Do One Thing: Rock Climbing

Do One Thing is an occasional series based on the well-known idea: “do one thing everyday that scares you”. These posts will explore fear and the subsequent outcome of trying something new.

I never considered myself strong or athletic while growing up. I wasn’t even really active until after college, when I started running along Lake Michigan a couple times a week.

So if you ask me how that girl turned into the woman finding her way up rock faces with a bunch of carabiners and slings attached to her harness, I’d have to tell you I’m not really sure.

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Learning to lead climb near St. George, Utah

After moving to Vermont, the man I’d just begun dating asked if I’d like to try rock climbing at the indoor gym near his place. He was afraid of heights and thought this might help him overcome his fear. I had no idea what climbing entailed, and I was certain my arms were far too weak, yet I accepted his invitation with a smile, as one is apt to do when newly in love.

At the gym, we learned how to tie a figure-eight knot and practiced belaying, trusting each other not to be dropped from 30 feet up. At the end of the night, I made it to the top of a 5.6 route (the easiest in the gym) and couldn’t have been happier, even though my forearms were throbbing from gripping the hard, plastic holds.

Somehow though, it was addicting.

We returned to the gym. There was a membership deal: commit to one year and receive a free harness, belay device, chalk bag, and climbing shoes. We signed up for a dual membership, putting full faith not only in our ability to remain interested in rock climbing for the next 12 months, but also each other.

The fascinating thing about climbing is that it requires both physical and mental strength. Sure, you need to be strong to climb hard, but you also have to think about technique, understand body position, and find the unique path upward that works for you. It’s creative and tiring at the same time, and also incredibly satisfying when everything comes together and you make it to the top.

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Topping out a boulder in Moe’s Valley

We continued to climb at the gym and after relocating to Salt Lake City, our climbing gym membership was the first thing we set up after signing a lease.

Now there weren’t only plastic holds to pull on, but an entire mountain range that loomed over the city. Climbing outside was the next logical step, and so we hired a guide to try it out. We spent a weekend in Red Rock Canyon, inching up sandstone slabs on top rope under the warm February sun. It’s an understatement to say I liked it.

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First outdoor climbing experience in Red Rock

The following month, I took a course on learning to lead climb and build anchors. I continued to acquire gear, take classes, and try out routes on a half-dozen types of rock around the state. I discovered the sticky texture of standstone and granite, pulled up on slippery blocks of quartzite, and found perfectly round pockets in limestone faces. I can now make sense of photos like this one:

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Practicing rope management and anchor systems during a self-rescue class

But as much as I love climbing, it can also be utterly terrifying.

I am nervous every single time I tie in and start up a route outside. I’ve learned that a) this is normal and b) the anxiety diminishes with experience, but that doesn’t make it easier when I’m risking a fifteen-foot fall onto a ledge and I’m worried about my foot popping off a tiny sliver-sized protrusion.

Last summer I participated in a two-day falling and commitment clinic in Colorado, practicing falling safely and getting comfortable climbing above my protection. While it’s helped a bit, fear in climbing is an ongoing battle for me, albeit one that’s common among many climbers.

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Practicing lead falls in Boulder Canyon

Yet there’s something seductive about the combination of mental fortitude, body awareness, and beautiful landscapes that keeps me climbing past the fear.

I never thought I’d consider myself a “climber”, enjoy weight training at 6am before work, or find myself hanging from the top of a cliff by a thin tether as I set up for a fifty-foot rappel, but sometimes life has a funny way of giving you exactly what you need.

With all of the ups and downs of the past few years, climbing has been a constant presence and challenge, providing me with focus, persistence, and a sense of accomplishment.

It’s likely that climbing isn’t your thing, but if you’re interested in trying it out after reading my story, I encourage you to give it a go. Most indoor climbing gyms are welcoming and offer beginner courses regularly. Otherwise, let this be a reminder to be open to new experiences. You never know when a nonchalant invitiation might just become your newest passion.

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Getting familiar with the sandstone at Moe’s Valley

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