Boulder holders

If you’re Kate Washington’s mom, you get to dine at four-star restaurants. If you’re my mom, you find yourself clinging to a vertical wall 20 feet above ground at Sacramento Pipeworks.

“I’m afraid of heights. What am I doing here?” my mom said as we arrived for the climbing gym’s belay safety class, a requisite for first-time climbers. She laughed, so I took this as a good sign. I really needed a partner for the class, but no one likes to think she’s frightening her mom.

“Don’t worry,” the desk clerk told her. “I was afraid of heights when I first started climbing.”

“You were?” I asked. “Why did you take it up as a hobby?”

“Oh, I didn’t know I was afraid until I started doing it.”

I had only a moment to wonder how someone could not know she was scared of heights before she handed us some liability-release forms. After promising not to sue Pipeworks if we wound up in traction, my mom and I received two pairs of yellow-and-black climbing sneakers and were advised to warm up in the bouldering area.

Though shorter than the vertical climbing walls, the plastic “boulders” jutted over the floor at an angle only an insect—or Tom Cruise—could scale. We laced our shoes, whose thin soles allowed us to detect every rough patch on the floor, and gamely tried to go climb a rock.

The only warm-up we achieved was from laughing vigorously at our weak-elbowed attempts to pull ourselves to even the second level of handholds. A group of teenage boys easily scaled the boulder next to ours, racing to the top and swinging from the edge like chimpanzees. We watched in silent awe, and then carried our bruised egos to the pro shop, where we browsed sweaters and energy bars until our class began.

And it was our class; we were the only two people in it. Pipeworks teaches belay safety three times per day, and apparently the Wednesday 4:30 p.m. time slot is not a popular one. All the better for us, though. When the subject is how to avoid falling (or dropping your mom) from great heights, personalized instruction can’t be a bad thing.

Our teacher, Jason, taught us to put on our harnesses—part weight belt, part adult diaper—and tie in securely to the ropes. Then we learned how to belay, threading rope through a carabiner attachment on the harness and gradually taking up slack or letting it out to allow our partner to climb up or rappel down. We practiced knots for awhile and then it was time to climb.

The gym offers dozens of routes of varying difficulty; we began at the climbing equivalent of the bunny slope.

“You climb first,” my mom said. Uncertain about my knot-tying skills, I made Jason test my tie-in before I started. Surprisingly, the walls were much easier than the boulders. I scrabbled quickly up the face, focused only on each successive handhold. At the top, I turned to triumphantly survey my domain. That’s when I realized that I, too, am afraid of heights.

Adrenaline coursed through my body and I felt dizzy. My mom and Jason looked positively miniature on the floor below. The pro shop was a doll’s house. I quickly turned back to the wall.

“OK,” Jason yelled, “just sit back.” It was time to rappel. I leaned back slightly, still clinging to the wall.

“Lean back more!” Jason called.

I obeyed, but my body didn’t trust it. Rather than let my mom lower me gracefully, I dragged my feet and slid down the wall like a piece of wet spaghetti.

Nonetheless, my mom cheered like I’d just descended Everest. “You looked awesome up there!” she said, as moms must. And when she bravely climbed the same route, stopping midway in a similar rush of vertigo before continuing to the top, I told her the same.