Beth Rodden - The Birthday Party Wall

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Birthday Party Wall

By Beth Rodden

My first climb after my surgery was on the Birthday Party Wall at Berkeley Ironworks. The course setters were kind enough to actually tape the “route” but in reality it was just a jug screwed into every t-nut.  I stared up the wall, wondering if I was ready for this yet. My mind thought this would be far too easy for me; but it thought it was still driving my old, fit body. I lifted my healthy arm onto the starting jug and tentatively placed my recovering arm onto the other. The texture of the holds felt familiar, albeit a bit greasy from the hundreds of birthday parties hosted here.  The callus had disappeared from my hand several months earlier; luckily, I didn't think it would matter on this route. I pulled with one arm, lifted one foot and started to do the same on my other side, but my right arm wouldn't move; it stayed stationary. It had become programmed to rest at my side; it's safe zone. How did the last four months override the past fifteen years? Never in all my time climbing did I actually have to tell my body how to climb. Even as a kid, climbing was second nature. But here I stood, dumbfounded that my arm wouldn't move. I concentrated hard and made my arm grab the next hold. It must have resembled a wet noodle hanging off the edge of the counter. I'm not sure any muscles were activated, but at least it was a step. 

As I untied from the Birthday Party Wall I felt exuberant. The familiar sense of adrenaline soothed my body. I had missed this; my body and mind had been void of this feeling for far too long. It had gotten to the point where I couldn't even remember what it was I was missing, I just knew I didn't feel whole. But now I felt like I was fourteen years old again at the Rocknasium in Davis, where I'd run over to my dad and say, "Did you see me, did you see me?!" And here I was fifteen years later, running across the gym to my friends, "I climbed! I climbed! Did you see it!?" For most everyone in the gym it must have seemed like a comical sight, a little blonde girl running across the gym like a child to brag to her friends that she had just summited the Birthday Party Wall. But for me it was huge. I walked back over to the wall for another lap. On my way, I stopped under the massive lead wall and looked at the routes criss-crossing their way up. 5.12's and 5.13's; eons away for me, but I could feel my hands moving over the sequences as I subconsciously previewed the routes.

This injury, I told myself, I would do differently. I would take the time to ease back into it. Clearly I was on the right path by starting on the Birthday Party Wall, right? I would do my exercises religiously and come back healthy and strong. But it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks. I've been psyched and motivated to push myself for fifteen years. By not climbing my hardest, it felt like I was fighting my true nature. Each day at the gym I would try a letter grade harder. Pretty soon it became two. I started planning out projects and trips in my head. The act of climbing definitely filled a void, but there was something missing. The feeling I get when I climb until failure, when I try as hard as I can.  I was craving it, but couldn't get there “easing” back into it.

So, one dreadful late summer day I assumed I was ready to quench my thirst. I fell back into my old routine of projecting, instead of climbing. I was trying hard and training harder. It felt great. A permanent smile was plastered to my face. I am a creature of habit, and to be able to fall back into a routine that I had adopted and cherished for so many years felt heavenly. Until one morning I woke up with a dreadful ache in my left finger; the same ache I felt a month before my surgery last year. And so I did what I swore I wasn't going to do, come back too early. Clearly my mind was ahead of my body, and I suffered for it.

It's funny, how much you want something that you can't have. When I couldn't climb, all I wanted was to climb a little. When I could climb a little, all I wanted was to climb hard. And now, all I wanted was to climb again. I needed to learn the hard way to appreciate what I have. Luckily for me, I reside in Yosemite. For the past ten years I've climbed here almost every spring and fall. I spent the majority of that time on El Cap routes or hard single pitches. There is an entire world in Yosemite that I had never seen. I'd never climbed at Pat and Jack. I'd never been to Jam Crack. I'd never climbed any easy routes in Toulumne. I had been so sucked in to my projects and supporting other people on their projects, that I had never enjoyed all the other parts of the Valley. So, this past season, that's all I've done. Struggled up Valley 5.9, relearned basic granite skills, gotten my ass handed to me on “beginner offwidths” all with a great group of friends. I've basically taken climbing back down to the basics, like I did when I first stared fifteen years ago in the small gym in Davis, California. I get excited packing my backpack. Where will we climb today, what new adventure will we take? While my body gears up to climb hard again, I feel so lucky that I have been able to learn to go climbing again. It's been so long since I racked up with a friend, at a crowded crag, having never been on the route, and having no expectations but to have fun. It's building a better base for me in climbing, a base that will be there for life.

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