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“This sh*t is old news,” I overheard someone complaining as I hurried through the Arsenal at Rifle Mountain Park. “Every other chick these days seems to have the same story. They’re not special.”
I slowed my pace a bit. My partner was waiting, glancing over at me expectantly from across the crag as he finished his knot, but this seemed worth the wait. It didn’t take long to put the story together: the “chick” in question had just shared her decision to enter an eating disorder treatment facility.
I didn’t recognize this guy as a regular. Lucky for him, I thought. If he were, I’d have torn him a new one.
But, in a sense, he was right. I’ve also noticed the theme comes up increasingly often. But none of these stories on eating disorders are less valuable for echoing those that came before. If anything, each additional one I hear makes them all hit even harder.
The climbing community shares a sort of trauma bond. Since the days of lycra leggings and living on cans of cat food in Camp 4, climbers have latched onto one piece of misguided logic: that the lighter you are, the stronger you climb. I don’t blame anyone for believing it. Countless well-meaning climbers, my past-self included, fall into that trap without a second thought because… it works.
For a while, that is. Eventually the high wears off, your body runs out of resources, and your muscles waste away until there’s nothing left but an ashen face contorted in confusion about why even the warm-up feels impossible all of a sudden. And that’s just the least of the negative side effects.
The glamorous side of weight loss in climbing has been celebrated loudly for decades. The consequences, on the other hand, have been this sport’s dirty little secret for just as long. Only recently has the dialogue begun to shift away from the supposed benefits of shrinking your body at all costs to the harsh reality of living with an eating disorder.
Within the past year alone, I’ve noticed a distinct change in the way the climbers around me talk about food. Discussions on lettuce cups and pride in hunger pangs used to echo off the crag walls on a regular basis, stirring up an uncomfortable mixture of frustration and envy in me. Hard-lived experience made sure that I knew better, but the allure remained. I kept my guard up whenever I encountered unfamiliar faces because I didn’t trust the natural flow of conversation among climbers. It always seemed to lead back to the same themes: body fat percentages, eating patterns, and what gluttonous indulgence was at the top of the naughty list that week. In hindsight, it makes sense. Starved minds can’t focus on much else.
But this summer, at my local crag, something changed. I heard less talk about how to cut down and more about how to fuel up. Chatter about food centered more on how many snacks a climber could cram into their pack rather than how few they’d brought along, and how much better they felt after slamming a sandwich instead of how many hours they’d subsisted on nothing but half an apple. Climbers around me no longer waxed poetic about restriction; instead, they sounded angry at their former drive for a smaller body. It was a hopeful sign of a larger shifting narrative.
New research from the Journal of Eating Disorders backs this up. A qualitative study on rock climbing chat forums shows a difference in how contemporary climbers talk about disordered eating, body image concerns, and sustainable athleticism compared to the early 2000’s. Where people used to notoriously probe for bad advice on how to eat less and send more, they’re now working to combat those temptations while advocating for more size diversity in the sport.
Neely Quinn, a Certified Integrative Clinical Nutrition Therapist who specializes in climber nutrition, has noticed a similar trend. “There’s definitely been an increase in the awareness level of my clients over the past year or so about disordered eating behaviors and their health consequences,” she affirms. “It’s exciting having clients talk so openly about it all, and seeing so many of them coming to a place where they’re ready to start recovering. I’m also noticing a lot more body acceptance among all of my clients, whereas even a few years ago, most people I worked with had an urgent desire to lose weight. Now they come to me having clearly thought a lot about their body, talking fluently about their thoughts and feelings about weight, body dysmorphia, and the health consequences of restricting calories. They want help to start eating in a more sustainable, nourishing way, and that’s just amazing to me.”
Climbing coach Alex Stiger experienced her own nutritional transformation thanks to just one enlightening conversation, one that might not have happened a few years ago when such topics were more taboo. “My friend addressing my habits with me really made me feel cared for,” she says. “A bit mad too, at the time, but most importantly aware. With that awareness I was able to gain knowledge of what and how much I was eating, and realized that I was regularly at a deficit during my performance days. From there, I was able to make the changes I needed to feel so much better.”
The point of all this isn’t to say that the problem is solved. Some would think so, like that calloused stranger I overheard at the Arsenal. On the contrary, the conversations are—slowly but surely—working.
So many of us saying the same thing is the only reason that more of us aren’t silently suffering anymore. These repetitive conversations aren’t beating a dead horse; they’re a sign that the climbing community is finally acknowledging the damage. Their prevalence means that we now have the chance to dig up this dirty little secret in its entirety, once and for all.
So I want to hear more of the same. I want to hear all the gory details about how skipping breakfast made you so dizzy that you couldn’t even make it all the way through the approach, let alone up your project. I want to hear how cutting out carbs made you have to skip your training session and nap the day away instead. I want to hear about the string of injuries that kept you from even touching a rock for months on end. I want to hear all the pain, the disappointment, and the bitterness that pursuing smallness at all costs has brought you. There’s been so much glorification of these things for so long that the only way to fight back is with an onslaught of the opposite. We have to make our suffering so abundantly clear that no young climber wants to go down the same road ever again—for the sake of their climbing or their overall wellbeing.
As of now, the truth hasn’t reached all ears yet. “I’ve worked with an alarming number of teen girls whose main goal is to climb harder by any means necessary,” Quinn explains, “including starving themselves until they are hospitalized. I’ve heard clients of all ages say something along the lines of, ‘I don’t look like the girls on the World Cup podiums and I think it’s holding my climbing back.’”
But what if that wasn’t their default belief? What if they’d heard so many horror stories about climber’s lives being stalled at best and altogether halted at worst that the thought of manipulating their weight doesn’t even occur to them as a fast track to improvement?
Until then, there’s no such thing as too much information in this arena. Climbers, keep talking about your eating disorders. The more of the ugly truth we know, the better.