Finding Myself on the Wall

How climbing teaches me to manage my fear and love myself.

Sometimes I find myself on the wall doing something I never thought possible: holding onto something that doesn’t seem to have a place to hold, or reaching something that looks out of reach. Other times it’s like I’m waking up to find myself trapped in what seems to be an inescapable spot: no holds above me, or nowhere to put my feet to push myself higher. In these cases, the problem is clear. The solution isn’t.

In climbing, the problem can be on the wall, or it can be with my confidence, or my fear. Being able to consistently test solutions, push through challenges, and conquer the problem is what makes climbing a perfect mental and physical outlet for me.

For me, climbing is all about managing fear and trusting myself. I have to manage my natural instincts of being afraid of heights and of falling. I also have to learn to trust my abilities and skills while respecting myself and my boundaries in order to avoid getting hurt or endangering myself or others.

In addition, the different types of climbing require different levels of this fear management and self-trust. I first learned top-rope climbing, but as I got better I got more comfortable. Then I learned bouldering, and got more comfortable there, so I learned how to lead climb. Throughout this process, I’ve built my physical strength and climbing technique, but also self confidence and my ability to manage fear.

  • Top-roping is the most comfortable form of climbing for me. I can see the rope, and I can sometimes see the anchor keeping the rope secure. I can feel the taut lack of slack in my rope, and lean back from the wall to test it. I can rest at any time as well, so there is time to slow down and take breaks. All of this physical security reinforces a psychological sense of security, which can help me do more challenging moves and climb higher than I might otherwise feel comfortable climbing.
  • Bouldering requires me to stomach my fear and muster my self-confidence to take me to the top of a wall, or over the top of a wall, without a rope. Bouldering routes are typically anywhere from 10-20 feet high in a gym, and in some incredible outdoor routes, 40 or more feet high. Without the physical security of a rope or an anchor, I have to know my physical and psychological strengths and limits before I start. This forces me to scope out the route before I start climbing, and prepare myself to jump or fall to the ground if I feel uncomfortable. Bouldering forces me to get used to this discomfort and either overcome it or recognize when it is valid and to listen to it.
  • Lead climbing takes the height of top-roping and combines it with the mental aspects of bouldering. No longer do I have the visible anchor or a taut rope to help me feel safe—it’s just me and the wall. I’m conquering the problem while also taking all the necessary steps to keep myself safe: clip properly, climb safely around the rope, and rest when I can. There’s little to no room for fear.

Each type of climbing removes an element of physical security and further challenges my psychological security as I progress. In this way, I’ve been forced to progressively confront and challenge my limits at the same time that I learn to respect and recognize them.

The dangers of climbing are real. It’s an extreme sport. Though it doesn’t always feel dangerous in a gym, any time that you are high up in the air relying on humans and equipment, something can fail and you can die. It’s also easy to get injured due to bad technique: over-gripping holds, inadequately engaging muscles, straining hand muscles and tendons on hard-to-grip holds. If anything, these risks force me to prioritize muscle recovery and rest days, allowing me to recognize that just as physical self care is important, so too is psychological self care.

Despite these risks, climbing lets me get more in-tune with myself than anything else that I’ve tried. It’s a wall of problems, but each one is recognizable and each one is solvable, and I can try them again and again. I can learn by watching someone else solve it, but I can’t solve it the same way because we have different skill sets, physical strength, and body types. I still have solve the problem myself in my own way.

Climbing with other people has also been key to my mental strength. Climbing partners are vital to my safety, but also to my confidence level. They can encourage me to try new routes, and give me beta when I start to falter on a route. Beta, typically defined as information about a route, can also involve encouragement. Everything from the tactical “there’s a foothold by your right knee” to the encouraging “you can reach it!” to the calming “don’t look, just feel” is great beta that has helped me succeed. (I’ve named that last type Yoga Beta). Even so, sometimes the best beta is silence so that I can focus on the problem.

Climbing as a method for teaching myself that I can succeed and iterating my way through problem-solving helps me overcome my fear of failure. I’m learning to trust myself to get through each move, and find something to (physically, psychologically) support myself along the way. I have to trust myself, and the rock, every step of the way.