My dad wishes I didn’t climb. For one thing, he’s afraid of heights; so much so that walking three flights up a fire tower makes him nauseous, so scaling cliffs seems unfathomably frightening. For another, he’s never tried it, not even in a gym. He doesn’t understand the melding of strength, balance, and focus required to send a route. He only knows that some people climb without ropes, and some of them die, and some other people who do climb with ropes die too. For him, climbing is an unnecessary risk taken to get to the top of something via the most difficult route; utter senselessness.
My dad and stepmom asked me recently if I though climbing was “just a phase” in my life, like when all I eat for breakfast is Honey Almond Kashi cereal for a month and then switch to only eating eggs and toast for breakfast the next.
I explained that climbing is not in fact “just a phase,” and I’ll probably have gear on my Christmas wish lists for many years to come. They then asked why I like it so much. That was a stumper.
How does one explain to someone who has never climbed the feeling of pulling oneself up a cliff? Or a boulder? Or even just the difference between trad climbing, sport climbing, and toproping without the other person beginning to daydream?
The question did get me thinking about why I climb, especially since they were both staring at me expecting a quick, well-reasoned answer. It’s certainly not just for the exercise; there are much less stressful ways to tone your arms than leading a run-out 5.11. It’s not for an adrenaline rush either—the most common reason non-climbers think the rest of us climb—that means I’m doing something wrong or am overly frightened or both. I try to avoid all three.
Sometimes I want to unlock the puzzle of onsighting a route, discovering the best holds and working out the easiest line up a section of rock. Other times, I need the focus required for leading at my limit to clear my mind; I cannot worry about finding six sources for my next journalism class article if I’m trying to not fall off a cliff. There are also times when I just want to have fun, chatting my way up easy routes or toproping routes I probably could lead but will appreciate more without fear of falling preventing me from enjoying the movement on my first time up. Other days I don’t feel like pulling on plastic in the gym, but I still top out a few boulder problems because I want to get stronger and smoother for my next time outside.
For me, the best parts of climbing are the focus required to send, the movement on the rock, and the climbing community. Realizing I’ve thought of nothing but moving from one hold to another from the time I left the ground to clipping the chains is the closest to meditating I’ve gotten; I return to the ground balanced, more relaxed and, occasionally, excited. As for movement, who doesn’t love the feeling of jumping to a jug and sticking, back arching and legs flinging backward to hold the swing? Or the magical moment when you hit a crimp, begin to barn-door, and then remain on the wall, surprising yourself? And then there’s the climbing community: the most friendly, accepting individuals I know. Despite often being the least experienced climber in the group, no one has ever said, “No Liz, I’d really rather you didn’t come and struggle on my warm-up,” or “No, I don’t feel like letting you toprope the route I just sent.”
Climbing is a mental and physical challenge. You need to figure out the moves, remembering the correct hand and foot sequences and how to twist your body between them to minimize energy expenditure to link them perfectly and send. You must fight your fear of falling, pushing the idea out of your mind, so you can fully commit to each move. You have to maintain good form and smooth movement even when you’re exhausted. But you get to celebrate, or at least feel some sense of accomplishment, each time you clip the chains or stand on top of a boulder.
So why do I climb rocks? It’s a lot of things, a different reason every time I go out, and probably many more reasons that I’ve yet to realize. But what I do know is: Not rock climbing isn’t an option.
Originally published July 27, 2015, on coffeetapeibuprofenclimb.blogspot.com.