Climbing Diaries Part 1: Getting off the Ground

Last week a young man was rescued from a 400 million year-old rock crack out west of Victoria. Famous in climbing circles, the Squeeze Test at Mt Arapiles is a committing clamber through a boulder that sits split in half not far from the local campsite. He had slipped and trapped his hip around 10 at night, and spent a rainy 10-hours there before rescue services were able to successfully slide him out to safety. Thousands have no doubt passed the Test since Mt Arapiles was first pioneered as a rock-climbing mecca in the 60’s, but to the uninitiated, the idea is fucking terrifying, and so it should be. I’ve squeezed through the rock a few times now, and let me tell you it’s no picnic, and I’m on the narrow side of skinny. Not that you’d need convincing, imagine yourself for a moment thrutching* your wedged body horizontally between two rocky surfaces. It’s too narrow to turn your head around once you’re in.

Rebirth, exiting the Squeeze. Photo by Madeline Sewall

Rebirth, exiting the Squeeze. Photo by Madeline Sewall

So, fears:

  1. The rock will collapse, crushing you slowly until you die in a spluttering mess.
  2. You’ll get stuck, panic, and stay stuck forever and ever until you die.

I was quick to overcome these two. Firstly, I was assured that Fear 1 was ridiculous, and given the popularity and age of this challenge, I rationally concluded Fear 1 was too stupid to worry about. After eyeing up the rock, I discredited Fear 2 on the simple basis that I was so skinny.

But fear is essential to climbing because climbing naturally generates risk, and careful, intelligent mitigation of that risk is crucial to having a good experience. Which brings us to a third motivating fear that applies to all vertical climbing:

Fear 3. Somehow, you will fall and hurt yourself or someone else very badly.

Having strayed up vertical territory for over a year now, I find myself in a state of amateurish enculturation –new, but not a newby­– with that insatiable appetite that comes with any newly discovered pursuit. I can see now that I’m wandering uncontrollably from a state of wide-eyed naivety to a place of being pretty comfortable with what I know (and what I don’t) and to what extent I can transfer this to experiences on the wall.

For this reason mainly, I’ve decided to write my way through it, not necessarily for other climbers (although they will no doubt relate), but for the newby that I was, and that most readers are likely to be.

As far as I can tell, climbing is technical and intuitive, infuriating and rewarding, and like all good pursuits –in their everyday-ness– perseverance in climbing reveals unexpected insight about the world out there, and the deep interior we rarely grapple with, and importantly, the fleshy existence in between.

Climbing seemed like a good idea to me. When I wandered into the subject in conversations a while back, people tended to agree: I’m skinny, little, and a kind of ‘nimble’ (presenting the myth of the ideal climber with good ‘weight-to-strength’ ratio**). There wasn’t a good reason I hadn’t made vertical incursions since my tree-climbing inclinations as a child.

I’m not inherently afraid of heights (only falling from them), so that wasn’t really a deal breaker. I just couldn’t break into the icy-cool subculture that seemed to be freakishly muscly, exclusive, and intimidatingly skilled***. They also had those slick expensive-looking rubber shoes and shiny pieces of equipment, the type of stuff that most new hobbyists will secretly covet, especially boys. It didn’t seem like I was ever going to get off the ground.

That is, until a chance encounter at a Factory party, when I met Cherry.

 

Continues in Part 2: Warriors.

 

Feature image by Cherry Baylosis.

* ‘Thrutching’ is a climbing term used to describe a full body squirming maneuver to advance your progress in a tight spot. “Groveling” has been used to define thrutching, and I have fears that it’s onomatopoeic.

**All body types can climb successfully, leading to a terrific diversity of styles, expertise and creativity that all develop through experience, which I’ll talk about another time.

***All spectacularly misguided (but not completely unreasonable) assumptions as it turned out most of the time.