Not Good Enough: Self-Worth, Anxiety, and the Pursuit of 5.14 Trad

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Molly Mitchell skipping the bolts on China Doll on September 10, 2019, to make an all-gear lead of the integral route at 5.14a R, Dream Canyon, Colorado.

Molly Mitchell skipping the bolts on China Doll on September 10, 2019, to make an all-gear lead of the integral route at 5.14a R, Dream Canyon, Colorado.

I. China Doll

“I can’t do this,” I whimpered to my belayer after whipping for the umpteenth time at the same move on my project—pitch one of China Doll in Dream Canyon outside Boulder, Colorado. My goal was to redpoint this bolted, 80-foot 5.13c up a smooth, leaning, overhanging corner crack. The crux was unlike anything I’d ever encountered, involving a transition from one crack around a corner into another crack up and right. I defined this section as an “overhanging slab.” I pulled back on, placed my right foot on a microscopic crystal, and threw toward a flaring gaston pod. My foot slipped yet again, and I fell.

I had been working the pitch for close to two months, beginning in spring 2019, hoping to dial it on the bolts to eventually try the full, 130-foot China Doll on gear at 5.14a R. Above the 5.13c pitch’s anchor, you carry on into a V8/9 section of tips laybacking as the crack steepens. When you link the two pitches, you can choose to skip the bolts on pitch one, instead placing small gear (see sidebar). This is the most frustrating part of projecting—falling at the same move, seeing no progress for weeks. Doubt begins to creep in, and you question your strength, stamina, and ability. Which is where my mind drifted as I swallowed yet another defeat.

I lowered off and sat on a slab below the towering Lost Angel formation, a Yosemite-like shield of granite in the narrow, ponderosa-filled gorge of Dream Canyon. There’s no road here, so the only sounds are the river and the whispering of the wind. Droplets of sweat stung my eyes as I hugged my knees and silently battled racing thoughts. “Maybe it’s your power-endurance … no, you’ve been training.” Then: “Maybe you just need new beta … but you’ve spent weeks on this section. There can’t be any other way.” Then: “Maybe it’s your head. Oh God, not a mental block!” And finally: “Maybe it’s the temps … but Sasha did it in the heat, and if you want to climb the extension you need to do this lower pitch now.”

The negative thoughts manifested as tears streaming down my face. My chest tightened as if the rock I sat on was now atop me, a weight pushing on my heart. Anxiety. I could only manage short, shallow, gasping breaths. Anxiety. A guilty thought crossed my mind that maybe my belayer wouldn’t like me if I got too upset. Anxiety. I tried to fight it, to keep things lighthearted. But my inner demons kept pulling me back to a familiar question: “What if I’m not good enough?”

Not good enough: This thought cuts to the bone, undermining not only my climbing but my overall sense of self-worth. It’s all-consuming. It’s recurring. It’s hollow and lonely, yet also laden with panic and urgency, like there’s some problem I need to solve but never will. And I’ve been dealing with it for 15 years.

Mitchell regroups below China Doll after a failed attempt on the lower pitch (5.13c) in summer 2019.

Mitchell regroups below China Doll after a failed attempt on the lower pitch (5.13c) in summer 2019.

I wanted to find some sliver of control. I reached behind my ear, grabbed a strand of hair, and pulled. There was a familiar, comforting ache as it tore from my scalp. I examined the hair for split ends and was disappointed to find it perfectly healthy. I quickly dropped it, trying to destroy the evidence. Worrisome thoughts came flooding in again. I tore another hair. My belayer, Scott, who had been snapping photos, lowered his camera and sat on the rock near me. He offered encouraging words. It was too late. I was fighting a downward spiral—a battle I felt I’d never win.

II. Self-Worth

When I was 12, my father was laid off from his insurance-company job in Fort Worth, Texas. Soon after, an insurance company in Atlanta offered him a job. My mom, brother, English bulldog, and I drove to Georgia to meet my dad, stopping in hotels that I only remember because of how much I cried in them. My life as I knew it was gone.

