New heights

This past Thursday, a few friends and I went to an adult rock climbing class at the field house at Chelsea Piers. Growing up in the Bronx, rock climbing is not one of the extracurricular activities with which I was raised. So naturally there is something unnatural about allowing myself to be strapped into a harness to be raised well above a safe distance from the ground. While I had been interested in trying rock climbing before, the ultimate spur for expanding my horizons was the skeptical eyebrow my boyfriend raised when I casually mentioned the idea. He spent most of his childhood in rural Indiana biking, hiking, camping and making forts in the woods with his brothers, a cluster of experiences that are wholly foreign to me. As I struggled to climb up onto boulders and into small caves with him in an Inwood park one Saturday afternoon, he asked in earnest, "You never did any caving when you were a kid?" "Sweetie, I grew up in the Bronx. There isn’t much caving to be had." So my lack of natural athletic prowess was already well established when, at an informal housewarming party for my best friend Kristi, I mentioned that I wanted to try rock climbing and that Chelsea Piers had an indoor climbing wall that would perfectly suit my purposes. Kristi, almost always enthusiastic about trying something new, readily agreed to join me. My boyfriend, Tom, merely smiled and shrugged at this suggestion. Later I asked, "You don’t think I can do it?" "Oh, I think you can do it. I just don’t think you will." Since he threw down the gauntlet, I had no choice but to prove him wrong. At 23 feet high, the climbing wall at the field house is not very intimidating, but my fondness for being right still wavered slightly after we (myself, Kristi, and my friend Anthony) put on our climbing shoes (a note of advice: choose a size shoe that is a half size larger than what you would normally wear -- the shoes should be snug but not cause an excessive amount of pain) and we began the class. Bouldering is the first exercise: unharnessed, you scale the wall sideways, learning how to plan a route for where to next place your feet and hands. This is where all my anxieties about rock climbing bubbled to the surface; while no one is allowed to climb very high, trying to traverse across without a solid view of where your feet and hands are, and when the impulse to hug the wall is overwhelming, seems a treacherous business. Once in the harness, each person climbs up the easiest side of the wall, a corner area with a plenitude of holds where you learn how to pull yourself up with your legs. The tendency is to let all of your weight rest in your arms, but an overly firm grip will exhaust your forearms and your spirit. Each climbing exercise becomes progressively more difficult, as instructors place limitations on the holds you can use ("only the cow-colored ones") and strategy becomes a key part of the activity. Rock climbing is just as much of a mental workout as a physical one; periodic rests are important not only to give your arms a break but also to give you the opportunity to consider where to go next. Our instructor encouraged us to be creative in constructing our route up the wall, using his momentum to illustrate difficult dynamic climbing techniques. While there were a few moments where, palms sweating and forearms shaking, I felt like I couldn’t possibly climb any higher, nothing can eclipse the feeling of triumph I experienced upon reaching the top of each side of the wall. In the effort to prove something about myself, I had inadvertently proved something to myself. After that, there was nothing left to do except come back down. Placing both hands on the large knot at the end of my rope, I "walked down" as the instructor gently lowered me to the ground. "Letting go," our instructor said, "is the hardest part." Regina Nigro
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