NEW YORK – Hanging by your fingers 50 feet from the ground isn’t as miraculous as Spider-Man might make it look. But then again, the Green Goblin isn’t lobbing explosive pumpkins at your head.
First, there’s the natural tendency of humans to climb with their behinds sticking out. It’s difficult to break that habit, and instead hug the wall while "backstepping" – extending the legs for a better grip and greater reach – like a real spider would.
It takes a while to learn to love the wall so much you can almost taste the fiberglass of the artificial mountainside. Near the ground, the wall reeks of other people’s sweat and dirt, and the tangy communal smell you associate with gym class. Above 25 feet, it’s a basket of wildflowers.
Before long, the muscles some people bulk up at the gym become dead weight, while other body parts desperately strain themselves to help you get a grip. What are those muscles there for, anyway?
By the time you’ve rappeled back to the sweet, sweet earth, you’ve got Hulk-sized forearms from using them to support nearly your entire weight for minutes at a time. Then you shake them out and start again.
And you learn a lot about the differences between those funny little handholds that look like oddly shaped knobs of Pla-Doh. Some look like they might as well be rungs on a ladder, but because of the way they’re positioned or because they’re slippery, they’re worse than useless. Others, like the little green milk-cap-looking guys at the Chelsea Piers in New York, might at first appear to be as helpful as a freckle, but turn out to be climber’s gold.
And going down’s a whole new story, as the holds you relied on to get up become less usable for the return trip.
All that’s gravy compared to the meat of climbing: the psychological battle against the instinctive feeling that human beings aren’t meant hang a bone-crunching 100 or more feet above the ground.
As soon as the anxieties that run through your head – Can I trust my rope man? Are my legs and feet going to cramp up? Are red-and-blue tights unmanly? – crowd out your single-minded quest for the next good grip, you’ve been defeated.
No wonder Spider-Man keeps himself distracted with snappy quips.
And the most important thing of all to remember when climbing: Don’t wear socks with your climbing shoes, even if it’s the lucky white ones with the cool yellow stripes. It just looks silly.