When I first embarked on this blogging journey, my plan was to create a sounding board for my broad approach to health, fulfillment, and balance. I’d share stories about my adventures in the kitchen, in the garden, at local establishments, and in nature. I fully planned to write about my experience in nature from the perspective of a rock climber, but after a recent trip to Yosemite, I realized that I haven’t shared anything with you about climbing at all.
Part of the reason for this is that I’m not an elite climber. I’m not even a great climber – I’d put myself at slightly more advanced than a beginner with only a few years of the sport under my belt, so I surround myself with folks who have far more skill, knowledge and strength than I do. I’m always striving to learn and keep up – a position I grew used to as the younger, shorter, less-athletic sister always getting stuffed at the hoop in our driveway. Being in that position as a kid made me a stronger player, both physically and mentally. I wasn’t afraid to try as hard as I could, and I wasn’t afraid to fail. I just went for it, and I try my very best to apply that mentality to climbing.
There’s only one way to succeed in anything, and that is to give it everything. – Football Coach, Vince Lombardi
People ask me why I climb, why I couldn’t pick something that keeps both feet on the ground as my adult activity of choice. My mom worries about me on the weekends, my coworkers think I’m crazy – why risk an injury? (Truthfully, when done properly and safely climbing isn’t much more dangerous than other sports, but that’s commentary for another time.)
The answer, in short, is to conquer fear. Fear holds us back from pursuing our dreams. Fear of failure, fear of not being the best (or even all that good). Fear of learning something new. Climbing forces you to face your fears – in fact, before I started climbing I had a relatively intense fear of heights. The perpetual quest to conquer fear through climbing has tremendous benefits for your life as a whole. Here are the ways it empowers you.
5 Ways Rock Climbing Empowers You
1. Climbing pushes you out of your comfort zone, repeatedly.
You’re reaching for something you never thought you could reach, you’re shifting all your weight onto a tiny feature in the rock and trusting yourself, your shoe, your body, your strength, to hold you there. Your resolve is constantly tested, and the limit of what you can manage physically and mentally gets higher and higher with each summit. You’re stretched, you’re challenged, and as a result you grow.
2. You are only competing with yourself.
Nobody’s keeping score. Your teammate is there to keep you safe, and the two of you are working together to do something amazing. But the only opponent is the rock (although I will admit that sometimes you feel like the rock is fighting back!) Climbing is all about personal best and working toward your own goals. Worrying about how you compare to others is only a detractor, and the exercise of controlling that tendency to compare is an advantageous mental task to master in itself. The gratification of sticking a hard move and finishing the route is all the motivation you need. This inner drive will carry over into many aspects of life where the only one keeping track of whether you accomplish your goal is you.
3. The Unknown awaits on every climb.
Every route has a ‘crux’ – the hardest part of the climb that determines the difficulty rating. The crux can be anywhere in theclimb. It can be the first move when you’re not quite warmed up or it could be toward the top when you’re totally burnt out. You can guess based on the rating if you’ll be able to do it, but you never know until you try, and often it’s that part of the climb that truly tests your grit. Even though we usually have a guide book to tell us roughly where the route goes, I often find myself in spots where the exact path is unclear or the best sequence of moves is elusive. Sometimes you have to just commit and have faith in your intuition that you’re going the right way and you’ll make it through. Sometimes I see my partner climb first and I know that whatever he’s doing is definitely NOT what I’m going to do – whether it’s because of a difference in height, skill, strength, or a combination – and that I’m going to have to figure out my own way when it’s my turn. One of the best parts of climbing is pushing through and accomplishing something you didn’t know you were capable of. Often that’s the real unknown that awaited you.
It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great. – Tom Hanks as Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own
4. Persistence, determination, and problem-solving are crucial to climbing.
These three characteristics are among the most valuable in ensuring that you are achieving your personal potential. And I’m not just talking about climbing anymore. Building and practicing these skills is a huge factor in professional success and personal growth. It’s impossible to grow as a person without pushing forward through (at least some) adversity and difficulty. When you’re on a wall working to find the next move, you might have to rearrange your feet, switch your hands, or shift your center of gravity. You might have to try, fail, and rework it another way. All of this while dangling high in the sky. The harder you work to get it right and solve the puzzle, the deeper your commitment to yourself and the climb.
5. Climbing fosters an alliance between humans and nature.
No one appreciates the reality of gravity like a climber. That might have been a bad joke, but seriously, climbing was meant to be an outdoor sport – even a wilderness sport. Most climbers train in the gym in preparation to climb outside on real rock under an open sky (or sometimes in a cave!). Groups like Access Fund that work to ensure climbing access across the country are focused on conservation, respect for the sanctity of nature, and reverence for the pristine outdoors. Climbers carry that mentality with them at the crag. Not only is there an etiquette that accompanies this sport in terms of keeping crags clean and safe, there’s also a spiritual relationship built between humans and nature when you spend that much time outside. Having that connection to nature and recognizing the role and responsibility of humans in preserving its beauty is empowering and motivating.
Climbing is a sport with transformative grit that demands a respect for how nature and humans interact. You don’t have to be an elite climber to know that climbing builds strength, character, community, and alliance with nature – maybe that’s another way of saying that it strengthens “mind, body, and spirit.” I may not have the skill and experience of an elite climber, but I think that’s something worth sharing.