Another term that's new to me is sausage fingers: I apparently have them. I also now have an annual membership to Stone Gardens, a rock-climbing gym in Seattle. I expected neither.
Kristin's friend Kari had been trying to talk us into going climbing with her for the better part of two years and although Kristin had gone once and I was sure I'd enjoy it, I held back. I didn't want to risk getting hooked on yet another sport, and I was also spending too much time training for endurance racing. That was then and this is now. We finally agreed to go last Friday with Kari and a large group of her friends and we were hooked at once. We went back the following Wednesday and then again this weekend. There aren't many things that can get me to drive into the city three times in eight days, but apparently this is one of them.
When Kari first told us of all the time she spent bouldering (climbing without ropes at lower heights) I admittedly didn't think it would be much fun, or that difficult. My ignorance knew no bounds and when I saw that Stone Gardens had bouldering routes rated from V-0 to V-12, I assumed that I'd probably be able to quickly move up to at least V-4 or V-5. It didn't occur to me that I was back in grade-school and couldn't just skip from kindergarten to middle-school.
Though our new gaggle of climbing friends occasionally massage our egos by saying what "a really hard V-0 that is", or feigning some momentary difficulty with a tricky V-1, the truth is that this this bouldering thing is far more difficult than I ever could have imagined. All of the thousands of miles I've run and biked over the years matter very little. The beach volleyball, the pick-up games of basketball, and the occasional flag-football games matter even less. Surfing. That might have helped, had my surfing not lessened to a once-every-two-years trip to Costa Rica or Hawaii.
Rock climbing, as I'm quickly learning, is about finger strength, core strength, and flexibility. Mountain bikers who want to believe their sport-of-choice helps foster these traits are kidding themselves. If anything, wrapping my tender fingers around the handlebars on Thursday night -- a day after my second trip to the climbing gym -- only made it tougher. This is a good thing, though. I've always weight-training and plyometrics work and I absolutely loathe working out indoors. This is strength-training at play. Sure, it's indoors, and if all goes well the weight I'll be lifting will actually go down (both due to smarter technique and lower body weight), but I can already feel my upper body taking the first steps towards increased conditioning.
The extreme difficulty of bouldering wasn't the only thing I didn't expect; the brain-twister puzzle-solving element caught me completely by surprise as well. And this is what will ultimately keep me coming back. Each of the routes are color-coded and you're only allowed to put your hands and feet on holds that are taped a certain color. For some reason I thought this would be all very straightforward and we would just climb straight up the wall. Ha! So many of the routes -- yes, even the lowly V-1 routes -- have a wonderful puzzle element to them that begs contemplation and study. Those routes that simply challenge your strength and flexibility and fear-of-heights are fun, but so many more challenge your mind and I can only look forward to progressing to more difficult puzzles. But even if that should take a while, the gym changes all of the routes every month or so, thus giving everyone a whole new set of routes to solve at whatever level they're stuck at.
And I do mean stuck. I don't foresee Kristin and I progressing past V-0 and V-1 for quite some time. For now, we're both limited by our meager finger and core strength (though her core strength probably far exceeds mine these days). I suppose we each have additional matters we have to work out as well, not least of which is the fear of falling. Or, more specifically, falling awkwardly. The highest handhold on the bouldering walls is probably 20 feet up and though that's not very high at all -- and the combination of the crash mats and cushiony floors all but guarantees you'll land safely -- making a strong, hard move (i.e. a "dyno" move) to the uppermost holds is still scary to us. I suppose it's like surfing and mountain biking though in that I just need to go ahead and have that one scary wipeout happen just to prove to myself that I'll bounce back up. Though it is a bit weird to feel somewhat "safer" riding my bike along the edge of a cliff, as in this photo, than I do lunging for a hold just 18 feet off the ground.
But unlike mountain biking, it's something that Kristin and I can do together and not have to worry about pace or difficulty. It's something that doesn't require a lot of expensive equipment, just shoes and a chalk bag, and perhaps best of all, it's another reason to go out for beers with friends more often.
And one can never have too many excuses to do that.