The Futility of Rock Climbing, and also Life
People invest a lot of time, money and effort climbing walls to nothing. This sisyphean hobby is the perfect metaphor for most of life. It’s hard, feelings of accomplishment are fleeting, and we don’t have to do it.
The first time I went rock climbing was at summer camp. My parents had just moved from Germany to North Carolina and wanted me to have some kind of experience. They sort of did their research, but they confused “non denominational” with secular. They accidentally sent their atheist eight year old to a camp for people who go to mega churches.
I was a creepy kid so any summer camp was bound to be a mostly uncomfortable experience, but especially so since I was an obnoxious outsider. At eight I had all my father’s gruff bravado and war won wisdom but I actually spent most of my time eating doughnuts in air conditioning. I wasn’t fat, but I was weak. I didn’t have my thoughts sorted out about Jesus, but I knew the Holy Spirit was obviously the moon. I didn’t know any of the songs/chants/prayers the other campers did.
I had also urgently begun writing very dark torture porn poetry, to everyone’s’ alarm.
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After I’d already solidified my reputation for being a pain in the ass, all the campers went to a rock climbing gym. I got stuck halfway up the first wall I tried, closed my eyes tight, and cried. When the sixteen year old counselor told me to let go I shook my head so violently I got snot on my glasses. I wasn’t afraid of falling exactly, I was afraid of dangling like a piñata. I knew that if the adults took their eye off me I would be the first person ridiculed to death.
Then I became an adult. Summer camp counselors no longer direct me to do things against my will. But, I do date. A guy I liked took me rock climbing when I was 30. I consented over wine and warm feelings. The promise of muscular sex dangled in front of me like a lure. He used words like “fun” and “empowering” with such confidence I forget who I was.
He took me to The Cliffs in Long Island City which is a great facility for bouldering, rock climbing, weight lifting, and they also have treadmills for some reason. The treadmills seem even sadder there than at a regular gym. The Cliffs are full of people who can do one armed pull ups, and look relaxed hanging upside down by their thumbs. I am not those people. I climbed walls for children and focused on learning how to tie one knot correctly.
We were in the early stages of the relationship when I was doing my best impression of a fun affable person so when he asked me “Did you have fun?” I said, “Oh yeah, it was great.” Then he surprised me with rock climbing gear and the reality of my situation sank in. We would be doing this a lot.
My parents taught me that I had to finish sports I started, once there was gear involved. So now, a few times a week I struggle up walls fueled mostly by shame and spite. To be fair, shame and spite motivate me to do other things like writing, stand up comedy, and thank you cards. Every single wall brings up the same obvious unanswerable questions; Why am I doing this? This is stupid. My hands hurt. Is anyone looking at me? But rock climbing is like solving a puzzle with your body. Because it occupies all my limbs and also my mind, it’s hard to think about anything else for seconds sometimes minutes at a time. It is also challenging to look at my phone.
What I like about rock climbing is that there are clear metrics showing that progress is happening. It’s not just in my head. There is a top to every wall. It can be completed. There are numbers indicating which walls are harder. I can climb harder walls today than I could last week. Presumably I will continue to get better, I can choose to feel good about this. That’s true about everything from cooking to cabinetry to climbing the corporate ladder.