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The Fat Girl's Guide to Indoor Rock Climbing
Posted by Tee in Sports + Recreation
Maria, testing her "climbing legs"

A couple of weeks ago my friend and fellow Biggest Little City Losers contestant, Maria, called with a proposition. It went a little something like this:

Her: "We should go rock climbing tomorrow!"
Me: "Uhhhh..."
Her: "Come on, it would be fun!"
Me: "Uhhh..."

Turns out she had called a local rock climbing gym to see if they'd be interested in sponsoring a team challenge for the Biggest Little City Losers. Not only were they interested, they were really psyched, and they wanted Maria and I to come by for a couple of complementary climbing lessons before bringing the whole group in.

Now let me just say that I don't typically have a fear of trying new or weird things. I've been hiking, biking, scrambling, kayaking and canoeing, I've washed my hair in icy cold Minnesota lakes and washed my clothes in humid, mosquito-infested North Carolina ones. I have moved long distances on short notice with only a vague idea of where I'd live and what I'd do. My personal blog has lived at adventurejournalist.com for almost ten years, and I catered my own wilderness wedding. You get the idea.

But I have never been rock climbing. This is not for a lack of opportunity, my husband is an avid rock and ice climber and I live in one of the most popular regions for rock climbing in the continental United States. The truth is, I haven't been rock climbing because:

1. I am deathly afraid of heights.
2. I am especially afraid of heights in which I, overweight by a good number of pounds, am dangling from a rope with my life in the hands of one person wayyyyy down there who is using nothing more than their own body weight and a tiny device that sounds like an extinct bird, a frail bird, which may be why it's extinct, to keep me alive.

That, and I've heard the shoes are uncomfortable.

But because I was the group leader, and because I'd been preaching the virtues of overcoming fears and trying difficult things, I was stuck. I would have to go rock climbing. So with no idea what to expect, we made arrangements to meet the following morning at Rocksport in Reno.

Fast forward two scary hours, and my conclusion was: rock climbing is hard. But it can be conquered whether you're 100 pounds or 300.

Here's what we learned:

Climbing harnesses come in generous sizes. This was a pleasant surprise. Instead of letting them out to fit our butts and bellies, we actually had to tighten them down. Bonus ego boost! And they were pretty comfortable to wear. Another surprise. Though fair warning: those of us who like to wear long shirts to cover our abs and hips will have to suck it up the harness, roped in, bares all.

Don't worry if you're a positively prolific perspirer. Lots of new climbers worry that their hands will slip off the holds if they get too sweaty, a common issue with overweight women and men. Every climber has a bag of chalk clipped to their harness, perfect for dipping sweaty hands to give them dry "tread" to grab with. Having chalky hands seemed to instill psychological confidence, too.

Tied properly, those ropes hold more than you think. I took one look at that deceptively thin rope with the tiny knot at the end and thought, no way is that thing gonna hold either of us. I wondered for several deer-in-the-headlights minutes if they had ever tested those ropes on people built like Maria and I. They assured us they've seen, and belayed, far bigger. So I roped in, and, as evidenced my ability to write this guide, they did hold.

The climbing is actually the easy part. It's coming down that's scary. Proper form coming down the wall is to completely let go of the holds and wrap your hands around the rope (a terrifying moment), forming an L-shape with your body so that you're "sitting" on the air with your feet against the rock. Oy. The belayer, on the ground (in this case a woman of about 120 pounds), then slowly releases the rope through the extinct bird device, called a Grigri, lowering you as you walk your feet down the face of the rock.

Take advantage of ground anchoring where available. And it really should be available everywhere you climb. These are multiple loops of strong cloth or other material anchored to the ground that a belayer can clip into to stabilize themselves against the weight of the climber. If a climber should slip or let go of the wall before the belayer has the rope in proper position and coming correctly through the Grigri, he or she can easily find themselves launching up off the ground and soon face to face with a very surprised climber.

Keeping your whole body close to the rock wall is key. While most of what I learned about climbing shattered the myth that even significantly overweight women can't or shouldn't do it, I did learn that anyone carrying around extra weight is at a disadvantage on straight verticals solely because of center-of-gravity fluctuations. We climbed the beginner's wall, and the slight incline was a big help for us as we learned to stick close. When we tried the vertical wall it was much more difficult to stay on, as gravity was yanking at our ample butts the whole time. Strengthening our forearms and further training to keep our bodies flush against the rock face should help, but I'm afraid pure verticals are an area most overweight folks are likely to find challenging.

The shoes really are uncomfortable. Climbing shoes are designed to make the front of your foot as tiny as possible so it can work with the smallest of holds. Your big toe faces straight forward, and, in the words of our climbing instructor, the rest of your toes should fit in there 'somewhere.' The first climb I asked for my real shoe size and winced the whole time. The second time around, I asked for a half size larger than I normally take much better, and no loss of toe flexibility or agility on the rock face.

For me the most interesting part was the lack of height-related fear I expected (this from the girl who can't look out, or even approach, a 10th floor glass window), even when I made it 3/4 of the way up the wall and looked down. It did seem like the biggest obstacle wasn't weight or inexperience or even height, but trust: both in myself and in my belay partner. Once we mastered that, we were going up and down the wall effortlessly.

OK, maybe not effortlessly. But at least the gasping and screeching subsided after the first couple of runs.

Have you ever been climbing? Do you have any advice for our readers? Lay it on us in comments!

Note: this guide covered my own experience climbing, which can differ from gym to gym and is unique to indoor environments. I didn't include technical instructions or equipment information because it's important to be trained by a professional to use the unique facilities, equipment and protocol at the climbing center you've chosen.