Should anyone ask, about rock climbing

I’m petrified of heights. I love rock climbing.

Being on the climbing wall wakes up primal fears. All I can focus on is staying on the wall. No work thoughts. No relationship thoughts. Just facing one fear. Slowly working up the wall to the top.

Climbing routes are marked out with a difficulty. For example one of the routes I climbed yesterday, marked as a 5+ difficulty, meant that I was only using the purple grips. The routes are cleverly designed: there’s always a way to the top. The routes gets increasingly more difficult as the numbers rise.

The grips on the wall are placed so that you’re solving a puzzle with a combination of two hands, two feet and your body weight. Half way up I’ll hit a patch that looks like there is no way forward. The grips above me are too high and the grip that I’m standing on is awkwardly placed. I’ll try and reach for the grip in front but it’s too far and I risk falling. Then I discover the grip I’d overlooked by my right foot because it’s out to the side. By shifting my weight to a new foothold I can better reach the grips above my head and suddenly a new route opens up and I can progress higher on the wall. 

Climbing shows us how different perspectives on a problem impact how we feel about it and solve it. For example, when watching a partner climb, we have a very different perspective and feeling. 

Perspective-wise, we can see a different route up the wall from our firmly-on-the-ground viewpoint. Feeling-wise, it’s easy to suggest “just reach for it” from below. And yet this is so different to being on the wall yourself. 

From below you see a different route up: different because you can see different footholds or grips that they can’t see. Different because your vision isn’t clouded by fear or the pain in your arms when getting around an overhang.

Hearing “there’s a grip to your left that might help” is useful. Being able to jump over our fear of falling in case we can’t reach the grip is hard. And needing to trust our climbing partner to be securing well in case of a fall, even harder.

Another thing I like about rock climbing: it teaches me the value of taking a break. Apart from good upper body strength, I imagine good climbers are intimately acquainted with their their own limits: how far they can reach, how long they can hang on in overhang or how long they can remain stretched out before the next push. Good climbers know when to take a break, when to hang on the wall with all your weight on the rope, resting the arms, recharging (and re-chalking). I’m not good at taking breaks. On the wall or in life. This year I have taken one week off (and stayed in the city). It’s a lousy way to progress and I’m not proud of it. I have a lovely break planned for the end of the year. If I can get there without falling from the wall. I’d like to change this approach in 2016. Know that I will need breaks and pre-plan them into the work year.

As a child I loved climbing trees. But I also had a healthy respect for the heights. Rock climbing reminds me of this flirting with fear and I love the “fear focus” that blocks out all the “brain noise” as you reach for the next grip.

If you are in Berlin and fancy learning, I think I’m a pretty good teacher.


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