I don’t see anything wrong with the fact that rock climbing is considered a pastime activity, rather like how I don’t see anything wrong with pouring milk onto bricks in the hope that they will alchemically transform into diamonds. I don’t see anything wrong with it, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. I got a decent glimpse of the world of the madmen (and madwomen) that call themselves rock climbers when I tried a bit of it myself one beautiful afternoon in Hvalfjörður.
I had always imagined rock climbing to be a bit like those scenes in the old Batman serials with Adam West, where he and Robin fired a grappling hook into the upper buttresses of a building and climbed steadily up while discussing their plans once they’d reached the top.
The rock, as it happened, was one of those weird, random slabs of stone that you find scattered randomly throughout the countryside. It had a nice view of some cabins and a semi-distant valley that I was rather enjoying when the instructor handed me a harness and said:
“So. You wanna go first?”
I swallowed. “Uh, sure. Why not?” and put the harness on.
I had seen some other climbers on our way to our face of the rock, and had by now come to assume that it wasn’t quite as easy as it looked. I was not, however, expecting it to be utterly impossible. What little purchase there was to be had on the rock face was rough, covered in flaky, dried moss and altogether very dissimilar from the Gotham City skyscrapers. I was also forced to wear rubber ballet slippers that made thong underwear seem loose-fitting and comfortable, and large, menacing bumblebees hovered nearby with ominous buzzing sounds.
I took the opportunity to do what city kids do best in the countryside, gripe my ass off, much to the amusement of the rest of the climbing party below. My experience was further enriched by what happened when I was about halfway up: I looked down. When you’re concentrating that much on what’s in front of you, it doesn’t really occur to you that you’re steadily gaining altitude, and my downward glance and subsequent realisation that if I fell I could possibly sprain, fracture or even break something was a difficult moment.
But I put those thoughts behind me and realised that my harness was tied through a hook and led straight to the well-muscled hands of the instructor, so if I lost my grip, the worst thing that could happen was a mild concussion and the loss of my sense of smell when my skull hit the rock. With this in mind, I made it to the ‘top,’ which was basically a point about twenty feet up on the face where the hook was. I took a short, panicked breath and tried to enjoy my view despite my abject terror. After a moment, I called down to the bottom:
“Um, okay, so how do I get down from here?”
What happened next can only be described as a leap of faith, where I trusted my 120 pounds to a thin rope, a man I’d just met and a weird tool he had tied to the rope. I gingerly made my way down by sitting very awkwardly in my harness as he steadily brought me down to the sorely-missed ground below. My hands coarse and aching, my knees still shaking and my dignity in tatters, I calmly sat down for a cigarette and tried to think up an excuse to not go again, while at the same time waiting very impatiently for my next turn, finding it perversely funny how human nature can drive you to do immensely stupid things just because the only alternative is to feel really dumb for not doing it.
And amazed as I am to say it, I feel that were I ever offered to go rock climbing again, there is a better-than-average chance that I might not just snort and find myself something better to do. On the contrary, I might even seriously consider going. In fact, I may even say yes.
Trip provided by Arctic Rafting, www.arcticrafting.com.