Gym to rock: lessons learned

Henry Pehr, belayed by his dad, Jay, scampers up the 5.6 that tested me.

Stuffed inside the chimney with no apparent place to go my thoughts flashed back 17 years. It was a similar situation, only that time I was clinging to the side of a 600-foot granite dome thinking a thought I’d never had in the outdoors: I’d rather be in an office. An air conditioned office, behind a desk, both feet flatly planted on cheap, stained carpet. Maybe even with an impossible deadline looming.

I looked down 35 feet to the ground, silently seeking direction, but Sarah, our instructor with the Triangle Rock Club, was talking to another climber. Why isn’t she paying attention to me? I wondered. Then it occurred to me: She thinks I’m resting, collecting my wits rather than losing them. And in the peculiar universe of rock climbing, I was resting. My back was pressed against a rock wall, my legs, outstretched, wedged against the rock slab in front of me. I was shaking my arms out to relieve the tension and get the lactic acid back into circulation. I was, technically, resting.

Maybe, but I was also trying to figure out how to get around a small overhang, the crux of this 5.6 climb, and make the last 10-foot push to the top. I tested a couple holds, shuffled my feet, leaned back into chimney and “relaxed” some more. Around the corner, working Honey Bear just to our south in the Three Bears Gully area of Pilot Mountain State Park a group of community college students from Wytheville, Va., were solving their own problem. Another 50 yards up some N.C. State students were working the Little Amphitheater.

All, I was sure, were making more progress than I.

I initiated some movement, which got the attention of Sarah, who was on the other end of my rope. She glanced up, watched me for a moment.

“Trust your feet,” she offered.

Trust my feet …

* * *

The last time I was in such a hopeless predicament, that time 17 years ago a few miles west at Stone Mountain, I was a much different climber. Actually, I wasn’t a climber at all. It was my first time climbing outdoors, and unlike today I had virtually no experience in a climbing gym.

Climbing gyms are where more than two-thirds of all climbing is done today, according to the Outdoor Foundation. Gyms are convenient: you can find them just about anywhere, from old warehouses to spiffy gyms to community centers in towns large and small. A decent outdoor climb, on the other hand can require a day’s drive in parts of the Carolinas.

Gyms are clear-cut: Routes are color coded by difficulty; in the great outdoors, while a route may be rated it is not marked. Gyms are safe: ropes and other equipment are tested regularly; in the outdoors, unless you’re climbing with a certified outfitter or have your own gear, it’s hard to say how old and worn that rope is you’re using. Gyms are contained: Most climbing gym walls are less than 30 feet high; in the outdoors, a pitch — the distance a typical climbing rope can cover — is about 100 feet. And it’s usually a climate-controlled 72 degrees and dry in a climbing gym. In a best-case scenario outdoors, the temperature is 72 degrees, the skies clear. Of course, that could change in a flash.

As any climber with experience in both can tell you, experience in the climbing gym is no substitute for climbing outdoors. Quite true, as I found out at Pilot Mountain on the first day of fall 2012. Yet in some ways, the climbing gym is essential preparation.

* * *

… Trust your feet.

I’d heard that phrase before, uttered in the gym by my climbing partner, Joel. “Don’t hug the wall,” he’d told me on more than one occasion as I was hugging the wall. “Lean back and put your weight on your feet. Trust your feet.”

And I would, and he would be right.

I scooted my feet down until both were perched on a precariously thin lip, then pulled myself forward and up with the help of a pair of substantial hand holds. I’d reached this point a few minutes earlier. Now was the time to trust my feet as my hands sought less substantive grips above and too my right. I reached with my right hand for a small gripper while gingerly shifting weight to my right foot. Then, apparently on their own, my left foot and leg brilliantly decided they would better serve the cause by being wedged against the wall my back had, moments earlier, been pressed against. The pressure on my right foot, tenuously perched on the precarious nub, eased. The tiny crimpers my hands pinched suddenly seemed like hearty jugs. I used my legs to inch up another foot, found much better hand holds, hoisted myself up another foot, made a series of quick moves and topped out.

“Nice!” came a yell from below.

I’d done climbs rated up to 5.9 in difficulty in the gym. This was a mere 5.6. Yet it was apples and oranges, fanciful colored urethane molds vs. Mother Nature’s gritty granite. Stuck in that chimney I had to figure out on my own how to get out and up; there was no color coding to lead the way.

An outdoor world of difference, yet the lessons learned in the gym— the mental lessons, the essential need to believe in yourself — translated well.

* * *

Climber/photographer Cory Richards coming to Raleigh

Cory Richards, who became the first American to climb an 8,000-meter peak in winter, will be in town Oct. as part of The North Face Never Stop Exploring Speaker Series. We caught up with him this week in the Crimea, on assignment to find out what motivates the 30-year-old climber and photographer. Read the interview here, on the Great Outdoor Provision Co. Blog.

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