Monday, February 10, 2014

A Community of Climbers

The first few times you go to Brooklyn Boulders, you will wake up the next day aching in places that have never ached before. Little localized pains in your back, forearms and calves will protest every movement with a burn that informs you of the existence of muscles you’ve never had a use for, and there’s not much you can do to prevent that. Climbing relies on muscles that can’t really be strengthened any other way, which adds an element of insult to those early injuries in the form of small girls who can climb a route that makes your arms go limp just to look at—though this is somewhat mitigated by the spectacle of guys with rippling upper bodies wearing themselves out on beginner’s problems.
Full disclosure: The small girl who shows you up may or may not be a world record holder.

Bouldering routes, which don’t require any equipment beyond the right pair of shoes, are marked off with different colors of duct tape, and steeply graded in difficulty from V0 to V16 (though I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone go above a V8). But, even if you’ve somehow managed to hone those elusive climbing muscles, you won’t get far without a good amount of technique. This leads to a lot of technical discussions about the relative merits of the two main strategies: static vs. dynamic (which look like Tarzan and tai chi respectively). All this talk is made the more intimidating by a slew of jargon tossed around like a second language: beta, jib, jug, dyno, match, crimp, pinch, sloper.
For a newcomer, there’s ample opportunity for every kind of inadequacy and embarrassment. And yet, along with those newfound aches and pains, I guarantee you will wake up the next day with a desire to go again. Not only is climbing a crazy amount of fun for something considered exercise—solving spatial puzzles and scurrying about like a spider-monkey—it comes with one of the most welcoming communities I’ve ever encountered.
People it would normally be easy to categorize—hippies, meatheads, English majors—stand around chatting, advising, cheering on other climbers, waiting for a turn on a particular stretch of wall. Occasionally someone will bring a dog along to flop down among resting climbers and receive some chalky pets. And when you inevitably find yourself worn out near top of the wall, clinging to a shallow ledge and frantically scanning the area for something you can grab before you fall, chances are good that someone on the ground will tell you where to look.

With all your failures and shortcomings even more visible than they would be at a normal gym, this community atmosphere is crucial. As much as anything, that’s what has kept me coming back for more. And, slowly but surely, I’ve stopped feeling embarrassed and stopped feeling that ache the next day. I’ve started giving advice to newcomers, and introducing myself to strangers, and making climbing buddies. It’s a relief to drop the standard urban distance for a few hours, to feel connected to a group of people just by sharing a space. Ostensibly, climbing gyms are meant to offer training for climbers when they can’t make it out of the city, but I leave the city behind every time I walk in the door.
Anyone interested in learning more can check out

-Keith Baldwin

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