“Take!” I yelled. I waited for the rope to come taut, then slumped against the wall. I felt my cheeks start to burn hot, water welling against my eyes. I hate this, I thought as I told my partner to lower me back to the ground. “It’s alright,” he said. “You tried.”
It’s not, I thought. I suck. “Thanks,” I said, smiling. We hiked out and made our way home for the evening. I scrolled through the internet, stopping on the photos of the sleek climbers clipping the chains on their latest projects, pulling off contortionist problems in the gym, and doing one-armed pull ups while downing all sorts of green-colored substances. How can I call myself a climber? I thought. Look at these people.
When I began climbing, I quickly realized what made me the most happy was big adventures in the mountains. It’s what I was good at. But for some reason, I also thought in order to be happy, to be successful in my goals and call myself a "real climber," I had to be good at everything else, too: sport climbing, trad cragging, bouldering—everything. I felt like nothing more than a weak boulderer, a timid trad cragger, and a plain pathetic sport climber. I thought if I wanted to get better, I had to be okay with taking big falls. I’d have to keep my weight as low as possible and train five days a week. I’d have to skip bolts and yell and keep up with my hangboard routine no matter my work schedule or social life or desire to just scramble up an easy peak and eat cupcakes. And I failed.
I was exhausted. I was sick of going to the crags and beating myself up in my inadequacy, comparing myself to anyone I saw, and thinking that I would never succeed. I wasn’t anywhere close to enjoying rock climbing, and in truth, I was beginning to realize how astonishingly insecure I was about myself as a climber.
Our whole lives we're told that we're unique, that we're special, and that we shouldn’t care what anyone else thinks. But somehow, when we need them most, those basic principles are hard to believe. I could not be any of those people I saw on the internet or at the gym, just as they could not be me. None of us are exempt from being individuals, in the way that we train, what we eat, and the things which make us happy. And so for now, in lieu of believing, I just remind myself a few things.
Figure out what truly gets you excited. Maybe you enjoy onsighting easier climbs, or projecting harder ones. Maybe you like crimpy face climbs, or juggy and steep routes. Be open minded, and try out different styles until you find something that clicks.
Accept what makes you excited. You don’t have to enjoy taking big falls, or climbing run-out routes to be good at rock climbing. The only way you’ll get better is if you are genuinely excited to get out the door and work at it. No one else truly cares if all you really love is top roping, or going bolt to bolt, or climbing routes which are easy for you, because everyone has their own problems to think about.
Practice falling. Your brain has a difficult time being comfortable with falling unless it has practical experience to draw upon. So take all sorts of falls. Start as small as you need to, on top rope, with the bolt at eye level, at knee level, take them from roofs, on vertical terrain, to the side of your bolt, and on steep terrain—any fall so long as it is safe. That way your brain gets used to it.
Learn how to fuel your body. You don’t have to stop eating your favorite go-to guilty pleasure, you just have to figure out how and when to eat it. Rock climbing, just like every sport, taxes your body uniquely. Particularly if you come from an endurance background, you may find that you need to eat differently in order to feel good while training and climbing. Figure out what eating habits give you the optimal amount of energy to train and recover well, and also keep you happy.
Climb with different partners. While sport climbing is indeed very physical, it can also be a huge mental challenge. My climbing can be easily affected by my mood, my partner’s mood, the conditions, how my work day was, or what I ate that day. Climbing with the same person can create habits around these outside factors, and habits can create stagnation. Teaming up with different partners creates the opportunity to help us outside of our comfort zones and enjoy a day which we may not have otherwise.
Take rest and recovery seriously. Without rest and recovery, training is nearly useless. Learn how much rest you need, and take advantage of that time to recover the best you can. Get yourself set up with a stretching routine, a foam roller, and any other little tools that work for you. Be sure to pay attention to any tweaks and twinges, and keep on top of preventative exercises if you are starting to feel a bit creaky.
Get help from others. With climbing becoming more and more popular, the access to professional help for climbers at all levels is outstanding and increasingly affordable. Whether it’s a climbing coach, a nutritionist, a sports psychologist, or a physical therapist, there is a wide range of people with experience in making you a better climber.
You ARE a rock climber. Telling yourself otherwise will only squelch your ability to be appreciative of where you are, and be excited about where you want to be. You have just as much right as anyone to be spending time at the gym, hiring professional help, and using that hangboard. We all have problems and ambitions and insecurities, and thankfully, we all have rock climbing to help.