Climbing Towards A Better Me

I started bouldering two years ago, after being invited to a local gym at least a dozen times by friends. I never understood their excitement, bordering on crazy obsession, with a sport that revolved around trying to lug your body a couple of feet off the ground on plastic holds. One day though I finally gave in and joined them on one of their weekly ventures to their bouldering joint. The entire place, hidden between two grey apartment buildings in a back alley had the feel of a dimly lit, seedy bordello to it, with uncombed, long-haired, young men standing outside, who were covered in what looked like huge amounts of cocaine on their hands, faces and shirts. They had plastic bags lying around labeled “white gold”, leaving me mildly unimpressed and questioning once more my friend’s sanity. These long-haired hippies, who were in my opinion in desperate need of a shower, or two even, gave me a small smile, one that felt a bit like I was being pitied. “It´s so hipster to boulder nowadays, unbelievable how many newbies show up every week!” one of them said to the other with barely masked annoyance at my intent stares. I turned beetroot red at the insult of being called a hipster. My glasses may be larger than necessary, but I do need them to actually see the world around me without everything looking like I wandered into an impressionist Monet painting. I quickly turned away to follow my friends into the gym.

When I walked through the blue front door, I was reminded of one of the most popular Doctor Who phrases: “It´s bigger on the inside!” Sure enough, someone had turned two apartments into a bouldering gym by taking out the ceiling in between, with hidden doors and stairs leading from the ground floor to the top level. The other thing that hit me was the smell. I was sure that the boy’s sport locker room in school smelled like a perfume section of the local Westfield mall in comparison. The combination of shoes worn once too often without socks, sweat, and beer put my olfactory senses into overdrive and I remember pulling my scarf over my nose in order to repress the gagging reflex. I gave my friends a timid smile and pressed on. Walking past grown men, lying on dirty, dusty matts, trash talking their friends bouldering skills, I couldn´t help but think that I never wanted to be like them when I was their age. They were literally spending hours of their days holding on to plastic in odd body positions, spending the majority of their income on shoes that made my high heels look comfy enough to hike up the Alps in order to reach a part of a climb that I could almost easily jump to?! At that time I hadn´t even been properly introduced to the climbing lingo yet, but if I had I probably would have been so alienated by the entire ordeal, to change my mind entirely and run for the exit. Even now I sometimes still wonder what in the world my fellow climbers are trying to tell me when they say: “Did you heel hook onto the sloper, so you can reach the pinch, making it possible to match hands to cross over to that crimp on your left, in order to get that bat-hang move on the second to last move of the problem?” First time I was confronted with this sort of speech, it took all I had not to respond that no, I didn´t have a problem and it was highly unlikely I would be seeing bats hanging from the ceiling here, because of all the noise and people, which bats are known to dislike. I still believe this is how we lure in newcomers, by making them believe climbers are most certainly a different species from a different planet, who have adapted enough to not stand out, but once back in their natural environment, this sort of lingo gives them away.

The guy at the counter signed me up, informing me of my right to stay silent in case I did fall off the wall and kill myself and that if I didn´t break my neck, they wouldn´t be taking any responsibility for my f(l)ailing. Then he handed me my bouldering shoes, two times smaller than my normal street shoe size and sent me on my way. I couldn´t help but cry out in pain first time I put on my shoes, but my friends kept saying they had to hurt in order to work properly. My theory that they´d completely lost it seemed not only confirmed, I was now also worried about the crazy stunts I was sure they were pulling off in the bedroom, because believe me – only a true masochist can say he prefers climbing in shoes this tight. This second theory, of climbers being masochists, was also confirmed that day, when one of the boulderers fell off a particularly hard problem (= if it´s bouldering, it´s a problem; if it´s climbing, it´s a route) and tore off half the skin on his hand. Instead of panicking, like I was, he calmly put tape on his hands and kept on training, dripping blood onto every second hold.

