Rock Climbing: Elvis Leg at 80 Feet

    Rock climbing at Garden of the Gods can awaken primal fear and unexpected focus. Maybe that’s the point.

    rock climbing humor
    Illustration by Courtney Caldwell

    At the moment you find yourself 50 feet up at the Garden of the Gods, clinging to the side of a rock outcrop for dear life, the question you ask is this: How did I get here?

    This question has an answer, but your right leg is preventing you from thinking of it. It is shaking uncontrollably, bouncing up and down to a rhythm of its own.

    Turns out “Elvis leg” or “sewing machine leg” is actually what climbers call it. Your climbing partner—his real name is Ryan, but let’s call him Spider-Man—said it would happen. “When it does,” he’d told me, “try not to panic.”

    More easily said than done.

    It was Ryan’s idea to take me rock climbing in the first place. He’s a guy I work with, one of those weekend superheroes most of us know here in the Springs. During the week, it’s Clark Kent glasses and business as usual; come the weekend, it’s climbing a 14er or doing a triathlon. For Ryan, it’s rock climbing. Weekends are all about defying gravity.

    “How about Saturday at Garden of the Gods?” he’d offered. “Make sure to eat breakfast—you’re going to need it.”

    When we arrived, we hiked into a corner of the park I’d never been to before, despite driving countless visiting relatives past it. I found myself looking up at an 80-foot cliff as Spider-Man affixed a climbing harness, pulling it snugly over my shoulders, making sure it was tight around the—ahem—around the rest of me.

    “You sure you ate?” he asked me. “I made some buckwheat pancakes.” He took them out of his backpack. They looked gritty and good for you, exactly the sort of thing you would expect Spider-Man to eat. They looked like they would taste like the sandstone I was about to ascend. I decided to pass.

    “Let me know if you change your mind,” he said, as he clipped to my harness the rope he had attached to a cam—a mechanical spring-loaded device—at the top of the cliff. He explained he would be on the other end of the rope the whole way. If I fell, he would catch me.

    Then he said: “On belay.” It wasn’t a question, though it seemed he expected me to say something. Belay, I found out, is climbing lingo for being safely attached to another person with a rope. “You say ‘ready to climb’ back,” he told me.

    “OK … ready to climb,” I said, looking at Spider-Man as if he had just informed me that a radioactive spider had bit me.

    He pointed to the cliff. The only logical option was to start pulling myself up. I was soon 30 feet off the ground.

    “You are awesome!” shouted Spider-Man.

    A breeze of elation shot through me. “I am awesome!” I shouted back. This sounded cool in my head, but insanely nerdy aloud. “This is awesome,” I said a moment later by way of clarification.

    “Keep going,” shouted Spider-Man. “You’re almost there.”

    But suddenly, I couldn’t. I tried. But in an instant, there was no handhold. My confidence evaporated, and my Elvis leg started. Down on the ground, Spider-Man knew something was wrong. “Put your heel down,” he called out. “Plant your feet, and it’ll stop.”

    He was right about that too.

    “Now take three deep breaths,” he told me.

    It was hard to do, but I did it. Suddenly, my head cleared.

    “Now look around,” he said. I still didn’t see anywhere to hold on to.

    “Up,” said Spider-Man. “To your left.”

    There it was. Much to my surprise, a handhold had been there the whole time. Right in front of my face. Somehow I had been unable to see it. I grabbed it and pulled myself up.

    Soon enough I was at the top, pulling myself over the edge. The view was majestic, and the air was bracing. I felt like I could see forever.

    “I knew you could do it,” Spider-Man called out.

    “I had my doubts,” I shouted back.

    “Me too,” he said.

    “OK,” I said, when I had stopped laughing. “What now?”

    The answer was simple: Come down. But how? Part of me—not a small part—simply refused to contemplate the journey down. Maybe I could be airlifted out. Maybe I could stay up on the cliff for the rest of my life. This would necessitate a whole new wardrobe and personal hygiene regimen, but it would be better than trying to come down.

    “Lean back off the side of the cliff,” instructed Spider-Man. “And fall back.”

    What I said next can’t be reproduced in these pages.

    “You’re going to rappel down,” he told me. “Lean back, jump off, bounce down. Trust me.”

    Throwing myself backward off a cliff was a strange and unwelcome experience, but no sooner had I done it than I felt the tension in the rope. This was Spider-Man on the ground, guiding me back to earth. Soon I was standing beside him, right where I had started. He unclipped me from the rope and sat me down to catch my breath. “You OK?” he asked.

    I was better than OK. Not only had I survived, I had experienced an epiphany. Plant your feet; take three deep breaths; look around you before you give up. Good advice for climbing. And for living. “You should write that stuff down,” I told him.

    “Isn’t that your job?” he said.

    It was only then that I realized I was hungry. It hit me all at once, as if my body had suddenly woken up, all at once. I asked about that buckwheat pancake. Spider-Man opened his pack, handed one to me and took one for himself. I was still chewing when he asked: “You ready to go again?”

    Remarkably, the answer was yes.