The Balancing Act of Climbing and Career

Balance: (n) A condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions.

Photo: Lifestraw

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While non-climbing adults struggle to find balance between career, children, partner, and “me” time, climbers struggle with their own particular balancing act. Picture the typical non-climbing mom: She rushes around the kitchen to prepare lunches for the kids, simultaneously making sure they are out of bed and getting ready for school—and getting ready to go to her own job. Needing to prep for a meeting, Dad has already left early after spending half the night reviewing notes in anticipation of closing the big deal. Now, take a climbing couple: The woman rushes around the kitchen prepping bars and filling snacks for a day of cragging, all while packing her backpack and checking social media—50 more followers, psyched! She rushes to the sink and puts on rubber gloves, careful not to get her skin wet as she cleans the dishes. The man slides back and forth on a foam roller, grimacing as it hits the knots in his back; he looks down at his fingertips, smiling at how calloused they are. He yawns before taking another sip of his coffee. He was up half the night visualizing beta in anticipation of the big send.

At age 18, I moved to Boulder, Colorado, from Maryland to attend the University of Colorado. I had been a climber for 14 years already, raised on the rocks by my mother, I honestly only considered one school when it was time to apply. Colorado is the worldwide mecca for rock climbing: few would dispute that. Men and women of all ages move to Colorado, in particular to the Denver metro area, with its booming economy and proximity to thousands of routes and boulder problems.

Many come here hoping to become professionals or sponsored athletes. Unfortunately, there is no secret recipe. Rather, what Colorado has is a plethora of great climbing gyms, an insane amount of year-round rock, and enough psych in the climbing scene to keep you going forever—not to mention the largest concentration of professional climbers, for those who follow the scene. In addition to being the mecca of climbing, Colorado seems to be the epicenter for First World climber problems: “I can’t send my project!” “I just want to campus 1-5-9,” “How do I get a sponsor because surely I deserve it after two years of climbing plastic and one double-digit outdoor send?” An outside observer might think that we climbers have happened upon some secret pot of gold: How else could so many people climb so much, work so little, and afford to live in such an expensive place?

Since moving here, I have been baffled by the amount of climbers I’ve come across who relocated to Colorado with an education and blossoming career, only to give up both in the pursuit of climbing. However, for me, the idea of not attending college and pursuing a career seemed unfathomable, not to mention out of the question as far as my parents were concerned. I was dating a climber at the time who had dropped out of community college and dedicated his life to the sport. At that point, he was the only person I knew like that, and I wondered what his future plans were. When that relationship ended and I entered a new one, this time with a professional climber, I was brought into a world where it was normal to dedicate one’s life to climbing. I still didn’t get it. What about stability? A home? Money? A family? THE FUTURE? When we climbers reach the ripe age of 35 and our tendons are swollen, pockets empty, and youth diminished, what will we have to keep us going? What else might make us happy?

Still, despite my better judgment, after graduating in 2010 I did the unthinkable: went on a 9-month climbing trip with my boyfriend. I thought I was living the dream, but it was his dream, and in reality I needed more fulfillment in life than only climbing. Also, at the time, I really wasn’t any good at climbing. My mental game was weak, my strength was subpar, and my technique and comfort on the rock were marginal.

Returning from the trip, I threw myself into the working world, but my life felt empty without climbing. Climbing was the thing that got me outside, kept me fit—and dreaming. It allowed me to make goals and work my hardest to achieve them. The pride I felt standing atop a boulder I had previously deemed impossible outweighed any euphoria I had experienced elsewhere. I never wanted climbing to take precedence over my friendships or family—for it to become an addiction—but neither did I want to live as a non-climber. It was then that I understood that a balance of work and climbing was the only combination that would make me happy.

