I leaned back carefully onto the thin, spider-strong loop of webbing that was keeping me anchored into the rock. The granite wall fell away for 200 feet below me, the water stains and bulges making the rock seem to undulate like a curtain of water. I felt perfectly safe, rationally, but my body didn’t quite believe my mind, causing my heart to pound every time I peered over the edge. The moment was suffused with a heady sense of euphoria brought on by the exercise, the stunning view, and the sheer drop at my feet. Along with a guide and two of my classmates, I had just completed the last pitch of a multi-pitch climb in Smuggler’s Notch. A moment ago we had all been lined up along the narrow ledge, Covid-19 safely of course. Now the others had begun the rappel, using a friction device to slowly lower down the rope. For a brief minute, as everyone else was hidden by an overhang on the cliff face, I imagined that I was alone on the climb, with only the view and the wind whistling by underneath my feet. It was the first time that day I felt properly scared.
When I got down from the climb, untied from the rope, unlaced my shoes, unclipped the carabiners from the gear loops on my harness, I replayed the climb in my mind, rehashing the details, trying to cement it into my memory. Five weeks ago, I had jammed my toes into strange little rubberized shoes and tied myself into a slender nylon rope for the first day of climbing in the Advanced Rock class. I had rock climbed before, in Colorado, a whirlwind three weeks of aching forearms and airy thrills that had sparked my interest in rock climbing. But I hadn’t climbed since then. I was nervous that I wouldn’t remember enough, that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with everyone else. The misty, gloomy weather on our first day of climbing didn’t help, either. Shivering with apprehension and the chilly air, I focused on the details, the little things that I knew I remembered; tying a figure-eight knot, the repetitive motion of belaying. At the end of the class, reassured by the welcoming, supportive atmosphere, I had gained enough confidence to be more excited than nervous for the next day. By the time we had packed the ropes and gear up, the muddy path was crisscrossed with little rivulets of running water and the mist had become a steady rain.
For me, most of the appeal of climbing is the problem solving aspect– a hand there, a foot there, the pleasant surprise of successfully balancing upon a single square centimeter of quartz protruding from the wall, using practical physics for perhaps its least practical application. The Advanced Rock class
was focused on systems and technical skills– rescues, anchor building, gear placement, all different ways to belay, guiding and teaching skills, knot tying, use of different types of gear, problem-solving, troubleshooting, going on a 4-day climbing and camping trip to dive even more intensively into the concepts we were practising. We followed the approximate curriculum of the AMGA Single Pitch Instructor Course, giving us a good foundation to be able to take the course and exam in the future, and launch a guiding career if we choose. This course was eminently practical. Every day, I could see how the concepts we learned and the skills we practiced would be useful in any career. Whether it was the concepts of responsibility, interpersonal communication and meticulousness that underpinned everything we learned, Outdoor Ed-specific teaching skills, or a specialized climbing system, I could envision myself using different facets of what I learned in the future. Whether I chose to go into business, teaching, or of course, becoming a guide for rock climbing, something I learned would apply. Some days during the class, we didn’t physically climb that much, but it was never boring. In some ways it was even more thrilling, the puzzle of figuring out the complicated and yet streamlined systems. The challenge was different, but equally exhilarating. It was hanging 12 feet off the ground waiting for your mock rescuer to save you from your imaginary plight. It was painstakingly working through why you made an anchor the way you did, and adjusting the ropes until you had it just right, with no element superfluous or unnecessary. It was looking around and realizing that you trusted the people you were climbing with, both on the wall and off it.
Before arriving at Sterling, I had spent a long summer of being apart from people. I was in one of the hot spots for Covid-19, so I had been in lockdown for almost a month in March, and strictly social distancing after that. It was hard to get used to being comfortable around people again, and navigating an additional layer of safety procedures while in class. Luckily, the system Sterling used meant that our class could act as a household unit, because we were also all living together. This made class a bit easier, but we still had to social distance and wear masks around our teacher and anyone else outside of our “bubble.” Soon, masks and social distancing became just a part of our normal routine. The systems of rock climbing actually made it easier to remember to follow Covid-19 guidelines and manage the risk of the virus. After all, we were already practising risk management in other ways. We checked that our harnesses were double-backed before climbing, and that our knots were properly tied. We belayed carefully and attentively, communicating in clear, predetermined phrases. That same mindset, one of focus, communication and responsibility for ourselves and each other, transferred very well to the pandemic protocols.
Trust is a skill, possibly the most important skill I learned during this class. When you are doing something like climbing, it’s not a nebulous concept. It’s not a cliche. You are, quite literally, putting your life into someone else’s hands.
It’s imperative that you trust your climbing partners, and that they trust you. The small class size, the 4-day climbing and camping trip we were able to go on, and the personal investment each of us had in the class helped build trust and camaraderie. I think the best way I could describe this class is connection. My nose pressed up to the rock wall, my hands delicately finding a hold in a lichen-covered crevice. A rope snaking away above my head, waiting for the climber to shout down the next belay command. Watching a lightning storm roll in over the mountain range across the valley, and shrieking as the first wave of raindrops spattered down, soaking me almost instantly. It was all about really looking at the world around me, about paying attention and slowing down. It was about being terrified, muscles shaking, and still reaching up for the next handhold, trusting that the anchor you built will hold you, that your belayer will catch you in the event of fall. Trusting that the tiny irregularity in the rock your foot is frictioned onto will hold when you move your hand up the rock, trusting your own strength and judgement. It was about the world narrowing, condensing, crystalizing into a single moment of focus as you stretch your fingers upward, standing up on a precarious foothold. It was about hanging off the side of a cliff, and feeling strangely grounded, on about seven different levels.