I transferred from a small, private K-12 school with fewer than 1,000 kids to a large public middle school where my grade alone was more populous. It was seventh grade—the apex year of adolescent cruelty. I stepped on the bus that first day to see girls wearing makeup, showing cleavage, and carrying designer handbags. Bare-faced, in baggy clothes, and carrying a worn-out backpack that I’d drawn a face on and named “Joey,” I felt like a child in a teenagers’ world. Shortly thereafter, I circled my eyes in thick eyeliner, begged my mom for a Dooney & Bourke purse, and prayed boys would notice me. An emotional heaviness came over me, a disquiet I would later learn to identify as anxiety.

In spring 2019, I found myself constantly battling this same need to be more. I’d been pursuing professional climbing and coaching, cobbling together a living and, at times, questioning whether I was truly worthy of sponsorship. I’d climbed 5.14 sport, but so what? So have lots of other people. My day job was coaching at the ABC Kids Climbing gym in Boulder, but I traveled too much for sponsors to qualify to coach the competition team. Instead I taught recreational classes, worked the front desk, and helped with birthday parties. Straddling the two worlds of pro climbing and coaching, I felt like I belonged in neither.

Mitchell on the opening V5/6 section, on bolts. Leading it on gear requires blind micro-cam placements, hence the R rating.

Mitchell on the opening V5/6 section, on bolts. Leading it on gear requires blind micro-cam placements, hence the R rating.

I needed a new focus. By working China Doll, I thought I could realize a longtime goal of climbing 5.14 trad. I’d belayed Heather Weidner on her attempts and send in 2016, and knew the approach: Split the climb up into three single, more manageable goals—the sport 5.13c, the trad 5.13c, and then the trad 5.14a.

I started working the first pitch in May 2019 with my friend and Adidas teammate Sasha DiGiulian. We were both stumped. It was granite techy weirdness with horrible feet, foreign body positions, and insecure clipping stances. Though small, flaky footholds kept breaking, forcing us to re-sequence the cryptic crux, sharing the struggle with a friend made me feel less pressured.

However, when Sasha eventually progressed faster than me, the fear of failure set in. My mind was reading into it that I was not as capable as her. When she sent, I was happy for her, but I also felt a floodgate of insecurity open. Her crux beta felt improbable and scrunchy, and all I could focus on was my painful lack of sendage. “It’s too hot,” people told me as spring turned to summer. I would laugh and agree. But I’d witnessed Sasha climb China Doll while it was going into the sun, so I knew conditions were an excuse.

Every attempt was the same: I’d climb up to the crux and rest in an awkward layback, heart pounding as sweat beaded on the hairless patches behind my ears. Then I’d launch, stutteringly, into the sequence: right foot smear on that microscopic chip, squeeze a slopey sidepull pinch, lunge up to the left crimpy, blocky sidepull. However, my right foot kept sliding off mid-lunge, and I’d hit the end of the rope, feeling like a 12-year-old girl trying too hard to fit in.

Sasha DiGiulian and the author chilling below Lost Angel.

Sasha DiGiulian and the author chilling below Lost Angel.

III. Anxiety

A few weeks after I started projecting China Doll, I went to see a psychologist. I’d been waking up before my alarm, my heart slamming against my ribs like a drum, setting a horrible tone for the day. Everything had been hitting me hard, and rejection in any form felt like a death sentence. I’d hit it off with a boy at the climbing gym and we made plans to climb outside, but when he bailed to climb with friends, I spent the day cloistered in my room. If I didn’t get as many “likes” on an Instagram post as usual, I worried that I’d said something wrong—editing captions hours later and asking everyone I ran into if it was OK. Opening up the app made my stomach feel like it was full of boiling water that steamed hot tendrils of self-loathing up into my flushed face.

In 2014, when I was 21, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD; see sidebar above). Everyone experiences occasional anxiety about life’s hardships, but those with GAD experience excessive worry that shifts between different topics. At the time, I was living in Boulder as a University of Colorado student, finishing my third year. I’d seen a psychiatrist upon the recommendation of my doctor, whom I’d been visiting repeatedly for symptoms like racing heart, lightheadedness, chest tightness, palpitations, and extreme fatigue that I assumed were relics of a viral thyroid disease. When my physician could find nothing wrong, she suggested I look at mental causes.