I got to work figuring out how to build a career that combined climbing and travel, while focusing on getting stronger, more confident, and smarter on the rock. I had always been into art and writing, so when opportunities arose to film or photograph my boyfriend and his friends climbing or write about a climbing adventure, I jumped at the chance. When I was paid to do this type of work, it didn’t feel like “work.” I was able to be with friends, see the world, be creative, meet new people, and climb. For the next few years, I did whatever it took to be a professional photographer and videographer.

Flash-forward to now and that is indeed my job title. The balance has not been easy. As I sit here writing, my to-do list and summer bouldering wish list are overwhelming. My schedule is packed with photo and video jobs around the country, and I have to schedule in outdoor climbing days and hope the weather obeys so I can get on the rock. All my friends in Colorado climb. Although I’m currently single, I know that I cannot maintain this balance were I to date someone who didn’t climb. Clearly I would choose climbing over hanging out and doing “normal people” things. I plan my schedule way in advance and stack up jobs during the off-season to save up money so I can be out cranking when the weather is good. When I’m sidelined by work, I train in the gym, focusing on my weaknesses. I hustle constantly—shooting, editing, social media, writing proposals. It’s never-ending, stressful, and often overwhelming. But I’m living my dream and couldn’t be happier when I look at the big picture.

These days, I roll with a crew of extremely psyched and motivated climbers, some of whom are super strong and serious and some of whom are goofy and will gladly sing and dance to my ‘80s mixes and Latin club tunes while resting between send attempts.

Which leads me to my next point. One thing I felt like I was missing in Colorado was a group of people who also had good balance—a balance that didn’t include just climbing and work but also pure, carefree fun. I needed friends who could make me laugh until I cried, lie in the snow screaming if the weather was too hot, or run time trials up and down from the climbing areas because, why not? One couple I’ve met who fit the bill is Sam Weir and Sara Manafi.

Sam works in finance while Sara is pursuing a PhD in engineering. Sam climbs V14 and Sara just did her first V10. They work their butts off, are super smart, and make me laugh, but have found a way to have a balance that is also realistic in both the short and long terms. When I told Sam about my story topic, we ended up talking for over an hour about this balancing act. Didn’t the climbers in Colorado know that this is one of the only places in the world where you can work a full-time job but still climb outside every evening? Sam, like me, has attempted to live the “climbing bum” lifestyle, but he only made it four months before he gave up, feeling like something was missing. He moved to Colorado permanently to be closer to more climbing and to have the ability to pursue a career. He needed balance.

“At first I hated that I could not get out in the middle of the day like my friends,” Sam told me. “But over the last year, I have realized that it’s great. I have the mountains to myself with the select few people who want to get out at night. I have lights! A fan! I have a psyched girlfriend and a job.”

In terms of balancing work, career, and a relationship with another psyched climber, Sam says, “It’s a lot harder and something that we are still working on. Luckily—thank Baby Jesus—she found AKON [me]. Now Sara is motivated and has some positive female climbing friends to push with.”

I was interested to hear Sara’s perspective on the topic as well—did I mention she moved here from Iran only a few years ago without speaking English?

In Sara’s words, “When it comes to splitting my 24-hour daytime to various activities, I’m the expert.” Guys—I swear she’s not cocky. She was brought up to be a multi-dimensional person, balancing science, art, and sport.

“In my view,” Sara says, “it’s not challenging to dedicate the whole life to one type of activity and be good at it. The main challenge comes into play for being good at a couple of different and unrelated activities simultaneously.”

For those of you complaining about not having enough time to climb or train, or not being strong enough, tell that to the girl who currently divides her day between studying, working, climbing/training, and learning French, plus being there for her cat and her boyfriend.

Since graduating from college, I have lived in both sides of the spectrum but have ultimately found that I don’t want to be the typical working adult or the typical “throw all caution to the wind” climbing bum. I like the balance—it makes me happy. There is no simple solution to this balancing act; it’s different for everyone. You have to figure out the things that make you happy, so you can balance a career and climbing in a meaningful, fulfilling way. I wish you the best of luck.

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