Climbing the Mountain
It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer.
- Albert Einstein
I walk into the university sports center, through a concrete maze illuminated by fluorescent lights, to a brick-lined corridor with one very unique wall. Twenty-five years old, the wall is dotted with numbered pieces of concrete. Some of them protrude out of the vertical wall while others recede back into it. These concrete features are caked with the chalk that rock climbers use to dry their hands, as well as [with] the high-friction rubber found on the bottom of climbing shoes. This is what has passed for my climbing gym for the last six months. It is the polar opposite of the shiny new facility I train at when I am back at home, but I have come to appreciate its unique challenges.
Today's challenge is literally what climbers call a "problem": a short, specific climbing route that involves moving along the wall using only eight of its 117 holds. Only two people have ever climbed it without falling. If I too succeed, it will be the hardest thing that I, or any other woman, will have climbed at this wall. It is unsurprising, then, that my attention is divided when I greet my crew of friends upon arriving in the dim corridor. My eyes wander above their heads, studying the problem I hope to solve. My fingers twitch and my muscles tense, but I remain calm.
My friends sit along the other side of the corridor to watch my attempt. They hope to see me succeed, and I know that they are preparing to encourage me. This delights me. Although I have already decided exactly how to complete each individual movement the problem requires, methodologyically working out my exact body positioning on previous attempts, I know that their cheers will give me added determination to link these moves together into the problem's solution.
Climbers' convention dictates that I begin the problem by pulling myself out of a sitting position on the ground in order to make it more challenging, which I dutifully do. The first move is easy for me, and the second isn't much harder. I'm focused but relaxed. One observer tells another, "This is clearly much more difficult for her than it is for us," as I hop to reach the next hold rather than simply statically touching it the way taller climbers do. Although the hold is only as thick as the edge of a quarter, and my fingertips can barely rest on it, I manage to shift my weight to an exact position that allows me to bring my other hand onto the same hold, just as I have practiced. The two male climbers who have succeeded on this before me claim that this is the most difficult movement required by the problem. However, I have the motion ingrained in my mind and body from previous attempts. As I employ my muscle memory, it feels effortless. For me, the hardest move is yet to come.
My friends know that this next move is where I usually fall off the problem. Once again, I cannot reach a hold that taller climbers can, but [I] have discovered a unique and difficult sequence of hand and foot movements that allows me to arrive at it. This time, I do not fall, and my friends cheer. The crux of the problem is finished. All I have left to complete is the easier final movement. After having tenaciously experimented on this final move to discover the best way to complete it, I have memorized the exact point where I need to balance my toe against the wall in order to succeed. Knowing that I have done the hardest part, I place my toe against the flat wall and reach for the final hold. As I grab it, my foot swings off the wall and I fall. I'm not sure why it happened; maybe I didn't clench my stomach muscles quite tight enough, maybe my toe was a centimeter too high on the wall, maybe my friends caused me to lose concentration rather than contributing to my focus. The problem remains unsolved for me because success requires that I touch the final hold with both hands, rather than simply one.
My friends reassure me, saying that I'm sure to finish this problem soon, but I begin to have doubts. Meanwhile, they return to talking and flirting with each other. Some wander to a far end of the wall to continue their work on their own climbing problems. Others remain to discuss their life problems with each other, attempting to solve them. With their backs to me, I resolutely sit back down on the ground to try again. Witness-less I succeed.