Since it takes two to climb, how did we get these pictures? Glad you asked. Rock climbing is all about puzzle solving. And that's your little puzzler.
Top rope climbing is a two-player team sport — one person actually does the vertical ascent part — the other person belays them. The climber has a rope (as a sailor, I flinch from the term "rope") from their harness through a fitting at the top of the route and back down to the belayer on the ground. The belayer, in addition to their harness, has a device to put some friction on the rope. We use ATC-style belay devices — they're cheap and efficient and have no moving parts to break. As sailors, we like their elegant simplicity.
There's a little call-and-response that's a standard part of this kind of technical rock climbing. The climber asks "Belay on?" and the belayer checks everything before announcing "On belay." Once that's established, we can move on to the risky part of the transaction. "Climbing?" the climber chants. "Climb on," the belayer replies and the ascent begins.
Should the climber fall, the belayer uses the ATC friction device to stop them from falling more than a few inches. When the climber reaches the top, the belayer uses the friction device to gently lower the climber back to the ground. Because of the weight difference between climbers, the gym has anchors bolted to the floor. CA uses an anchor sling to make sure she doesn't get launched into the air if I fall. And I do fall.
The gym has dozens of these top rope routes. There's a big metal bracket at the top of the wall and a 100' of rope looped over the bracket. The climber and belayer use this pre-rigged top-rope. Traditional ("trad") climbing uses no fixed ropes. The climber inserts wedges and spikes and other hardware into cracks in the rock. The climber feeds the belay rope through carabiner clips on this hardware. In the event of a fall, they're going to fall down to the last piece of hardware they inserted. Usually below where they are now. Sounds scary.
Modern "lead" climbing relies on the fact that most places for recreational rock climbing have bolts and tiny stainless steel hangers all over the place. The climber carries a belt of "quick draw" devices that can be clipped into the hangers. The belay rope can be fed through the quickdraw as the climber ascends. It's like traditional climbing, but it doesn't rely on natural cracks and crevices.
This gym also has 4 "auto belay" devices. These have a gizmo that winds up your tether as you climb. It's also a kind of generator (magnets and windings and what-not) that slows your fall to a manageable speed. It's quite clever and allows one person to climb alone while the other snaps pictures from the balcony.
That's how we got these pictures today: I'm using the auto-belay.
I think the total vertical on this route is just under 50 feet. There's a red-bordered sign with a picture of a carabiner clip part way up to remind you that you should have clipped in before you started; continuing to climb without a belay is going to prove dangerous if not fatal. After all, there's no call and response with the auto belay device. No one reminded you to clip in.
The red bag that I'm wearing holds powdered chalk. When your hands get sweaty, the chalk dries the sweat and also helps give you more friction on the hand-holds. The shoes are Evolv rock climbing shows. A narrow, rubbery sole and really unpleasant for anything other than climbing. Many folks wear flip-flops around the gym and only put the shoes on at the last second before they climb.
And yes, the wall is a bewildering array of handholds. They are, however, color coded. I'm on a green route, named "Wonder Twins Activate" (I have no idea; don't ask me what it means.) The challenge is to find your way up using only the Wonder Twins Activate green holds. Ignore all of the others. The same auto belay has two other routes in different colors: "The Squeeze" uses orange holds and "Lift It, Drop It, Shake It, Pocket" uses yellow holds. The orange holds aren't too photogenic. But the yellow holds are easy to see.
Some hand-holds are designed to mimic real rock. Others seem like they're designed just for indoor gym use. And others are just funny. The Wonder Twins Activate route has three handholds that are doll heads. Not empty plastic Barbie heads. They're substantial chunks of plastic. With little faces. Ears and all. Very strange. But relatively easy to grab onto, once you get over the little face.
Climbing routes have a difficulty rating. 1 is anything you don't need to use your hands. From flat to steep stairs. 2 is a hill so steep you have to use your hands to scramble up; think ladders. 3 is rocks that require hands, but there are few big voids — a fall might hurt but would not be dangerous. 4 requires hands, and involves voids where a fall is dangerous. 5 means that technical gear is absolutely required for safety.
Once you get to the 5 threshold, they subdivide the difficulty. 5.1 though 5.5 are relatively easy. They won't involve tricky techniques. You just need to be belayed because the fall is long or involves overhangs. Teetering along a narrow ledge on a cliff could be a 5.1 because it requires a belay, but isn't a difficult climb. At the gym, the routes 5.5 and below are called "party routes" because the staff take the birthday parties and scout troops to those routes. When you go for your one-day intro to climbing, you do party routes.
5.6 through 5.9 is where it gets more serious. The original plan was to divide all of climbing into the decimal scale. 5.9 was (originally) the most difficult thing a person could possibly climb.
But then equipment and skills raised the bar. Routes now go well past 5.13. 5.10 is hard and 5.13 is seriously crazy. It involves stretches, contortions, super-human strength and endurance.
When we started climbing, we did party routes. After a few days we braved the 5.6's. There's a route called "Orange Me Not" which defeated me several times before I got past the hard part — the "crux" — part way up the wall. My first four or five attempts involved me falling off the wall and CA catching me on belay. Eventually, I figured out how to get past this one place where my feet were out of position so badly I couldn't seem to go anywhere. One of the other climbers calls this "the sequencing problem." You play the wall like a hand of cards. "I do right hand up… but where do I put my left? Okay, I'll do left hand up, then right, but then where do I move my feet? Who's holding the Jack of Trump? Oh, wait, that's one of my orange holds over there. Okay. I'll do right hand up, left hand over to that, then I can put my right foot there… Oh botheration, that will never work because I'm not 7' tall!"
We can do most of the 5.7's in the gym without too much trouble. A few are very hard and I can't do them when I'm too tired. CA and I can sometimes get up the 5.8's. It's a struggle. One particular 5.8 route — "Climbing Arête" —has defeated us both. We've gotten to a spot where we have no clue what we should do to get further up. We know there's a trick to it. We think it involves reaching around the corner (the "arête.")
We think we need to see someone more experienced do the route. However. Getting advice like that (the rock climbers call it "beta") is frowned upon. Most climbers prefer to solve the route on their own. Each route is a puzzle. So we're going to keep trying different things on this route. We have a new theory after I fell today. Monday night, we'll try a different approach to that puzzle. "Climb it enough, you'll find a solution," we were told. And that seems to be true.