My breath catches as it flows in and out in short pants. I can feel the tickle as the beads of sweat drip down my back, running along the curve of my spine. I have my fingers gripping the rough edges as tight as they can. Every fiber in my being wills this to be over. But alongside me is another, just as terrified as myself. She is focused; right hand right foot, left hand, left foot. Up she climbs, steady as a spring rain. I cannot cave before she does. She was just as scared. It is one thing to be shown up by the young and fearless members of our group. But this is another like me. I cling tight to my handholds, and move my right foot to a higher niche, crabbing up the wall.
It was this girl’s fault I was here. Randy’s invitation, her wistful expression when I said no, her limited time, all these made me agree to do something I knew wasn’t for me. I accepted the assurances of the others that there were boulders for climbing instead of just the walls. Boulders sounded like fun, right? Not too high, just scrabble over them. I could do that, and I needed to break up my loner existence. I should get out and interact more; I knew it.
So, I changed to comfortable clothes after work and drove to town. The summer air that buffeted my hair on the drive was already making me sweat. It is as warm as blood now that July has arrived. I am glad for the tank top and the capris. Work clothes would have seemed stifling. I pulled up to the address in front of a low warehouse with peeling orange paint. The garage styled door I am parked in front of has large dents on it, and I hope that my car will not suffer a similar fate.
The interior is set up with climbing walls at many angles. Different colored bits of tape flag the protrusions. I watch as athletic college students ascend gracefully up the walls, guys with scruffy bits of beard and girls with long, lean, suntanned legs. The girl at the check in point is young enough to almost be my daughter, and just as tiny. But, she takes my money and hands me equipment, shoes and harness.
The girls from work are gathered, athletic fresh faced pretties. Recent graduates of the same school as the students already here. Not my school, not my colors, and it has been too long since I graduated and moved on. My fellow classmates are far flung, but I must break out of my shell, surround myself with people, and not live my hermitic life in my self built cave of an apartment.
We don the gear: toes tight and pinching, harnesses strapping round our waists. We crack jokes about our weight and our lack of ability. I quake a little inside, but ignore it for now. This will work out okay; I am going to be charming and funny. The girls are happy I came, with genuine smiles when I walked in.
Then we are in front of the wall, tall and imposing. I look up to the pulleys attached at the top and shudder a little. I set my sights lower and focus on what the little slip of a girl- can she really be old enough to instruct us?- is saying. Tie the knot. I can do this. Pinch the rope; wrap it around, then poke it back through. Okay, got that. Go through your harness, umm, gulp. Now thread it back through and follow the knot. Alright, knot skills I have; this is something I can do.
The lone boy in our group needs help; his kind always does. Pretty and athletic, he smiles at the tiny girl and she helps him, no doubt having seen this before. But, I am paying attention, focusing on the knots lets me block out the very real idea of what I am getting ready to do. I am just here to climb the boulders, or so I tell myself.
The reality is staring me in the face, and soon enough everyone is knotted in. The little slip of a girl is teaching us what to say and how to say it. I don’t hear her. All I can do is look at this wall, touch it, put my hands on the protruding bumps and simulated rocks. I have this urge to put my feet on it as well. I don’t know where it comes from because I truly don’t want to go up. I look to the top and the pit of my stomach drops to my soles.
“Climb,” my new found friend on the other end of the rope calls out to me. We had laughed together about our weight and lack of courage. Now I must trust that she will hold me when I fall, that she won’t laugh at my trembling, halting climb. I place one foot on the first know and step up. An easy step to the next one; this is going okay. Beside me, the boy is climbing from knot to knot also. We are making similar speed up the wall and focusing on the next knot.
I have taken about 6 steps when the little girl instructor calls out to stop. We do and look back at the three girls on the ground. They are farther away than I expected. It’s so far to the ground. The instructor is teaching the girls belaying the ropes below how to brake. She calls up to us to sit down in our harness and rest. I cannot, I hold tight to the wall, fingers and nails clenched. I am starting to see sweat on my arms but I hold fiercely to the wall. When we are allowed to climb again, I steel myself and try to move. I am holding so tight to the knobs, I fear they will come off in my hand.
“Go on,” my anchor calls to me, “you can do it, just move to the yellow one at your hand.” I slowly peel my first hand loose and transfer to the next knob. Leg follows hand and then again, but each movement is painful now. I shake visibly and hold tight to the wall with toes, and fingers.
I can’t go on. I am afraid to go up; I am panicked to climb down. My breath is held tight, only released when in short staccato breathes that move my chest and drive my panic deeper. I keep looking back at the much smaller little wisp of a girl who stands below. “You can do it,” she calls up to me, but it is clear I cannot.
“I can’t,” I admit with a voice edged in fear.
“Okay,” the girl accepts, “just let go and walk down the wall flatfooted.” Let go! She must be as crazy as she is tiny. There is no way my hands are going to leave this wall. I hold tight to the knobs and slowly, hands trembling, work my way down to the next knob that I left.
“I have you,” my anchor friend calls. I fearfully start to use the wall to walk backwards, still clinging to the knobs. Another step, then one more and I can touch the ground. I sigh and look up to where I had been. I had made it just past my anticipated point of terror. I feel happy enough that I attempted to climb.
We switch ends of the rope. My attention during the knot tying portion now paying off, I prove to be able to at least accomplish one feat without embarrassing myself. Nimble young girl, long legs spidering up the wall, she gives lie to her words of nervousness. Hand over hand, yellow knob to green bump, cords in her arms stand out with strain. Touching the top of the wall, making it look easy, she eased back into the harness, looking around resting on my skills to belay her down easy.
“You should try it again.” My partner seems set on getting me to the top. But I deny, tell her I am happy being her anchor again. We wander about tackling progressively straighter walls, knobs and crevasses becoming sparse. She touches the top once twice, three times since I stumbled on fear.
My red headed peer, Randy, decides that she will climb the wall herself. Like me, she had been afraid. Like me, she had lost her nerve. But she gathered herself, and as she made the switch, I let my partner talk me into making the switch. Once more I make my knot and hers. And I step up. I put my hands to the hard studs. Foot on the first step, and up. Step, search for a new grip, step up. I stay focused on the task at hand. Up we crab. Till the sweat drips down my back, and I want to stop. But still Randy climbs on. And I cannot stop till she does.
Calls from the ground urge us to stop, to turn, wave, smile for the camera. I want to stay on task. I fear looking back. I fear to stop. But she stops, and waves, and pride-pricked so do I. Eyes screwed tightly shut, I lean back, and release one hand, flap it unseen at the witnesses down below. My lips lift in a smile, nerves still there, but now, confidence that I will get to the top is starting to shine out. I will make it. One more stretch, a last red knob to step to, and my fingers brush the top. I reach up, tips to the ceiling, and laugh out loud. It is done.