I didn’t understand that GAD can chronically impact your whole life. The term “generalized” somehow made it feel like GAD wasn’t a legitimate disorder, a sort of, “I don’t know exactly what’s going on with you, but it doesn’t seem that severe.” My psychiatrist started me on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and prescribed a low dose of Lexapro, an SSRI antidepressant. I was hesitant. I’d heard from others that antidepressants don’t help, but just change you. Make you numb. But he explained to me that this was one of the best antidepressants that specifically targets anxiety like mine. It was worth a shot.

In ACT, I learned to identify and detach from recurring thoughts.
I learned that it’s OK to make room for uncomfortable feelings, and to let emotions come and go. When I went through a painful breakup, the Lexapro helped me better process my grief, letting me step back and see that my ex and I hadn’t been compatible. The medication took the edge off, and I felt more in control and confident than before.

Yet, there were hiccups—anxiety is often recurring. The most difficult part of the condition is being able to identify it as a separate force from yourself, something I was not yet adept at. In 2016, I began to experience night sweats. I’d wake up feeling like I had just jumped into a pool, and had to lay towels on the bed to try to go back to sleep. I’d cancel all plans some days and just stay in bed and order delivery food, afraid to have any social interaction because my mind was racing. I continued the doctor visits, and occasionally had some hospital visits for what I now know were panic attacks. During one bout of food poisoning, I lay on the bathroom floor, heart racing, hyperventilating, hands tingling as my vision blurred. The physical ailment had sparked a panic attack, and I was certain I was dying. I called 911. Avoidance, overanalyzing social situations, relying on others to make me feel better. This was my life—and it was no life at all.

IV. Values

In my new psychologist’s office last year, we dug into the realization that I link self-worth to achievement and being liked. “All anxious thoughts usually stem from a core belief,” she told me. That core belief for me is that I’m not good enough, whether it was as a 12-year-old adrift in a giant public middle school or as a pro climber failing on China Doll.

“What do you value?” she asked. I was dumbfounded to realize I didn’t have an answer. With the long-ingrained need to fit in also came the willingness to align my values with whatever I was trying to fit into. What did I value? I pondered and eventually came up with: commitment, authenticity, presence, transparency, determination. My psychologist noticed right away that I didn’t say achievement.

I first tried climbing the summer before our family moved to Atlanta. My dad took me to Yosemite, where I toproped on the Swan Slab with guides. Down on the Valley floor, I stared upward to see tiny figures moving up the walls or bivvied on portaledges. I yearned for the sense of pride you get from living so intensely. When I was 16, I joined a week-long camping and climbing trip through Fox Mountain Guides in Asheville, North Carolina. We bouldered, toproped, and practiced placing trad gear at Rumbling Bald and Looking Glass. The students climbed at varying levels. It wasn’t competitive; it was about pushing yourself and experiencing the sport. It was a lifestyle I dreamed of having.

Mitchell on her first day rock climbing, on Swan Slab, Yosemite, during a 2005 trip with her father.

Mitchell on her first day rock climbing, on Swan Slab, Yosemite, during a 2005 trip with her father.

Mitchell on the same trip, watching SpongeBob Squarepants. “This was my last adventure trip before my move, and one of the last experiences before I remember having anxiety,” she says.

Mitchell on the same trip, watching SpongeBob Squarepants. “This was my last adventure trip before my move, and one of the last experiences before I remember having anxiety,” she says.

In 2003, on a rafting trip down the Yampa River, holding a guide’s stuffed frog. Says Mitchell, “I attached to mementos from trips for comfort and to remember times that felt valuable to me.”

In 2003, on a rafting trip down the Yampa River, holding a guide’s stuffed frog. Says Mitchell, “I attached to mementos from trips for comfort and to remember times that felt valuable to me.”

As my psychologist had helped me realize, achievement was not something I valued. It was instead something I felt others wanted of me, a way for me to prove my self-worth by being of value to them. But did any of it matter if I didn’t pursue my goals according to my own values, setting aside the ego (“I need to send”) to let my values guide my journey?

