Tag Archives: happiness

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.

One Climber’s Story: Five Injury Case Studies (V)


To round out this series on climbing injuries, the next few entries will get a little more personal as I present and discuss five injuries I’ve incurred during my life as a climber. I share these in the hopes that they might help other climbers/athletes first and foremost to avoid similar injuries. I also hope to help others understand that if and when injuries do occur, they can provide great insights and lessons for us in the moment as well as for our future selves as to what we should and shouldn’t do to avoid incurring such show-stopping injuries again. Every single injury or series of injuries I’ve lived through has led to a greater understanding of my own body and being, informing and shaping my life afterward in ways that I maybe never would have expected or been open to had the injury never happened.

Case Study Five: Nerve Impingement (2012)

Injury: Nerve impingement in my left arm leading to a temporary partial paralysis of my left hand and wrist.

Causal Factors: Overtraining and too much, too soon, plus a likely connection to the previous muscle tears in 2006, which I believe probably didn’t heal properly and played into this whole scenario. I dove right into training in the winter as hard as I had been training in the previous winter instead of easing into it slowly (which is way smarter). Once again, my enthusiasm got the best of me. I was stoked to try out some new, difficult opposing muscle exercises (pushing motions opposing the common “pulling” motions of climbing), which I should have waited to try until I was more conditioned. My hand started to have some numbness and to feel weak. In response, I backed off what I was doing in training, and it started improving as a result (of course; at least I’d learned something about overtraining at this point). Then I tripped and fell on a hard surface while traveling, and I put my hands out automatically to absorb the shock. This inflamed what was already inflamed even more. My radial nerve became impinged, almost cutting off the signaling from my brain to my hand. I couldn’t type or pick up a glass of water or put a rubber band in my hair, much less clip a climbing rope into a quickdraw with my left hand, for a couple months.

Recovery: I don’t want to rehash this injury here in great detail. I did seek medical help and did get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. This involved absolutely no repetition of the motion causing the injury (i.e. no pushups and guarding obsessively against falling and catching impacts on my arm, and so forth), ample use of NSAIDs (ibuprofen multiple times a day), ice on the affected area, and an understanding that if it didn’t progressively improve or it worsened, that I would probably need surgery or risk losing full use of the limb for life. Thankfully, this injury did heal progressively and I didn’t reinjure it; gradually and ever-so-slowly, I regained the full use of my left hand and arm, and the awful feeling of paralysis, numbness and weakness subsided.

Long-Term Result: This injury was the best injury for me ever, though at the time, it was completely devastating – not just physically but also, mentally and emotionally. All of my injuries throughout life have been blessings in disguise in one way or another, whether we’re talking climbing-related physical injuries or entirely mental/emotional injuries, actually, but this could take me off on a philosophical tangent for pages and pages. The point here is that this injury forced me to take a step back and take a hard look at what I was doing to myself repeatedly in training and even beyond training (too much) and to wave it off like an MMA referee waves off a fighter from his or her already downed opponent, disallowing the opportunity for more strikes and more damage. In this case, I was fighting myself and TKO’ing myself regularly, knocking myself down not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally, completely, time and time again. This is common pattern for the zealous athlete (or any person who is overcommitted to anything), but not a very sustainable or productive approach, especially over the long term.

A frightening, sidelining injury can provide an incredible opportunity, giving you space and time that you don’t normally have to think things through while you’re away from your sport, perhaps becoming an impetus for change, for introspection and for reevaluation/examination of your approach to training, climbing or life overall…even if it only serves as a slow-it-down signal, and nothing more. It can be so desperately hard in the moment (or long, drawn-out moments) of downtime away from the activity you love to see things positively in this manner or to understand what you can take from the situation and mold into a brighter, more productive and fulfilling way of climbing, living and being. It’s not something to succeed or fail at, though; it’s a process and an opportunity for growth and learning.

This injury compelled me to reevaluate so many aspects of my being. The details don’t really matter as far as sharing all of the personal revelations and realizations that came from this. The big message from this injury for me was, “Wake up!” Stop bullying and berating and beating your being, body, mind and soul, for not performing at the levels you aspire to perform at. Find a gentler approach, a sounder path, a safer way to make this journey toward climbing harder (or whatever you dream of doing better or differently) productive and pleasant, both, for all aspects of your being, and those around you, too. Enjoy your relative state of health, strength and comfortable living situation now instead of racing for and banking on some better place that might exist some day in the future (or dwelling in the past).

It’s fine to pursue greater heights and personal goals but it’s also really important – more important – to find comfort and peace and joy with who you are, where you are and what you can do right now – and then ideally, to be able to share that sense of joie de vivre with others, without losing or compromising your own internal sense of balance, integrity and wholeness.

“What you are is what you have been, what you will be is what you do now,” according to Buddha, as quoted by Nischala Joy Devi in “The Secret Power of Yoga: A Woman’s Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras.”