The moment I moved to Utah I wanted to rock climb. Growing up I was always a timid, shy kid. The thought of going downhill too fast on my bike, climbing a tree, or buying a pair of Heelies would make my knees weak. I don’t like this part of me.
Driving into Utah for the first time as a teenager, I saw something. The mountains. Yes, I’ve seen the mountains before, but I’ve never seen them. The moment I entered the shadow of these pillow-topped giants, I was speechless, overwhelmed by a feeling of insignificance. The intimidation, the delicate edges, the brutal cracks burying themselves in the limestone. It was a religious experience for me.
I researched rock climbing for way longer than I should’ve. I watched all the documentaries I could find. I saw Alex Honnold defying death by climbing El Capitan without ropes in Free Solo and Tommy Caldwell being a real-life Spider-Man in The Dawn Wall. I worshipped these guys. I identified with them the most. They were lanky, nerdy guys who fell in love with the mountains and defied all odds to become the best at what they did. I wanted to be like them. There was one problem. I was deathly afraid of falling.
I watched those documentaries for about two years before I chalked up for the first time. I can’t even take credit for taking the first step. It was during the fall of my senior year in high school. My friend JJ had been climbing for a few months prior, and one day on our walk out to the parking lot, he asked me if I wanted to go climbing at our local gym. I winced a little. I can’t do that. I’m terrified of heights. What if I get hurt? After a long pause I gave a hesitant yes.
We pulled up to the grey and green temple that was Elevation Rock Gym. My heart was pounding. My hands were clammy. My knees were wobbly. I somehow managed to stumble inside. I was watching myself in third person. I wasn’t in control. I was on autopilot. Somehow, I managed to make my way over to the front desk, pay for my day pass, and pick out my rental gear. It was all a blur.
Before I knew it, I had on my ill-fitting rental harness and shoes and stood in front of the easiest route in the gym. The neon green plastic holds were in the shapes of dinosaurs and zoo animals. After JJ ran me through how to tie a figure eight knot into my harness, he setup his belay device and clipped the rope in. I stepped towards the wall, grabbed the closest t-rex, and started climbing. I moved at a snail’s pace. Every movement was deliberate and thought out. I made it a little over halfway up the wall when I made my first mistake.
I looked down.
My hands immediately started to get sweaty. Before I had a chance to dip my hand in the chalk bag at my hip, I slipped. I let out a loud yelp and leaned back, expecting the worst. To my surprise, and embarrassment, I stayed put. The rope attached to me was completely taught. JJ hadn’t given me any slack, I hardly moved.
It took a few minutes for me to recover, but I managed to reach inside and pulled out the courage to complete the route. I then completed another, and another, and another. I climbed that day until my muscles begged me to stop and the skin on my fingers was nonexistent. I was immediately hooked. This was my kind of extreme sport. It was slow and calculated. I was in complete control. It was just me, and the rock (or in this case, plastic).
After a few months training in the gym, I was leaner, my fingers were stronger, and I wasn’t as scared of falling as I used to be. It was time for the ultimate test. I was going to challenge myself outside on real rock. At that point I’d already done some easy routes to practice. Luckily, my house was five minutes from Logan Canyon, a beautiful canyon filled with one of the most legendary climbing routes in the United States, the 5.14b monster, Super Tweak. I wasn’t quite prepared for that one yet, but just a little farther down the canyon was something more my speed.
This route was graded a 5.9+ in difficulty, which was about equal to the 5.11 grade I was starting to climb in the gym. The nerves had never completely gone away, but I’d managed to keep them at bay. Walking up to this new wall was like my first time climbing all over again. Eighty feet of sheer limestone stood above me. Despite the pool of sweat starting to build on my forehead, I took a few deep breaths and started climbing. The first third was the easiest part, full of large cracks I could follow and lots of place to put my feet. No problem. Then the color of the rock changed from a slick ash to a light, almost paper grey. This is where it started to get a bit tricky. The footholds shrunk to dimes, and the hand holds to crimps. They key here was very delicate footwork and precise body weight positioning. It took a while, but it wasn’t too bad.
The last third of the wall required power. This was what I struggled with most. Raw strength. I managed to use my height to my advantage, placing my feet extremely far apart and pushing off far dimples in the rock. I was maybe four moves away from the finish when I hit the crux, the hardest move. I had to wedge both my hands into a crack on a slight overhang, readjust my feet, take one hand out of the crack, and push off to the final edge. I can do this. I told myself. I can do this. I’m so close.
I wedged my hands in the crack, readjusted my feet, took one hand out… and slipped. My other hand popped out, leaving skin and blood in its trail. My heartbeat was in my ears, and my stomach in my throat.
I was in free fall.
It must’ve been only a few seconds, but it felt like minutes. I jerked to a stop. My head whipped around. I had fallen roughly thirty feet. Thank the heavens for ropes. I was back in the middle of the route, and to my surprise, I wasn’t dead.
I took a few shaky breaths, dipped my hand in my chalk bag, said a quick prayer, and started up again.