A personal essay on top-rope climbing
We can breathe a sigh of relief because it’s our final week of the #HappyNewFear challenge. But, just to make sure we end on a high, our final test means facing our biggest fear so far…
There’s few things more terrifying than standing at the bottom of a 15 metre wall knowing that you’re about to climb up it. My stomach is churning as I look up at the sheer surface of rock above me. “Just keep calm,” I tell myself.
I’m standing in Magic Mountain, one of Berlin’s largest and most awe-inspiring rock-climbing centres. The space is home to 2200 square metres of climbing space with hundreds of different routes suitable to any level of climber. Which is good news for me. Not only am I new to rock-climbing but I am petrified of heights. Once when I was eight I got sent home from a school abseiling trip because the instructor thought I was about to have a heart attack.
Yet here I am on a top-rope beginners course. My hands are sweating as our instructor, Susanne, addresses the group of three. “Top-rope climbing is perfectly safe,” she insists. “When your belaying just make sure you don’t lose concentration.” Very reassuring.
Top-rope is one of the most popular forms of indoor climbing. The ropes are already attached to the wall and the climber attaches the rope to their harness and a belayer stands below. The other end of the rope is attached to their harness along with a belaying device which stops the climber from falling more than a couple of feet.
“Let’s practice on one of the smaller walls,” Susanne says. The three of us walk over to an extremely high wall and she attaches my harness to the rope. My colleague is belaying. “Don’t lose concentration!” I warn her.
“You can do it! Just don’t look down!” She responds. I take a deep breath and start climbing. The first few moments are fine. It’s just like climbing a ladder. The hand and footholds are big enough for me to feel confident that I won’t fall off. Then, about four metres up, vertigo takes over. My head swims and a wave of nausea washes over me as the reality of my current situation sinks in. I’m about a quarter of the way up this ‘small’ wall. I have a long way to go.
I take a deep breathe and push the thoughts away. Just keep going. It’ll be over soon. I concentrate on putting one hand over the other. “Don’t look down.” Great advice except for the fact I need to look down to figure out where I’m going to put my feet. Each time I move higher I am forced to deal with how high up I am.
By the time I’m 3/4 of the way up my hands are wet with sweat which makes it hard to grip the holds. But I push through and reach the top. “FINISHED.” I yell, my voice about three octaves higher than usual.
“Okay!” They yell. “Come down!” I let go of the rope. My stomach churns for a second but the rope holds tight and I’m able to stick my legs out and abseil down the wall. My legs barely hold me upright as I hit the floor.
“Great work!” Says Susanne. “Now it’s time for the high wall!” I am a nervous wreck. The second wall is so high it becomes a true battle between my physical and mental self. I just keep pushing myself upwards. I find the best method is to move fast so I have no time to think and so it’ll be over as quickly as possible.
As I abseil I refuse to look down and just focus on the wall directly in front of me. There’s no knowing what kind of physical reaction I’ll have if I acknowledge the fact I’m dangling from a rope 10 metres in the air.
By the time I finish my third 15 metre climb I am a nervous wreck and very happy to call it a day. I feel proud and happy for conquering a fear, but equally relieved that it’s all over.
I thank Susanne for her expertise and patience and head over to meet Marie Kühne, Marketing Manager here at Magic Mountain. Just like me, Marie is still flushed from the adrenaline of a sub-vertical climb she just finished.
She explains “I did a rope-climbing course at university in 2015 and loved it. I love being high up and I enjoy the spirit of the climbing gym. But I think the best part about rock-climbing is being outdoors.”
As my heart rate slows and the adrenaline wears off I begin to understand the appeal of rock-climbing. I feel calm, focussed and in a soaring, joyous mood. I ask Marie whether it’s possible to enjoy top-rope climbing even if you’re scared of heights.
“You get used to it.” she says. “After half a year I felt relaxed. My hands don’t sweat, I’m not stressed about being high up. It’s only when I’m outdoors and 300 metres high that I look down and feel pretty scared.”
One of the joys of rock-climbing is that you can take the activity out of the gym and into the great outdoors. Friends can pack up their cars and travel to beautiful places like Spain or France or they can go further afield to climb in California, Thailand or Morocco.
“I really like Siurana in Spain,” says Marie. “It’s like a platform of rock and there’s only one place to camp. You stay there together and see amazing sunsets and there are loads of routes from easy to super difficult. And it’s close to Barcelona so you can have a day off and enjoy the city.”
And, as a climber, you’ll be able to make new friends wherever you are in the world. “Whenever I go on a climbing trip I meet new people and we always get along because there’s such a great community – we all have the same interest.”
And then there are the health benefits of rock-climbing. “It’s a holistic sport because the whole body is involved. So it’s good for your legs and arms and it’s especially good for your back. You get really strong muscles so new climbers often find their back pain disappears.”
And here at Magic Mountain there are tons of events for the climbing community. “We had a night-climb session this weekend. We switched all the lights off and illuminated the routes with blacklight. And there was a famous slackliner who did a high line show.”
They also have have competitions for kids and adults twice a year and regular weekly meetups for anyone who needs a climbing partner. “Stephan Vogt trains here,” Marie says proudly. “He’s very well-known and is on the national team in Germany. But most people are here to relax and enjoy the activities.”
And climbing is a great way to spend time with friends and family. I spot a pair of teenage girls delighting in helping each other conquer a particularly intimidating wall, and a fearless couple in their mid-sixties taking it in turns to climb and belay, clearly enjoying each other’s company as much as the workout.
But I discover that my favourite thing about Magic Mountain, apart from the excellent instructors and world-class climbing routes, is taking time to calm down in their luxurious sauna afterwards. Now that’s an activity I can definitely climb on board with.
If you’d like to try top-rope climbing Urban Sports Club has tons of climbing partners across Germany, Italy, France and Portugal.