“It’s really crowded, do you want to stay?” Sarah was looking at me. I gazed around the packed gym, wrinkling my nose at the scores of teenagers who were running around and getting ready for their high school climbing competition.
In another world, we left. We said we would come back and give rock climbing a try, but we never did. In that other world, I never started climbing. I never got obsessed. And maybe I never got sober. LUCKILY, we are in THIS world, and while we are in the darkest timeline, it has one bright spot: climbing.
That first night, a bitter Friday evening in January last winter, I climbed in street sneakers and with no chalk. I was scared of heights, but I was doing a Dry January (I was already on the path towards sobriety, I just needed an extra push) so I figured rock climbing could be a fun way to spend my Friday instead of getting drunk. I thought it would be a one-and-done kind of thing.
I’ve never been more wrong.
I believe in love at first sight. It’s fucking stupid and hazardous in humans, but with rock climbing it was incredible. I got off the floor, clipped into my auto-belay harness, and found myself more at home than ever before. I have tried multiple sports throughout my years before ultimately giving up and admitting that maybe I just wasn’t athletically-inclined. Having balls chucked at my face wasn’t my thing. Track hurt my legs. Soccer pushed my competitive streak to the point of insanity. Horseback riding was too expensive. But rock climbing? Rock climbing was perfect.
My friend Sarah evidently felt similar, and we signed up for an 8 week membership, which turned into an annual membership, which turned into buying our own gear, taking classes, getting belay certified, and (in my case) led to entering (and placing in) a climbing competition one year later.
Months after our first send, when I finally got sober for real, rock climbing was one of the things that gave me strength and kept me on track. When I was feeling triggered, anxious, or like I might relapse, I turned to the walls. I learned how to boulder; channeling my energy and anger and fear into dynamic movements and powerful transitions. Climbing became more than a hobby — it was a whole new way of living for me.
I could write an entire book on how much I love rock climbing and why it’s so important to me, but for the sake of time I will limit myself to the following reasons:
- As someone who struggles with BDD, I openly admit I have issues accepting and loving my body. But rock climbing helps with that. When I started climbing, I was shocked to see actual results. Not only was I getting in shape (especially after I quit drinking), but I was getting physically stronger than I ever had been before. I can’t explain to you how amazing it is to see yourself go from struggling to climb a 5.8 graded wall, to sending a 5.10 months later like it was nothing. The best part about climbing is that you SEE your progress. You can TELL you’re getting stronger.
Climbing Tip: The walls in climbing gyms are graded on a point system. So, 5.5s are incredibly easy, but 5.11s are tough and 5.15s are the hardest climbs possible. Same goes for bouldering: V0s are simple, V4s are tricky, and so on and so forth, up until you get to the monsters that are V17s.
- In the past, I hated meditation and yoga. I tried them, and was generally frustrated and bored by them. But with the introduction of climbing into my life, I found that I was curious about them again. Because, as it turns out, climbing is extremely meditative. You need an intense amount of focus, especially if you’re climbing a harder route. There is no room in your brain to worry or stress, which my brain likes to do a lot of. When I’m up on the wall, trying to figure out my next move, or trying to keep my balance, all I’m thinking about is climbing. You get really in-tune to your body and you learn about how it can move and what it can do when pushed. Additionally, breath control is very important. Learning to breathe is a key component of meditation and yoga, which is why both practices are encouraged and utilized by serious climbers.
Climbing Tip: In general, it’s best to keep your body close to the wall when you’re climbing a route. Keep your toes pointed towards the wall, as that will give you a better grip. Your arms will be the strongest if you climb with them straight — think about how you carry groceries; it’s much harder to be holding heavy bags upright with your arms curled than it is to just hold them straight down at your sides. Finally, trust your feet. Most of your climbing power comes from your legs; don’t be afraid to use them in unusual ways. Sometimes a simple dropped knee can get you further up the wall.
- Although rock climbing is primarily a solo sport, it is fairly interactive. For instance, you need a partner if you’re going to belay or do lead climbing. It’s important to trust and like this person, since your life is literally in their hands (and vice versa). I’m lucky in that my partner is my close friend of nearly a decade, but I’ve also met other people through the climbing community I trust to belay me as well. If you follow my Instagram account, @the_sober_climb, you know that I post often about my love for climbing. That has actually drawn quite a few fellow climbers (some sober, some sober-curious) to me, and now I’m more connected than ever to this extremely welcoming community.
Climbing Tip: Climbing with other people can be beneficial to your climbing even if you’re not belaying. More experienced climbers can offer tips on how to send a particularly hard route — this is called “beta”. Getting and giving beta bonds climbers and helps them climb better and smarter.
- The best thing rock climbing has done for me is that it allows me to feel good about myself. Within a week of climbing my fear of heights disappeared. I learned to trust the gear, but more importantly I learned to trust myself. I have never in my life felt as beautiful, powerful, strong, and graceful as I do when I climb. In fact, on solid ground I’m a bit of a clumsy dope. But for some reason, when I get up in the sky and fight against gravity…Well, I’m a fucking warrior. I was used to hating myself. Rock climbing changed that. It gave me the determination and grit to want to be the best version of myself. I couldn’t climb if I was drunk, and I couldn’t move if I was hungover. Eventually I realized that I loved rock climbing more than I loved the bottle. People say rock climbing is my new addiction. They’re right. And I’m really, really fine with that.
Climbing Tip: Don’t compare yourself to other climbers. There’s a lot of factors that make someone a good climber that aren’t necessarily in their control. Height, weight, flexibility, natural strength; these are all things that can elevate or hinder a climber. For example, a lot of males find certain routes incredibly easy because of their natural upper body strength. But put them on a short wall with small holds that is all about balance and minute movements and they struggle. The more you climb, the more you will figure out your strengths and weaknesses, which will show you what you need to work on to be a better climber.
Climbing Terms a Beginner Should Know:
- Beta – advice given by other climbers
- Dyno – a “dynamic” move, often a jump or leap to get to another hold
- Hold – the “rocks” that you grab on to (there are many, many different kinds of holds as well, such as pinches, jugs, crimps, pockets, slopes, edges, etc.)
- Project – a route you are stuck on that you will have to work on over several sessions
- Route – the path up to the top of the wall
- Send – to make it to the top of a route
Follow my Instagram for more rock climbing photos and videos! And feel free to ask any questions — I love talking about climbing so I’m an open book.