As I returned to China Doll, I tried to bring in this new perspective, and I tried to focus on my training and trust that if I kept putting in the work, a breakthrough would happen. I also started climbing with Zack Fisher, who’d come out from California. We discovered alternative beta for the crux, a new sequence that catered more to the stemming and balancing I prefer. It was as if the lens through which I perceived the climb had been wiped clean, creating the clarity I needed to comprehend a new solution. On July 5, 2019, I sent the 5.13c sport version of China Doll—and I felt strong on it, calm and almost weightless.

V. Boundaries

My next goal was to climb the 5.13c pitch on gear, a terrifying proposition. To begin, you free-solo 30 feet of 5.9 slab to a break/ledge, where you can put good cams in a horizontal. Then you lunge up slippery, painful fingerlocks out a bulge; the gear is weird, hard to see, and thin, and it has been known to tear, dropping you onto the ledge. As the Boulder Canyon guidebook author (and Heather Weidner’s husband) Chris Weidner said, if you fall off, “You won’t die. You might just break your legs.”

Because of the heat and my hours working at ABC Kids summer camps, Zack and I did crack-of-dawn sessions. I wasn’t climbing well; I was grouchy, scared, and frustrated. This was especially heightened when we started attempting two sessions a day, returning in the evening once the sun was off the rock. I quickly realized I’d have to change up my beta for the opening bulge, as the pro needed to go in the deepest parts of the crack where my fingers usually went. Eventually, I tried this pitch on lead, lobbing twice onto a red Ball Nut. It held, but the fall spooked me. Heather had taken a bruising, sideways fall here, ripping two pieces and leaving just two lobes of her first piece—a 000 TCU—in the bulge. As a backup, she had two cams in the horizontal—enough to keep you off the ground, but not high enough to prevent a cheese-grater tumble.

Daily, I called my friends and sobbed, telling them I’d never finish this route. I missed work or left early some days because I couldn’t handle the screaming camp kids. Or I had anxiety attacks on the job. My heartrate would pick up and my face would flush as I fought back tears, and I’d run and hide in the back closet. I wasn’t sleeping enough. All I wanted was to order takeout, hide in my room, and watch Netflix. Somehow I forced myself to do my workouts and climb. I was consumed by the double-edged sword of anxiety and shame—for being so “weak” as to succumb to anxiety in the first place.

Each morning when we met, Zack would ask, “Ready to send?” His intentions were pure, trying to ignite the stoke. But my twisted insides felt noncommittal and my heart would leap into my throat. I didn’t feel ready, and began to feel lesser when Zack went for the lead and I didn’t. It reminded me of cheerleading tryouts in middle school. During the tumbling portion, I’d prepared to do a roundoff double-back handspring, but then halted after a single handspring, knowing it didn’t meet the requirements for the team, deliberately sabotaging my efforts. Here I was again: Scared. Weak. Not good enough.

Why even try?

On the morning of August 1, I asked my friend Will Yermal to belay me on China Doll. We arrived to see that the Arc’teryx athlete team was doing a photo shoot on Lost Angel, and I wasn’t sure I was up for trying this scary pitch in front of this talented group of people. I said my hellos and warmed up toproping on China Doll per usual. Though performance anxiety kicked in, I trusted that my goal did not have to be influenced by others’ perceptions.

I moved on to my lead attempt. I swiftly soloed up the 5.9 slab, placed my pieces, and made a pact with myself: Regardless of how slick the holds felt, I would keep going. Right hand pinky lock, bump it up, left hand sidepull. My thumb closed my right hand into a crimp and I stepped up onto the small, slippery feet. I pulled up to grab the slickest left hand crimp of my life. My mind acknowledged the thought and kept moving. I placed my left foot in the crack. “Oh no, I’m slipping,” I thought as I glanced down at the Ball Nut. I screamed and threw my right hand into the crack. Shaking, I placed my next piece and let out a sigh of relief. The scariest part was over; above here, the gear was good. I climbed up to the rest before the crux and shook out; I brushed one of the glassy footholds before moving. Comic relief.

I stuck my right foot out onto the slab—the “pancake foot”—and brought my left foot up to the left wall. Then I stabbed my right hand into a flared fingerlock and immediately pressed my left hand onto the left wall, moving into a stem. I was through the crux, and timidly rested before the bizarre, flaring stembox that caps the pitch. As the Arc’teryx crew cheered below, I fought to the anchor. I’d sent the trad 5.13c version of China Doll!

