The Cost of Climbing

I have been known to joke (repeatedly, like a dad who’s come across his favorite pun) that when you cross the border into California you are issued your choice of the following: hiking boots, a surfboard, or climbing shoes. When I moved to California two years ago I picked the third option and never looked back. It’s gotten expensive.

This is what rock climbing has given me: a place to direct my over-analytic, grad-school-fried brain instead of ripping my own hair out and/or developing a drinking problem; mad shoulder and back muscles that look pretty great underneath my back tattoo; the ability to open any jar, no matter how stubborn. I’ve also come to a new understanding of my physical self—from a “person so averse to strenuous physical activity that she climbed trees to hide from the gym teacher in high school” to a “person who gets crabby if she goes more than a day or two without climbing”; from “slightly neurotic person who does, in fact, think about ‘thinness’ as a goal” to a “person who definitely is going to crush this boulder problem.” I cannot possibly overstate what this has done for my mental health. Plus, my abs have never been stronger.

I usually spend two to three hours at a stretch in the climbing gym. Of this, maybe an hour and a half to two hours is spent climbing. I climb until failure—until I can no longer grip the holds, basically—and then spend half an hour running on a treadmill plus another half hour doing stretches, push-ups and ab exercises. Fortunately, I’m a grad student, so my schedule is flexible enough that this is feasible. But it does mean that climbing is my primary non-work activity and I don’t have a lot of time for other hobbies or workouts. I am grateful for the forbearance of my non-climber friends who graciously allow me to pester them with the zeal of the converted.

I do most of my climbing indoors. (This is going to elicit a lot of more-climber-than-thou responses. Climbers can be crazy elitist—although the elitism takes the form, mainly, of elevating living in a car in the desert to a holy experience. Whatever.) And I mostly boulder, which is its own weirdly insular sport within the weirdly insular sport of rock climbing. In bouldering, you don’t have ropes the way you do in regular climbing, and you only get ten to fifteen feet above the ground, so that when you fall (if you’re indoors, onto the well-padded mat) you won’t do anything too terrible to yourself.

A lot of climbers look down on boulderers, and vice versa. I boulder for a number of reasons, including being afraid of heights and not liking the enforced downtime that comes from having to belay your partner. But the most important reason is that I know I’m lazy. In bouldering, which is more about power and explosiveness than rope climbing is, there’s an implicit threat: make this move and stick it, or end up on your ass. In rope climbing, there’s something to save you—you swing off the wall, swing back, and try again. When I rope climb I wimp out because I know I can. When I boulder, I don’t have any option other than to commit. Learning to do this, too, has been a boon.

But climbing has cost me, a lot. Let’s count the ways:

• $59 a month plus $35 initiation fee: student membership at Planet Granite. This gym is awesome and the one I go to is the size of a warehouse, but it ain’t cheap. When I’m out of town—and since I’m a grad student this is fairly often, like when I’m in Rwanda for the summer to do field research—I freeze this membership for $10 a month. Every other month I get a free guest pass, which I inevitably use to try to get another one of my friends hooked.

• $99 plus tax: first pair of climbing shoes, the La Sportiva Nago. These worked fine as my first shoes, but they’ve gotten too loose and I want something a lot more aggressive. Cue:

• $160-175 plus tax: second pair of climbing shoes. I haven’t bought these yet because I’m hoping for some last-minute birthday generosity, but they’ll either be the La Sportiva Solutions for $175, or the Miuras for $160. All the women’s versions are, unfortunately, hideous.

• $12 on sale: my first chalk bag, which I hated because it wouldn’t close all the way. After about a month I went back to REI to get a new one.

• $14.95 plus tax: Metolius chalk bag. Much better.

• $9.99 plus shipping: Bison chalk, to keep my sweaty hands from slipping off the holds.

• $10: Climb On hand lotion bar, more expensive because I bought it at the gym. Oh, holy Jesus. Climbing is hell on your hands—quite aside from the calluses, the skin on my fingertips is usually so shredded that I can actually snag my clothes on my own fingers. This stuff keeps that to a minimum.

• $80, roughly: two pairs of exercise pants and three sports bras at Target, purchased when I finally admitted to myself that I was actually becoming A Person Who Works Out A Lot and required more than the paltry gear I already owned.

• $0: Wingtip bag used as gym bag, acquired as a freebie during one of my boyfriend’s shopping trips. Expensive for him though.

• $0: padlock for my locker, donated by my mother.

• $0: use of my friend’s crash pad when I boulder outside. It’s a good deal since a pad can easily run you upwards of $150. She’s pushing for me to buy my own—the more pads the better when you’re talking about falling off a rock—but it’s not in the budget anytime soon, especially after these new climbing shoes.

Climbing has also given me a host of ancillary expenses and relative anguish related to a thumb injury that made itself known last January with the realization that I could no longer open jars, pick up heavy items, or in fact hold anything with my right hand. This is, as you may surmise, detrimental to climbing.

$0: Initial visit to campus doctor who diagnosed me with “washerwoman’s thumb” and advised a splint. At least my friends enjoyed my diagnosis.

$16, approximately: first splint, bought at Walgreens. Didn’t work. Purchased a second splint with stronger thumb support (about $20) while on a trip to Canada. This one was cheaply made and annoyed me. Purchased a third splint (about $25) back in the U.S., which was better, but the thumb still hurt. At this point it had been two months and I was desperate, so I got a referral to the hand clinic.

$130, approximately: Hand clinic visit plus a hard splint, mostly covered by my student health insurance. Finally the hand specialist diagnosed me with a chronic thumb sprain and told me to stop climbing for several months. I asked him if I really, really had to stop; “No,” he said drily, “only if you want it to heal.” (He also told me that I had “loose joints,” in a manner that implied it was a moral failing.) The new splint, molded out of thermoplast and held together with my choice of bright purple Velcro, made my opposable thumb a purely decorative object. I kept climbing, relying more than advisable on my left hand and risking injuring that one in turn, but otherwise I wore the splint.

$0: cancelled follow-up visit to hand clinic to evaluate how well my thumb was healing, because I didn’t want to admit that I hadn’t stopped climbing.

$6 a week for seven weeks: yoga class in Rwanda during summer fieldwork, to keep my climbing muscles from totally collapsing during my enforced hiatus. This was only moderately successful. On the plus side, my thumb liked the break.

Climbing giveth, and climbing taketh away. But mostly it giveth. Even if I have had to buy new shirts because some of my old ones wouldn’t fit over my shoulders anymore.


Annalisa Grier is a PhD candidate who lives in California and does research in Rwanda. Her writing has appeared in Salon, The Awl, The Hairpin, and elsewhere.

Photo: mazaletel



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