Out on a Ledge: The Mental Health Benefits of Climbing

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Climbing Mental health katie lambert

Photo: Andrew Burr

Two fighter jets screeched through the air over the Greek island of Kalymnos, ripping the silence. I braced on the stone, limbs splayed out on the monster tufas that drip from the Grande Grotta. The immense sound made me grasp the rock even harder in anticipation of falling bombs. Intellectually, I knew that Kalymnos was an unlikely target, but there was no denying my visceral terror. The goats on the hillside below and the birds darting in and out of the cave scattered, their peaceful morning reverie interrupted. The planes—Turkish jets, I would later learn—continued, perhaps to deliver lethal cargo to another land.

I clung to the rock, riddled with anxiety, breathing erratically. Slowly, as the roar of the jets dissolved and the silence returned, I began to climb again. The tips of my toes edged ever higher and my hands sunk into coarse, gold-stained pockets; the higher I climbed, the better I felt. Climbing, as it always does, had re-centered me. I grimaced thinking of those who hear this same roar followed by an even more terrible sound: the WHUMPF of bombs exploding all around them. This is a grim reality for many people in our world.

We live in times of global turmoil and strife. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that since the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011, over 10 million Syrians have been displaced both internally and externally, while an estimated 5.6 percent of the total population in the Middle East is displaced. I wondered how those who live in war zones stay sane after all the trauma they have experienced; I wondered if they have something like climbing to re-center them.

Physical activity has long been used as therapy to treat trauma, but the use of climbing as such is just starting to gain ground. Several organizations across the globe are using climbing in their work with refugees and at-risk youth, among other populations. Our sport requires a high level of concentration and coordination—engaging both body and mind to move in a cohesive, fluid way. This is an effective prescription for trauma: As Barbara Rubin Wainrib writes in Healing Crisis and Trauma with Mind, Body, and Spirit, “The harmony of body and mind has been found to be therapeutic after natural catastrophe and can give you inner peace.”

In 2012, the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology published a study in which researchers from Penn State University tracked the daily activities of 190 college-age students and found that the more physically active the students were, the more likely they were to report greater general feelings of excitement and enthusiasm. Exercise has also gained credibility with treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A preliminary study done in 2005 used a 12-session aerobic-exercise program to treat individuals suffering from PTSD, anxiety, and depression. The results, published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience, showed a marked decrease in symptoms. Exercise—climbing included—boosts mood-related chemicals in our brain like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, helping to lift our spirits. A 2015 study conducted at the University Hospital in Erlangen, Germany, asked whether climbing—specifically indoor bouldering—had a therapeutic effect on people suffering from depression. The 16-week study had half the 47 participants climbing regularly while the other half served as a non-climbing control. Participants suffering the most with depression had greater improvement in symptoms compared to those in the control.

Climbing also promotes feelings of self-efficacy, another therapeutic benefit. Deciphering beta and learning new moves, skills, and techniques provide incentive to keep trying. When we send, the brain releases a flood of dopamine, creating neural pathways in our reward-related basal ganglia. Put in layman’s terms, each time we try and succeed in any small or large way, we create positive pathways in our brain’s reward system.

With this in mind, it makes sense to use rock climbing in the treatment of depression and related conditions like anxiety and PTSD. For the past nine years, I’ve worked with Sacred Rok, a Yosemite based nonprofit founded by free-climbing legend Ron Kauk that helps at-risk youth in California’s Central Valley. The organization takes the kids into Yosemite and Pinnacles National Park on climbing and camping trips. I’ve been with Sacred Rok since the beginning, and along the way have witnessed countless instances in which participants were relieved of their stress and anxiety, even if just for a moment. Poverty, hostile living environments, and a lack of services and opportunity contribute to a stressful life for these kids. After a fall 2016 climbing trip to Pinnacles, one 16-year-old boy from San Benito County Probation said, “My favorite part was that I actually made it, without giving up. At first I wanted to, but I put my mind to it and did it. Now I know that if I put my mind to something, I can make it in life.”

Climbing also helps more than at-risk youth. The Swiss organization ClimbAID is, per their website, “fostering the physical and psychosocial development of refugees through climbing.” Based out of Switzerland, they have developed a climbing group consisting of Swiss locals and Middle Eastern and Central Asian refugees from a nearby asylum camp. Climbing sessions take place five times a week in three cities. Since August, they've also been active in Lebanon as part of the Rolling Rock project, which provides climbing interventions via a mobile climbing wall. “We work on boulder problems and beta solving, supporting one another on projects,” ClimbAID’s founder, Beat Martin Baggenstos, told me. “But we also come together with potlucks and gatherings where we talk about [the refugees’] situational problems and what the answers might be.” He adds, “What we developed in the gym sharing beta and climbing with each other has created a community for these people, providing everyone involved with a sense of purpose.” While the physical aspects of climbing help with trauma, the community surrounding the sport helps as much or more.

Later that evening at Kokkinidis restaurant on Kalymnos, the locals spoke about the flybys. The Turkish military had broken an agreement with Greece by testing their new jets in Greek airspace. Everyone on Kalymnos was on edge. As our international table of climbers took over the restaurant, we shared stories over a spread of dolmas, haloumi, pita, and fresh-caught octopus. We reveled in our time together, alleviating any residual tension from the day’s events.

The owners of the restaurant joined the table, expressing their gratitude to everyone for traveling to Kalymnos, deepening the economic stability of the island and helping to take their minds off the political instability that loomed to the east. We toasted shot glasses of ouzo, giving thanks to climbing for bringing together a community of people from all walks of life to share belays, holiday feasts, and the stories of our lives.

As climbers, we are fortunate to travel and experience beautiful places to practice our skill; it enriches our lives and gives us purpose. But, instead of just being grateful, we can also use our good fortune to benefit others. We can take what we’ve gained from climbing—the physical outlet, the practice of a skill, the lessons in problem-solving and patience and community—and use them to help others, like refugees seeking asylum in our towns or disadvantaged youths. In a war-torn and divided world, climbing is a vehicle to bring people together—setting aside differences, breaking barriers, and joining as a community. 

Katie Lambert is a professional climber based out of a van in California’s Sierra Nevada with her husband, photographer Ben Ditto. Lambert has climbed for more than 20 years on everything from boulders to big walls.  

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