May 17, 2017

Health : Climbing On & Off Rock

A few weeks ago, three other women and I took a climbing trip to Red Rock Canyon in Nevada.  We climbed for three days, in places like the Black Corridor where the dark textured rock lightens all other feelings other than gratitude for these formations, Sandstone Quarry where the landscape transforms into a windy dusty white, and the Gallery where we play musical chairs with all the shapes that rock can assume.  We lie on its flatness and occupy the same air.  We hide from heat in its craggy crevices.  We look at it from across the way, the scope crushing the small space between our ribs and lungs.  We climb its edges and pockets, finding ways for our hands and feet to fit.

Red Rock is where I first really started climbing outside, a year and a half ago. So coming back naturally made me reflect on what's happened in that space of time, both on and off rock.

There's a lot about climbing that naturally applies to "real life."  It's all very cliche and very true.  Look at the overall path of the route, but focus on each move.  Know where you want to go, but don't let the destination distract you from the present action.  Don't stop climbing until you fall, because you have more stamina than you think and you can lunge higher than you think and you have more strength to hang on than you think.  Take falls, because while it's terrifying, you will be caught and it will make you a better climber.

So much of why people love climbing has to do with how it's a physical mirror of our struggles and goals in our lives.  And it simplifies them, distilling what might seem layered and confusing in our personal lives down to a slab of rock with a path up.

And I think that's why so many of us turn to climbing when life gets hard.  I've heard so many climbers, women and men, use climbing as a counter to a personal issue (most often, breakups).  Some use it as a release: "After a bad break-up, I was angry and just attacked the walls."  Some use it as an escape: "It feels like I'm running away from something."  Some use it as a substitute, funneling the commitment to another person into a commitment that's independent of any person but themselves.  Some use it build what they feel like they're missing: "I wish I was as brave in other parts of my life."

It's interesting that while it seems healthy to use a physical activity to cope with stress, a lot of these people are a little ambivalent about whether it's the best tool.  That as much as you might progress in climbing, it doesn't always translate to moving forward in other areas of life.  That sometimes climbing actually becomes a crutch, making it hard to address what's going on outside of it.

This is a hard thing to recognize, because in so many ways climbing has helped me clarify and strengthen who I am/want to be as a person.  I've identified courage, adventure, openness, and gratitude as qualities that climbing nurtures, and that I now seek in my day to day life in a way that's much more active and mindful than I did before climbing.

Climbing rock is an awesome thing, both on its own and because of its applicability to all the other things we climb in our lives.  But I think it's important to see when something can no longer compare to real life, by pure nature of it not being real life.

So when I think about how far I've come in terms of climbing Red Rock from October of 2015 to April of 2017, I try to also reflect on what's happened outside of that and make sure that my focus on becoming a better climber hasn't overshadowed my goals as a person.  As with anything, it's good to be lenient and gentle and allow for lapses and non-linear progress.  Looking back isn't about lamenting things not done; I just like to be aware of what's happened and what's happening.

To that end, here are ways I'd like to do in life what I aspire to in climbing:

Face the fear of falling: I want to try more often things that are outside my comfort zone and that scare me, if I think I might enjoy them, or even if I don't, to do them for the experience of feeling discomfort.  I think this is actually easier to do in climbing than in other parts of my life, because the result is fairly predictable and you can practice it in the gym.  In other things, the fear and discomfort take different forms and it can feel new each time.  And I guess that's sort of the point.

Focus on the next move: When sport climbing, we're always looking for the next bolt to clip in our rope, because that's the next spot where we'll be secure, without a fear of a free fall.  One of our climbing friends always gives the advice of not focusing on that next bolt--sometimes it scares us if it's really far, or it worries us because we're not sure of the exact route of getting there. It can become so consuming that we don't move.  Our friend says to instead to focus on the next move; do one after another and we'll eventually get to the next bolt.  As a person taught from early age to consider long-term goals, I'd like to approach certain things in my life differently.  I want to remember that even as we get older, it's not all about reaching certain markers of adulthood.

Try things above your level: This is something climbers talk about all the time--getting on routes that are rated harder than what you think you can climb.  Often you surprise yourself, and at the very least you increase your skills.  Again I've found this easier to try in climbing than say, in work (or even in my domestic life, where I've convinced myself I'm just not built to be a technical or practical person and so let a lot of things go broken that I could fix).  But the times that I've committed to trying something I feel I don't know enough to do, I realize we usually work things out and if we don't, we'll learn how eventually.

Leave: One of my favorite things about climbing is that it takes us away from our small corners to new places.  I definitely thrive on routine, which sometimes limits my ability to venture out of my schedule.  I'd like to be more open to doing things unplanned--not filling up every evening ahead of time, leaving more space to walk around and enter new places.

Stay: It's easy to feel like the only way to get better is to climb all the time, but obviously that's not the case.  Resting is important, physically and psychologically.  Similar to thinking about things long-term, I often feel like everything I do has to be working towards something, when sometimes what I need is just to sit alone and absorb my life.

Until next time, Red Rock.

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