Any climbers out there? …

Any climbers out there? I sent the following to Jessie-who-climbs, but thought I'd cast the net out here as well:

I'm going to make the protagonist of book two something of a climber. Here's the relevant paragraph from my proposal:

"Lately, she's been bouldering. She'd started with wall-climbing at a gym, but that was too tame. Always on ropes, always belayed. Safety safety safety. Bouldering was better. Anjali had started at a local gym, but when that got boring, she'd gone out into the woods. Her parents thought she was getting tutoring. Anything was okay with them as long as it was clearly aimed towards improving her studies. So as long as she carefully managed her grades, taking them up and down as necessary, Anjali could have as much freedom as she wanted. The climbing helped get some of the anger out. She thought she was doing okay. Not great, but okay. But recently, something changed."

So, I have two questions.

1) Does the above sound vaguely plausible / reasonable?

2) What would you recommend I do for research on this? There seems to be a bouldering gym in Chicago, Hidden Peak, and I was thinking of going. But am totally intimidated, especially because the reviews call it 'hard-core'. What does one wear to such things? Will people be weirded out if I introduce myself and say I'm working on a book and ask them to talk about bouldering? If I try climbing, will I look like a complete idiot?

Keep in mind that my sum total of climbing experience is a) trying wall-climbing once almost two decades ago (I suck, made it up two holds or some such, felt like such a wimp), and b) clambering around on rocks in the woods (which I kind of love).


8 thoughts on “Any climbers out there? …”

  1. Do you know Kij Johnson? She’s an SF writer who did a lot of bouldering in the past few years (she might have stopped because of injuries, I’m not sure) and can probably answer a lot of questions.

    Your paragraph sounds fairly plausible (although you can generally go bouldering within gyms, as well — at the one I worked at you could go without a harness as long as your feet didn’t go higher than five or six feet off the ground — and when I was on duty I’d bend the rules for a few of the guys who also did parkour and knew how to fall safely from a higher height).

    Also, where is this character living? There are a lot of natural bouldering sites in some places, but other areas are fairly sparse. So you’d probably want to research whether it’s good bouldering geography in her area before you have her going au naturel.

    As for your local bouldering gym:
    1) They will probably be perfectly happy to answer questions. Most of the climbers I know are enthusiasts; they want to get other people interested in their sport. So they’re happy to meet newcomers, albeit almost scarily focused on their hobby.
    2) If you want to climb, you should wear the same sorts of clothes you’d wear for yoga or an aerobics class. (I climb in jeans sometimes, but I wear really stretchy jeans.) If you feel comfortable crouching in your clothes, you’ll be fine. They’ll usually have shoes there for you to rent.
    3) If you climb, you will probably feel like an idiot. That is completely normal. You’re suddenly having to use a lot of muscle and spatial intelligence skills that people don’t normally use and very rarely use in this particular way. It takes a few goes before you figure out how it works, and a few more goes to build the muscle. Climbers know this. They’re not going to judge you.

  2. What SKM said.
    Also see if you can go with a group when they head out in the spring. You’ll learn a lot watching them in a natural enviroment that you won’t see in a gym. For example, if you get too close to a turkey vulture’s nest, they will drive you off by throwing up on you. Bees and wasps often nest in rock crevesses. Are there snakes in the area? They often sunbathe on the top of boulders, where you don’t see them until you reach over, feeling for a handhold.

  3. Ooh, a climber protagonist sounds like fun!

    I wouldn’t say that she started “with wall-climbing”, just that she started climbing at a gym. I think the wall is rather implied there, and not something an enthusiast would say. And I agree that you might want to think about “into the woods” – certainly there are places to boulder there, but not in all woods, and often the best places are closer to the roads. Depends on where she is and what exactly she is looking for, I suppose.

    It’s true that you can boulder in most gyms, but there is definitely an added challenge to being outdoors that I can imagine appealing to Anjali. In a gym you are typically trying to follow routes others have set – it’s like a puzzle, trying to repeat what they did. But outside there are no set routes. It’s just you and the rock, and no rules or limitations beyond that. I think if you ask some boulderers why they like it you’d easily get some good insights that you could use for the book.

    As far as research, if you are feeling intimidated you might try looking for a women only intro class. Not that climbing with men is a problem at all, but the gendered classes are sometimes friendlier and less competitive at first, and there are real style differences based on body type that they can support and encourage.

    In my experience most climbers are quite supportive of new folks and not inclined to make fun at all – it really is rather a different sport, and very few people are instantly good. I think most of the serious boulderers would be charmed by the idea of a book about a climber and eager to help if they can. Even just bringing a book to the gym and hanging out listening to them talk would give you ideas about language and conversation topics that you might be able to use.

    Good luck – I’ll look forward to reading it!

  4. One thing I meant to say earlier: as with any intense subculture you’ll have a tension between accurate yet impenetrable vocabulary and stuff that doesn’t quite sound right. Climbing language is, you know I say this with love, TOTALLY dorky and still kind of sounds like self-parody to me. How you handle that will depend some on how tight your POV is, etc.

    But Anjali herself? makes a lot of sense to me.

  5. Hi Mary Anne,

    It’s awesome to see climber protagonists in stories, but I think it’s essential that you grok the culture a little bit. Going to a gym is a great idea and would definitely help the realism in the story. Don’t be intimidated: many gyms are friendly to newbies. Maybe take an intro class with a bunch of other newbs to “learn the ropes”. If nothing else, go, hang out, and talk to the locals.

    What is driving your character? If it’s trying to get away from safety safety safety, bouldering may not be the best example. Bouldering is much more physically demanding than regular climbing, but not particularly more dangerous. People often eschew “regular” climbing for bouldering because it is less logistical hassle and more pure. Just shoes and chalk; no ropes, clanking metal, and so forth. You can get a great workout in minimum time.

    If you’re looking for the dangerous variation to regular climbing, free soloing is what you want. It’s just like regular roped climbing (free climbing), but without the ropes. So, while it’s no physically harder, it’s waaaay more dangerous. The dividing line between clambering around on rocks (which I also love) and soloing is a bit nebulous at times.

    A few other things to keep in mind: There is a huge cultural and aesthetic difference between gym climbing (“pulling plastic”) and outdoor climbing (“real climbing”). There’s another huge divide between boulderers (“pad rats”, “pebble wrestlers”) and roped climbing.

    Outdoor roped climbing can be subdivided into trad(itional) and sport climbing. The difference is whether you place various mechanical protection in the rock as you climb or clip carabiners into pre-existing bolts drilled into the rock. Soloists are considered by many to be reckless, insane, dangerous, crazy, and yet faintly admirable.

    Best of luck with the story. I’d love to read more and provide feedback.


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