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Is Climbing Making You Happy? Is Climbing Making You Happy?
2019-10-29 12:00:00

Words by | Jude Spanken

It is mid-February. I am lying in a hammock in France. To be precise, I am in ‘Le Lot’, a rural area in central France and my hammock is strung between two trees at the base of a crag called Milhac.

The crag itself has a lovely feel to it. It is not very extensive but the routes show some real quality and are well bolted. The routes start at one end of the crag at French 5b and gradually increase in grade from right to left finishing with 8a on the left. No matter what grade you might be climbing you are guaranteed to find a match.

A sport climbers’ paradise one might think…

Today I am a back seat driver. I am not climbing, still recovering from an ankle operation. I can’t help but watch the other climbers with interest. Not only because I am used to it - teaching climbing is my job after all. I love solving each new puzzle that every single route we climb offers and I love to study movement. And what an opportunity, climbers of all abilities and diverse experiences right in front of my eyes.

I see a guy repetitively trying the crux of a route. There is a lot of encouraging going on from below ‘allez allez…’ and every time the climber gets just above the bolt his movements freeze, he hesitates committing to the next move and says ‘bloc’ (take). He finally pushes past clawing on to each hold, only relaxing a little when clipping the next bolt.

Meanwhile Seb, my boyfriend joins me in the hammock after trying a route. I sense his frustration at not getting to the top. I gently try to point out that after 6 months of overhanging indoor climbing the body and mind need a little time to reacquaint with tiny holds on slabs. I soon realise that the discussion is better left to later when oceans of emotions have calmed a little.

Instead together we watch a girl getting ready to lead a route, seemingly anxious, venting her anxiety through a stream of negative self-talk, the ascent itself marked by tension and a lot of nervous chatter. A smile, relaxation and contentment eventually come, but as it seems not as a result from the actual climbing but from having made it to the top, from being done and ‘safely’ back on the ground.

Further down the crag, screaming and swearing is wafting over to us where a climber falls off an 8a and is swearing and kicking with each failed attempt.

And it goes on and on…

I do also notice little islands of calm, the odd climber, still challenging themselves, pushing out of their comfort zone with a centred and methodical approach, seemingly in charge of their experience accompanied by a sense of fluidity.

However, the energy of the crag seems to be taught, anxious and frustrated. What I observe over and over again is that enjoyment, happiness, fulfilment in climbing appear to be, in many cases linked to ‘sending’, reaching the top, reaching goals quickly, climbing a certain grade or being regarded as a ‘good’ climber.

Not a big deal some may say. But what if our well-being is being sacrificed, what if really only ‘the send’ is bringing us a sense of worth, satisfaction and a sense of enjoyment, rather than the action of climbing itself? After all, we spend way more time climbing than sending (well I do anyways) or for those who always send, the time we spent on the route climbing is usually longer than clipping the chains. So is it not the climbing itself that is worth bringing our attention to rather than the top?

Where does all this come from? End gaining, performance motivation, end goal motivation, goal fixation…. Whatever you want to call it.

The answers are manifold and multifaceted. I think however there is a reason why more mental training is offered these days as part of coaching. Climbers, instructors and coaches are starting to realise that our thoughts, behaviours, and attitudes have a huge impact on our climbing performance and on our climbing well being.

I believe that no matter what we are engaging with, whether that is climbing or, a job, or being in a relationship, it is worth to stop from time to time, to pause, to create…

S. P. A. C. E.  

To pause a moment and observe any tension. Anxiety and doubt levels might bring some clues. Am I anxious stepping on the rock or am I curious? Why do I choose to do or not to do a route? Am I climbing for myself or others?

All might be sweet and rosy, so carry on. But if not, maybe pausing a little longer and bringing ourselves back to memories when we started climbing in the first place or what it is that brings us joy in climbing. ‘How’ am I engaging with my climbing and what is it each climb is teaching or showing and allowing me to discover?

Rather than being chained to ‘the top’, the ‘grade’, the ‘send’, why not open yourself to exploration and the journey of each move, each demand encountered on the way.


Is it the same in other sports? I am sure it is. However, I do think climbers are easily pulled into the habit of end gaming for a number of reasons: There is a clear bottom and a clear top. Getting to the top of something gives a sense of achievement. Then there are grades. As useful and amazing the system is, they have the potential to create a trap, we are constantly comparing against ourselves, against our last performance and against others. Thirdly there is an innate fear of falling in us, creating a tendency to ‘cling on’, ‘to grasp’, to ‘to get it over with’.

Even in people who are just beginning to climb I recognise an urge to move as quickly as possible towards a higher and higher grade, no matter if rope work, safety, and movement skills lack behind. ‘Getting stronger’ seems to become a need, a priority in many newbie climbers, not realising that getting strong when just starting out may not be what is lacking.

You could argue that it would be a useful exercise to not introduce the grading system for a while, until a healthy attitude towards the process of learning itself is nurtured.

Easier said than done these days however, the focus seems to be on high grades and speed. Recognition is given to those that win, tick hard routes, climb fast or without a rope. Those who climb a high grade are described as ‘good’ climbers, as ‘strong’ climbers. What does that tell the newcomer, especially kids whose brains are soaking up information so easily?

Frequently I hear the words “Oh but I am not a ‘good’ climber, I ‘only’ climb 4b/5a/6a/7a“.

This way of looking at our climbing has so much potential to carry with it negative emotions. The fun and satisfaction of learning, the acceptance of where we are in a process, the joy of discovery and new sensations and the necessity of a certain commitment and investment in order to progress seem to be lost at times.

What I observe again and again is that an 'end gaining’, a goal fixation rather than just goal setting is strongly developed in climbers. The climber's desire to 'reach the top', her goal to reach the 'summit' is so strong that the 'how' is too often ignored and forgotten. Whilst goals and objectives are necessary and useful, ‘letting go’ to bring our attention into the present moment is not as obvious as it first sounds.

Pausing can be a starting point from which we are then able to move towards a more enriching climbing experience, which in turn may even lead to greater climbing performance. From time to time, to simply pause for a moment, pause long enough to find space, a space which in turn allows observation and awareness to filter in to our mind and body.

It was a joy seeing Seb doing just that on that day back in February. After his frustrating battle on his last route, then observing what was going on all around us, I saw him pause, reflect and listen. The space and freedom created during that ‘pause’ was visible, like a flowing energy carrying him onwards as he moved, helping him navigate his way upwards bit by bit, placing each bit of the puzzle he encountered one at a time. And no, he did not reach the chains, he fell off before reaching the top. But the smile on his face said it all.