Category Archives: Random Thoughts

Reflections on Climbing After More Than 20 Years: Why I (Still) Love Climbing

Photo by Jody Sanborn

Photo by Jody Sanborn, Jay Em Photography

“A life practice, then, is anything that we do over an extended period of time that consistently and reliably deepens the connection to our experience and expression of aliveness. … All such activities, if practiced mindfully and with passionate devotion, can be called a form of Yoga.” (from “Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living,” by Donna Farhi)

Climbing possesses an incredible potential to keep pushing a person to have new and novel experiences of being oneself and of being human, whether that person has been climbing for two days or 20+ years. It provides ceaseless opportunities for complete engagement in each moment, of total presence in the here and now. This is what so captivated me the very first day I climbed: this nonverbal state of total-being absorption plus the creativity involved in solving the puzzle made climbing appealing and engrossing to me immediately.

Now, more than 20 years after I first tied in and stepped off the ground, climbing still consistently encourages me to learn and grow in new directions, to expand my comfort zone. It’s a lifelong practice of self-study and self-examination on so many levels. The combination and coordination of physical gains, technical/tactical gains and mental/emotional gains continue to be immensely satisfying, just as the wonder of animating a body-being that transforms due to my efforts to change it never ceases to amaze and inspire me.

Every time I unravel a new piece of beta or do a move I couldn’t do before – whether it’s fairly singular and route-specific, or multiuse and employable across a number of routes – I feel that sense of excitement and discovery about what I can do with this body I get to animate. I’ll never get to animate a different body in this lifetime, but I can endeavor to push this one to its peak potential with an open mind and heart to all that is possible. In fact, nothing is or has ever been more fun than proving to myself time and time again that I can do things that I was absolutely sure at one point or another that I couldn’t do, things that once felt impossible or perhaps just seemed impossible to me to even try. Climbing gives me this experience repeatedly, reaffirming that many obstacles that seem impossible to surmount are indeed possible given the time and effort. Tackling routes that are difficult for me makes the “impossible” possible, as I work to gradually take that route or maybe even just some of the moves from that route from totally impossible into the realm of possibility. This experience never gets old for me.

Because I like to reach so near the edges of my being’s current ability level, climbing also presents an ongoing and self-created challenge in how much adversity I can take while remaining positively engaged. But when I’m not regularly trying hard, I’m not satisfied. And yet climbing, too, has taught me the worthy lesson of knowing when to say when, and when to let go. When dreams and goals change there’s no point or value to clinging to the past-me and forcing the present-me to try to achieve what past-me wanted, unless it still seems enjoyable and relevant. Climbing is supposed to be enjoyable, and if it stops being enjoyable and starts to feel like a burdensome chore, then I have lost the point. I admit, this still happens sometimes – it’s easy to lose perspective and to start to get too serious, before I reel myself back in and remind myself that it doesn’t matter – the only thing that matters is if I’m not having fun, if I’m no longer enjoying the journey. Not enjoying climbing is an affront to the spirit of the sporting process, and yet it can also be a valuable part of the process of learning and maturing and deepening the self, too. We play to have fun and because it is fun, and yet, when we play with a passion, that playing can sometimes lose its lighthearted spirit and the sense of freedom that comes with maintaining this approach.

Regaining perspective for me when I find myself veering off-center involves a conscious letting-go process of surrendering to the place I am now. I do all I can to improve my climbing ability, and if that’s not enough, so be it. I cannot – or rather, I should not – be dissatisfied if I give it my all every day I have to give, be it in training or in climbing or even in understanding that resting is the smartest choice I can make on any given day. It helps to remember that brains are almost always ahead of bodies in terms of where they think one “should be” in the improvement process…and yet those same brains can be frustratingly slow to adapt to coordinating and assimilating the raw bodily gains a person makes through training, being temporarily stuck in patterns of the past and what’s worked in the past without yet realizing what the newly strengthened or otherwise improved body might now be capable of in the present.

