Lessons from the Rock Wall: As Discovered by a Climbing Newbie

Yesterday was a really big day for me. A really big, really scary, really awesome day.

I started out by cutting off about 12 inches of my hair that I had been growing out for the last seven years. Because this new hair gave me some sort of euphoric high, my friends Kate and Mariah were able to finally convince me to go rock climbing with them for the first time. As an anxious person with a fear of heights, this was obviously something I had been avoiding for awhile. Fortunately, these two have been climbing and belaying for several years, and I felt secure trying out a new hobby with their support.

Now, I’m clearly no expert—and I’m not about to go free-climbing outside of the safety of the gym—but I already feel incredibly attached to the sport. In just two hours, all my stress from the week dissolved away, and I was left with a clear mind to evaluate the craziness that has been this last year of college. For the an anxious person, it is often really challenging to step back from individual stressors and pull valuable lessons from them, but I tried to approach yesterday with a growth mindset and took away some valuable notes to apply to a bunch of situations I face every day.


Trust is key

Before entering the rock gym, Kate and Mariah let me know that they were scared of heights, too, but they continue climbing anyway. When I asked how they get through their fear, they both smiled and said they trusted the other whole-heartedly to belay them safely. To literally put your life into someone’s hands obviously requires a lot of trust. Too often, our society tells us that we need to put ourselves first. That you can’t trust anyone. That the only person who can help you is yourself. After 10 minutes of bouldering without a harness, I quickly realized this is not the case. Humans need a tribe, and we need to trust that when we fall, the people in our life will be there to catch us.

There is also something to be said for trusting the process and knowing that, in the end, everything works out how it should. I have always lacked this trust in the universe, which leaves me overwhelmed and doubtful of myself. Sometimes it’s okay to put some faith in other people, to make things a little easier on myself.

It’s not a failure; it’s a project

Both Kate and Mariah tried several climbs that tested their usual limits. When I tried to comfort them for not reaching the top, the first thing Mariah said was, “we don’t look at coming down as a failure but as a project for your next climb.”

This learner’s mindset is how you can move on from your past mistakes to improve and grow. As someone who has always struggled with the mere possibility failure, not reaching the top didn’t seem like an option. But, with each climb I realized this is a sport that takes patience, strength, flexibility, and skill—none of which come naturally on the first try. Failure implies you’re done trying to grow, but a project means you’ll keep working at it. I’m so glad I found climbing because it’s such a great place to set small goals that are worth working toward.

You can always try a different angle

Along the lines of not giving up, part of success can mean scrapping your old methods and trying something new. How often in college do we see institutions that haven’t changed in decades because they are too heavily rooted in tradition and stubborn beliefs? When something isn’t working, it might be a sign to come up with a new strategy.

Growth comes from discomfort

Overstretched hamstrings, fear of heights, a harness that rides up, countless cuts covering my hands, working out in public. All of these things are challenges I faced climbing that could have prevented me from even strapping on my shoes. Growth lies outside your comfort zone, so sometimes it’s best to acknowledge the negative feelings, assign them some value, and get the hell over it.

You can’t move on unless you let go

Climbing requires putting your body in tricky places and poses that seem almost impossible to get out of. When you’re staying still, it’s easy to feel comfortable because you know you have a good hold that will keep you from falling. If the next rock seems too far away to possibly reach, it can seem easier to just stay put, but unless you let go of that stability and reach a little higher, you will never get to the top.

In my life, this has shown up in a lot of places, whether it’s resentment, bad relationships, a bad habit, or an old grudge. Without releasing yourself from the boundaries you’ve created it is impossible to free yourself. This is a lot of why I cut all my hair off. Sometimes the things that make us feel safe are actually the things holding us back.

It’s not about making it to the top

Obviously, making it to the top of a climb is an incredibly rewarding feeling that deserves celebration, but conquering those obstacles is only a part of what comes out of a climbing experience. In the gym, I got to spend two hours with some of my best friends as we laughed, encouraged each other, and faced our fears and anxieties. As evidenced by this post, there’s more to achieve while climbing than reaching a summit.

Life is not about reaching an end goal. It’s not about landing the most prestigious job because of your education at the best university. It’s not about who makes the most money or posts the best vacation photos on Facebook. At the risk of sounding (even more) cheesy, life is about the people you meet and love along the way and what those people teach you about your own human experience. If you’re a Type A perfectionist like me, this can be one of the hardest reminders, but on the days where I can step back and appreciate the present, I am always happiest.

Don’t just celebrate the summit. Enjoy the climb.

Want some advice from a seasoned pro? Check out this awesome TED Talk by Matthew Childs



1 Comment

  • Reply katherine leppek July 3, 2016 at 2:47 am

    Smart writing from a young woman stepping out there. Wise words.

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