By Robert Ball
The first time you entrust your life to the strength of your fingertips curled over a half-inch ledge, you will feel the spark she was supposed to provide. These holds are known as crimps, and they are the most difficult to grasp. The belayer below will spot you and serve as a counterbalance in the likely event of a slip. Later, she might make a light-hearted comment about how she saved your life on the first date, which you will immediately recognize as flirting. She may even want to kiss you. It’s okay to politely decline. It’s okay to just want a climbing partner. Jugs are the easiest holds to identify and utilize. A climber’s hand can fit safely into the opening, like the mouth of a jug, and the climber can progress without help from the belayer. The jug hold will be your best friend when you are alone.
As you make your way up the vertical face, you will become increasingly aware of the butterflies around your heart. You won’t feel them when you pick her up that morning, despite her expertly applied makeup and the smooth contours of her face. Instead, you will notice how ill-prepared she looks for an adventure. She is beautiful, but the human form does not compare to nature’s precipice. Each jagged protrusion is placed barely within a strenuous reach, providing a respite for climbers to plan their next moves. There will be a struggle, but each hold will be there for you, and none of them will ask for more than you can give.
Trad climbing entails the set-up and removal of all gear at well-established routes. There will often be multiple groups or couples at the sites of these climbs. The two men next to you will be having a better time than you and your belayer. Though not a traditional couple, for whatever that’s worth, they will certainly appear to love what they do. The more experienced one will wrap his arms tightly around the other, playfully demonstrating how to secure the harness, as seen in almost every movie. They will laugh. They will kiss because they both want to. You will think to yourself, If only the answer were men. But of course, the last time you kissed a man was no different from the first time you kissed a woman. Neither gave you the feeling of reaching the top. Remember, ninety percent of climbing is in your legs. While peering between your body and the rock, look for anything you can step on. It will be hard not to notice the men’s love below and wonder, Does she expect that from me? Stop thinking. Never try to do more than you are able.
Even on the cloudiest days, there is always a light shining on that final handhold. All the cuts, the callouses, every bruise and scrape will throb with excitement as you slap that last bit of rock. You will let go and hang in the moment. Enjoy yourself while you can. Before you are ready, the belayer will bring you down. You will sink lower and lower until you have returned to her. She will hug you using her entire body, whisper something about congratulating you properly, and press her lips against yours. You will instinctively push her away. The couple next to you will stare, and your belayer will turn red with embarrassment. Use the car ride home to explain. It will be awkward. You will use the term “my situation” too many times. The instant disinterest on her face will be familiar. She will not try to kiss you again. She will not rock climb with you again.
Free solo climbing is extremely dangerous and could be the answer to your problems. There are no couples required, which benefits those who have proved ineffective at coupling. Faulty equipment is no concern. No belayers awaiting your reluctant return. There is only you and what you feel are the right decisions. Each crimp hold will appear unimaginably small, and the world beneath you will vanish as you hone your focus on only footholds. The briefest slips from the rocky surface will send key moments of life to the forefront of your mind. This is a survival tactic the brain forces on you. Unfortunately, you may realize there is no one to hold on for; there is no one who stuck around long enough to help you push through this moment. Instead, you will cling to the possibility of the next hold being easier and the surge of hope that will overtake you if you ever get there. If you are careless, you will fall. On the way down, you will look up and see every misstep you made, but there will be no one below reminding you of those missteps, as if you are not painfully aware. Rubble will tumble to the ground alongside your body, the air will pierce your face, and you will feel this world in a way they never wanted to feel with you.
Robert Ball graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English/writing from Northern Michigan University in December of 2018. While attending, he worked as an editing intern for Passages North literary magazine. He currently works as an English tutor and lives happily with his partner and his new puppy. This is his first published work.
Art by Michelle Johnsen, art editor
Michelle Johnsen is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.