“OK, so you’re ready, right?” I crane my head around to hear my belayer’s voice from where she stands a few feet away.
“Yep. You’re good to go!” she replies cheerfully, tugging on the rope that connects us.
I’m used to North American climbing terms. Used to calling On belay? and Belay ON obsessively until the climber feels safe leaving the ground, and the belayer is fully watching, not distracted by iridescent green beetles, or chocolate, or the boy climbing next to her. These terms are good for me, the perpetually distracted, and good for nervous new climbers. Here, though, we don’t use them much.
That’s where I come in. It’s the hottest hour of the day, and I’ve spent most of the morning and afternoon as the safety supervisor for belaying and climbing. Today’s climbing garden is called “The Devil’s Teeth,” named thus for huge incisor shards of rock sticking at odd angles from the red earth. Between 20 and 50 meters high, the teeth form a limestone jaw around us, from which we’ve spent all day trying to climb. My job, as an instructor, has been not to belay and climb but to teach students to belay and climb.
It’s a good idea, really. Belay a student and they have a fun afternoon. Teach them to belay and they’ll be out there forever, climbing whatever jagged thing they see. Still, it’s been a long, hot day, so I’m delighted when, towards the end, an opportunity presents itself for me to climb.
It’s not the climb I had in mind. Climbing, see, is something that I know well. (I’m unwilling to say that I’m good at it, really. I’m not good at walking, either, but it’s something I’ve been doing for a while. I know it.) All day I’ve been eyeing routes I’ve never tried, the stretching kind that are just out of my reach, the kind that will make me fall as likely as not. These are the ones that would make me a better climber, and anyway just attempting them would be impressive.
Yet when the climbing slows enough in the afternoon for me to climb, the route that presents itself is neither impressive nor stretching. Not terribly high, it is a wide crack in the rock, from which grows vegetation and moss, with edges worn smooth by hundreds of booted feet. The only catch: I’m climbing blindfolded.
It was a student’s idea, and I watched her and another girl do it a few minutes ago. I was struck by the unique communication between them; the climber was really listening for the belayer’s voice. Curious, I decided to try it.
So now I’m climbing, and Celeste is giving me directions.
“Just above your right knee there’s a foothold for your right foot. No, just up a bit more. Now over… yes. There.”
Relieved, the toe of my shoe sinks into a deep ledge. I stand up, grazing across the rock for likely handholds. Occasionally she tells me when a hold isn’t as good as it seems, but mostly I’m trusting to touch for my hands, her directions for my feet. And up and up I go, until my outstretched fingers tap against the anchor. We’ve reached the top.
There isn’t much glory to be had in this kind of climbing. This route isn’t terribly long, and no one watched me as I clumsily felt my way up. I didn’t impress anyone, attract any attention. The things I was good at were useless to me as I climbed blind. But, like our students today, I too was stretched. I had to strain to listen, grasp hold of something not tied to reputation or appearance. I had to be dependent, shedding even the pretend independence that I usually carry with me up the rock.
I end the day sunburned and thoughtful, remembering the connection of touch and sound, what it meant to listen, for once, rather than perform.