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Can Climbing Be a Form of Therapy?

"In a community that’s fixated on optimizing health and performance, I was heartbroken to realize how many people were barely hanging on."

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Editor’s note: This piece includes discussions of self-harm and suicide. If you or a loved one are experiencing these feeling, please visit this site.

My low point came on a crisp fall day in 2014 in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

I’d set my sights on 8 Ball, a 5.12d at the Motherlode that I intended to try with friends. On my first attempt, I fell at the crux, worked out the beta, and climbed to the top. Expecting to send next go, I belayed my friend on it, and then tied back in. This time, I fell a little bit lower. I felt discouraged, but decided to pull back up to work the moves again: “I just need to be more efficient,” I thought.

Every attempt, I fell progressively lower. On my sixth go, my friend suggested I stop for the day.

“It seems like you’re getting tired,” he said. “Maybe you need a rest day.”

“I’m fine,” I said quietly, but I felt like a toddler who’s been told, “You’re tired and need to go to bed.” I wanted to throw myself on the ground and scream.

I began a long, arduous healing journey that had been suspended during my immersion in climbing. I learned new approaches to healing from trauma and found ways to reconnect with my family of origin.

Today, when I tell someone I’m pursuing a master’s in adventure-based counseling and studying the intersection of adventure athletics and mental health, I often hear, “Wow, that’s so cool. I’ve always seen climbing as my therapy.”

Climbing’s all-consuming nature can have strong therapeutic benefits. With its support, many people have fought through substance-use disorders, grief, break-ups, and periods of uncertainty. With its intense demand for focus and body awareness, climbing can help us live in the here-and-now and empower us to make healthy changes; it has the potential to fill our lives with joy, purpose, and friendship. However, the problem for many athletes comes from this belief: “If a little climbing is therapeutic, then a lot will heal me.”

That October day in the Red, I had climbed 62 days—nearly nine weeks—in a row. I had crushed my season goal of sending my first 5.13a, cruising six routes at that grade in three weeks. From an outside perspective, I was living the dream: dedicating my life to climbing and seeing the results. Inside, though, I felt destroyed. I hadn’t straightened my elbows in weeks, and I woke up every morning feeling more exhausted than the night before.

I was slipping away. In my senior year of high school in Detroit, after sharing my queer identity with peers, I was sexually assaulted by a classmate. Believing it was my fault for coming out, I stayed quiet. I was a high-level distance runner, and as the season approached, I increased my mileage exponentially. When hip surgery ended my dreams of running track in college, I didn’t know what to do. I turned to self-harm, substance use, and disordered eating; eventually, in a moment of crisis, I attempted suicide. A few months later, when I returned to climbing, a sport I’d fallen in love with at the age 11, it felt like something to look forward to. Over time, though, I began to live solely for the moments when I could clip the chains and prove, to myself and others, that I was not a broken person. My climbing relationships, once cherished friendships, became transactional belay swaps. I poured my energy into hard projects.

That day on 8 Ball, I couldn’t imagine what I’d do if I left the crag early. The few hours each night after climbing, when I should have been sleeping soundly after exhausting days of activity, were filled with flashbacks and night terrors. Off the rock, I felt so numb and afraid, but those moments on the wall reminded me that I was alive and capable of being brave. My experience on 8 Ball, however, showed me how fragile that feeling was. After my eighth go, I tearfully crammed my gear into my bag and told the crew that I’d meet them back at camp. I stumbled back to the parking lot alone, nauseous and dizzy and afraid of what I might do next.

I burrowed into my Subaru, squeezing between weeks of dirty laundry that I’d neglected amid my climbing frenzy. I dug a crusty knife from my kitchen box and, without thinking, started to trace an old scar on my forearm. I pressed more deeply than I realized, and looked down to see blood trickling down onto my crossed legs.

I felt like I was waking up from a trance, as if rock climbing had frozen me in place and now I was right back where I’d been before returning to climbing. “I need help,” I whispered. I left a note on my friends’ car to let them know I was leaving. My first real rest day in months was the drive home to Detroit.

Read This: A Lost Boulderer Battles Back From His Hardest Problem: Addiction

(Photo: Irene Yee)

In leaving the Red, I began a long, arduous healing journey that had been suspended during my immersion in climbing. I learned new approaches to healing from trauma and found ways to reconnect with my family of origin. I moved to a new community where I felt safe enough to share my LGBTQ+ identity and no longer viewed myself as a target for physical violence. And I began to value myself as a person and enjoyed exploring my identity outside of simply being an athlete and performer.

When I returned to climbing again, I knew that things needed to be different. I had exhausted the “send-at-all-costs” approach, and was ready for something more sustainable. I began taking care of my basic needs—food, water, sleep, and a supportive community—as a prerequisite for getting out. Rather than scrounging for belays, I planned my climbing days around spending time with people who lit me up and inspired me to be the best version of myself. I learned to love being on the wall, struggling and learning for their own sake, not because I was running away from life on the ground.

In 2021, I discussed my journey in the climbing film They/Them. Afterward, I received an outpouring of messages from climbers who were silently struggling with eating disorders, depression, anxiety, isolation, and suicidal ideation. In a community that’s fixated on optimizing health and performance, I was heartbroken to realize how many people were barely hanging on. I kept wondering how we’d let this happen: How had we sidelined mental health as something to address only obliquely, through ever-more-strenuous activity and ever-larger objectives?

The messages around mental health and athletics are changing. In 2021, Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka—by each publicly withdrawing from competition, Biles at the Olympics and Osaka at the French Open—advocated for their mental health, sharing the message that we should address psychological injuries with as much care and concern as physical illness and injury. Climbers are no different.

This is not a plea for us to leave the crag and go to therapy. When it’s accessible and affirming, formal mental-health treatment is an amazing resource, but this is not always an option. Instead, this is an invitation to take a deeper look at our approach to climbing, as individual athletes and as a community. Instead of running blindly to the mountains to check out during hard times or seeking validation through our climbing performance, we can pause to investigate what we need out of climbing at the moment—a distraction before returning to a tough conversation, some support from friends, a moment to move our bodies outdoors—and approach our days and seasons more intentionally.

For us climbers, mental health lays the foundation for our ability to manage risk and engage skillfully with an objective. We shouldn’t need a crisis to start caring for such important aspects of our well-being. Open, honest introspection is not a source of weakness, but rather of personal power. Sharing our stories and destigmatizing the need for affirming mental healthcare can make our entire community stronger. It might also save lives.

Lor Sabourin is a professional climber based in the Southwest. As the training leader for the Warrior’s Way, they teach adventure athletes and high performers about healthy ways to manage stress and confront risk.

Read This: Can Climbing be Used to Treat Depression?

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