First Day Back at the Rock Gym: On Taking a Year and A Half Off From Rock Climbing

On my new project at PRG East Falls, a dynamic V5,
feeling thankful that CrossFit translates into climbing!
I went bouldering indoors last weekend. A few years ago, that would've been completely normal.
Normal enough that I wouldn't bother posting, tweeting, or even telling anyone about it because it was a part of my routine. I used to lead climbing events for two Meetup groups. I used to have a membership at the local gym. I used to subscribe to email lists about local bouldering competitions for fear I'd miss one.

But prior to last weekend, I hadn't climbed since December of 2011. In September of 2011, I'd written a post about the ups and downs I was experiencing in climbing motivation with every intention of getting back into it. But I didn't. So what happened? Why did it take me a year and a half to spend a few hours on a sport I used to be completely enamored with?

Though there were/are a number of contributing factors, I stopped climbing because it wasn't fun anymore. The time I spent at the gym felt like work, as if I was forcing myself to go because it was part of my identity as an outdoor lifestyle blogger and as a person.

Because it's what I was expected to do and expected to be excited about. I was supposed to want to fight paralyzing fear on the lead wall. I was supposed to spend hours on Mountain Project looking for routes and coming up with a ticklist. I was supposed to sign up for every bouldering competition I could find. It's what I'd done for the past several years. But it just wasn't fun anymore, as is usually the case when phrases like "supposed to" come into play.

Instead, I found a passion for CrossFit, spent time on activities I was still excited about like hiking and backpacking, and generally focused on things that were and are fun. Back in 2011, I wrote about how I was starting to accept the ebb and flow of my passions, but I don't think I truly understood what that meant until recently. When I heard the Philadelphia Rock Gyms opened a new location this spring, I remembered thinking it could be a great chance to give climbing another try. PRG's two original rock gyms seem as though they were built for boulderers and I always enjoyed trips to both. The new East Falls location was completely free of memories, any associations I had with fear, and acquaintances from my climbing past who'd ask why it had been so long. It was pressure-free and perfect.

When I walked into PRG East Falls last weekend to boulder for the first time in a year and a half, I was nervous. Would my body remember what to do? Would I enjoy climbing at all? Would I enjoy it so much that I'd want to fully immerse myself in it again?

Matthew captured this shot of me climbing and smiling at the same time!
My friend and bouldering partner for the day, Matthew, was patient while we warmed up and I found my rhythm. Despite the low grades, the first few problems left me with shaking hands, a pounding heart and forearms full of lactic acid from overgripping. It's a classic beginner mistake, one I made frequently even as a  more experienced climber due to fear. It's funny, the harder you squeeze the holds in hopes of hanging on a little bit longer, the faster your forearms tire and the faster you fall. I used to find the more I climbed routes that scared me, the more I exposed myself to my fears, the less fear I'd feel over time. But after a year and a half off, even topping out on an eight-foot wall indoors with a giant pad underneath and a spotter was terrifying.

Matthew hamming it up toward the end of our session.
One of the most attractive aspects of climbing is the fact that at least once on every route or problem, I feel a pang of primal instinct imploring me to put my feet back on the ground where they belong. I'm forced to take a step out of my comfort zone, to control my emotions, because the more I let the fear of falling take hold, the more likely it is that the fear will materialize. But fighting that primal instinct is also a big part of what took me away from the sport in 2011, part of what made climbing less and less fun.

I found bouldering to be the perfect balance between getting my feet far enough off the ground to scare me out of my comfort zone, but still keeping them close enough to enjoy the pure movement.

A few warmup problems later, I started to remember what it felt like to enjoy that pure movement and was looking for new projects to try. I was having a blast. I was scared every time my feet left the ground, but the fear started to feel familiar and eventually, I barely noticed it. I climbed until I could hardly hold on to my water bottle - the hallmark of a truly successful day. I don't see myself climbing three or four times a week like I used to; I'm completely cool with the idea of being a once-in-a-while climber, maybe taking it outside when the weather's good. It's nice to know that even after walking away from the sport, I can still come back to it when I'm ready and approach it in a new way.

Have you gone through ups and downs with climbing, or another sport you're passionate about? I'd love to hear your experiences in the comments!


I've been wanting to try climbing. it looks like a great sport. of course, my arms are not my strong suit. but what a better way to build them up, right?

thanks for giving me the heads up on what not to do as a beginner. whilst i know now, i am sure i'll still do it and it'll be trial and error to learn things.

and kudos for pushing through the fear to find the once familiar passion.
Katie said…
Christine, you should definitely try it!

It's just fun, and believe it or not, there's so much more to climbing than upper body strength. Balance is super important, and in my experience, knowing how our bodies move comes easily to most active women. Standing on your legs, then working to move them up rather than awlays pulling with your arms is important too! But yes, there's a lot of trial and error involved.

If you decide to try it, I'd love to hear about it :)
Heather Balogh said…
I definitely do this with running-- when I get burned out, I hate it and totally ignore it. Then after a few weeks or a month or two, I remember why I love it and return to the sport. I've always felt like I should love rock climbing too-- I mean, it is the quintessential outdoor activity, right? But, the lack of cardio burn just doesn't do it for me! Once in awhile, it's fun but definitely not 5-6 days a week.
Sarah said…
I feel like I've gone through the same thing! For a long time I was completely immersed in all things climbing but it also stopped being as fun for me. It is hard to pull away from something you feel defines you in a way but seems like you've found the right balance for yourself! I got into skiing the last few winters and have been enjoying climbing a lot more now that it's one of many activities I enjoy instead of being the main one. Thanks for sharing, it's nice to hear your experience!
Katie said…
Nah, there's no "should" when it comes to what you're passions are, I've found that out for sure! I struggle(d) a lot with this too...if I love the outdoors, aren't I supposed to love climbing? But there's so much more to the outdoors than that :)
Katie said…
Thanks so much for the comment, Sarah! It sounds like a lot of us go through this, which makes me feel better about dealing with the ebb and flow of my passions. I agree, it's more fun when it's not the only thing we do! There's something to be said for being a jack (or jill) of all trades and a master of none :)
Dan said…
I second that. I've taken a lot of friends climbing for their first time, and I used to teach intro classes at the local gym. By far the best first time climber I've ever seen was a friend who came out with me one day, who is a professional dancer (that's for theater, in case you were wondering). She literally danced up the wall with the finesse that is typically reserved for experienced climbers. She nailed a 5.7 at a gym where ratings are VERY conservative (read: 5.7 = 5.8-9 at many gyms). Oh, and to also dispel the misconceptions about tall people being better, she is 5'0".