Rock climbing lessons

There are many lessons to be learned from rock climbing, but the following three are the main ones for me.

Don’t give up

Very often giving up in rock climbing is scarier than persisting—nobody likes falling. Especially if it’s a long and nasty fall. And what you very quickly discover is that in rock climbing, like in life (or Jazz, if you’re a musician), sticking with it for long enough eventually gets you up there. If you are persistent and don’t give up, you sooner or later find your groove and come on top victorious.

It was the fall of 2009, a big group of us were meeting in Joshua Tree for a long weekend of climbing and socializing - it was the 1st Annual Joshua Tree Tweetup. I believe this was shortly after I started leading trad. This route, however was protected by 4 bolts and accepted no natural protection. Four bolts spread unevenly over the 115 feet of hard knobby slab with the last bolt placed just high enough to protect you from a ground fall. In other words - you do not want to fall from the second half of the climb. If you chicken out, the only sensible thing to do is to carefully downclimb. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t find the prospect of downclimbing the slab all that appealing.

The route was called [Stichter Quits]. From the ground it looked fun and easy - slick slabby start, but nothing I’m not used to. The angle was easy, the weather was wonderful and the mood was cheerful. So I “racked up” (that is - put five or six sport draws and a few biners for the anchor on my harness) and started climbing. Clip the first bolt - check. Having fun - check. The second bolt is in sight, although not close - no problem, the climbing is easy. Clipped the second bolt, got just above it and realized that not only I do not see the next bolt, I also am not sure which direction to go, it’s getting pretty windy up there, the legs are starting to shake a little - all that standing around on tippy-toes looking for the next bolt and hesitating - hesitation takes up a lot of energy. But it’s too early to panic, so I decide to press on. A few more moves - still no bolt in sight, but I think I’m starting to understand the flow of this route (I wasn’t, I was still a bit off route). One more move - getting dangerously high above my last bolt, time to clip into something. “Third bolt, where the hell are you?!.” And then I see it! Still a few moves away and the climbing gets harder. This is where the real panic kicks in. I’m too high from my last bolt now to take a safe fall - rolling down that slab with all those granite knobs in my way - I’ll definitely twist an ankle or worse! Downclimb? No way! The only way is up. But I have to collect myself, I cannot climb shaky. One deep breath, two, three deep breaths. “Okay, just a few more moves and I’m safe.” I carefully move to the right, towards the “wave” features, make one cautious move, then another - somehow I get to the third bolt and clip in. I can breath now, I’m safe… except I’m only one third of the way up and there’s only one bolt left! What? The?..

It is what I felt for the next five minutes that I’m talking about here. The potential to give up and lower was enormous. Go to the Mountain Project page for this route and see how many people did so. But the climbing gets way easy after the third bolt - the mountain rounds off, there are lots of knobs and the friction is so good - you don’t need any footholds. But you can’t see any of that standing there because you have a tunnel vision. The first step is to decide to press on. “I won’t give up, it’s only a 5.7 sport. I must be missing something.” – I was telling myself.

Keep an open mind

Tunnel vision is what gets you at the critical moment. Tunnel vision means you’re stressed and can’t think straight. It also means that you’re tense, your breathing is irregular, you’re not getting enough oxygen to your brain and muscles and you’re wasting energy. You need to relax, take a deep breath and open up your mind. It’s when your mind is wide open that you start seeing possibilities. You start seeing potential solutions to your problems. And sometimes, you see that there is no problem. It’s all in your head.

When I was standing at the third bolt on Stichter Quits, taking deep breaths and looking around, I suddenly started noticing my surroundings. And if you’ve been to Joshua Tree, you’ll know what a sight that was. I was elated - I suddenly saw that the hard part of the climb was over, that the rest was easy, that it was still a bright sunny day and life was wonderful.

I don’t remember much about the moves to the top of the climb - I was too busy enjoying the surroundings, the sensation of moving up the sticky granite. And I got to the top - ecstatic that I didn’t bail. It still was the scariest climb of my life, but it also taught me a valuable lesson - if you keep an open mind, you start seeing the forest by the trees. Your imaginary problems evaporate and you actually start enjoying the challenges.

Play to learn

Have you ever been frustrated by a climb? You give it a few good tries but it still wouldn’t budge. And you’re getting pissed at the world, at this stupid route and at yourself for not being able to do the final move or two. Maybe you start thinking that you’re too short. Or that you’re too weak and need to do more strength training. Or maybe to take a break from climbing all together? Is it a 5.10 you’re struggling with? Or a 5.13? The grades don’t matter.

I like watching beginners climb. They flail on a 5.7, they may be even scared shirtless (I’m trying to keep it PG13, you see) - but when they get down you can see they are all tingly inside and ready to get on the next route. What happened to you, then? When did you stop enjoying climbing? If you’re reading this article, you’re probably not being paid to climb - let’s be honest. So why does it feel like a job, all of a sudden? You’re forgetting to enjoy it?

But maybe you’re stuck at this grade for the entire year and it’s getting a bit repetitive? Or maybe you’re coming back after an injury and you’re bored to tears climbing these “easy” grades? You’ve been given a gift, I say! Take this opportunity to learn a new technique. Or focus on moves you’ve always “hated” (like that’s even possible, right?). Come up with a few games to play with your partner (PG13, okay?) and forget about the grades! Playing makes learning fun again. In fact, I would argue that play is the only time you’re learning anything new. Ever wondered why you can’t remember the solution for quadratic equations yet citing your favorite childhood movie word for word poses no challenge even twenty years later? Well, guess which was fun and which bored you to tears when you were a kid.


To tie it all together - the only way you’re going to succeed in anything is by not giving up too easily and pressing on even (especially!) when the going gets tough, keeping an open mind to possible solutions (or exit routes) to your problems and not taking it all too seriously, approaching the problems playfully and learning from them.