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Lessons I’ve Learned From Rock Climbing

Adam Coutts

00184_p_9aeeb4bus0187 [Me in 1991]

My men’s team and I recently went climbing at Iron Works indoor climbing gym in Berkeley.  As I clambered up the walls, I was again reminded of the helpful “life lessons” that I first learned from the sport of rock climbing when I first engaged it twenty-two years ago.

I started rock climbing in 1991, my senior year at university.  I sought it out specifically because it seemed so unlike my usual heady-mental-analytical self and so outside of my comfort zone .  I went climbing about ten times over the next five years in some beautiful outdoor locations all over California.  Those long days climbing up rocks were physically and emotionally challenging, but I always felt strong and full afterwards.  I looked with pride at all of the abrasions and bruises that I collected each time.

I haven’t been outdoor climbing in the fifteen years since, but I have occasionally visited the Bay Area’s indoor climbing gyms, both Iron Works in Berkeley and Mission Cliffs in the City. Every time I climb, I am reminded of the nuggets of wisdom that climbing has taught me:

* Every time that I climb a route, I can come down any time that I want – there’s no law that says that I have to reach all the way to the top.  On an even deeper level, I never need to go rock climbing at all – no one’s going to stop me from staying home and zoning out on the internet instead.

But I’ve noticed that it feels unmistakably more fun and satisfying to challenge myself, to get out and go climbing, to get on some routes that are edgy and difficult for me, and then to be skillful, brave, and persevering, and do what it takes to get all the way to the top.

This is, of course, similar to many other areas of life: we don’t have to take on challenges, and we don’t have to succeed at them – but it sure does seem to feel better to win than not to play.

* When I begin a route, and lift myself up onto the first foothold, I feel butterflies in my stomach – every single time.  I have found that one of the challenges and pleasures of rock climbing is how raw and real it is, how I can’t be lost in thought when I do it.

This sense of having an encounter with the real world – of dealing with the actual territory of life instead of just the map we have of it in our heads – is, of course, a great Zen-like ethos to cultivate in all of life.

* I have noticed that it is helpful to visually check out a route while I am still on the ground, and to think it through and develop a plan.  But a climb also seems to go better when, once I am up in the air and in motion, I am willing to adapt, let go of the plan, and improvise based on feedback the real world is giving me.  This lesson is, of course, relevant to the rest of life.

* Any route will have comparatively easy parts, where the journey is smooth and easy, and comparatively difficult parts, where it takes all I have, physically, mentally, and spiritually, to get through.  As we all know, life in general is like this too.


* I do not think that it feels natural or immediately comfortable for a homo sapien like us to climb a hundred or more feet in the air on a sheer vertical rock (much less an overhanging one), balancing our weight on tiny footholds and handholds.  So, sometimes, while I am climbing, my body, emotions, and animal instincts will rebel, feeling that it is just not possible for me to move on and climb higher.  I think to myself, “There’s no way that little ledge by my right knee could support all of my weight”, or “I just don’t have the reach to get to that handhold to my left.”  Or sometimes I just feel vertigo, a nauseous fear of heights, and a desire to get myself back down onto solid ground.

At times like that, if my rational mind knows that it actually is possible for me to make the next move, and I also mentally know that the rope and harness are keeping me safe, then it is up to my will to surprise my resistance by just suddenly putting me in motion.  And, when I place my foot on a higher outcropping, put all my weight onto it, and stand up straight, then I pretty much always succeed, feeling a rush of satisfaction in the process.

Analogously, in other areas of life, I notice that if I’ve thoroughly thought through an action plan and gotten solid input on it from people that I trust, then it often works best, at times when I am up against it, hitting resistance and having a bodily feeling of “this is never going to work” or “it is crazy for me to be even trying this”, to just take the next step.

* Similarly, there are times when climbing, where I will find a comparatively large foothold, and I can rest for a bit, and think through my next steps.  Sometimes, especially when I am near the top, I have taken some time to contemplate the exhaustion in my fingers, legs, and mind, and debate whether to I have the strength to push all the way to the top.

I’ve learned, however, that it is best, once I get on a wall, to not to sit and think for too long.  There is a burn rate of muscle fatigue in my fingers and legs just to stand there clinging to the wall, even on comparatively large footholds.  So, if I take too long to decide whether I can push all the way to the top, the answer will always be “no”.

Instead, I’ve learned that it’s best to take the minimum time that I need to rest or strategize, then decide on the best course of action, and immediately throw myself totally into it.

This lesson from rock climbing has proved particularly valuable in the rest of my life, frequently and powerfully.  I’ve noticed that taking the minimum time needed to rest or contemplate my next step, and then aggressively moving forward, is often what leads to success in many endeavors in life.  Conversely, taking too long to regroup can lead to failure.   And, more generally, as we hopefully all know, sometimes life gives us a limited window of time to grab hold of an opportunity or an inspiration before circumstances change and the opportunity is no longer available.

3600663421_0ca643dcb8_o [Iron Works Climbing Gym In Berkeley]

* Sometimes when I’m climbing, I feel intimidated that some of the other folks climbing seem so confident, skillful, and quick.  My climbs are usually more satisfying and successful, however, when I just play my game as best I can, and ignore the comparisons that my mind comes up with.  As the Alcoholics Anonymous saying goes, “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides”.

* Conversely, sometimes the people around me are an inspiration.  At times, when a voice in my head says, “You know what, this route is actually just not doable, let’s just give up”, I think about others who have completed the route, and I think, “If those folks can do it, then so can I.”  And I find similar inspiration with some of the other challenges that I face in my life.

* Hanging our weight off of little handhold grips makes use of muscles that we don’t usually use in daily life.  So, extreme fatigue of the forearms and fingers are main examples of the physical challenges that beginning climbers sometimes find overwhelming.

Experienced climbers usually don’t suffer from this problem, and this seems to me to be both because our bodies have habituated and strengthened the muscles involved, but also because our technique has improved so as to not stress those particular muscles as much (most notably, gripping the wall less by putting more of our weight on our feet).

Similarly, in everyday life, trying anything for the first time can be a challenge, but eventually we get used to it.  More to the point, to succeed at something we often figure out ways to be more efficient at it, and the sense of intense challenge that we felt when we began abates.


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