Adventures in climbing on the prairie

First, let’s bust some myths.

One: contrary to assumptions, many rock climbers have a fear of heights. Not just a healthy respect, which all climbers ought to have, but phobic fear. Yet climbing appeals to them because it grants a sense of control over the chaos of fright.

(This is good news for J. When we encounter a fire tower while hiking, he can only ascend its perforated metal stairs by clinging white-knuckled to the inner rail. If a breeze should sway the tower, he grows pale and backs down as I watch from above and crow about the view.)

Two: contrary to assumptions, rock climbing takes just as much leg strength as arm strength.

(This one, on the other hand (ha), is good news for me.)

And three: a body can climb even in the flattest of flyover country, central Illinois, where cornfields stretch like neutral oceans from horizon to horizon.

My brother and his girlfriend explain this as we drive to a bank of grain silos on the outskirts of Bloomington-Normal, Illinois. There’s nary a rock outcropping for probably a hundred miles around, but some clever soul cleaned out a few abandoned silos and peppered their interiors with bolts and holds. Today John and Susan are treating us to an introductory class followed by a day’s worth of verticality. We have no idea what to expect. We are complete rookies.

Susan and John head straight up the walls with their own gear, while J. and I pick up loaner equipment and join three other newbies for class. A friendly young employee shows us, literally, the ropes. Miraculously, I immediately grasp the knots – usually my weak point – that secure us to each other at either end of the long climbing rope. The hardest part is figuring out how to get into my harness, which is a tangle of straps and buckles that seem designed to comically frame one’s privates. I feel like a toddler trying to figure out big-kid pants: so many holes into which a leg could fit.

J. and I will belay each other, meaning we will take turns holding the destiny of the other’s bodily integrity in our rope-rubbed hands. I am relieved to trust J. with this. I know he will be sufficiently nervous to pay attention, and is sufficiently practical and strong as to react quickly and intelligently to the unexpected. Certainly, better him than the clammy-palmed woman whose eyes cut nervously to her more experienced husband for guidance at each step. And better her than dude over there, in stylish athletic wear and ostentatious masculinity, mumbling “Gotcha” as he forgets to check safeties and leaves his rope in the unlocked position. Underconfidence (and awareness of same) trumps overconfidence any day.

Oh, and I assume J. trusts me, too. Right? …Right?

Upward ho.

You'll notice there's a little kid above me...

J. and I easily pass the belay test – the series of safety checks, commands, and taking out slack in the rope – that accompany a climber’s ascent and controlled descent. I feel like I am faking a new language: “On belay.” “Belay on!” “Climbing.” “Climb on!” “Take.” “Go ahead.” “Climbing!” “Climb on.” “Lowering?” “OK, go.” But we are really going to do all of this, on a wall higher than ten feet, without our instructor watching. We are set free in the gym with thin, nubby shoes and a bag of chalk to dry our palms. On-belay, on-belay, arriba-arriba-arriba!

We begin in a small, rectangular gym twenty or thirty feet high. The routes are marked in colored tape, but I put my feet and hands wherever they’ll fit. John calls this the “rainbow method.” We try easy, short walls first, freezing where the wall begins to slant back toward us, transferring more weight into our arms, and psychologically unnerving us. We demand, with all the dignity we can muster, to be lowered.

The first few times, it is difficult to simply swing away from the wall and trust that the belayer below will let us down slowly and evenly. We drag our feet against the wall, which only makes it harder for the other, but eventually we adjust to kicking away, floating in air.

There are also auto belays: pulley systems one can clip into and climb without a partner. Just kick off the wall and the auto belay lowers back to the rubber-rock-covered floor at a perfectly even rate. I don’t know how it works, but I trust it, a manifestation of the great, mysterious Technology. I offer it all my unbroken bones, and it dispassionately returns them.

j climbsBelow J., I belay with intense focus, craning my neck at his ever-shrinking form. I believe I’m trustworthy. My instincts and strength are not as good as J.’s, but I have strong force of habit plus the famous Karp caution. Susan tells me that I take out slack very naturally, rhythmically, and I am flattered. She shows me a few traverse moves, sideways across the wall, without ropes, above a large, thick mat. It feels like slow-motion ballet: the specificity, the imperative of balance.

Wall climbing is fun, but inherently unnatural, hauling oneself up a concrete surface punctured with neon plastic nubs while secured to ropes and pulleys, a dowdy fake of the real, outdoor ascents nonchalantly hopped by mountain goats and pros. Still, I have no interest in taking this hobby outdoors. John and Susan drive hours to climb boulders, frozen waterfalls, and god knows what else, but I am content to stay indoors, and watch anything adventurous from below, cradling my aching, back-tilted neck in my hands. J., of course, has greater aspirations. Part of me hopes that when he goes away to hike for four and a half months, he’ll forget about this new hobby by the time he gets back. But really, I know better. He loves it.

We break for lunch, and on our way out, despite busted myth #2, spot a woman doing pull-ups using only six fingers curled over a pair of puny bumps that provide barely a knuckle’s worth of purchase. We fail to keep from gawking.

After lunch, it’s time for a double-date in the silos. The structures are concrete, impossibly narrow and high, with loud fans covered by metal grates, and sodium lamps at the tops, tinting the alien habitat a flickering orange. It’s like the Fizzy Lifting Drink scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Our voices echo and are nearly drowned out by the fans.

John and Susan climb first. John climbs like a spider, giant steps bending his thin legs nearly double. He is so tall that he can stretch his arms to widely angled options at every move. Susan is an agile lizard with suction-cup toes, scaling routes made of mere pebbles, hopping, resting, reaching to her waist for powdered chalk and then pouncing again.

J. and I follow, short ascents at first, then longer ones. The four of us hop up and down the silos. We get photos of John and me climbing side by side, to email to our parents, of course. If I don’t look down, I don’t mind going higher.

It’s getting late. One last climb apiece. J. goes two-thirds of the way up. Part of me is glad to not be responsible for lowering him all the way from the top. Will I try? If I do, I strategize, it must be in one go, no breaks; my arms tire if I hesitate too much. I tie in to a 5.6, a low-difficulty route. And up I go, like mercury in a thermometer on a warming day: viscous, steady. Not thinking, only moving. Almost to the top, my arms feel like quitting, but a small voice says, You only have a little way to go. You won’t be up here again. You may as well do it.

So I do. I slap the top and holler in triumph. “Look down, and I’ll take your picture!” Susan cries from below.

“I don’t want to look down!”

I accept that any photographic proof of my feat will showcase only my rear end, and holler “OK, lower me!” J. gives the signal. I swallow, then push off the wall, and finally, dare to peek down. I gasp and am glad to see the accomplishment from above. He lowers me gently.

“You climbed it all the way on the first go, without a break – that’s called ‘on sight.’ You can say you climbed that on sight,” Susan tells me. She must know how gratifying a bit of bragging can be, though she doesn’t do any herself.

The silos were sixty-five feet high. I figured they were nearly two hundred. But sixty-five is more than six stories—nothing to scoff at for a pair of neophytes. We are spent, dragging our knuckles as we leave the building, but the soreness is gratifying. We doze off in the back seat of the Subaru while John ferries us home.

And for the next three states of our road trip, until the farms peter out and the Badlands emerge from the prairie, the real climbing parks of the country, we can’t drive past a cluster of silos without imagining people scaling their insides.

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