Throwback Thursday #2 - Taonga: The Red Hold
‘Aerobics for the 90s’ is how rock climbing was described in a magazine article promoting the (then) brand new NZAC climbing wall in Evans Bay, Wellington. It went on: ‘The good news is that you don’t need to be built like Arnie Schwarzenegger to master it—your own body weight is the most you ever have to haul up the wall. That’s why many thin or light people often find they are good climbers’. I wasn’t built like Arnie. I was an ectomorph, the proverbial ‘orange on a toothpick’. Rock climbing was clearly for me.
The NZAC wall was located inside a large fitness centre known as Evolution Gym, so the wall became known as ‘Evolution’ or just ‘Evo’. It opened on 12 December 1993, I don’t recall exactly when I first went but it was some time in the summer of 1996. I was hooked straight away. In my mind’s eye, the wall comprised an array of viciously steep facets, up to nine metres high, all above a pit of fine gravel (which was surprisingly effective at cushioning wild plummets from the summits). In reality, I think most of it was vertical or off vertical. I still find that quite steep.
I quickly got to grips with the two fundamental tenets, if not the physical requirements, of indoor climbing:
- Follow the coloured holds
- The bigger the number, the more of a rock god you are.
For at least the first year of my increasingly regular visits, I would thrash away unsuccessfully on the grade ‘19’ and ‘20’ climbs until I could no longer make a fist with either hand. Then I would drive home, using my wrists to control the steering wheel.
One memorable feature of the wall was its proximity to the weights area for the fitness centre. Arnie-wannabes and rock wafers in exile together at the far end of the gym, both grunting and groaning but, somehow, never connecting. Some climbers took great delight in gratuitous displays of their lopsided power-to-weight ratios, performing one-arm chin-ups in front of the body builders’ posing mirror. I couldn’t even do a basic pull up, but I laughed along. To fit in, you know how it is.
I met just about all of my climbing mentors at Evo. It was a curious scene. Just about everybody seemed to have a personality disorder of some type. I was the only normal person there, something of a theme in my life. I latched onto a group of hot dogs—Kester Brown, Jono Clarke, Kristen Foley, Sebastian Loewensteijn and Steve Conn—and just tried to copy everything they said and did. They taught me how to climb and how to train, and introduced me to Baring Head, to Whanganui Bay, to sport climbing, to trad climbing (which I quickly abandoned because I kept getting my cams stuck together when trying to stack them in cracks). It’s no exaggeration to say that Evolution changed my life.
So I was crestfallen when NZAC announced in the summer of 1998 that the wall was closing because the fitness centre had been sold to property developers. Sessions at Evo had become such a ritual in my life that I seriously wondered how I would fill the void. Jono Clarke offered a glimmer of hope when he told me that Wellington High School had agreed to buy the climbing wall panels and holds, and intended to reconstruct the wall inside one of its school halls.
I went with Jono one day to inspect the proposed location. The wall panels and holds were stacked in a jumble in the corner of the hall. They looked dusty, beaten up, almost derelict. Maybe they always did, maybe I just couldn’t see it through the chalky haze that had engulfed my life. Then one particular hold caught my eye, a red second-joint two-finger pocket. For as long as I had been going to Evo, that hold had remained in the centre of the steepest panel—the 45-degree wall known as ‘the cave’. I distinctly remember being in awe of climbers who could use that hold. The fact that any human could support their body weight on just two fingers was incomprehensible. I was sure that, if I tried, my fingers would just spontaneously detach from my hand and remain wedged in the pocket, tendons dangling down as a warning to others.
Without premeditation, I wandered over and picked up the hold, studying it closely. The pores on its rough, plastic-like surface were filled with chalk and grime. The lip of the pocket was polished and slick. A small ‘R’ imprint on one end of the hold probably denotes its maker, although to this day I know not who. I stood there holding a small piece of New Zealand climbing history, thinking about its personal significance to me, and you can guess what happened next.
I don’t know what became of that jumble of panels and holds. Wellington High School never rebuilt Evo and, I guess, the materials were eventually discarded. But that red hold remains part of the Wellington climbing scene, sitting in pride of place in the middle of a 45-degree panel, on my little co-op climbing wall known as the Engine Room. And there it shall stay, until somebody else swipes it for their wall.
By John Palmer
This piece originally appeared in The Climber #101 (spring, 2017).