Let's Do Something Stupid and Put Our Lives in the Hands of Strangers
How I invited myself to an outing at Pilot Mountain and climbed outdoors on rock for the first (okay, second) time
My knees are skinned, my elbows are scraped, and my face is burned which means you know I had an incredible weekend!
We headed off to Pilot Mountain on Saturday to meet up with a crew of fellow climbers from Triangle Rock Club, organized by a woman named Sami. When one of the guys came to my house to carpool he asked me, "So how do you know Sami?"
"Oh," I said. "I don't. I just saw her posting about this outing in a group I'm in and I asked if I could join. I've wanted to climb outdoors for a while now!"
"So you've never climbed outdoors before, and you've never met anyone in the group before?" Luke mused. "That's ballsy."
I took me a minute to figure out why he'd called me ballsy, but then I realized it hadn't really sunk in that I was going to meet random strangers and do a very dangerous activity I've never done before, all while relying on said strangers.
Well, okay, if you put it that way then maybe it is ballsy.
All I really was thinking about was how I wanted to meet more people who were into climbing and I wanted to try climbing outdoors. This outing ticked both boxes, so I didn't even think twice about inviting myself (I mean - asking if I could join).
We arrived at Pilot Mountain shortly after 9am - it was warm, but not hot (perfect climbing weather) and the parking lot was buzzing with activity - not quite busy yet, but it hummed with excitement. Several other groups there were clearly climbers with rope bags and helmets and carabiners hanging off bulky bags. I thumbed my new helmet excitedly - hot pink and shiny. Buzz buzz buzz my mind hummed and I barely even noticed the view of Winston-Salem from the Pilot Mountain summit overlook - the landscape freshly yellow-green and hazy with heat and pollen.
We headed a short ways down Grindstone Ledge Trail to the turn-off to Three Bears Gulley where big yellow signs warned of danger and death. At the time I didn't even notice the signs: I was too focused on where to put my feet and keeping up with the crew.
We started off easy, which was perfect by me. Sami and Emmanuel - the two experienced outdoors climbers in our group - set the anchor for a 5.5 route while I anxiously waited with the gear at the bottom. There were already several groups of climbers nearby - groups of experienced and beginner climbers, all eager to get on the rock. I stared up at the pocked chimney, nervous and excited about what I was about to tackle. McCrae paced between the wall and the pile of boulders at the foot of the wall, angsty and restless.
I have no idea what I'm getting myself into, I thought, but then reminded myself, No, that's not true. I know how to climb at the gym. I've technically climbed outdoors before in middle school camp. Just don't over think it. I kept reminding myself that I could totally do this, trying to calm the flutter in my guts.
First went Christian - an elite collegiate swimmer from NC State who competed in the Olympic time trials a couple years ago. I could hardly pay attention to the route he was climbing, my eyes were whizzing all over the area - taking in other groups of climbers on nearby routes, taking in Echo, a friendly crag dog with a nearby group, and just trying not to get nervous by the prospect of climbing that.
Next was Luke, who had carpooled with us and has ambitious dreams of competitive climbing, and then it was my turn. Sami belayed and I tied in. I checked and double checked my knots, and triple checked with my belayer. And then I got on the rock.
I immediately fell. I managed to get off the ground, but I hadn't picked a strategic starting point and as I tried to move laterally for a better route up I slipped and swung out before landing on the ground.
"Are you okay?" Sami asked.
"Oh yeah, yeah," I said, cheeks burning and hands sweating. I tried again, this time tackling the route a little farther to the right where the route moseyed up at an easier angle, and this time it stuck and I kept going vertically.
Rock climbing is incredibly different than gym climbing. Sure, in gym climbing you're restricted to a route so you have limited options on how to climb up, but at the same time that's the beauty of the route at the gym: follow your plastic color holds and you'll eventually get up there. The colors lead the way like a long line - a beacon - to the top.
But outdoor rock climbing? It's all rock. Obviously. Rock, rock, rock - everywhere it's either rock or air, and that surplus of options can be overwhelming at first. Do I move right and sidle up the chimney? Or do I find a good hold on this ledge and work my way up that way? Where should I put my hands? My feet? What am I doing up here??
It was harder to see the holds because literally everything could be a hold and I couldn't yet intelligibly read the rock. Besides the obvious pockets and ledge it all just looked the same to me - white quartz, grey granite, and streaks of rusty red. I couldn't yet read how the rock flowed - how the cracks hid meaty jugs, or how to find comfortable crimps under my fingertips. It was all just rock - smooth rock, jagged rock, cutting rock, pulling at my harness, scratching against the rope, scraping at my clothes and skin.
"You've got a ledge above you!" Sami shouted from her belay position when I had wedged myself into the chimney, fighting off panic and trying to get the rope in the right place again. This was something else different from gym climbing - you usually don't have to worry about the rope going in odd places at the gym because it's just always up and between your arms, but when you're on a rock - pirouetting your way up a chimney or edging along laterally away from the anchor - it seems like the rope becomes a fifth limb that you have to think about, worry about, and keep straight.
Right. The ledge. I had nearly bumped my helmeted head against it, but I hadn't even thought to look up and use it. I reached up my hand, blindly looking for a hold - any hold. My fingers found purchase and I reached my other arm up, and then I took a deep breath, twisted, and pulled.
I almost didn't believe that I'd made it to the top. I reached both arms over the final ledge, dazed by what I'd just done. and then, without even thinking of looking out to take in the view, I came down.
I did one other route that day - another 5.5 near the first route we tackled. This one went a little smoother, a little easier, but even so when I got to the ground I was rattled with adrenaline and the mantra "I love ground, I love ground" raced through my head as I untied my knot and stepped out of my shoes and harness.
That always seems to be my reaction after any tough climb, whether at the gym or outside: I love ground, I love ground, spoken like Steve Carrell's character Brick reciting "I love lamp" in Anchorman. I always have to fight the urge to flop to the ground, to put as many blissful points of contact with the earth as possible, and to hug it, I'm so happy to be on the ground again.
But as much as the ground is my home and I love it, I'm also starting to love the feeling of being high in the air, exposed and vulnerable to the world.
A fish and a bird may fall in love, but where will they live?
I may be earthbound, but I want to fly. Maybe climbing will get me there.