A year and a half ago, my partner, Nick, and I met at a program for a conference focused on promoting the benefits of nature and mental health - you know, the type of program that attracts the active, outdoorsy type. On the website for the program, Nick’s and my self-written bios were right next to each other. In mine, I included a line that said something like, “I love rock climbing, and I love to take people rock climbing, so let’s meet up and go climb!” Meanwhile, Nick’s bio specifically stated, “I’ll do anything outdoors except rock climb!” Nick is afraid of heights, like most sensible people are, and thus had written off the sport completely, thinking, “It’s all about going up to high places, and I don’t like high places.”
A few months later, as Nick and I started hanging out more and eventually dating, I took him rock climbing first in the gym and then outside. At 5:30am on a Tuesday in May, I taught him how to tie a figure 8 at the base of a crag in Moab, UT and gave him step-by-step instructions on how to belay me while I set up some routes for us. He didn’t like all of it, but he like me enough to be give it a try, and he powered through the worst of the heights issue and found a lot of enjoyment from all the rest.
One year later, Nick's climbing resume now includes roped glacier travel, lead climbing, trad climbing, sport climbing, and bouldering. His collection of climbing gear has gone from zero to include two pairs of shoes, a rope, a harness, and an anchor setup. We’ve climbed all over the west, including Bishop, Mammoth, Smith Rock, and Red Rock. And the most gratifying part for me was when he asked me just a few days ago to look over his speaker bio for the very conference we met at: In it, he listed some of his favorite actives, and right up there was climbing!
So what magical transformation happened to the guy who was scared of heights and didn’t want to go up high? The guy who not too long ago thought, “I could never do that, and I could especially never enjoy that”?
He got the Sachi perspective on what rock climbing really means, so here’s a spark notes version for you.
The Perks of Being a Rock Climber
Practice meaningful problem solving
When I mention that my favorite hobby is to climb, I’m often met with people saying, "That’s very cool but not for me because I don’t like heights." And while I’m careful to validate that phobia and definitely not in the business of forcing anyone to do things they’re uncomfortable with, I always think to myself, "If only they knew that it was so much more than that!"
Climbing at its essence can really be boiled down to one word: Hard. Have you ever heard someone say that the opposite of “easy peasy lemon squeezey” is “difficult difficult lemon difficult”? That’s climbing. Whether indoors or outdoors, it’s all about using your fingers and toes on little edges, sloped holds, and pinches, often at awkward angles that require you to hold on harder than you’ve probably ever held on to anything before. The wall could be 15 feet up as a bouldering problem, or upwards of 60 feet on a roped climb.
You can climb top rope, where the rope acts like a pulley through an anchor at the top of the wall that stops you from falling if you let go (you just dangle in place next to the wall). You can climb lead, where you bring the rope up the wall attached to your harness and clip it into set protection every 5 to 10 feet or so. You can climb trad, which is only done on outdoor rock (as far as I know, no gyms are set up to practice this), where you lead climb and place your own protection into cracks as you go.
In its most basic and least scary form (which I consider to be top rope or bouldering), climbing isn’t about heights at all. It’s about you, the holds right in front of you, and the 3 or 4 moves it will take you to get your body to ascend them. Sometimes you cruise right up, and it feels fast and flowy like a vertical dance. And sometimes you look at it, try it, fall off, try it again, and think it might not even be physically possible for your body to do.
But sometimes you hit that perfect sweet spot where you look at the positioning of the holds, consider the physics of your body and the wall, brainstorm all the possibilities to pulling this thing off, and after a few tries - you do it. In those moments, it’s a perfect match of your physical and mental strength to make something happen. The process of mental problem solving and physical execution are in a perfect, high-paced rhythm where it feels so good you don’t even notice yourself being tired. Or maybe you do, but it’s easy to ignore because you’re having so much fun.
Climbing is the practice of failure
There are very few environments where failure has no consequences and you have unlimited tries to get something right. Climbing indoors is one of them, and failure is met with 2 feet thick foam pads and gently swinging on a rope next to the holds that stumped you. You can try as many times as you want or need to get it right - and if you never do, it doesn’t matter either! You just move on to something else. Climbing is therefore an excellent teacher in how to fail, how to fail many times, and how to think creatively and take risks on something that doesn’t seem like it’ll work (but often times it surprisingly does). Like I said, climbing is hard. Sometimes you have to fail many times until you get the right combination of strength, technique, mindset, and a little bit of luck, all to just get a few feet higher up.
These are incredibly valuable skills to take into the rest of your life. Climbing is the practice of failure, and it will teach you very quickly how to handle it, work through it, and (literally) move on!
