The Milton Rock Gym
When I walked in that first day I had no idea what I was doing. The Milton Rock Gym was under construction at the time, and the noise of an electric saw grated on my ears. High up to my left a man stood on a ladder leaning against the wall. “Hi,” I called, and he looked down at me. “Do you know where Sharon is?”
“She’s in the cave,” he answered, pointing further into the gym, through a small arch. I thanked him and stepped forward, careful to avoid piles of rock holds and tools. There was the cave, a recess in the bottom of the wall to my right. As I approached, Sharon crawled out, holding a wet paintbrush. She was shorter than me and stocky, not what I had expected a professional climber to look like.
“You must be Tabitha,” she said, and I nodded. “I’m Sharon. Nice to meet you.” After setting down the paintbrush she proceeded to show me around the gym. Only a few walls had holds; the rest were covered with small holes where the rocks would be fastened. In the front were the top-roping walls, stretching up thirty-five feet to the ceiling, which contained two skylights. The back half of the gym was for bouldering, climbing on lower walls without ropes. All around was clutter, boxes, boards, and cords. In the back room I met Jac, Sharon’s husband and co-owner of the gym. Their Chihuahua, Louie, sniffed and barked at me, darting away when I bent down to pet him.
I filled out an application and was basically hired that day. In the weeks that followed I came in for training with my fellow employees and learned how to belay, how to tie different kinds of knots, and how to take down and put up holds. A few months later the gym opened to the public. Now styrofoam covered the floor of the climbing area, several inches thick, with a layer of bright blue padding on top. Chalk dust was sprinkled about, in piles in some spots. Rock holds sprouted from every wall, all different sizes and shapes, from bright pink ones with deep pockets to tiny toe holds made from real rocks. In the top-roping area the ropes trailed down from high above, figure eight knots tied and ready.
Sharon stood behind the counter, manning the cash register, inputting customer information into the computer, and handing out harnesses and shoes. She was matter-of-fact, blunt, strict, but never unkind. Jac was easy-going, casual, often smiling. His job was walking the floor, making sure everyone was safe, stopping to give a word of advice when someone was struggling. Sometimes even the starting move of a bouldering route eluded me, but I could always turn to Jac for help. Wearing his sandals, he would show me how it was done, and then stand back and watch me attempt it, giving encouragement when I fell, congratulating me when I made it.
One of the first regular patrons I met was Chloe. At eleven or twelve and just a little over four feet tall, she could climb routes that I couldn’t. I often used “I’m too short” as a reason why I didn’t make it to the top, but I never heard Chloe complain about her height. If she didn’t make it the first time, she tried again, sometimes working on a route for days, weeks, until at last she got it.
Peg was seventy-nine when she first started coming to the gym. Her grandson had gotten her interested in climbing, and she had decided that for her eightieth birthday, which was in a few months, she was going to climb a wall. Several times a week she came in to practice, and soon she was going up the 28-foot with no problem. On her birthday newspaper reporters came in, and her climb made the front page of the local paper.
Most of the people my age who climbed there were better than me, the guys by default because they were taller and stronger, and the girls because they came in every day, while I didn’t have the time. Since they were more advanced than I was, I didn’t hang out with them much, but we’d still say hi to each other, and I could always turn to them for help.
There are as many different climbing styles as there are different types of people. Guys new to the sport muscle their way up the wall, relying on the strength of their arms. Taller people take huge steps, skipping half the holds. Experienced climbers move with ease and grace, every turn of their body as natural as if they’re taking a stroll. I loved to just sit and watch them.
On a rainy day the gym is full of people, from beginners just learning to belay to lead-climbers—meaning that their rope isn’t attached at the top of the wall; they have to bring it up with them and clip in to carabiners as they climb. One guy stands on his head in the bouldering area, stretching his feet up to reach the holds on the dome that descends from the ceiling. A group of kids watches in awe as he does a sit-up while hanging upside down, grabbing a hold on the dome with his fingers and let his feet slide out. When he’s done the kids swarm around the dome, stacking mats underneath so they can reach it.
The kids are there for a birthday party, and I’m their belayer. A young boy asks to go up on the ropes, and after I clip him in he flies up the wall as if he’s racing. As soon as I let him down, he asks, “Can I do it again?” But now it’s his sister’s turn, and as I make sure her harness is tight enough, she stares up at the wall with trepidation. “You ready?” I ask, and she nods, just barely. She reaches out a hand, grabs a hold with trembling fingers. Her other hand goes on, then her feet. Turning, she looks at me, her eyes wide. “You’re doing great,” I tell her. “Keep going. I’ve got you.”
Sometimes the scared little girl continues to climb, taking her time but eventually making it to the top, and ends up loving it. Other times she gets two feet off the ground and starts crying. Even then she can occasionally still be convinced to go higher, whether by me, a parent, or Sharon. But sometimes she just has to come down, even when her father is insisting she stay up there. Has he forgotten what it’s like to be in a strange place, doing something new, and feeling afraid?
Even now, when I’ve climbed nearly every wall in the building, I can still get nervous when I’m thirty feet up in the air, trusting my life to the rope and my belayer. Sweat breaks out on my hands continually, and I keep having to stop and smother them in chalk from my chalk bag. In an awkward position, straining my body, my leg begins to shake uncontrollably, but I press on, moving up one hold at a time. The belayer cheers me on, calling, “You’ve got this.” My hand slips off a small hold, and I reach up again, clamping my fingers onto the edge. Above my head I can see the finish, marked by two pieces of tape—all the way to the top tape marks the way, showing me what holds I can use. Each route is labeled with its difficulty level, from 5.6 being the easiest in the gym to 5.12 being for experts only. 5.10 is the highest I’ve ever done, and it wasn’t easy.
I step up one final time, raise my right hand, and grab the last hold. An official finish requires both hands, but if I let go with my left I’ll fall, so I decide I’ve done enough. After I sit back in my harness, my feet against the wall and my full weight on the rope, the belayer lowers me to the floor. I’m exhausted, my arms and fingers aching, but it was worth it. When you make it to the top, or even just make it farther than you did last time, it always is.
When I get home I notice the smell: a mixture of sweat, chalk dust, and grime. I inhale deeply, for with that smell comes memories of triumphs, and the people who helped me achieve them. I now know so much more than I did when I walked into the gym that first day, but there’s always more to learn. Fortunately the Milton Rock Gym is full of good teachers. “Building stronger bodies, minds, and community,” proclaims MRG’s website, and that’s exactly what it does.