It's high noon. I'm about 30 feet high up a vertical slab of red limestone, with at least another 50 feet to go if I can just manage to scoot up and around a jagged overhang. My left leg starts shaking like a puppy getting its belly scratched. The combination of muscle fatigue and nervous tension has saturated my legs with lactic acid, and the resulting tremors threaten my already tenuous hold on the rock. Somewhere far below, my kid brother Matthew is yelling something about a great hold just to my right, but I'm having trouble hearing him above the rush of blood in my temples.
An almost instinctive urge forces me to hug the rock.
"Rest," I think to myself. All I need is to rest for a moment.
"Bad idea, chief," hollers Matt.
Matt, an accomplished climber and instructor, reiterates one of the basic rules of climbing on a serious incline - the closer you are to the wall, the more you reduce the angle between body and rock, the more likely that your weight will conspire against you and actually push your foot from the hold. The more you increase that angle, the better your purchase. It's all a matter of simple physics. Matt says kids understand the concept intuitively. Great, I think. Not only is my 40-year-old body less pliable after countless outdoor escapades, but the wisdom that I've supposedly gained in the exchange is also working against me.
Of course, had I been thinking clearly in the first place, I would have remembered this essential tenet of climbing. It had all made perfect sense as I'd watched Matt flash the route - Betty Tendonblaster - in a ballet of symmetry and strength just moments before. Now I'm on the rock, the idea of pulling away from Mother Earth is about as attractive as jumping out a 10th floor window.
Months earlier, I was on the phone with my older brother, Sean, reiterating my arguments for not venturing into the world of rock climbing. "Look," I told him. "I just can't pick up another pastime. Lauri says if I can afford to start rock climbing, I should also be able to afford a divorce lawyer."
Sean is trying his best strong-arm tactics to convince me that sport climbing is in my immediate future. Yet he knows full well what I'm talking about. Between the four pairs of skis (plus another pair for cross country), three snowboards, four bikes, four windsurfers, two pairs of snowshoes, hockey gear, countless sneakers, cycling shoes, and boots, my cozy cottage on Boston's North Shore is bursting at the seams. With another little one on the way, bringing the family count to four (plus the cat), there's no relief in sight. Even the trusty four-wheel Subaru wagon, my mechanical alter ego, is being considered as trade bait for a roomy - gulp! - minivan.
Then there's the expense. Though rock climbing looks like the perfect antidote to our gear-happy culture - you can get the basics for a couple hundred dollars - once you start adding ropes and other hardware it's easy to spend double that. And when you realize all this gear is specifically designed to prevent you from plummeting to the ground after you lose your grip, it's unlikely you'll be inclined to opt for fire-sale brands. Altogether, it can add up to a lot. How much? Don't expect to spend less than $500 (not including the membership to the local climbing wall). Not a decision to be made lightly.
Lauri has deep reserves of patience, but those too have limits. She'll indulge me in my childish - childlike? - forays into sport. She hardly flinched when a few cycling buddies brought me home from an afternoon mountain bike spin with my face puffed out like Evander Holyfield's sparring partner. She didn't even mind the good-natured ribbing of the emergency room doctor as he stuck four stitches into my swollen mug to close a gash opened up by an unexpected run-in with a tree that fateful afternoon. Men will be boys.
The addition of another hobby, however, is not an easy sell, despite the invitations of a persistent and convincing older sibling.
"Brion, you don't use all the things you have now," Lauri argues, with unerring reason and a tone that doesn't invite debate.
"Plus, when are you ever going to find the time to rock climb?"
Ah yes - the time. Never seems to be enough of it. Lauri knows her husband - my nature is to throw myself into these new pursuits with a certain abandon. Damn the expenses and time investment, full speed ahead. Truth is, I can't stand feeling uncoordinated - witness my bumbling attempts at ballroom dancing in the months before my wedding. The difference, of course, was that I only had a passing interest in ballroom dancing, and when Lauri saw that I didn't have the aptitude or the inclination, she released me from my pre-nuptial obligations to learn a simple pattern dance.
In sport, I need to have a certain level of proficiency to feel at ease. Not expertise, just a comfort level. In legal terms, it means knowing I can handle the situation without subjecting myself to "reckless endangerment." And that takes time and commitment.
"When am I going to find the time learn the ins and outs of rock climbing?" I ask Sean with a rhetorical air.
