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Bob Dunn Playing Along: Learning the ropes

  • Bob Dunn puts on rock climbing shoes Monday at Northampton Athletic Club.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Bob Dunn puts a harness before rock climbing Monday at Northampton Athletic Club.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Bob Dunn, left, listens to William Coffey, the rock wall manager at Northampton Athletic Club, before scaling the wall Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Bob Dunn, left, listens to William Coffey, the rock wall manager at Northampton Athletic Club, before scaling the wall Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Bob Dunn scales the rock wall at Northampton Athletic Club Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Bob Dunn scales the rock wall at Northampton Athletic Club Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Bob Dunn scales the rock wall at Northampton Athletic Club Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Bob Dunn, right, listens to William Coffey, the rock wall manager at Northampton Athletic Club, Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

I don’t like heights.

I get anxious on rooftops and if you need me to climb more than a few feet up a ladder, chances are that whatever task was awaiting me at the top simply isn’t getting done.

Air travel never really bothered me because peering out the window is such a physically awkward task that I just don’t bother. Besides, there’s usually vodka and a crappy Adam Sandler movie on board, both of which will help me sleep.

My first introduction to rock climbing was at summer camp when I was about 13.

I didn’t do any of the actual climbing. I was the kid on the ground with a camera instead of a harness, taking pictures of the climbers scaling up sheer rock walls, and documenting their prowess from safely behind a viewfinder.

With all of that in mind, I figured strapping myself into a harness and climbing about 40 feet into the air at the rock wall at Northampton Athletic Club on King Street would make for good story fodder.

I was met by William Coffey, the gym’s rock wall manager, and I was surprised by how little instruction was needed in order to get started.

I had thought I’d need to learn certain climbing techniques, and I expected a few questions about next of kin and my blood type. But a quick lesson on how to attach myself to the ropes and put on and adjust the harness was about all it took.

Oh, then there are the shoes. Oh, the shoes.

I wasn’t aware that there is such a thing as special climbing shoes. I figured all that was needed was some time, a rock, strong bones and a body-fat percentage resembling a glove size.

The purpose of the shoes, Coffey tells me, is to compress the foot and narrow the toes to a point and on that front, they succeed. If I didn’t have an ingrown toenail before slipping the shoes on, I figured I certainly would after.

Making the feet as narrow as possible makes it easier to get them in and on the footholds on the wall — or on the surfaces of actual rocks, Coffey said.

The wall at NAC is made up of various routes marked by colored tape.

Each route has a different grade of difficulty. My first trip up is a 5-6 climb; the 5 means the wall is a vertical climb, different numbers represent different angles of ascent; and the 6 means the climb is relatively less difficult than higher numbers would be.

Coffey said routes can go as high as 5-15, requiring more complex maneuvers such as leaping or jumping to one side or the other to grab a handhold that would otherwise be out of reach.

That type of move — called a “dyno” in climbing jargon and short for dynamic movement — is off the table for today, I tell Coffey, who quickly agrees. Heading straight up and coming straight back down is all we’re going for.

Once in harness, I’m hooked to a pair of ropes being manned by Coffey on the ground. His job is to take up the slack in the rope as I climb, and to keep me from plummeting to the ground if I fall, by controlling my descent with the ropes or stopping it.

As I get ready to start, I look up and for the first time I get a sense of how high up 40 feet in the air really is.

About the only piece of advice I’d gotten from people who climb was this: “Don’t look down.” No one said anything about the anxiety caused by looking up.

My first indication that this will be different from “real” climbing is that I have yet to see granite dotted with brightly colored plastic lumps with convenient spots on which to comfortably place your hands and feet.

It’s those convenient spots that allow me to feel pretty confident as I grab hold and start up the first few feet.

I learned that climbing a wall requires a skill beyond pulling yourself up hand over hand. There’s a path and a certain way to get to the top that will be the most efficient — and finding it is the challenge.

Hugging a wall 20 feet off the ground, squeezed into high-tech elf shoes, attached to the ground by a pair of ropes and trying to get a good look at my choices of where to grab next becomes something of a puzzle. Some of the handholds work for more than one route, so at some point I stop looking only for the ones that are color-coded for my ascent; instead, I start trying to find the next one I can reach.

My fear (aside from the whole heights thing) is that my hands will get so sweaty that I’ll lose my grip, but that wasn’t happening. I’m trying not to think about how high I am, but in order to keep moving I’ve also got to look up. Ahead of me, I see a small metal cowbell at the top of the wall that I hadn’t even noticed from the ground.

Seeing the bell, I realize I’d made it to the top. I reach up, give it a slap and realize something else — I’d neglected to ask how I was supposed to get down.

When I shout that question down to Coffey he tells me, “Let go of the wall, grab the rope, lean back and walk down the wall.”

I don’t hear anything after “let go of the wall,” and I ask him to repeat himself.

The instructions don’t change, so I do as I’m told. From his spot on the ground, Coffey belays me, as it’s called, using the ropes to keep me anchored as I lean back, hands off the wall and walk down backwards, like a cat burglar who’s had a change of heart.

I was surprised that fatigue hadn’t set in on my way up. I certainly expected some, since hauling 200 pounds 40 feet into the air and fighting gravity all the way sounded like it should be taxing.

I realized how taxing the climb really was when I tried a second one right away. I made it about halfway up when my arm muslcles started to burn.

As fatigue set in, I found myself between handholds with no place to go — or at least no place I felt confident I could pull myself to — and so, reluctantly, I made my way back down to the padded floor below.

Coffey said that in his experience, climbing in general and rock climbing in particular is a noncompetitive sport. There’s very little posturing to see who has a better time or who pulled off the most spectacular “dyno.” It’s all about the sense of individual achievement that comes with doing something you didn’t think you could do, using little more than your own strength. There’s also a bit of teamwork involved, since your belay partner on the ground helps keep you safe.

Once back on the ground, with my arms burning and toes sore, I realize I may never like heights, but I do like climbing.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.

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