Anyone can climb, and you can climb with anyone
One of my favorite activities is to introduce friends to climbing for the first time. In other sports, like running for instance, going with a friend can be challenging if your paces are vastly different — it’s not that fun to feel like you’re slowing someone down or being slowed down. But with climbing, everyone can climb their own routes at their own pace. There’s no dependence on each other to be at the same level, so the best climbing partner is someone who’s excited to be there and have fun, and not necessarily the one who climbs the same stuff.
You can climb with a group, with a partner, or by yourself and always have a good time. Most gyms also have meetup groups, including LGBT, women and nonbinary, and minority groups that work to increase diversity and accessibility in climbing.
A way to see the world
One of my favorite aspects of climbing comes primarily from the climbing I do outdoors. When I was first introduced to climbing by my friends, we spent an entire summer climbing and slack lining every day at the gym. At the end of the summer, we went outdoors for my first time and climbed Tenaya Peak in Tulomne Meadows right outside of Yosemite. Tenaya Peak is a 10,000 foot peak that you scramble up as it gets steeper and steeper until you decide to rope up to finish climbing to the top. On our ascent, we left the car at 6:30 in the morning, roped up for 14 pitches (i.e., rope lengths of climbing), and made it back down by 4:30pm to jump into the lake and scarf down room temperature pizza leftovers in the parking lot. It was a beautiful, memorable, exhausting day. From the top, you can see hundreds of miles into the untouched trees and mountains of the Sierra. The world feels big and you feel small, yet somehow limitless.
I’ve since climbed many more rocks and peaks in Yosemite, as well as all up and down the west coast. I’ve travelled to Siurana in Spain to climb cliffs heralded as some of the best sport climbing in the world. The rock is out in the countryside, and the town of Siurana is a tiny cobblestone village from the 1200's with a single little food market and streets too narrow for modern cars and transportation. At the top of the rocks is a little fort with a cafe where you can munch on spaghetti and gaze out at the rocky canyons and layers of blue rolling hills. It’s a tiny tucked away pocket of existence I would otherwise have no reason to ever have visited.
Traveling through climbing is a different lens from any other travel I’ve done. The focus is beautiful big rocks often in remote areas, and a sense of wonder, adventure, and exploration. It’s taken me to places I would otherwise have never seen. And every time, delicious food, interesting people, and cultural perspectives come along with the adventure.
Climbing for mental health
I’ve always known on a personal level that if I’m having a day where I’m feeling dull and detached, going climbing will wake me up more effectively than any other activity I do, including things like running and hiking.
There are many studies that show that physical activity in conjunction with normal depression treatments (like SSRIs) are shown to improve depression outcomes with clinical significance. These studies show that it may not matter what activity you’re doing, whether running, surfing, or hiking - the idea of “getting up and moving regularly” will soon have the credibility for medical prescription.
So far, only a few studies have focused on climbing as a treatment, but one in particular published recently out of Germany developed a fantastic randomized control trial for “bouldering psychotherapy.” Their treatment protocol combined bouldering sessions and psychotherapy, and compared it to groups doing just exercise or just CBT (a type of evidence-based clinical psychotherapy). Bouldering psychotherapy was shown to have better outcomes in decreasing depression than exercise alone, and was just as effective as CBT. These outcomes persisted even a year after the treatment had concluded. This is a huge indication for increasing treatments available for mental health, by including options that potentially could decrease cost, increase access, and has significantly less stigma attached to it than traditional mental health care.
A key difference to me between exercises like long distance running vs. climbing is the level of concentrated focus for certain periods of time. While running and hiking, you get the rush of endorphins from moving, as well as a chance to zone out and think deeply about whatever you want. The prevailing theory about why these activities provide healing is called ART (attention restoration theory), which suggests that they create mental respite from a “soft focus” (i.e. not focusing on anything for a little while). Activities like climbing and surfing, for example, are proposed to be the opposite. They provide an activity that requires complete focus as a distraction from everything else going on. My intuition says that different people will respond differently to both types of respite, and that it’d be great to have access to both!
In summary, climbing rocks
Climbing is not just about going up so you can come down. It’s about complete mental and physical engagement. It’s about connecting with people in the outdoors (or indoors!) over solving literal “problems” where there are no consequences to failure. It’s about trying again and again, and being creative with your problem solving. It’s about mental presence, flow state, and a sense of accomplishment. It’s about moving with purpose to feel better, and getting to do it by yourself or with friends.
There’s a lot to love about this sport that may seem extreme, silly, or inaccessible from the outside. And while I don’t intend to turn anyone into a hardcore climber from this article alone, maybe you’ll be inspired to try something new this summer and get a day pass at your local gym the next time a friend invites you along!