If I am dissatisfied after a climbing day, I try to regroup and regain this perspective as quickly as possible, without getting down on myself for having those feelings of dissatisfaction or frustration at the slow pace of the process. I am human, after all, and such feelings will inevitably arise at times. (“I want results, and I want them NOW!”) Not allowing these feelings to dominate my psyche, I free them up to pass by without negative self-judgment that they arose in the first place. This enables me to return to a more positive perspective more rapidly these days. Letting go of the expectation of outcomes happening on any given deadline and just working in the present on doing what I can to push my ability is all I can do, and striving to embrace that process with an open mind, however long it takes, is a key to staying absorbed and enjoying it.

This is not to say that all of the training I do is enjoyable in the exact moment I do it – though even the most tortuous training exercises I do definitely leave me feeling satisfied and pleased as soon as I’m done with them, even if in the moment they just hurt. I do love training…but more because I love the results in my climbing than because I’m masochistic. I don’t enjoy the pain or the recovery time required. But I do love the process of putting in the building blocks through training that are necessary for me to build a stronger, more able version of the physical body I inhabit, and then rewiring this whole being to utilize that body more efficiently and effectively as it adapts to and comes to comprehend what those gains have made accessible and possible.

Learning and growing and being willing to change my training, my approach, my beta, and my preferred style of climbing as I mold my being to adapt and grow stronger and more adept keeps the climbing experience fresh and young to me, even as I inevitably grow older. This is all on the whole pure fun and joy for me – nothing less, nothing more. Whatever happens, happens, and it really doesn’t matter, as long as it’s enjoyable. What does matter is my ever-deepening ability to value each climbing moment as much as possible, wherever I may find myself on any given climbing day, whether it’s clipping the chains after a sublime send, or simply laughing at the circus-like nature of my sport (sport climbing) – in which the result of “failure” involves dangling on the end of a rope suspended in midair, trying to decide if it’s worth it to me do some extravagant maneuvers, such as wild kipping rope pull-ups (“boinking”) or “walking the rope,” to get back on the route, or whether I should just lower down and try again later.

Of course it’s nice to send a route or to make progress, but it’s much less nice overall if this becomes the definition of what makes a climbing day (or just climbing in general or life in general) fun or worthwhile, because then a person might just find themselves stuck in a self-made emotional prison where one’s inner state of being consistently depends on external results. It’s a recipe for an often unpleasant and unceasing emotional roller coaster ride. One of the secrets to living a fulfilling and happy life is learning to truly relish and savor the small marvels that make up one’s everyday living, rather than storing up expectations for the next uplifting great event (for climbers, often a send is that event) that needs to happen to pump oneself up and feel good, before gradually sliding down the deflationary slope back into the boring old humdrum routine of normalcy and starting to seek out and crave that next high point. In that humdrum routine of normalcy lies the potential for true appreciation of life in the present moment, right there within reach whenever we open our minds to such a possibility.

How cool is it to be privileged enough to rock climb at all, to live in a time and a place where I have the freedom and opportunity to regularly pursue such an awesome activity? These days, I strive to be content no matter what the outcome of any climbing day brings – low point or high, send or no send – just to be happy and grateful to be out climbing and to be present on the rock from moment to moment, learning whatever the day has to teach me and being okay with whatever potential my body-being has on any given day. Since I don’t get to inhabit this body forever or to climb forever, it’s a waste of my precious time to not cherish each moment that I spend on (or falling off of!) the rock.

prAna Life: Yoga Mind, Climbing Mind

Vrschikasana in pincha mayurasana, my 2nd day of practicing this asana.

It’s STILL snowing in Wyoming (nothing new & different), so I took this opportunity (after some solid days of climbing training) to start teaching myself a new asana (pose), pictured above — Vrschikasana in Pincha Mayurasana, or Scorpion Pose in Forearm Stand. It definitely still needs lots of work, but it’s a start; I have no idea if I’ll ever get those feet to touch my head, but who cares?! Read how practicing yoga and the process of learning new poses  has helped improve my climbing in ways I never imagined it would in my latest prAna life entry, Yoga Mind, Climbing Mind: Exploring the “Whys” of Learning & Mastering Movements.

muscle man

Image courtesy of digitart /

“Do not look at others’ bodies with envy or with superiority. All people are born with different constitutions. Never compare with others. Each one’s capacities are a function of his or her internal strength. Know your capacities and continually improve upon them.”

(From Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom, by B.K.S. Iyengar)