Theo’s car is all trash and windows.
The roof above me is a large glass pane and the footwells beneath hold dented cans and fast food wrappers.
I feel like I’m on safari in Jurassic Park, except for the wilted burger box in one door compartment and the empty Chipotle cup covered with sans serif font in the other.
The trees on both sides of the four-lane Rt. 16 are pumpkin orange and kelly green, and we’re on our way to the climbing crag along Marne Road a few miles east of Newark.
Jack Carroll sits in the passenger seat, eating seven-week-old Hot Fries he’s found near his feet and musing about the golden age of comedy movies, which he defines as the late 1990s, specifically between ’96 and ’98.
The Grateful Dead play softly from speakers in the dash. It’s “Dark Star,” live from Veneta, Oregon, on Aug. 27, 1972. Andrew “Theo” Theophilus points out a bumper sticker on a passing pickup that reads, “One Gun Two Gun Red Gun Blue Gun,” and beyond the shoulder of the highway, there are little white houses and a billboard against abortion.
Rock-climbing gear thumps in the trunk.
“I should’ve gotten myself a little treat at Slivy’s,” Jack says, apparently dissatisfied with his petrified Hot Fries and remembering the Clif bar Theo purchased at the Denison University café before we left campus.
It’s too late now though, because we’re pulling over to the edge of the highway, climbing out of the car, and unloading backpacks and bundles of rope onto the grass. Jack and I heft it all onto our backs and traipse beyond the tree line, not far from where cars whiz by on Rt. 16. We lift our knees high to move through the thick greenery hugging the road as Theo drives to find parking.
A 25-foot wall of sandstone awaits us, full of pocks and divots, ledges and crevices. October sunlight dapples its surface as gusts of wind pull leaves from their branches. We arrange our stuff on a mossy log, and Jack talks about the scariest fall he’s ever taken, because I’ve asked him to.
It turns out that his scariest also happened to be his first, which I find disconcerting. He seems to read this tension in my face, so he continues to explain while I shift my weight from foot to foot.
“After that, it’s like the first hump,” Jack says. “ You get over it and then you’re like, ‘Phew, okay, I’m alive still; this stuff is actually gonna protect me.’ You can trust your gear more and it makes it a little less scary.”
I’m amused but wary. I’m not ready for the first hump, not ready to trust his gear.
“Do you think having a fall helps you keep going?” I ask. “Like do you need one?”
“Yes, you do; you definitely do. ‘Cause falling is like 99% of what you’re gonna do when you’re climbing. You’re never gonna get better if you don’t try and fail, so…” He trails off as he paws through the contents of his backpack. “I feel like you definitely need to push yourself to that point.”
Theo reunites with us now, followed a few minutes later by Calvin Bailey, who’s driven separately. They’re dressed very differently for the same sport: jeans and a light purple t-shirt with the sleeves cut off for Theo; shorts and a lime green crew neck for Calvin.
“You’re going out and doing something very against what your mind wants you to do, … but you’re completely safe pretty much the entire time,” Theo says when he hears what we’re talking about, likely guessing that I’m nervous. Then he sets about putting on his harness and trading his rainbow tie-dye Crocs for hard-toed climbing shoes. He passes me Calvin’s spare harness, dark blue, and a pair of his own shoes, black with yellow accents.
As I put everything on, I watch Jack lead-climb, which is a role I’ve just learned about. It involves clipping the rope at the top-most anchor of the route so the climbers who come after are more secure. Calvin is belaying, a rock-climber’s term for securing the other end of Jack’s rope and being responsible for balancing Jack’s weight with his own if Jack falls.
“Let me take a practice fall, Cal!” Jack shouts.
“Alright,” Calvin answers from five feet directly below him. The jangle of carabiners cuts through the ambient roar of the highway behind us.
“Take a little from me, like right there. You good?” Jack twists away from the wall as he takes a quick look at the guy he’s entrusted his body to.
Calvin adjusts his footing and pulls the rope tauter. Theo stands beside Calvin, watching his hands.
“See, you’re chillin’,” Theo says approvingly.
“I got you,” Calvin calls up to Jack.
Taking this cue, Jack lets go of the wall and falls. Thanks to Calvin, he travels no more distance than if he’d been sitting down in a chair.
“Hell, yeah,” Jack says.
When he finishes the route and is back with us on the ground, I suggest as casually as possible that someone else top-rope first so I have time to work up some courage. Top-roping is climbing with a rope already secured by a lead-climber. We all agree that I don’t have to start, but it’s clear that I’ll have to go soon if I want to go at all. The first route is the easiest, and I won’t be able to do much on the others.
Calvin volunteers, and he’s done in a few minutes. Then it’s my turn.
“Are you scared?” Jack asks.
“Yeah.” I figure there’s no point in lying.
“That’s good; that keeps you alive.”