This is a mistake. Sean, the father of four with an incredibly hectic work schedule of his own, is disciplined enough to carve out the time. Alas, discipline is not my forte. In fact, it is that very character flaw that has helped discourage any serious consideration of rock climbing as a personal hobby. During my first up-close look at skilled rock climbers in action, I made the snap judgment that this was a sport whose mastery requires an almost monastic devotion. And I'm no monk.
This is not a new dilemma for me. For the better part of the past 10 years,
Matthew, 12 years my junior, has been after me to try a pull on the rock.
Matt followed his passion with all the characteristic innocence and unbridled enthusiasm of a college kid. He even managed to sweet talk his landlord into allowing him to bolt climbing holds around the garage.
"Gotta stay pumped," he'd tell me with his big, toothy grin.
At the time - the mid-1980s - I was a newspaper reporter, and my scant salary wouldn't permit me to maintain my cycling habit, buy climbing gear and pay the rent. Still, the basic curiosity that reporters are supposed to possess led me to join Matt on a few of his climbing excursions. Typically, we'd start from his home base at the University of New Hampshire and head west for the town of Raymond, and Pawtuckaway State Park.
"Probably the best single area in the south of the state," Matt told me matter-of-factly. "This one has it all, but I go for the bouldering. It has an incredible variety of glacial erratics awaiting anyone with a brush, imagination and thick calluses - bring the tape. If you are serious, your fingers will bleed."
Sounds delightful. For me, the fun was purely vicarious during these early outings. I joined Matt on these outings for his company, and for the sheer pleasure of watching him climb. Occasionally, we would drive up to northern New Hampshire, to White Horse Ledge or Cathedral Ledge outside of North Conway, or Rumney. And we would talk about Matt's close-knit band of climbing buddies.
"The people are special," he said, describing what he called the "cool breeds out there: Surfers, cyclists, paddlers. All of them are willing to live in the dirt to do what they love. They graze at supermarkets. They skip classes. Work crusty jobs. They tend to lead good lives because they know what matters.
"People who hang it out there for what they feel passionately about gravitate to one another,” Matt told me. “There's no better feeling than some of your boys driving half way across the country to clean the new bouldering area or run the routes you've spent two years drilling."
I could appreciate those bonds, though I admit a certain aversion to living in the dirt. Still, at every invitation to try climbing myself, I politely decline.
"It's just not my thing, Matt," I would say before pedaling off on my mountain bike.
After graduation, Matt moved out to Breckenridge, Col., to chase his telemark-skiing and rock-climbing dreams. Luckily for me, Colorado was just far enough away to keep Matt's hypnotic influence at bay.
Sean, meanwhile, had recently fallen under the sport's spell. And like a patient sculptor, he'd been slowly chipping away at my granite resistance. My siblings are my best friends, and I realized I was spending less time with Sean and Matt as they began spending more time on the rock. Maybe, just maybe, I was missing out. Why not at least give it a try? Finally, in a moment of weakness, I agreed to a fateful adventure - a trip with Sean to the Grand Teton in Wyoming. Matt, now managing a rock gym in Boulder, Colorado, agrees to meet us there.
For the second time in less than a year, I'd allowed myself to get talked into adventures that my 40-year-old sense of self-preservation would typically dictate off-limits. Last year, it was a 24-hour mountain bike race. This year, it's rock climbing. But there's one very tangible distinction. I had ridden a mountain bike for a solid eight years before succumbing to the 24-hour race phenomenon. Conversely, I had never strapped on a climbing harness, squeezed into climbing shoes that, by design, were about two or three sizes too small for my size 11 feet, or tried to hoist my 190-plus pound frame onto a half-inch ledge, secured only by my chalk-covered fingers.
We drive out of Jackson Hole on a beautiful, cloudless morning - Matt and a good friend, Dave Mackey, Sean, and I. As Matt guides the big old Suburban with one hand and plays disc jockey with the other, I ask him why the sport means so much to him.
"I guess what it really comes down to is the mind and the movement," he says. "I've done a lot of stuff at a pretty decent level, and nothing has ever captivated me like climbing movement. The range of moves. Super delicate to powerful and explosive, gymnastic, tricky, desperate, all of them are exciting. Every problem, every route, every different type of stone creates a very independent, very personal choreography.
"I love watching two very different people climb the same problem two entirely different ways. It's beautiful to watch. It has never been about getting to the top. For me, it has always been about how you get to where you end up,' he says, grinning at the Zen overtones. "It's all in the motion, the interpretation, the aesthetics. On the other side, nothing has ever forced me to mentally rise to the occasion as much as climbing. Staying calm when it's a little run out. Keeping the game when you've worked on your project for two months only to fall at the chains the last 10 burns. Hang there and figure it out or focus and go into red-point zone. Those challenges are just as difficult as the pulling, and just as rewarding."
