Belayed Development

Course: Beginning rock climbing

Institution: Planet Granite

Location: San Francisco

It had been on my To Do list ever since I saw Planet Granite convert one of the old Presidio buildings down at the end of Crissy Field into an indoor rock climbing gym: learn to climb.

I decided to take their 4 week beginning climbing course. The first night we learned how to belay. Belaying is when you assist the climber by holding the rope and prevent the climber from hitting the ground in the event of a fall. There is a specific technique to belaying. You have to know how to wear a harness, how to use a belay device (at Planet Granite it’s called a gree), how to manage the rope moving through the device and how to brake the rope with your body.

In a climbing gym the rope is attached to the top of the climbing wall for safety and as such is called top-roping. The climber, meanwhile, ties into the rope directly using two knots – the figure 8 and the fisherman’s knot. Both the belay partner and the climbing partner use some basic lingo to communicate when climbing is okay to begin and when a climber has reached the summit and wants to be helped down.

It sounds a lot more complicated than it is. We learned how to belay and tie in as a climber in two hours. Our teacher asked that we take our belay tests before the next class. To climb in most indoor climbing gyms you have to take a test where gym management will watch you tie in as a climber and practice belaying to make sure you understand the techniques and are not a safety hazard.

So, ever the eager student, I drove over to the gym on the Friday before my next class and asked to take the test. I knew all the answers to the questions the manager asked and gave him quick answers. I did, in his own words, “everything technically correct.” But he didn’t pass me.

He said, “You looked hesitant.”

“What?” I said, truly dumbfounded. “But you said I did everything correctly.”

“It should look like second nature,” he replied.

My head spun. I realized arguing with him was futile but at the same time I was screaming in my head, “how the heck is it supposed to be second nature when I just learned a few days ago?”

He knew I was in the beginning climbing class and he knew that our teacher had requested we take the test before the next class. So I was thoroughly confused as to what he expected of me. I stepped out of my harness and left.

By the time I got to my car I was fuming and as soon as I shut my door, I was crying. I had failed. I had been prepared, I had done everything technically right and I had still failed. I felt like a loser. I mean who doesn’t pass their belay test?

It didn’t help to find out the following week that everyone else in my class had passed. I had practiced with them and couldn’t figure it out. They had no more skill than I did and they certainly didn’t belay with the ease of second nature. The teacher said she’d wait to start class to give me a chance to take the test again. So I stepped up, confident that I knew what I was doing, but the L word clanged in my head. I failed again.

I was so embarrassed I started to sweat. The class went on like nothing had happened – like my ego wasn’t lying on the floor like a used up chalk bag.

I couldn’t concentrate on what the teacher was saying. All I could think was why? Why did it bother me so much to fail?

The reality is that there are no guarantees. You can work hard, do everything right and still come up short. And I think that’s what was truly bothering me. I couldn’t help but relate my experience in a rock climbing gym to the rock I had being pushing up a mountain lately – my sense of self. My self-worth has been so tied up in accomplishment that without it, I felt like a stranded climber with a dangling rope.

That weekend I joined my family to select a tree for Christmas and related my woes about the belay test. While trying to strap the tree to the top of the car I became tangled in the rope. My sister laughed and said, “Maybe this is why you failed your belay test.”

I couldn’t help but laugh, too. It was a beautiful day outside, I was surrounded by family and all was well. She was right. I was getting tangled up in the outcome.

Still I was determined. I went into the gym later that weekend and asked again to take the belay test. While waiting to take it I told myself, “I will continue to take this test until I get it right. I will take it as many times as it takes. They’ll post a picture of me on the wall because I come back so often to take it.” And then I laughed at the thought of a framed picture of myself in full harness greeting gym members when they entered. Sure enough, I passed.

But the real test was this – learning to fail. Most things don’t work out if you’re doing them to reach a result. It is at the end of the day, like the struggle of Sisyphus, the effort that makes the person.