer camp sometime in my pre-teenage years, and got hooked on the excitement immediately. I grew up not far from the Gunks (a.k.a. East Coast rock climbing Mecca), so I had pretty enviable access to some fantastic routes. Unfortunately when I was in college, the nearest rocks and rock gym were an hour away, so other than some summer outings, I didn't get out much.

The North Cascades, Summer '06

What I love most about rock climbing is that at its core, it's about overcoming challenges. In a typical top roping setup, there are the obvious physical challenges—having the strength to pull yourself up over a ceiling, or maintaining balance while navigating smooth slabs.

But I find the biggest challenges are the beguiling mental ones, like knowing to push with your feet rather than pull with your arms, even when your footholds are tiny and your handholds are gargantuan (get that backwards and your arms will be hurting and exhausted after a single climb), or figuring out how to place your hands on the seventh move so that you can properly transition to the eighth one, or identifying the crux (most difficult portion) of the climb and a good rest spot that precedes it before you step onto the rock, so that you don't waste energy mid-climb.

Then there is lead climbing, which adds additional challenges on both levels. In addition to ascending, the climber must place and/or clip into gear on the way up. This requires a free hand, at times lessening the number of limbs one can utilize from four to three. The physics of leading provide mental challenges as well: fall on a top-rope and you will be held rather snugly by your rope; fall while leading and you will drop twice the distance from your last clip, plus rope stretch. That means if you clip, climb up 10 feet, and then fall, you're looking at a 25-30' dinger before the rope stabilizes you!

A lead fall in the wild

Any climbing enthusiast will tell you that outdoor climbing is the most fun, but for me it isn't practical to get outside very often, especially during the work week. So, you can imagine how excited I was when last year, Brooklyn Boulders opened the largest indoor gym in New England just a mile from my home:

BKB Somerville, on its Grand Opening, 7/5/2014

Though gyms cannot compete with the thrill and the views of outdoor climbing, they do offer some perks of their own. First, they allow you to work on specific moves in a more controlled environment. As someone with a rather weak upper body, I struggle frequently with ceilings/roofs, which require the climber to be inverted (briefly) and climb up and over a horizontal section to get to another vertical section. On an outdoor climb it may take hours to get to a ceiling portion, but in a gym I can work on it as soon as I arrive.

Additionally, most gyms mix up their routes every one to three months, so new challenges are always being introduced. Outdoor routes change at glacially slow speeds (in some cases, quite literally), so much more variety is required to test all of your limits.

Finally, I've found that going to a rock gym is a lovely way to trick myself into working out. I have tried going to a fitness gym; I have tried lifting weights; I have tried running on a treadmill. I hold great admiration for people who do these things because I've found them to be the three most boring things I've ever done. Rock climbing gives me a rigorous strength training workout without the boredom that accompanies traditional exercise.

Want to get started? Here's what you need to know and do:

  • Find a climbing partner who shares your interest.
  • Take an intro lesson with your partner at a local gym or outdoor climbing outrigger to decide if it's for you.
  • Take a belay class. For indoor climbing, this is often a single session. For outdoor climbing, this will require a few sessions as there is more gear to learn about.
  • Buy shoes, a harness, a chalk bag, and a belay device. All in this should cost you about $200. For outdoor climbing you will also need a rope ($100) and at minimum some webbing and carabiners ($50) -- but you can buy that after your lesson after getting advice from your instructor. Have your shoes fitted by someone who knows what they're doing—EMS and REI are great places. Rock shoes should be tight enough to curl your toes a bit; if they're comfy, they're too big.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, leave your shoes near mountain goats. You know what mountain goats love? Salt. You know what tends to be salty? The sweaty shoes you leave at the base of your climb. You know what's not fun? Hiking out a 1/2 mile trail in rock shoes because a mountain goat ate your hiking boots.
Don't let the cuteness fool you; I curse this creature first thing every morning.

Last but not least: when you climb outside, don't forget to look around every so often and enjoy the view.

The view from the middle of a climb at Acadia National Park

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