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When I was young, I was sure that the secret to happiness was climbing 5.12. Once I could do that, I’d have made it. I would finally belong in the notoriously dedicated Boulder, Colorado, climbing community. I wouldn’t have to prove myself anymore.
Around that time, an early partner told me I was too hard on myself and that my goal to climb 5.12 made me a pain to climb with. So, I tried to get to the bottom of my behavior by reading self-help books. I flipped through Don McGrath and Jeff Elison’s Vertical Mind: Psychological Approaches for Optimal Rock Climbing and getting to one of the book’s first little quizzes. “Why do you climb?” I sat on the dirty carpet of my basement room in South Boulder and chewed my ballpoint pen to splinters. I had no idea.
Three years later, I hit my imaginary benchmark, clipping the chains of Empire of the Fenceless (5.12a) in Boulder Canyon as the last of the sunlight leaked from the sky. The drive home felt surreal. I’m a 5.12 climber now, I thought as I watched my headlights swing down the curves of the canyon road. I’ve made it. I couldn’t wait until I got back into cell service and could start texting my friends.
Today, I know the answer to McGrath and Elison’s question. I climb because I like exercise and being outside. But also because, deep down, I feel like I have to—both to maintain my friendships and to maintain my identity. I’ve been climbing for so long, I don’t know who I am without it. I’m afraid that if I stop, there’ll be nothing left. I’m afraid that the community I’ve spent my whole life building will drift away, uninterested, if I can’t keep up.
It’s hard to say where we get these ideas. We pick them up in passing. They stick to us like burrs.
Maybe we notice that all weekend trips with the friend group are climbing trips. Or we listen to a climber joke about finding a partner who’s a little faster on the approach and wonder if that’s us. Or we hear about that old acquaintance who had a baby, and our friends shrug when we ask them how the new dad is doing. “I’m not sure,” they say. “He kinda stopped climbing. So we just don’t really see him around anymore, you know?”
Over time, we become certain that if we don’t climb harder, we won’t belong. That it’s not OK to climb “only” 5.10 or “only” top-rope. That if we’re not constantly pushing, we lack the dedication to consider ourselves “real” climbers. That complacency is a sin. That beating ourselves up is the path to holiness.
And so we push, subconsciously convinced that if we climb that harder grade, we’ll finally be respected, accepted, loved. That everything will change for the better and life will finally be easy.
My life did not change when I sent my first 5.12. I think it was the very next day that I started telling myself that the route was a one-move wonder, “only 5.12a,” and that I still wasn’t good enough. Today, I’ve sent harder things, redpointed dangerous trad climbs, won competitions—and still feel like I haven’t made it. When I think about my future, I find myself looking down the long tunnel of a life spent this way: always certain that I’m not enough, always sure that the next send will bring me happiness. That I can be content then, not now.
A few years ago, the friend I mentioned earlier—the one who told me I needed to get my act together—died in the mountains. He was my first mentor and loved climbing more than anyone I’ve ever known. Sometimes at belays or rests, when I’m having a tough day, I look out at the view. I think about him and how much he would give to be climbing right now, climbing anything at all.
It’s fun to feel strong. But the secret to truly enjoying climbing isn’t getting stronger. It’s accepting where you’re at—in any given day, week, or year. It’s enjoying it now or never. It’s holding onto every moment, every day in the sun. Every day of climbing, climbing anything at all.
5 Tips to Love the Climbing Grade You’re At
This is a skill I’m still learning, but here are the things that have helped along the way.
- Ask Yourself Why You Climb. If you get disproportionately upset when you fall or fail, you might be worried about something bigger than the climb. Ask yourself what your motivations are. Are they intrinsic motivations, like a genuine love of movement or exploration? Or are they extrinsic motivations, like approval from friends or a partner? The former usually lead to a curious, fun-loving approach to climbing. The latter can lead to negativity, self-sabotage, and burnout. (I highly recommend Vertical Mind, mentioned above, as a tool for learning about these concepts.)
- Get some perspective. According to research commissioned by the EPA, Americans, on average, spend 93 percent of their lives indoors or in a car. If you’re outside, touching real rock with your hands in a beautiful place—or even exploring thoughtfully-set routes in a wide-open climbing gym—you’re winning. When you start to get stressed about your performance, take a deep breath and smile to yourself. In the grand scheme of things, you’ve got it good.
- Find better partners. You sponge up the mood and motivations of the people you’re with. If your friends are competitive, obsessive, or negative about their own performances, consider branching out. Look for partners you feel safe with—who are supportive of you, kind to themselves, and don’t care what you send or don’t send.
- Stay off social media. Social media can be a great tool for connection, but it’s also a terrific place to get crippling FOMO (i.e. the fear of missing out.) If you’re feeling on edge about your climbing performance, stay off the internet. Go scrambling or climb a tree. Go to the gym and rainbow around. Read a book. Get brunch with a friend. Do something to move and play and remind yourself who you are—not who the internet thinks you should be. (I periodically delete my Instagram. By day three of abstinence, I’m like a whole new person.)
- Talk yourself up. When you feel negative thoughts coming, counter them with calm, logical statements that you know are true. Instead of “I suck at climbing,” tell yourself, “This route is hard.” Instead of “I’ll never get better,” tell yourself, “I just made some small progress on that last move,” or “I’m new to this route/area/sport and I’m still learning.” Remind yourself of your motivations, celebrate your successes, and remember: Your ticklist isn’t the arbiter of your happiness. You are.
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