What Climbing Taught Me About Myself (And Life)

Two weeks ago, I tried climbing for the first time… and let me tell you, this stuff is no joke. Of course, when you think of climbing gyms, it’s not like you assume it’s easy, but honestly… it’s way harder than I could ever imagine. The thing is, this wasn’t only physically — to me, climbing is a metaphor for life, and one that you learn real quick. 

As someone who has an on-off, love-hate relationship with the gym (and most forms of physical exercise sans dance — which I find thoroughly enjoyable, and have since I was a kid), my physical fitness isn’t always, shall we say, “up to par”.

Despite spending a good amount of time on the elliptical trainer, and technically burning a good amount of calories while I do it, I never seem to build muscle tone or get any more fitter than my baseline level. Gav says this is due to the fact that I am super-feminine and have a lot of oestrogen (lol, but seriously though), making it hard to build muscle, but… sometimes I’d just like to find the “hack” and get to work.

Well, climbing certainly seems to be one of these health hacks — I swear, I have never felt the burn like I did when I was climbing. Within literally 30 seconds, my forearms were aching and throbbing in a way I didn’t know was humanly possible. Like, the soft bit on the inside… throbbing. What?! And it only got weirder from there!

Despite the bewildering physical exertion climbing required of me, I also understood that the mindset and actions needed on the wall translate into real life, in a weirdly cohesive kind of way. In fact, at one point I may have had a teary moment when I didn’t want to climb one route that everyone else was doing… but then again, I may have not.

Here’s a few things I learnt in short time at the climbing gym:

1. Don’t resist

First off, let’s start with the basics: you’re hanging off a wall. So there’s that. We tried the basic climbing (known as “bouldering”), which doesn’t require a harness, and is literally just you, a wall with funny rock-things on it, and a soft, pillowy base for you to fall back onto.

You wear special shoes which are just a little too small, so that you can grip your toes on the teensiest pieces of rock. It’s quite counterintuitive, because you can grip and balance with the tips of your toes — although you might not believe you can at first.

I certainly had difficulty adjusting to this, and even just wearing the shoes. I think mine were still a tad too tight, because it was really awkward for me to walk, but on the wall they were incredibly grippy and allowed me (and the others) to do things that we could never do otherwise.

Once I started accepting this harsh reality, I was able to legitimately put my toes on the tiniest rock morsel, and have it hold my entire weight. Mind-blowing.

The climbing gang

2. Trust yourself — and your body

From the get-go, as soon as I hoisted myself up onto the first little ledge, my arms started to kill (particularly the inside of my forearms, as I mentioned). My friend Alexey had told us all to use the bottom halves of our bodies, because people often hunch up and try to use their arms to pull them along the wall, when really our more muscular lower halves are ideal for that.

But then, that’s the difference between listening and doing.

I intuitively kept myself hunched up and relying on my upper half, and so I had to continuously remind myself to drop my butt and relax my shoulders. I think from the outside I would have looked like I was leaning back a lot, but to me, it felt like I was keeping a normal, natural distance. Lol. WRONG.

In climbing, you need to really do a Sheryl Sandberg and lean in — almost “becoming one” with the wall. It actually feels like that. When I saw the seasoned pros, they seemed like long-legged grasshoppers, just moving vertically on a rocky wall with the utmost ease. It’s actually hypnotic to watch — and it’s because they completely trust their bodies and themselves.

For me, I think I didn’t have the most faith in my legs to support me, as I’m not exactly built like the Rock. Also, dropping your weight down to your butt makes it seemingly harder (at first) — like how in yoga you have options to make the poses more difficult and advanced. The truth is, though, once you start letting go and trusting you’ll be able to do it, it gets a whole lot easier (and more satisfying).

Plus, you won’t get nasty blisters on your hands from gripping the rocks too tight. My friend Sergio actually had to do some first-aid on two of my fingers, while I sat like a child getting a bandaid applied.

At this point, my hands and fingers were physically shaking, as climbing uses ligaments and muscles that you generally don’t — so again, there was throbbing all the way down my arms which I’ve never felt before. But if I were to have trusted myself and just used a light grip with my fingertips (instead of hanging on for dear life), well… a bandaid or two would have lived for another day.

3. Reach out

This came up a lot of times, and I could see the parallels with my life straight away. There I was, on the wall, trying to move across but only taking baby steps. I would continuously reach for the safe option, the closest piece of rock and try to work it out from there.

But Alexey kept telling me to reach for ones that seemed just a little too far… but then I’d surprise myself by being able to do it. Not only that, but it evened out my weight and actually made it a lot easier for me to strategically make my next move.

It seemed to me that there was something to this: that we’re often able to do much more than we think we can, and even if we don’t fully believe it — just reach out and try anyway.

All in all, my day at the climbing gym was pretty profound, despite me only climbing for perhaps 45 minutes. We were there in the gym for two hours, but I’m not ashamed to admit that a large portion of that time involved me basking in the glorious soft padding on the floor, while watching everyone else do awesome work on the wall. And watching them kill it was just as much fun. 😉

By the way, the climbing gym we went to was Xero Gravity here in KL. I arrived earlier than my friends, and was pleasantly surprised to see they had a beautiful cafe area. Obviously, I promptly ordered a long black, and had a bit of a chill out. They also have a pool which you can wade about and swim in after a satisfying climb, and their bathrooms and showers are actually really clean and welcoming as well.

Have you tried climbing before? Ever had any profound spiritual epiphanies while hanging off a wall? Let me know in the comments!

Steph x