I did relatively well after my first training session. I put up a fight on climbs that were set up to look like ladders, moving up the problem with the elegance of a drunken beetle, arms and legs flailing frantically into all directions. I might have used my mouth once or twice in order to latch onto the wall with a well-placed bite on the plastic. But I struggled on and the next morning, I was rewarded with the worst muscle pain I had ever experienced in my life. After failing to open the door of my apartment for nearly 5 minutes, because I couldn´t hold on to the handle properly with my hands too sore to get any grip on it, I used my forehead to press down the handle and pulled on the door with my mouth. I vowed never to return to the gym. Ever. Again. The next day my friends called and within an hour, I was back in the gym, sitting on a dirty, dusty matt in too small shoes, cheering on a random stranger on a climb with holds so small I was convinced that he was wearing invisible suction pads on his hands to get up the wall, and white chalk (it wasn´t cocaine after all, much to my disappointment) smeared across my cheek. It´s been two years now since I started bouldering and the sport has given me more than I ever thought possible – new friends, a toned body I´m quite happy with, and a hopefully healthy, competitive streak in my character. Most importantly, bouldering led me to climbing and climbing led me to meet the most wonderful man on this planet. And no, I don´t mean I ran into the famous climber Alex Honnold (though that is still on my bucket list).

Bouldering and climbing have been in my life for only a few months in comparison to other hobbies. But I don´t think any other hobby has ever changed me as much as these two have.

Bouldering has made me a planner. I sit on those dusty crash pads and instead of just blindly going for the goal, I think about how I want to get started, what body position makes the most sense to go for and how I want to reach the end without falling off. Bouldering problems are short, but they make up for their lack in distance by requiring a lot of strength, “punch”, being put into them. If you don´t plan your route, you might as well not have set off at all. This has translated well into my life. I don´t just blindly go for my dreams anymore, I see them as much of a problem as routes in the gym. Which steps would make sense to take? How can I get a better hold on the situation, where do I have to put in the most effort, how can I stabilize myself in awkward situations? I go through the steps before I even head off, aware of the problems that might turn up unexpectedly and already have a solution or two in mind in order to work around them.

Climbing has given me strength to hold on. Unlike bouldering problems, these routes are long and if I do make a mistake or simply don’t put in enough of an effort and let go, it´s very hard to get back on the route into the body position I was in when I fell off. This makes it necessary for me to focus and to fight through those moments when my head is feeling lazy and ready to let go and I know I shouldn´t, if I want to 1) walk away with my dignity still intact and 2) finish the climb without having to start again anew. That´s exactly what life is like sometimes. When things get tough, don´t let got. Don´t let the things you tell yourself in your head get to you. Break through that mental barrier and focus on how much you want to reach that goal, how the adrenaline rush of a clean send (= finish) of a route is going to be worth the strain on your muscles. If you tell yourself you won´t make it, your head lets go of the route before your hands do and that can be fatal in a dangerous outdoor climb. Believe you can and you will actually stand a chance. This lesson is one we all have to learn at some time in our life and the one that I have to focus on most at the current moment in my life.

But the most important thing these two activities have taught me, is how important friends are. How important a (climbing) partner is, someone you can rely on, and in climbing even trust your life to. When I started climbing, I was still in a bouldering mode. I disliked dynamic moves in which I had to jump towards my goal so much, you might say I hated them with a passion. I went out of my way to go out of those moves way. But with the right belayer (= person, who holds on to the other end of the rope so I don´t die if I do fall), I learned to trust my own abilities. I was finally able to see what I had to work on in order to improve my climbing – and even myself personally. I am learning to trust others, because there´s nothing like knowing your life is literally being held on by a thread connected to a person who hopefully knows what they´re doing to build up trust.

Climbing and bouldering have given me so much more than I ever thought they would. They have given me splendid views from the tops of difficult climbs, overlooking forests filled with silver – leafed eucalyptus trees. They have introduced me to the most amazing people all over the world and in that way, given me a community to be a part of no matter where I go on this large blue planet. They have given me strength to fight my inner demons and they have given me someone worth trusting and holding on to – and not just in a climbing sense. They have changed me in a way I never thought possible. I know that you non-climbers out there may be thinking that this is the talk of a madwoman, but let me tell you: once you get started, you´ll be crazy about it, too.

On that note: See you in the gym soon!

Normal Life vs. The Climbing Life
Normal Life vs. The Climbing Life

4 thoughts on “Climbing Towards A Better Me

  1. Great to know that there are other people , who have been bewildered by this sport the first time they encountered it. Have a great climb.


      1. Always climb harder. Even if you only get a bit of it done. Then next time, you’ll get that bit done, plus a bit more. This week we are starting a training plan to get stronger, I’ll blog and let you know …

        Liked by 1 person

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