VI. Control

In middle school, I noticed popular girls examining their hair. I soon copied them, assuming it was a cool thing to do while zoning out in class. I had no idea what I was looking for. When a boy asked what we were doing, a popular girl explained, “Pulling apart split ends!”

Aha!

I kept looking, and one day I found a split end. I pulled it apart. It was strangely satisfying to hear the strands unraveling and the snap when they split. I found more and more. I pulled apart every strand I could find. The deeper the splits, the more frayed ends, the better.

Mitchell reveals a scalp denuded by trichotillomania, a hair-pullling disorder she’s battled since middle school.

Mitchell reveals a scalp denuded by trichotillomania, a hair-pullling disorder she’s battled since middle school.

In math class, a girl relayed that her mother had told her that if we kept pulling our split ends, we’d be bald by 40. “Bald?! I don’t want to be bald,” I thought. So I vowed to stop. But the urge remained overpowering. My mom told me to stop whenever she saw me. I felt ashamed, but I couldn’t. I even started pulling out hair by feel, deciphering by texture whether a strand was brittle. It was a way of regaining control. At 12 years old, I began my battle with trichotillomania, an impulse disorder defined as compulsively pulling out your hair. Most of the time, the urge to pull is a self-soothing mechanism—a way to cope with anxiety or other negative feelings in an effort to restore calm.

Calm. Stress free. In control. These are states we all desperately crave, yet for me they had always felt out of reach. My hair pulling worsened as I realized the final goal with China Doll was upon me: a gear-protected lead of the full climb. I hadn’t climbed on the second pitch yet. Heather had struggled less here than on pitch one. “Having small fingers helps!” she told me. Did I have small fingers? I sussed the sequence on toprope. There was one lock that always tore my pointer finger, and if I taped, it was too big to fit. I messed around with other beta, trying obsessively to find a repeatable sequence.

What is trichotillomania?

Trichotillomania, or compulsive hair-pulling disorder, is an impulse disorder caused by a variety of factors. It works as a self-soothing mechanism, helping to calm sufferers when they feel stressed or anxious. The most common age of onset is typically between 9 and 13, and may be preceded or accompanied by various emotional states, such as feelings of anxiety or boredom. A stressful event such as abuse, family conflict, or death may also trigger trichotillomania. It is typically treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches different ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to situations. 

It was August, and it was hot. Some days it felt like the crack had captured a swampy humidity. Upper Dream began to get more crowded, and every time we rapped in to set up a toprope, I would feel a pit in my stomach looking over the edge to see people gathered below. China Doll’s first pitch gained popularity, making us all take turns. I’d yell up at people to brush, and would even get my brush out in the rest before the 5.13c crux and desperately clean a key foothold. Every detail mattered.

At home, I visualized the upper crux, questioning my beta even though it seemed to be working. My stomach was in knots as I stared into space and plucked out hair after hair. Then I’d come to, look down, and see the pile of hair in front of me. I felt ashamed of the hair pulling, and yet there was no way I was letting go of China Doll even if it was taking an emotional toll. I’ve always been stubborn. On day one of eighth grade, my science teacher told me I’d never make it in her class. So I stayed up all night reading the textbooks, went to school even when I was sick, and memorized every detail so rigorously that I could recite the definition of any geological phenomenon. I finished the semester with an A+ and an apology from the disciplinarian herself. But at what cost? I was run down and so nervous that I carried all my heavy textbooks around in case I had free time to study (my shoulder remains funky from toting that overstuffed backpack). I’d even taken to bringing a jacket to class in case I sweated through my shirt.

This period of singleminded focus on China Doll felt similar, replete with the same obsessive thinking and anxiety traps—but also the possibility of a big reward. One day after two failed lead attempts during which I fell at the upper crux, I decided to toprope China Doll, to show myself I was physically capable. I sent the full pitch on TR, tired and in the sun. I was physically ready to climb China Doll, but could I handle the nerves and pressure of leading it?

