Lessons Learned from Climbing

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There are many lessons that rock climbing can teach us about life, nature, being better people, and maintaining balance.

One of the first things many will notice is how it simultaneously encourages you to strive for your dreams and to maintain a sense of humbleness. You are always making progression and growing stronger, faster, better, etc. You are also always made, sometimes painfully, aware that you are not the best and you have a lot to learn.

You’ve been excited to travel to a new climbing destination. You’ve been training, practicing, and putting in your all at the gym. You are climbing levels quickly and feeling on top of your game. You are the best you’ve ever been. The best the gym has seen. You are an incredible climber. You make your list of climbs you will, without question, send on this journey. You drive the strenuous amount of hours to get there. Your eyes burning in pain, your body desperate to both sleep for hours and move around as much as possible to overcome that irritating sensation of sitting for too long. You are anxious, excited, sleepy, annoyed, and a whole mix of emotions. You get to your destination. It is beautiful, miraculously so. The weather is warm, soothing, and sunny. The sky is optimistic with ideal weather. The trees, the plants, the colors, the vividness, the sounds of water trickling, and the sweet smells of spring. This location is beautiful, peaceful, and restorative. You don’t even notice. You are rushing to the rock. You are ready to touch that grippy, high quality rock and crush. You are ready to be admired and feel the best you have.

Something else happens. Something is not quite right. You are climbing grades that could be flashed at a gym, but you are falling all over them. You aren’t reading the routes right. You aren’t using your stunning technique. You are flailing. You are sloppy. You are quickly wrecked. Sitting on the dirt of an area so picturesque that it is surprising there are not painters and photographers sprawled across sucking in the inspiration, you are surrounded by darkness. You are falling victim to failure. How could this happen? You were doing the best you’ve ever done. You were so good, so untouchable, so talented, and now you cannot do what should have been easy. Climbing has a way of building you up quickly, but only letting you get so far. You must always be humble to your achievements because while they may grow numerous, they can so easily be torn down to nothing.

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You need to be able to shake off those feelings of insecurity, of failure, and those worries of being the best. You must be grateful that you can achieve what you can, and realize that there will be bad days and challenges.

You might enter a competition knowing you for all purposes should win. You are, after all, much better than all the competitors. You’ve seen them climb, but you know where you are at. They look up to you. They have not achieved all you have yet. Then you get on a climb and cannot finish. You shake it off. It obviously was just sandbagged. A hard route. No one else will get it. Then you see a competitor, one who is not as good as you, gracefully flash it. The competitor is overjoyed. They are shocked and in disbelief over their accomplishments. How did this happen?

There are so many ways for someone to excel in climbing. They could be good at route reading, at technique, at piecing climbs together, at certain holds, at certain styles, etc. In one way or another there will always be someone who is a better climber than you. You might send at higher levels, but they might flash at higher levels. You might do static moves with technique they cannot even comprehend, but they might do dynamic moves with strength you couldn’t muster. Climbing allows everyone an area to shine through.

You can be successful, you can be strong, you can be getting better each and every day, and you could be doing so well. You will keep trying because of the rewards that climbing does hand you and regularly dish out. However, you must always remember not to get overly confident. Climbing can build you or crush you at any moment. A progressing climber, with a great sense of humility and humbleness, will be the most successful. You must remember the love of the sport and why you do it.

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Climbing teaches you more about yourself and your own personal strength, than anything else seems capable of. You have these preconceived notions of what you are and are not capable of, but climbing can push past all of those.

Think about times you’ve faced your fears climbing and the strength you’ve felt afterwards or the areas you worried about your cowardice and knew it was time to grow.

There was a time that I was belaying my climbing partner on a difficult sport climb. As he started progressing up the quickdraws, I noticed a baby copperhead snake was slithering around my climbing shoes and comfortable drifting closer to me. I could feel my heart racing and the instinct to run away quickly setting in. I couldn’t. My climbing partner was depending on me and my running away meant he could fall and get injured. With my eye on the snake, some careful shifting of position, and as much focus as I could maintain on the act of belaying, I was able to get my climber to safety and then escape the snake. It was difficult to remain clearheaded in a time of fear, but I knew what needed to be done. It is a deep trust that a climber puts in their belay partner, and it is important for the belay partner to remember that another life is in their hands. It is also, of course, important to care for yourself. If I had been bite, things could have turned badly for both of us quickly. It is a fine balance of navigating the irrational and rational ends of fear.

Think of the time you’ve done something you never knew was possible before. I remember getting on a climb that was all horrible slopers because I wanted to try my weaknesses and make them stronger. My progression on the climb shocked me. I made it much further than I thought I would with much less difficulty than I anticipated. My first time climbing a V4 was in a competition. I jumped on a climb with a high number of points. I didn’t know what it was, but it seemed possible. I worked on it and made my way up eventually. I was thrilled to have done a difficult climb, but when I came back after they put up the grades and saw that not only was it hard but also a breakthrough to a new grade, I was in disbelief. I would have never tried a V4. At the time, I barely tried 3s. I had been much stronger than I was giving myself credit for.

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We all learn the importance of maintaining balance in climbing. Some of us learn as we struggle through trying to maintain relationships with non-climbers. We want to spend our every waking moments carrying out our passion for climbing, while our mothers, fathers, siblings, spouses, friends, etc just want to see us as much as they can. There were many times when I heard the speech about only talking about climbing and not caring enough about their lives. There were also moments, where even as a climber, I have felt the struggle of wanting more time with someone who made it seem like climbing meant more. We need to maintain a satisfactory balance between our love of climbing, and the people we care about.

We also need to maintain a balance between health and climbing. We need to know when to give in to protect ourselves from injury or sickness. We need to make time to relax, take care of ourselves, and stay healthy. We need to know our limitations and do what is best for our bodies.

We need to maintain a balance between taking care of nature and enjoying it. Many of us enjoy climbing outside, but we need to preserve our climbing areas. You have probably heard stories of climbers cutting down a tree to make a route easier, climbers chipping off pieces of rock, climbers torching rock to dry it faster. We cannot mold and use nature to fit our needs. We must learn to work harmoniously with it. We must learn what is okay to take and what is too much. We must learn to pick up after ourselves, to keep areas clean, to leave no trace, and to make sure we are not causing damaging. If we destroy nature, we may lose our dear climbing grounds. We must work with it.

Climbing is endlessly teaching us lessons. It shows us to take responsibility, to face fears, to know our limits, to build relationships, to stay humble, and to keep balance. I have learned more about myself and my world from climbing, than most other hobbies or endeavors. It is one of the most rewarding aspects of the sport and one of the things that draws people so closely to it. We have so much to gain from climbing and so much to give to the community and land that make it possible.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Climbing

  1. It sounds like you’re a much higher level climber than me. When I’m climbing outdoors, I most enjoy the degree of focus I get from climbing, and the union of mind and body.
    My wife has been enjoying the trips we’ve made to climbing gyms, and I’m hoping to get her out on a cliff this summer.

    • Thank you for the comment! Hopefully you can get her to join outside. Going to the gym can be great and lots of fun, but being outside has amazing benefits on its own. They both are worthy experiences in their own ways. Climbing is excellent for focusing and bring the mind and body together. That definitely is a great aspect that I enjoy as well.

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