Out of Shape Butterfly

Route-setter and coach Ara Morton sending a few laps on the lead wall back in the before-the-virus days. Route-setter and coach Ara Morton sending a few laps on the lead wall back in the before-the-virus days.

by Ara Morton

I returned to Salt Pump for the first time on Wednesday, June 17, a few hours early for my shift and our grand re-opening in order to get in a boulder session. It had been exactly 97 days since I stepped foot in a climbing gym and damn, it felt good. 

Although I am a relatively new Mainer and member of the SP family, I experienced a sense of homecoming entering the gym that day. Certainly a testament to the warm-hearted and welcoming nature of the community, that moment also reminded me of how quickly one can adjust to new life circumstances. My family and I moved to Portland from NYC in October of 2019 (good timing, to say the least) and by the time COVID-19 started wreaking havoc I had completely settled into my new work/life flow. Adjusting to the “new normal” during lock-down then seemed to only take a few weeks; grievance for life-as-it-was rapidly giving way to morbid resignation and eventually, acceptance. Returning to the gym after those odd 3 months was a visceral reminder of my old-new life, and filled me with even greater excitement to get back to trying hard and laughing often. So, like an out of shape butterfly emerging from its cocoon, I was ready to fly back into a climbing and training routine.

Like many, I did my best to stay productive during quarantine. After about 6 weeks of too frequent hangboarding and circuit training sessions as a response to my emotional state (aka stress training), a string of aches and pains forced me to chill out for the remainder of lock down. I refocused efforts during most of my “free time” (in quotes because I have a 2 year old) towards building the homewall of my dreams in our garage. Images of myself crushing projects and eating pizza while repping out 1-arm pull ups danced through my head as I tinkered away. “When I get back in the gym, I’ll be stronger than ever! They won’t know what hit ’em…” 

l finished the build 3 days before returning to Salt Pump. Needless to say, I had not transformed myself into the third Mawem Brother. Having climbed outside only a handful of times throughout the entire quarantine, strapping my shoes on for that first session back I had no idea how my body would respond. I quickly realized the response would not be good.

I felt sloppy, awkward, heavy… any adjective that you can think of that would be bad to feel while climbing. “I don’t understand,” I thought to myself,“I’ve been training and I don’t feel any stronger.” Although I felt pretty good pulling onto the wall, I was pumped and winded by the final moves of problems that I had done 4×4’s on a few months earlier. I experienced deep frustration with the mask and glasses combination*, feeling like I was climbing with my head in a sauna. I bemoaned the lack of chalk. I told myself that “climbing is climbing” and, “to just enjoy myself,”  but I won’t lie – I was mad.

Moments like these force me to reflect on what makes climbing a unique endeavor: the personal relationship each individual has with the activity itself. You don’t need anyone else to do it, you don’t need any gear to do it, or special clothes, or any clothing at all if that’s your thing. Ultimately, climbing represents a fundamental relationship with ourselves, our bodies, and all the possibilities of how we move our bodies through space. It’s a primal relationship that exists whether or not we indulge it or even pay attention to it.

Thinking of climbing in this way – as a relationship – helps me to keep perspective when I am beating myself up for falling, again. Relationships are inherently dynamic. Relationships require time and attention in order to progress. Relationships will seemingly regress at times. Relationships require patience, understanding, and forgiveness. Any perceived failure or success while climbing one day is merely a snapshot within your personal journey, not definitive of it. 

youth competitive team coachWith these thoughts in mind, I packed away my climbing gear and prepared for my shift, getting ready to welcome back dozens of climbers who would inevitably be experiencing the same pity party I had just thrown for myself. My ego was bruised a bit, but that’s a familiar feeling for this 31 year old theatre weasel turned climber. I reminded myself to be kind to myself, and that I’d feel better on the wall soon enough. Goals will still be crushed, just not that day. I smiled behind the mask as our first climbers came through the door.

*By no means am I an anti-masker. WEAR IT!!!