When I tied in on the morning of September 10, 2019, I commented on how hot and humid it felt. My belayer, Nellie Milfeld, and I laughed. Conditions were not prime. “Just do your best, Molly,” I told myself. Sending hard trad lines requires a high level of focus and commitment. When I’m in the zone, I find balance in control and adaptation; I’m not allowed to feed into perceived roadblocks or to spiral into anxiety. This is why I love trad climbing. As Ethan Pringle, another aficionado of hard trad (and who has also climbed China Doll), says, “The more focus a climb requires, the more I’m forced to be present, and the more my anxiety fades.”

That day on lead, I got through the 5.13c and into the awkward layback “rest” near the anchor, where I switched positions multiple times to ensure I’d de-pumped all four limbs, shaking out my calves after the stemming below. A wind blew in and dried the sweat on my neck. My heart rate began to slow.

You can do this, Molly, I told myself. You know exactly what to do.

I believe my need for climbing to be my life’s path comes from my finding the sport during the last summer that I felt like a child—before the move, before the anxiety, before the obsessive questioning of my self-worth. It was a time when I knew how to be present. Climbing has always been my way of getting back to that peaceful place. And this moment, at the rest on China Doll, I finally felt free of the heaviness I’d carried for so long.

 Mitchell above the crux of P1, having worked the stem beta that catered more to her strengths.

Mitchell above the crux of P1, having worked the stem beta that catered more to her strengths.

I carefully climbed through the intro moves to the upper crux, placing two small pieces and taking deep breaths. My heartrate increased as I did some mini-shakes and glared at the crux fingerlock. I walked my feet up and twisted my left foot into a flaring toe jam, and then leaned back and pulled in as hard as I could, yelling as I threw my right pointer finger into the crack. I kicked my right foot out to a tiny chip and shoved my left hand into the crack above my right, cranking into a terrible layback mini-“rest.” Shaking with exertion and emotion, I placed a small nut, straightened my arms, and took deep breaths. “Oh, my God, I’m through the crux!” I thought. My stomach was making audible noises. I told myself to execute this next section like a machine, disengaging with thoughts, ignoring exhaustion.

On the final move on the V4/5 outro, my right shoulder disengaged as I grasped the jug crack. All I had to do was pull my feet up, but my arm wouldn’t bend. As scared thoughts wormed in, I pushed them away by affirming that I was not letting go. It was my moment. I cut my feet and paddled them up, shrieking. As black spots clouded my vision, I screamed with what breath remained and stood into a massive rest, cottonmouthed as the chills set in. Nellie and Zack screamed joyously below.

Twenty quick feet of 5.10+ brought me to the upper anchor. I’d redpointed the full China Doll. 

VII. Recovery

As my trainer and friend Tim Rose said to me a few weeks after my redpoint, “The route is done, but the learning process never is.” With the send, I’d proven to myself that I am more capable than my anxiety tells me I am. I’d climbed it for myself, because I wanted to—not to cultivate self-worth by pleasing or impressing others. The journey forced me to address my mental health, becoming a vessel for self-understanding, acceptance, and growth. I’d been so fused with my thoughts, unable to see that they were the result of a very treatable condition. I was convinced that no matter how hard I trained or tried, I’d never amount to anything. Today, I have a much greater acceptance of my condition, realizing that anxiety’s biggest threat is its ability to convince us that it’s not, in fact, anxiety but is instead our core, permanent essence. I still struggle from time to time, but the anxiety has become less overwhelming, thanks also to switching over to a new, more effective medication. I’m also better able to recognize when the anxiety is taking hold and break the pattern—or at least separate from myself better—before spiraling down to the point of no return.

When I was growing up, the concept of mental illness seemed so black and white: You either had one and everyone could tell (you were “crazy”) or you didn’t. As I’ve learned, the discussion is much more nuanced. It’s important to know that anyone can develop a mental illness due to stressors, life events, or brain chemistry and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of, nor is seeking help. You’ll have a better life and prevent worsening struggles. I deserve to know that I have a disorder. I deserve to know that this disorder is not who I am, but is merely something I deal with. I deserve to treat my disorder and live a better life.

