The “finish” is maybe five feet away, but at this point it hardly matters.
I’m dangling 10 feet in the air, completely sapped of energy, and doing my best just to hold on as a razorlike burn courses through my forearms and shoulders. Below me, a fit young crowd has assembled—it’s the type of “grab life by the short hairs” scene reminiscent of a beer commercial—and I try to regain my focus as they offer words of encouragement. But the truth is, I can’t. Bizarrely, I’ve started laughing, as if in some state of fitness-inspired euphoria. If I were to fall and break my neck, I think to myself as the Black Keys come wafting up through the rafters, at least I’m not in a gym that’s playing “Uptown Funk.”
My fingers give out, and I fall backward for the fourth time today (by now, I’ve perfected my Hans Gruber–in–Die Hard impersonation), and I land gently on the soft padding below.
“Gravity—it’s the great equalizer, man,” says Mike Stewart, general manager of the Brooklyn Boulders climbing gyms in New York City and one of my climbing partners for the day. If you were looking to cast a movie about rock climbers, Stewart would be your guy. Cut and compact, with short, mussed brown hair, he has that halo of rugged outdoorsy-ness that gives you the impression he leads expeditions up Kilimanjaro on the weekends. “Gravity doesn’t care how much money you have, what school you went to, what demographic you are—it’s indiscriminate. You’re going to fail, and you’re going to fall.” Out of context it doesn’t sound like much of a pep talk, but sitting there on the padded floor, surrounded by climbers of all stripes and skill levels, it’s surprisingly motivational. There’s no shame in failing here.
In fact, it’s the failing part that keeps you coming back. I just wish I could fail at the level I used to. It’s been more than four years since I laid a chalky hand on a climbing wall, and my former skills have all but evaporated. “The sport can be pretty unforgiving in that respect,” says Luke Livesey, Brooklyn Boulders’ head climbing instructor. “If you don’t climb for even a few weeks, you really feel it when you come back.” Although I used to climb at an intermediate level, today I may as well be a beginner. I can feel it in my hands and forearms. I can especially feel it in my back—imagine doing 15 pullups and then immediately trying to hoist yourself up a rope, and that’s basically how the last third of any climb feels. But fortunately, in climbing, difficulty isn’t really a matter of the steepness of the grade; it’s the pattern and protrusion of holds that form what’s known as the route. My current white whale is this V3-grade zigzag of yellow lumps stretching just 15 feet in the air.
As I sit there and begin to recalculate my approach to the route, I notice, like everyone else in the enormous room, a microsize girl on a nearby, prohibitively difficult V9, who has apparently discovered some wizard’s spell for defying gravity, scurrying her way up an incline with the ease of an ant climbing a blade of grass. When no one’s paying attention, I quietly haul myself to my feet, reapply some chalk to my hands, and march back to the wall.