The forecast had warned us that there might be rain, and here it was, splashing down at us through the trees. It was hard to suppress my frustration; I was quickly learning that climbing trips involved a lot of discomfort, and that real climbers (not me, I suppose) could deal with these adversities. The rain found its way to the ground, so that below our shoes the tree roots glowed and the trail churned to mud. It was becoming increasingly difficult to hike, increasingly difficult to keep up any sort of charade of positivity. This was not our first day of rain.
Mark wanted to continue on through the rain, ditch our crashpads beneath a roof and head casually to look at boulders. He knew how to make the most of bad weather. He didn’t mind the muggy heat of mid-summer rain that lingered in our rain jackets. But this scrambling was really taking it out of me. Even on days without rain, by the time we reached the boulders I was out of breath, with little energy left to climb. I was constantly getting stuck on top of a boulder, scared to jump down, calling for Mark to help me. I couldn’t believe it! I was raised on hiking, on camping; it wasn’t new to me. This part should be easy. But the hiking involved in the approach is not typical hiking. There is often not a set trail. It, at least in Magic Wood, involves use of your hands. And my five-foot-one frame doubled in size underneath the shadow of a crash pad. I didn’t know my own body, which often got stuck in between two trees or lodged between boulders.
Mark Heal, my boyfriend and climbing partner, knew what he was doing. Mark has climbed for six years, traveled all over the world, competed in national competitions. He has worked as a routesetter for several years; currently he sets at Brooklyn Boulders. It has been a long time since he’s been stuck on top of a boulder. In Magic Wood, it was challenging for him to understand my perspective, to have patience for my stumbling and slow moving feet. And I, too, had to develop patience for his minute attention to the nuanced beta of a V10 or V11, for his relentless throws at a boulder in the unforgiving mid-day heat. But I guess this is what we signed up for.
Mark spent the summer climbing and training with Ty Landman, who was preparing to compete in the UBC Competition in Central Park, where he finished second. Ty was an excellent resource in preparing for our trip to Switzerland, since he had traveled to Magic Wood countless times, spending as long as two months there during one visit. “Magic Wood is beautiful,” Ty told us when we asked for his input. “Magic Wood is a special case. The climbing’s good, but the environment is just so nice. It’s one of those places where even if you’re not a climber, you could just sit by a waterfall.” He said this for my benefit, since I was decidedly not a climber. I was getting there, climbing more and more, building a higher tolerance for the beta and gear discussions that imploded our living room whenever Mark’s friends came over. “Even if I was injured,” Ty continued, “and I had a friend who was going on a climbing trip, I would still come along just for the scenery.” So in some ways, that was me, coming along for the scenery. Coming along to carry a crash pad and shoot film and maybe get to climb a little myself. But I was terrible at carrying a crashpad, inept at strapping it closed and opening it at each new boulder, without a clue about where to place it or move it underneath a climber. And I was embarrassingly bad at shooting film and video (Mark began to refer to the footage from our trip as “The Girlfriend Chronicles” which was often shaky, oddly zoomed-in, or out of focus.) I was along for the ride.
The ride began in New York, New York, where Mark and I share an apartment and work at Brooklyn Boulders, the biggest gym in the city. Because we live in NYC, it is a challenge to make it outside to climb. My outdoor climbing experience was limited to five single-day trips to local crags in the Gunks and one brief weekend in Rumney, New Hampshire. Mark, and other serious and committed climbers, make concerted efforts to climb around the northeast. But for the beginner climber, it’s hard to climb outside. The local areas aren’t close or convenient. They aren’t easy to navigate from a train station or parking lot. And if you’ve never climbed outside, it can be a challenge to identify what a boulder even looks like. I was lucky to have Mark. We were stoked to escape the oppressive summer heat and excited to apply all our training and gym-climbing to real rock.
Magic Wood, Switzerland is a two-hour drive south of Zurich, nestled between a few idyllic villages. Its reputation for fantastic bouldering is evident in the hordes of climbers that tramp through the area each day, and it has been the subject of a surge of online media. Magic Wood was developed about 12 years ago, and has rapidly joined the ranks of Hueco, Texas and Bishop, in the Sierras of California, as a premier bouldering location. I couldn’t have picked a better place to have my first climbing adventure. It was, in a word, magical. A river runs against the mountainside, and many of the boulders are along this gushing riverbed. The rest of the boulders reside against the mountain, in a mossy and shaded cluster. The best cure for my crampy toes and scraped up knees was to look around me. Ty was right, it was powerfully beautiful.
We weren’t the only climbers impressed by both the bouldering and the scenery. The campground was congested with nearly 40 tents, all of which belonged to climbers. I was shocked at the amount of people who came just for the weekend, or stopped at Magic Wood as part of multi-week, multi-location climbing trip. Climbing was everyone’s main topic of discussion, and even though we were limited in our collective knowledge of German and Italian (and that’s being generous) we met climbers from all over the world. One Greek man was on his way to New York and we told him about Brooklyn Boulders. We gave him directions to get to the Gunks by train. Mark exchanged beta with people from Kazakhstan, from Spain, from England. We chanted “Venga!” and “Dai!” to climbers sharing the boulders with us. Climbers are endlessly generous, sharing nail clippers and guidebooks, cooking for each other. We stuck around for an hour letting someone use our crashpad for a particularly tall climb, and then they did the same for us.
I felt bad for Mark, who had to seek out other climbers who could more thoroughly spot him. But there he was, a V12 climber, patiently waiting for me to make it up a warm up. I was still getting the hang of topping out, still getting the hang of falling onto a narrow crash pad. Perhaps that was why, when I did finally ascend a boulder, when I finally finished something that had a real name and a real grade (which at my level, were few and far between), I was all the more proud. This didn’t come easy for me, my weak arms and weak fingers. Climbing isn’t easy. It tears up your skin, your knees, arms and hands. It makes your fingers stiff. Your feet are bound so tight in climbing shoes that they have no choice but to turn totally numb. You get dirty, you get wet, you get sore. And yet, it’s impossible to give up once you’ve started. I get anxious if I don’t make it to the climbing gym more than twice a week. I dream about climbing. There are now times where Mark has to cut me off from talking about it.
At the end of the week in Switzerland, I wasn’t ready to leave. Even with all my complaints and discomfort, I had an incredible trip. I finally understand the allure that Mark has been talking about. Climbing isn’t glamorous, it isn’t often comfortable, but it gets your brain turning, your adrenaline moving. It makes you think, and makes you sweat. I understand why Mark disappears for weeks at a time to go climbing, why he watches climbing videos in bed each night. Now, back in the gym, I can’t wait for the weather to cool down, so we can climb outside again. It’s accurate to call this my first climbing trip, but maybe it isn’t accurate to say I’m not a climber. Because thrust into the woods, 4000 miles away from home, how can you not embrace this community? How can you not love a sport that brings you across the world, brings you to this kind of beauty?