Rock Climbing: Ugh! (In A Good Way)

March 8, 2016

There is a reason proto-humans descended from the trees and chose to live in caves (and, eventually, man caves): hanging from a branch or rock all the time sucks. It wrenches your arms, crunches your neck and stretches your back. It also makes you say dumb things, like “That’s a gross problem, brah. Where’s the crux?”

Well, the last part is more of a modern invention. As a fairly recent convert to rock climbing, I can also say hanging from things is exhilarating, rewarding and uniquely challenging. I can’t recommend it highly enough — a super-beneficial fitness activity that’s also dispiriting, kind of goofy and 100 percent fun.

I will say this: It’s so hard to start. It’s really demeaning to walk into a climbing gym, say “It’s not that tall,” and start a route — only to return to the ground pouring sweat 15 seconds later. I started rock climbing at the tail end of last summer after months of consistent weight lifting, and I thought I was strong — but strength doesn’t mean anything without coordination, endurance, dexterity and willingness to embarrass yourself.

It’s humbling to start, but rewards manifest quickly with practice. Once your arms unclench and your claws relax a bit, you can go back and keep at it — and big dividends get paid. I’m stronger, more flexible, better at planning and visualizing problems, and less self-conscious about failure — which is a given in a sport in which I’m heaving 220 pounds up a wall. I even have the honor of getting my first sports injury (finger tendon sprain during a fall), and my hand therapist says my “pinch strength” is “higher than normal.” Suck on that, haters.

In all honesty, it’s a little weird to explain what it is about the sport that’s fun. It’s impossibly sweaty, painful and stressful — and, if you’re afraid of heights, it might be a total non-starter. But there is a real sense of joy and overwhelming happiness in climbing a route that you’ve tried, and failed, two or 10 or two dozen times. You’re shaking, soaked and totally wired — and beaming through all of it. And, thankfully, it really does get easier with time and repeated attempts. You move up the grading system, work on more advanced techniques and meet some new friends.

You learn to distinguish between a route that’s easier but boring, or one that’s harder but more fun, or a particular sequence of moves that makes you feel like you actually know what you’re doing. You might even learn to see humor in particular routes. My favorite: a route that’s all huge handholds most of the way up — almost like climbing a ladder — only to have the last four holds be totally smooth, like nubs of rock. I’ve laughed out loud many times while climbing — when’s the last time you said that about your hour on the treadmill?

If you crave some stimulation and variety in your exercise routine, come climbing with me. I can’t guarantee you’ll like it — in fact, you might want to burn down the building — but you could discover a new passion. You will learn some horrible lingo and improve your vaunted pinch strength. And, if you go to Vertical Endeavors in Minneapolis, you get to blow all your fitness gains at one of Eat Street’s many great restaurants. The rewards, as I said, are myriad and beautiful.

In addition to Vertical Endeavors’s two metro locations, there’s the Minnesota Climbing Cooperative in Northeast, a delicious bouldering-only spot that’s better for people afraid of heights — and those who crave a world-class athletic challenge on some of the professional-level routes. The University of Minnesota also boasts two rock climbing gyms — one apiece on the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses. Climb on!