When I arrived in October to Chattanooga -- a rock climbing epicenter, I'd been told -- I imagined myself rising to a new level of modest self-sufficiency, nothing crazy.
No longer would I leech off the skills of friends, who scurried up walls to set anchors for my enjoyment and made wise-seeming decisions in dangerous situations. When a non-climber comes around, I would tell them: No fear, I'll handle this -- then shepherd them to a lesser-known crag and benevolently and competently tee them up with a top-rope.
I don't even like climbing that much, but it was a popular activity among my friends in Montana, where I last lived, and the Pacific Northwest, where I grew up. Plus, a basic fluency with ropes and climbing gear is a prerequisite for many mountaineering adventures, which do interest me.
Thus, soon after getting to town, I drove to High Point Climbing and Fitness' Riverside location to take a look around.
My old climbing harness somehow got gross and moldy so at first I just bouldered. I yearned for more. But, of course, to belay and be-belayed, first you need friends – so, I signed up for a refresher class.
I was on the prowl. In the class, one of my fellow students was a child, however, and seemed too young to be my friend. The others were a romantic couple, and they didn't seem like they needed any friends.
Fortunately for me, the instructor -- a long-haired fellow named Wolf -- served as my belay partner in the opening minutes. And then a peppy guy jotted around the corner and hurriedly slid on his rented climbing shoes.
He swapped in for the instructor and told me he worked remotely in the insurance business and was scouting a place to live; he'd just finished a stint in Boise, Idaho, and now was testing out Chattanooga for a few weeks. I helped him do a double figure-eight loop and caught him when he fell. I thought about getting his number. But I never saw him again.
To complete the belay certification, you must pass a test on a subsequent day with a climbing partner. But the "friend" problem persisted. Every time I scanned into the gym, a "whoop" sound emerged from the console at the front desk, altering the staff that my account had a hold.
"You need to take your test," they told me.
"I know," I told them back.
One problem is that after work -- I am a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press -- I sometimes lacked the gusto to climb or find friends. Motivated by the new year, however, I poked around Meetup.com, which helps you find like-minded people with whom to enjoy various activities.
I missed one of the local rock climbing group's gatherings at High Point because I had to finish an article. I missed their big weekend trip to the Obed Wild and Scenic River climbing area because I told my roommate I would stay home to greet the insurance guy coming to inspect roof damage.
The following Tuesday, however, I was frustrated from an unproductive day and got up the gumption to go to the standing weekly gathering. I found Brett at the top of the stairs in front of the lead climbing wall. He was an athletic type and had a rope slung over his shoulder.
After our greeting, I went to the locker room to change. I ripped a piece of paper out of my notebook and crumbled it in my pocket with a pen, just in case I wanted to take notes.
Sheepishly, I told Brett I needed to take my belay test still, and he agreed to be my partner. Once certified, I felt strangely nervous as I prepared to climb, and as Brett asked me about myself, I had to keep re-tying my knot. When I was finally on the wall, however, I climbed it fast, like a monkey.
As Brett lowered me, I noticed I didn't have the pen in my pocket and saw that both it and my weird crumpled paper were on the ground. Brett, who studied journalism in college, told me they fell out of my pocket as I climbed and that I was a true reporter.
It was my turn to belay Brett, but the problem was, though I know how to lead belay, it had been a while, and I was not technically certified. Brett, who knew everybody at High Point, said "no problem" and asked a guy nearby to belay him in my stead. I talked to his belayer, Luke, as Brett shot up the wall.
Luke told me he meets climbers through the Mountain Project, a useful database and community forum for climbing. Finding people this way can be a bit sketchy because climbing partners help ensure your safety. But he said it doesn't take long to perceive someone's skill level.
Luke lowered Brett, who then belayed me up that same route, and I unfastened the rope from the quickdraws as I ascended. I had not recently climbed on overhanging walls of such height, and my arms got very tired. I released and hung in the air and looked at the small people below and at the young climbers cheering each other on at the nearby bouldering wall.
After Brett lowered me, for some reason, I told him, "I don't know how to coil rope," which he said was fine. This was particularly true since there was no reason to coil the rope.
Brett invited me to climb with a crew at Sand Rock in Alabama over the weekend. I missed the date on account of work and being tired, but I eventually responded by telling him I would soon be getting a lead climb certification, too, and would love to attend a future trip.
"Lead or not," he said by text, "come join us any time."