On The Wholesomeness of Climbing
Climbing is about mindfully controlling your body, your mind, your emotions and your attitude; and letting go of anything else.
I recently started climbing just because a couple of my friends were going climbing and I had nothing better to do. As someone who has a fear of heights, I basically just wanted to see whether I would be able to control my fear in a controlled setting. The experience turned out to be mentally and emotionally far more complex than I had anticipated. TLDR: I got hooked, but that had nothing to do with the adrenaline rush.
Before starting this personal article, I searched Medium a bit to see if my points were already made and found an article that reflects on the benefits of climbing from a professional perspective and I wholeheartedly agree. The article is here. My piece is going to be a lot more personal but still touching on similar aspects.
Past couple of years have been rather stressful due to work, whole lot of life changes and academic studies. I have been fortunate enough to be able to rely on close friends and family for support but in general, my personal experience has been that the only way out of that burnt-out and frankly depressed mental state is by working through it, bit by bit. Support of loved ones makes it easier to keep going, but you still have to do the work. Friendly disclaimer at this point, please do reach out for professional help if you feel like you need support. Please also reach out even if you don’t think you need it. Sometimes you just don’t know. Hopefully, professional mental help becomes more accessible and affordable to everyone and fast.
Exercise As a (Personal) Mental Treatment
During the early days of that state of mind, I started walking gradually longer distances because it helped clear my head. The amount of distance I covered reached 15 km on a working day. At this point it became unsustainable due to time constraints so I started running. While I have a history of doing various sports (gymnastics, skiing, volleyball, tennis, table tennis), some of them on a competitive level, it was a very long time ago. Basically I hadn’t done any real sports since university at the time and I was getting into it because I needed a release.
Running worked well, because once you are that tired, all you can think of is just putting one foot in front of the other. There is solace in that simplicity. Runner’s high is also very real for me, so it helps a lot with mental state.
Eventually my running evolved into outdoors and I started doing more and more challenging hikes along with running. Part of the challenge of the hikes, especially the longer and and more technical ones, is mental but on the other end of the spectrum. Some hikes put you in a precarious position and when at a precarious position, your mind gets to a hyper-drive. It is not exactly an adrenaline rush. If you can make it past that stage of initial panic, your awareness is heightened.
So at that point, I basically had two ways of working through my problems: running or hiking them off. Running helps because when I exhaust myself to the point where my main problems become more fundamental, like being able to breathe. With hiking, the experience is much more calmer, and during the majority of the hike you are actually able to think and work through the issues until you again get exhausted enough to start thinking about more basic needs. The heightened awareness only happens when the scenery is extraordinarily beautiful or you are physically challenged.
The Late Christmas Gift
So when I climbed for the first time (December 28, 2020), it was everything I was looking for and more. Climbing, especially if you have 0 technique , is physically very demanding. First time I climbed, I obviously had no technique and my mind also didn’t acknowledge that I was tied to the end of a rope and couldn’t possibly fall. So basically, for me the exercise was exerting quite a lot of physical effort while at the same time being incredibly aware of where I am and how I am. Whether I am balanced or not (I was not), what is potentially my next move (they were all wrong), how far up I am from the ground (not very far), how do I eventually get down (because I obviously was not going to let go and let myself be descended, so basically I spent the whole afternoon walking up and down walls). Couple days after this experience I dislocated my ankle running, so had to stop doing anything for weeks.
I got back to it on Feb 9. Same story as above, but this time I was determined to be able to let go and actually descend with rope. First couple of climbs, I didn’t manage. Finally I did, when I landed on the ground, I was trembling because frankly I had been terrified to let go. What I am about to say is a bit of a cliché and cheesy, but this is one of the things I am most proud of in this whole journey. Letting go, both literally and figuratively, has always been hard for me. That was a good lesson. This makes me proud.
The Reflection on The Wall
After that I legitimately started climbing. I quickly realised (or thought I did) that I am at a disadvantage because I am very short at 155 cm (5'1"). This was pretty discouraging, other people could reach holds just by lifting their arms where I had to jump to reach them. In most cases, this wasn’t even enough because I don’t have the physical power to make the jump or hold afterwards. At this point, you either quit or you accept you are at a physical disadvantage and work through it. I had found something that helped me immensely mentally, I wasn’t about to let go (I know.). So I decided to swallow the disappointment, feelings of inadequacy, creeping self-image issues and work through the routes.
