My friends and I rappelled down to one of many exposed basalt bluffs fencing in the St. Croix River. An inconspicuous cove below US 8, the Keyhole Area sports several 40′ geometric vertical climbing routes within Interstate State Park.
“First trad lead today?” my husband joked as he lifted his rack of hexes, nuts, and cams off of his shoulders and rested them on a boulder. A small chuckle went around the group.
I’m an outdoor sport climber. It’s mostly safe, requires little gear, goes fast. You trust bolts in the rock along the route and fixed anchors at the top to keep you safe. My husband and friends, however, lead climb on another level.
Traditional (“trad”) climbing: tying a rope to your harness, hauling a clanging rack of gear across your shoulders, and climbing up with nothing to keep you from bouncing off the ground below except your pieces of gear that you put in (and you pray they don’t pop out if you fall). Your climb and your safety is entirely in your hands. There is a belayer, yes, but if the nut below you explodes out of the rock, he will only see a slack rope and your body plummet until something you put into the crack holds, or you deck. He can also explain your injuries to the paramedic.
The gear you place into the rock includes aluminum nuts (of different sizes and shapes that you wedge into restrictions and cracks) and cams that you stick into parallel cracks that open up like a hinge and hold tight.
“Okay,” I said. I plucked some gold lenses out of a woodpecker hole in a tree that caught my attention. What the hell. Good climbers trust their guts.
As you climb, you look for certain weaknesses in the rock. Then, you balance and hold your body up while you find the right piece for the puzzle. It needs to be the right size, load-bearing in the correct direction, wedged in the right place, and in a timely manner because your forearms are likely on fire by now. If you ignore any of these criteria, your gear will not support your weight if you peel off. You will whip if you make a mistake, or get fatigued, and slip.
Where, when, and what you place is entirely up to you. If you want to run it out, you risk a much further fall. If you button up every single move, you risk using too much gear and/or annoying the hell out of your belayer. Trad climbing requires good decision-making.
After a quick lap on top rope to see what the route looked like, I decided to go for it. Sporting my new shades, I racked up and stepped up to the base of Keyhole, a 5.6 old school crack climb with a large triangular gouge two-thirds of the way up. You climb into, and back out of, the keyhole.
Ironically, I found trad climbing very much like trying to unlock a door with an unwieldy set of unfamiliar keys.
Except much scarier.
Each weakness, or problem, that I encountered needed the correct gear inserted to transform it into a strength. Sometimes it is hard for me to remain calm and regulate my emotions when I feel afraid and my heartbeat could match a hummingbird’s. If you let that fear set in, there isn’t much you can do except fall.
I kept my head. I focused on the small details, rather than my body’s complaints. As I emerged from the keyhole, the wind kicked up and seemed too loud in my ears. I adjusted my footing and waited patiently for it to quiet down. A sudden wave of loneliness hit me on the wall; rather than feeling helplessness (which I have felt very often recently), I felt totally in control. Whatever happened next, before the top, was in my hands. All of the pieces I was clipped into below were my doing. Climbing, like dreaming, has a way of making emotions seem brighter than in reality, at least for a split second. The decisions were mine to make.
With an even belly breath I continued past the crux with confidence and good gear placements to the anchors. “On you!” I called down to Sam. I was through the anchors and could now trust him to lower me to safety.
I think there is something to finding something new and listening to your gut. I think there is something about doing something brave, something silly, something scary. I think there is something beautiful about releasing control and sitting back into the rope, trusting others. I think that it’s an interesting thought to turn a weakness, a crack, into an asset.
No one climbs blank walls.