The first boulder problem I ever topped out was a V0- jug haul in Central Park that couldn’t have been more than eight feet high.
My two climbing partners were meeting a few of their gym buddies to work on a problem around the front side of Worthless Boulder, a V4 called Mean Green. I’d watched as they both scampered up the two V1 problems on this face of rock as a “warm up,” one pad barely placed beneath them as they pulled the three moves to the lip. I tried too, but every time my feet came more than two feet off the ground, my leg would begin to Elvis and I’d slowly lower myself down. I waited until the two guys were around front, discussing beta, to force myself to send. I pushed the two pads close to the slabby rock, making sure that they would be underneath me for the difficult part – really, the higher part – and slipped my shoes on. I moved slowly through the Elvis leg, reached for a decent hold, and started to panic. Instead of moving right, like I was supposed to, I scooted myself to the left, where the rock began to level out sooner. I reached for the jug around the left side – the “stay right of the jug around the arête” jug – and stayed on the arête until I could whale myself up onto the top of the rock. I knee-scummed, flopped over, and chest crawled onto the boulder until I was confident enough to stand up. It was sloppy, but I’d done it. I’d topped out.
I checked the book to see what problem I’d just climbed, and there it was: Left Arête, V0-. It didn’t even get a real name. Just Left Arête. But it was my first top out, and for that, I was proud.
I tried that V1 a few more times, but was still getting stuck at the same spot. As more and more people arrived and warmed-up on my project, I eventually gave up and came around front to watch them work Mean Green. I curled my legs up underneath me, slipped my climbing shoes off, and waited patiently as climber after climber attempted the problem. Even though the first few moves were probably within my ability, I politely declined any suggestion that I, too, should give it a shot.
After a while, most of the crew left, and just my two close friends remained.
“Do you want to jump on something?” My partner asked. He didn’t like seeing me mope around when we went climbing.
I don’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure I declined. We probably packed up that day, with the two guys nursing raw palms and massaging their forearms, while I barely felt physically worked at all. It would take several more sessions, and a few trips, for me to get over the embarrassment of my project being the warm-up.
I am, by a long shot, the weakest climber in my crew. My partner is a route setter who sent his first 5.12 after just a handful of attempts. Many of the women I climb with regularly are crushing at least a grade harder than me. I like to tell people, “I love climbing, but that doesn’t mean I’m good at it.” I joke about it, but in comparison to most of the people I climb with, it’s true. And while I spent many sessions in the first few years like the one described above, I’ve finally learned to appreciate my role as the Weakest Link: and here’s why.
- The Weakest Climber Learns the Most. This is the main benefit of being the weakest person in my crew. I learn so much about technique every time we’re out climbing. That’s both actively – by asking questions or asking for beta – and passively – just by watching and learning. I have made huge leaps of progress on seemingly impossible problems just by asking my stronger friends for a tip on foot placement.
- Everyone Starts on V0. No matter how strong you were before you began climbing, or how much you lifted at the gym, everyone starts on V0. Think about how you feel when you see someone new at the gym who’s working hard on something you consider a warm-up. If you’re a decent human being, you probably want them to succeed. I know I do. This comradery is built from the “I was there once too” feeling, and when you’re the weakest climber in the group, chances are you’re surrounded by a cheering squad of athletes who want you to succeed.
- The Weakest Climber Makes the Best Belabysitter. Time and time again I’ve worn myself out early in the day, when all my climbing buddies are just getting warmed up. Instead of being antsy to get on a climb, or wanting sometime to finish something so that it’s my turn, I make a great belay buddy for any projects. Plus, I’m excited to watch someone work something well beyond my reach. When a friend of mine wanted to project a 5.12 called Under Arrest, he expressed concern about me being bored while he worked it. In some cases, that would make sense; but after a few 5.9 and .10 warm-ups, I was ready for a long break while he was ready to work. And voila, excellent belabysitter. While this may not seem like a pro, I’ve found that being willing to belay for my strong friends means they don’t mind giving me a catch on something way easy.
- Watching Strong Climbers Will Make You Want to Push Harder. Often, when I see a climber work some saucy sequence, I want to try it too. I get stoked and think, sure, a high heel-hook lock-off to a micro crimp seems challenging, but may as well give it a shot! Whether I stick the move (unlikely) or fall off right away (more likely), I get a chance to try something new and build a little confidence
- Being the Weakest Climber Does Not Make You A Burden. This is my biggest fear. I always worry about holding back the squad, or getting in the way, or not pulling my weight. What I’ve found, though, is that if we’re just out cragging and especially when we’re bouldering, no one is mad at me for taking it easy. No one thinks, “Miranda didn’t work as hard as me.” This should be true with any good, kind group of climbing friends. Because unless you’re making your partner take the sharp end time and time again on a full-day multi-pitch, you aren’t putting anyone out by choosing to TR instead of lead.
While it’s taken me a couple years to accept my status as weakest link, I love my climbing pals and wouldn’t trade them for the world. Plus, as we all get stronger, the gap closes just a little bit… which only encourages me to work harder.
What do you think? Are you the weakest climber in your group? Do you love it or hate it? Share in the comments below!