I’m Molly Mitchell. I’m a 27-year-old professional rock climber. I suffer from GAD and trichotillomania. In sharing about these experiences, I’ve found purpose in being an advocate for mental health. I am, always have been, and always will be good enough.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder by the Numbers

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is defined by excessive anxiety and worries that shift between various topics, events, or activities. Unlike phobias, it is not specific to a situation but rather diffuses to all areas of life. As the clinical psychologists Kathryn Denkowski, EdD, and George Denkowski, PhD, wrote to me, “Those with GAD find it hard to control their worries and feelings of nervousness, even while knowing that they worry much more than they should. They tend to be startled easily, feel restless and have trouble relaxing, have a hard time concentrating, and can find it difficult to fall or stay asleep.”

  • GAD can set in as early as childhood, with its first symptoms being separation anxiety—fear of being away from parents or going to school.
  • Most who present with GAD have been ill for an average of 15 years before seeking help.
  • GAD affects 3.1 percent of the US population, and women are about twice as likely as men to have GAD.
  • Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in the US, yet only 36 percent of sufferers receive treatment. Anxiety disorders are considered highly treatable.
  • More than 90 percent of patients with GAD present with an additional psychiatric diagnosis, with major depressive disorder occurring about 48 percent of the time.

The complex first-ascent history of China Doll

Kyle Copeland and Marc Hirt first climbed China Doll in 1981 as a five-pitch 5.9 A3. Later, the focus turned to the initial pitches’ free potential, with Alan Lester leading the 5.13c sport pitch in 1998, according to Boulder Canyon by Chris Weidner and Jason Haas. (Bob Horan had freed the pitch on toprope and later bolted it as a lead, according to Boulder Canyon Rock Climbs by Bob D’Antonio.) In 2002, Adam Stack became the first to redpoint pitch one on gear. The full, 5.14a R China Doll combines pitch one—on gear—with the second pitch, ending at anchors at 130 feet. Its first redpoint was by Mike Patz in 2007, three years after he did the route as a two-pitch climb (clipping bolts on pitch one and using preplaced gear on pitch two).

To begin the all-gear ascent, you solo a 30-foot slab. Now begins the scariest section, a V5/6 boulder problem with blind, small placements in the flared crack. Laybacking above leads to the 5.13c crux, which involves maneuvering from one crack into another. The feet are slick smears, and it’s an extended, insecure body position protected by a piton. After this, it’s runout with minimal gear in the stemming section, until you can place a few small cams. A boulder problem has you pull over a bulge to the first pitch’s anchor where you can finagle a layback rest before firing up the second pitch, which takes thin but reliable gear at the crux (V8/9) before a final section of 5.10+.

Anxiety and Climbers

While researching this article, I conducted an informal (nonscientific) survey about mental health and anxiety amongst climbers. Here are some notable results from the 276 respondents:

  • Years climbing: 13.4% 2 years or less; 31.2% 3–5 years; 25.4% 6–10 years; 30% 10 years or more.
  • 89.1% of respondents said they’d had a period when they’d struggled (either slightly or excessively) with mental health.
  • 72.7% said they’d had a time when they felt an excessive amount of anxiety—enough to hinder everyday life.
  • 66.3% said they’d reached out for help at some point for a mental-health issue.
  • 40.6% said they’ve been diagnosed with a mental disorder: 34.1% listed depression, 28.2% anxiety disorder, 10.3% other, 9.5% eating disorder, 7.9% ADHD (others listed were bipolar and OCD, not significantly found).
  • 33.5% said they experienced anxiety often in everyday life; 33.5% said sometimes; 14.9% said extremely often.
  • Respondents said that climbing—especially outdoors—helps their anxiety overall. (One memorable answer: “I'd rather worry about taking a big whip than worry about bullshit in the future.”) But climbing is not a definitive solution, most seemed to agree. Another person claimed they had thought climbing could be a replacement for therapy, but was mistaken.

Molly Mitchell is a professional climber in Boulder, Colorado. She moved to Colorado from Atlanta in 2011 to attend the University of Colorado Boulder, and graduated in 2015 with a degree in communication and minors in business and creative writing. She would like to thank the clinical psychologists Kathryn Denkowski, EdD, and George Denkowski, PhD, who provided background information for this article.