A Rock Climbing Fable for the Ages

Last weekend, my boyfriend and I headed to the rock climbing gym as per usual. We donned our gear, chalked up our hands, and hit the wall. There were a dozen or so new routes in the back corner of the gym, and after a warm up, we headed over to check them out.

If you aren’t familiar with climbing gyms, here’s a little primer on how it works. The easiest routes are rated 5.5. If you’re an adult, these get old quick. The holds are easy and close together. Ratings go up to about 5.14 or so (it gets more complicated than that but it’s all you need to know for now). At my gym, when a new route is set a scorecard is put out and climbers can rate it however they think fit. Eventually, someone takes all the ratings and narrows it down to one rating.

600_434194106A year or so into climbing, I can climb a 5.9 pretty reliably. Once in awhile I meet one that vexes me. I have climbed the occasional 5.10. But this weekend I found myself faced with something interesting. Instead of a bunch of scorecards on the new routes, they were simply marked with colored tape. There were absolutely no ratings to be seen.

We stood before the wall, assessing the new routes. You usually have some idea of whether or not something is within your wheelhouse. But I found myself looking at one route on a sharp corner with lots of tiny little holds thinking, “I can do that.” My boyfriend guessed it might be a 5.11. I decided to throw myself at it anyway. 

I was hardly a foot off the ground the first time I fell (this happened over and over again). After getting it started the route required me to find a hold around the corner that I couldn’t see, but eventually I found it and managed to get myself a little farther off the ground. Then I fell again. This time I was high enough off the ground to swing a bit, and I started spinning (and laughing). My yoga instructor-of-choice happened to see this and said, “That one looks difficult. What do you think that’s rated?”

I told her Brian guessed it was a 5.11. She agreed.

I went back at it. 

It took a long time, a lot of resting, shaking out my arms, and swearing when I realized I’d figured out one move just to see the next tiny hold was beyond my reach. But I scraped and clawed my way to the top and barely grazed the top of the wall with my fingers before I started moaning, “I did it…Get me down from here.”


I was spent. I didn’t have another climb in me, but I can’t wait to get back to the gym and see what that route gets rated.

Somewhere in this story of mine is a fable for you to tell your children–or yourself–about not setting limits for yourself and ignoring labels. If I’d seen a 5.11 on that route I probably would have thought, “It doesn’t look that bad but there must be something really hard.” I probably would have turned to a 5.9 or a 5.10-. But in the absence of a label I said, “Let’s give it a shot.” And once I made it halfway up the wall I thought, “There’s no way I’m giving up until my hands completely give out.” But this route wasn’t about upper-arm strength, or even forearms… It was about balance and leg strength. I’ve got those things in spades (even if my left left glute throbbed every time I climbed a stair the next day).

a637c04c299a5b661b4efcfbc1e075adThere are a lot of things I love about climbing. It’s good for someone like me who likes to see very concrete examples of improvement. People with anxiety and depression find that bouldering helps them get out of their heads and find some relief.  Even if you’re not struggling with clinical manifestations of these issues, climbing a wall is a good way to stop your mind from running through its endless stream of garbage stress-thoughts. But the main thing I love about climbing is it’s as much about problem-solving and your mental state as it is about your physical prowess. One of the sayings I think about all the time–especially when my arms are pumped and I can barely bend my fingers–is, “Why get stronger when you can just get better?” Your parents always told you to work smarter, not harder. That advice is especially true for female climbers–and it’s why so many young women/girls dominate in this sport.

I’ll leave you with a bit of inspiration from one of the best in the biz!

Have I convinced you to start climbing? Here’s the gear I started with!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s