Turns out I was wrong about my height being a disadvantage. It is not an advantage either. It is just what it is, especially in climbing. The lack of reach forced me to try to figure out other ways to top the routes. At this point, I was introduced to the concept of boulder problems. Boulder problems are climbing sequences that require you to figure out a way of progressing through. It is apparently standard climbing lingo, which was very confusing initially. The way you work through a boulder problem by body movement is called a beta. Different types of bodies come up with different betas to solve the boulder problems. While I may not be able to reach a certain hold, I fit into smaller openings on the wall. The fact that my limbs are shorter also means that when I reach, I am upsetting my balance less than someone with longer limbs. Some moves are easier for me compared to a taller person, and some are harder.
While climbing, you are forced to figure out a solution that works for you as an individual, making the experience about you and only you.
I find this very profound. It forces you to stop and think about the problem ahead, what you are capable of doing and what you are not and how to combine your resources to overcome that problem. It forces you to stop and think.
The Virtue of Stopping
In my first initial climbs after learning to fall down, I tried to climb routes by basically rushing and running through them. This meant brute-forcing some sequences, which didn’t really work very well. Then, mostly to overcome my perceived height issue, I started to train some technique. This became easier, partly because I was getting stronger, and partly because I was using better technique thus spending less energy. But I was still rushing through the routes. The beginner routes allow you to do that because there are enough holds to keep going.
As I got to the intermediate level routes, that basically became impossible because they were physically as well as problem-wise more challenging (hand-holds and foot-holds getting smaller, more separated or sequenced not as intuitively). I still tried to rush but that didn’t work. So I was forced to stop and be more aware of the holds available to me. Climbing smart yielded better results and faster progress than climbing with brute-force. I found myself more easily working through the routes where I thought I had to jump or leap to reach by simply shifting my body position or extending a leg in a different angle to just reach to the hold statically. A mindset shift and consequent physical shifts made topping the routes so much easier.
The High and The Low
Emotionally, topping a route you have been struggling with feels incredibly rewarding. Even making progress on the routes is very rewarding. But also, there is a lot of frustration that comes with trying over and over again and failing. And you just simply have to deal with that. You have to just accept it wasn’t going to happen that time and be willing to come back again and again not knowing whether you will succeed eventually. This teaches resilience and humility. You can get frustrated all you want. The boulder doesn’t care. You can either beat yourself up about it, or just work through it by analysing why you are failing and keep improving physically and technically.
The Control and The Acceptance
Climbing overall is about control. Sometimes this control means restraint so you don’t rush and think instead. Sometimes the control means making that leap where you have to, however scary it may be. And sometimes it means swallowing a whole lot because you are not progressing in a route.
Control your body. Control your mind. Control your emotions. Control your attitude. And anything else, let go.
Yet another thing climbing forces you to accept is the limits of your body. I am not talking about the height per se, but physical capacity does impose a limitation on what you can do. And this can change from climbing session to session, even during a session. Climbing puts a lot of toll on your tendons. Your muscles will likely be fine, but your tendons, which are the tissues that tie your muscles don’t develop as fast. It is easy to hurt these structures. No matter how much you might want that send, it may simply not be possible because you lack any aspect of physical capacity needed. This can be endurance or power or strength or your finger simply may not have developed just yet. You are forced to be aware of your physical state, and treat yourself kindly if you eventually want to make the route. This is not very specific to climbing, but applies to all sports.
In fact, none of the above is climbing specific. But for me personally, climbing has been the only sport that combined all aspects of control that I seem to be needing. To be completely honest, writing a long sonnet to an activity that I have been doing for 7 weeks and climbing only at the level of 6a makes me feel a bit phony. But climbing did wonders for me mentally, possibly physically too, so I can’t help but share. Different things will work for different people. Climbing may not work for you. But as someone with a very loud and busy mind, and not very kind to herself, having found something that forces me to exercise this mindful control has been a true blessing. Hopefully, everyone can find something similar. We all deserve clarity.