• March 15, 2019 |

    on belay

    sunday nights are for climbing

    article by , illustrated by

    We joke that climbers would make the best criminals. No fingerprints! Our identities have been rubbed off onto cold granite and colored plastic holds, but rocks keep secrets best. My hands aren’t that bad, though my pointer fingers feel a little cheese-grater-y—rough, shredded. Tiny rock edges wreck your finger pads, sandpaper grips rip apart your palms, unforgiving walls bruise your knees. That’s part of the fun: the physicality of it all.

    Yeah, see that little crack? Put your toe in there with your foot sideways, yeah. Okay, now twist it, and stand up on the parts of your toes that are jammed in. Yeah, no, you’re gonna lose feeling, that’s normal.

    Distance running has taught me to respect Type II fun, the kind where there’s a hill between you and the dangling carrot. But climbing was a new kind of hurt, a little less huff and puff and a little more fear. Fear of falling, of getting hurt, of not performing well. Fears that are sometimes rational (I’d like to not come crashing to the ground when I let go) and sometimes irrational (I won’t belong here if I’m not good enough). The irrational ones surface less frequently now, but it didn’t start that way.


    Freshman year, when I was a little too familiar with late nights out and not at all familiar with being alone, I spent a Sunday night at Central Rock Gym Warwick. “Sunday Night Climbing”—8 to 11 p.m. I went on a whim, happy to have been included by new friends and eager to avoid homework. It was a 15-minute ride to the gym, which was tucked into the back of a business complex. Big windows revealed a rainbow of routes splashed across gray and dark blue walls. We squeezed rental climbing shoes over our socks, feeling self-conscious as barefoot regulars slipped into their sleek La Sportivas. I sported baggy sweatpants and an oversized cross country tee that bunched up under my harness as I fumbled to tighten the straps. One look, and it was clear that I was a newbie. I felt like an intruder.

    A staff member taught us to belay—how to pull the rope and manage slack in the line so that the climber has room to move but can’t fall far down the wall when she lets go. There were commands we were supposed to use: Say ‘on belay’ when you’re ready for the climber to start. Then, climber, you should say ‘climbing’ when you get on the wall. Belayer, you respond with ‘climb’ to give the go-ahead. You got it? Don’t worry, you’ll catch on quick.

    And just like that, we were trusting each other while the beginners among us pretended not to be scared out of our minds. As we eased into the motions of climbing and belaying, time on the wall became time to talk (and not the “Oh, you’re from right outside of New York, that’s cool haha” small talk of freshman orientation). That night, we worked together and tried hard and messed around and failed tragically and laughed and laughed. And I was sold. The first Sunday became the second became every. And then some weekdays. And then Saturday mornings at 7 a.m., when we indulged in trips to fancy gyms in Massachusetts and stopped for bagel sandwiches on the way.

    Over the following semesters, we honed in on specific climbing styles that suited our strengths: Mark and Isaac loved muscley, overhung routes while Rekha and I sought out balance and flexibility. I learned the language of climbing, how to fit the culture in my mouth without sounding too phony. Yeah, I sent it, but it wasn’t an onsite. I don’t have the beta down yet, but I think it’s a heel-hook on that pinch and then dyno up to the right there. I learned when to curse and when to cheer someone on. What not to say when someone fell. I learned to wear pants with the bottoms cuffed and to tape my fingers so the Band-Aids wouldn’t come off. I learned how to ask for what I needed from a belayer and take breaks without letting go of the holds. I learned that a climber is anyone who shows up and gets on the wall.


    It’s Sunday. I’m wearing a name tag that says “Ask me for a belay!” and giving advice to Central Rock newcomers.

    Ohmygod I’m stuck and can’t move from here!

    I know the feeling. I give a reminder to exhale and a pointer for where she might place her right foot. Tell her that she’s safe and won’t fall, that she should trust her body, and that if anyone can do this, it’s her.

    And a defuser: Hmm, let’s see, can you go (pretend to think about it)…up?


    A good climber notices fear and then wraps something else around it. I think it’s pride in the movement: executing a sequence smoothly, timing a balanced position with my breath, or reaching a handhold that was too far away the last time. Digging into that self that will grit her teeth and grimace before she lets go. If she lets go.


    Tie a figure-eight at the end of your rope and slide the tail through the two hardpoint loops on the harness. Trace the eight back over again (and only throw in a safety knot if the gym manager is nearby). Crack your neck, roll your shoulders. Reach back into your chalk bag to coat your fingers and palms, then shake your hands from your elbows to send a bit of powder into the air (it’ll look cool). Glance up at the climb, and close your eyes to remember how it felt last time. Hands on the start holds.

    On belay.

    Look back at the partner or stranger on the other end of your rope.