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Saturday, August 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 80.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Getting a grip
On the appeal of indoor rock climbing

Funny thing, unexpected consequence. It has strolled right up to me, smiled its enigmatic smile and bared its pointy teeth.

Back in March, I wrote a column about an introductory rock-climbing class for women over 40 years old. As a consequence, I am now an enthusiastic paying member of Boulders Climbing Gym, 3964 Commercial Ave. On the scale of unexpectedness, this falls somewhere between alien abduction and world peace. It is so counterintuitive that I'm still trying to come to grips with how it happened.

My rock-climbing history had not been a happy one. A short time after my father took up the sport, mumblety-something years ago, he did his best to introduce me to it. We'd drive out to Devil's Lake, park, hike up Balanced Rock Trail to the top of the scree slope and clip in at the base of a climb. I was in my late teens or early 20s, and to say that I had a bad attitude toward rock climbing is to cut me a generous length of slack.

I knew climbing was safer than most people think, as long as you and the person holding the other end of your rope have been schooled in the proper safety precautions and gear. Yet almost without fail, I'd find myself about halfway up an easy route, clinging to minuscule bumps in the Baraboo quartzite bluffs, thinking to myself, "Self, even with your father holding the other end of the rope, by what stretch of the imagination can you rationalize as enjoyable the vulnerable feeling of being this far off the ground?"

Or silent thought balloons to that effect, involving impressive strings of gerunds and participles deriving from all the popular expletives of the day - and concluding with such an utter and complete loss of nerve that it proved difficult to muster an audible outburst requesting my father to please lower me at his earliest convenience.

Dad, after demonstrating the prolonged patience one might expect of a tenured geology professor, gave up trying to convert me and found other people with whom to climb. He's still at it.

My own sporting interests meandered, often led by the people and topics I write about in this column. But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that writing about an introductory rock-climbing class for women over 40 might produce this result. I may be over 40, but I'm also male. I assumed this gender barrier would be insurmountable to unexpected consequence.

Little did I reckon on my wife and her sister taking the course - and enjoying it to such an extent that they rushed out to purchase basic climbing gear, join Boulders and continue to pursue indoor rock-climbing. This knocked a gaping loophole in the insurmountable barrier.

"Hmmm," I said to myself. "Self, in the interest of family harmony, perhaps it is time to have another go at climbing." I still knew how to climb, and there was some possibility my bad attitude might have evolved for the better. Self, bearing a strong resemblance to unintended consequence, nodded and smiled an enigmatic smile that exposed pointy teeth

A couple of day passes to Boulders led to the harder stuff. First, a summer membership there, during which I came to appreciate the differences between climbing at Boulders vs. Devil's Lake. For one thing, the artificial holds on the indoor walls at Boulders make the routes as obvious as IMAX, if not all that easy. Second, the walls at the east-side facility are about half the height of the Devil's Lake bluffs, where I had a history of losing my nerve about half-way up. This renders Boulders more suitable for my temperament.

What has me hooked, however, is the Sisyphean nature of climbing the walls at Boulders - ascending one route, being lowered back down by my one of my climbing partners, belaying someone else as they climb, then ascending another route and so on. As an integrated full-body workout, climbing rivals rowing but adds a larger vocabulary of movement involving a more three-dimensional cluster of vectors and planes.

It also calls for problem-solving skills. Trying to figure out how best to progress from one hold to the next calls for a sense of where to move the hands, but also how to shift the feet in ways that relieve the arms and torso of some measure of their burdens.

Now I've committed to a full one-year Boulders membership. My climbing partners, which now include my stepson and daughter-in-law, and I go once or twice a week. I harbor no other climbing ambitions beyond Boulders - no desires to attempt Yosemite's El Capitan or the North Face of Switzerland's Eiger, nor even to give Devil's Lake another chance. I admire and respect those who do hold climbing ambitions, but I'm too old to aspire to such lofty goals.

Nor do I care whether I progress beyond indoor climbs of modest difficulty. My sole ambitions are a good workout and improved agility - in hopes I'm better prepared to dodge the pointy teeth of unintended consequence the next time it pounces.

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