I'm just about to ask what all that means when Matt pulls off the road and the truck rumbles to a stop.
"There she is, boys," he exclaims.
Rodeo Wall juts out of the ground like a monument. It's a marvelous spread of rust-colored rock about a half mile from the road, twice the size of a drive-in movie theater screen. It's even more impressive when viewed from the base. There are roughly a dozen routes bolted along its face. Matt and Dave haul up their gear, a couple of backpacks stuffed with a huge assortment of ropes, carabiners and "protection" - the soothing term for a variety of cams, nuts and quickdraws used to secure rope to rock.
Matt laces up first, cramming his feet like into a tiny pair of climbing shoes, conjuring thoughts of the Chinese tradition of foot binding. "He'll pay for that when he's 60," I think to myself. Clearly, Matt is not concerned.
I admire how comfortably Matt moves in this world. At the risk of swelling his already formidable ego, my brother has the perfect climber's anatomy. From behind, you appreciate the V-shaped back that tucks into a ridiculously narrow waist and hips, the long, sinewy arms and legs. From the side, the man virtually disappears. He is paper thin, able to hide behind telephone poles. A quick handshake reveals another climbing trademark - calluses. Thick, rugged, impervious-to-sharp-objects kind of calluses.
Matt also has a climber's mind - meticulous, clever, daring - and, if there is such a thing, a climber's soul - creative, expressive, theatrical. On the rock, Matt shows no signs of the gangly young colt I used to cheer on at high school soccer matches. As he moves his up along the route, his movements are elegant, and efficient. He has found his calling.
"Oh yes, that's nice," he says after rappelling back down.
Sean is up next, and although he struggles with some of the more difficult junctures, his grit, determination and ultimate success are inspiring. My turn.
My first few steps are indecisive, halting. I slowly lurch five, 10, 15 feet up the limestone face along Betty Tendonblaster. Sharp edges of the limestone claw into my fleshy fingertips. Before long, I'm looking out over the Hoback River and the state of Wyoming, trying to get my leg to stop shaking and ignoring the temptation to look down. Matt, at long last, has me in his clutches, and his ear-to-ear grin does not bode well for me.
The rope secured to my harness has a little too much slack for my taste, and I call down to Matt to pull up the excess. Matt, however, is quick to point out that I'm spending too much time thinking about the rope, and not about the act of climbing.
"I got you, blood, you just worry about the stone," he says. "Keep pushing those legs."
For all his youthful exuberance, Matt is never reckless, never in a rush. "Trust," he tells me. I have to trust the sticky soles of my climbing shoes, trust the laws of physics, trust my harness and, perhaps most important, trust my younger brother’s belay. I recall his comments just hours before, during our drive.
"The bonds between climbers are different. I mean, in climbing, the people you are with are responsible for your life, every day, several times, and you knowingly put them in that position. Few other activities are like that. My friends have all literally saved my life hundreds of times. It's not like we were getting run over at the Maginot Line or anything, but that type of trust goes a long way. You don't need to ask a lot of questions. You just know each other."
Secure in the knowledge that my belay is secure in Matt's hands, I resume my ascent. "Climb with your legs, use your arms for balance," I remind myself. I follow the line of chalk that reveals the cracks and holds. A protruding ledge and the lactic acid are my undoing. My forearms, fingers and shoulders soon join my legs in their spastic shake. Exhaustion sets in quickly. Matt guides me to a ripple of a hold, but I don't have the commitment to hang on, and I break off the wall. Matt arrests my fall, and tells me to grab on the closest ledge and catch my breath. "I'm cooked," I yell, and he gently lowers me down.
"Rest up, champ," says Matt with a wicked smile. "And don't take off those shoes. You're going back up."
I begin kneading my hands and rolling my wrists, trying to get the blood flowing again. Two fingertips are absolutely numb, and will stay that way for days. Once the tremors in my legs and forearms subside, I snug up the harness, flash Matt a thumbs-up and resume my place on the wall. For the better part of two hours, I huff and puff my way up the face, with varying degrees of success. I never reach the top, but, oddly, I'm not the least bit discouraged. The effort is enough to keep me smiling.
Two weeks later, a special care package arrives at my home - a pair of climbing shoes, a harness, a chalk bag, a locking carabiner and a belay device. Compliments of Matt. I pray my wife will forgive me.