He grins, and I make a face like I might punch him. I tighten the buckle on my harness and step toward Theo, who’s offered to belay. We stand side by side at the base of the route and stare up at the two chains marking its end near the top of the wall.
“Isn’t this beautiful?” His question is meant to be cheesy based on the false dreaminess in his voice, but I answer anyway.
“Yeah, it’s nice how the leaves are falling.” And it is nice. The air is full of reds and oranges that make us go quiet for a second until Theo chimes, “Like bodies.”
“Oh my god!” I give him the same expression I gave Jack. Then my hands are on the wall before I realize I’ve moved them, fingers timid and nails too long. The rock is coarse and gray, solid and unavoidable. There’s no turning away from it now, no shortcut or staircase or last-minute “I quit!” It’s just me and my hands.
Immediately, I’m shocked and overwhelmed by how vulnerable I feel. Physically and psychologically, I’m scrambling for purchase, painfully aware of the fact that I have no clue where to go or how to get there. I test footholds on my right, then on my left. I’m barely three feet off the ground and every move I make – and don’t make – is utterly visible to the people I’m with.
“Stay left and look for chalk marks!”
“Use your toes!”
“Straighten your arms so they don’t get tired!”
I push up, feeling the flex of my calves and the stretch of my hamstrings as I bring my hips closer to the wall. I make slow progress and ask questions as I go. Some of my movements feel wobbly, and at times I have to pause, but I’ve resolved in my mind not to fall.
In at least twice the time it took Calvin, I make it to the end of the route and smack the chains I’d been gaping up at not much earlier. But the relief I feel is short-lived.
“Okay, now lean back! Theo’s gonna lower you down.”
Jack’s words freeze me where I cling. I hadn’t thought about this part. What if he drops me? What if the rope snaps? But I force the thoughts away. There’s no finishing this if I don’t trust my gear and the people watching from below.
When my feet smack solid dirt, I smile big and find that I’m sweating. I give high fives and fist bumps before dabbing proudly at my forehead.
We walk to the next route they’ll attempt, which is a lot more difficult than the one I just sent. To “send” in this sport is to make it from top to bottom without taking a fall. Calvin drinks lime Gatorade and wanders barefoot in the mud, watching as Jack begins his ascent of the sheer face that curves into an overhang. Theo splits his focus between belaying and talking to me about stress.
“When you get really stressed out with school and stuff, you put a bunch of pressure on yourself. It’s kinda the same coming out here because it’s very stressful, but in a different way. Then when you come back to school and you look at things that are stressing you out it’s like…”
“At least I’m not fearing for my life!” Jack offers from where he dangles overhead.
“At least I’m not fearing for my life,” Theo repeats. “At least I’m not up on the wall, taking a huge fall, and hurting myself.”
“We would never hurt ourselves though,” says Jack. “We’re very much about safety.”
“Climbing Club’s all about safety,” Theo and Calvin echo, practically harmonizing.
Calvin has ambled back from where he was looking at caves, so I take the opportunity to ask if climbing gives him what running used to before he stopped doing it competitively.
“With running, it’s you against you. It’s like you’re competing against ghosts of yourself. With climbing, it’s you against the wall,” he says.
“Running was such a big part of my life, though, so it was kinda tough because every day, three hours of your life is just dedicated to being on the team. This is a big part of the fix for that, but also a lot of other things, other hobbies and such. And school work.”
The last route I observe is the most challenging of the day. Jack’s wearing a yellow Patagonia tee with “Clean Climbing Since 1972” on the front, the same year as the Dead show he was playing in the car. He can’t send the whole route, but he reports that “it’s everything I ever dreamed.” Theo’s next and he can’t send it either. After surrendering, he joins me where I sit on a leaf-papered log.
“How does it feel to have failed?”
I pose the question theatrically, but Theo answers in thoughtful earnest. His breaths are uneven and sweat slides down his temples.
“I mean, most of the routes you try, you don’t send the first time through…”
“I said earlier that 99% of climbing is falling,” Jack pitches in. He’s suspended in midair from the rough ceiling of an overhang.
Theo smiles, agreeing with Jack. “It feels normal. It would’ve been sick to get it and beat Jack and show him what’s up…”
We all laugh before he continues.
“Honestly it’s not in the stars for me today. But in the future, train hard, eat well, and I can beat Jack to it. That would make my soul happy.”
“Do you think about this competition throughout the week?” I ask.
“Oh yeah…” Theo starts.
“Every time I … climb!” Jack interjects. Their responses weave in and out of each other.
“I think I treat it much more competitively probably than Jack does…”
“Yeah, like if Jack sent a route clean through and I really struggled on it, I’d be very happy for Jack…”
“You’d be pissed.”
“…but I’d be pissed. I like it because it makes me wanna try harder.”
I watch as Calvin belays, holding Jack’s life in his hands. Jack swings back and forth as he talks through different ways to try the route again. Theo saunters over. He stares up at the wall.
“Maybe try the ledge on your right this time.”