Diving into the unknown is a terrifying thing. As I took my first steps into the dingy warehouse turned climbing gym, I felt this fear wash over me. I was met by a multitude of buff men and lean women. I slinked further and further into the gym and with each step my body shrunk into itself more and more. With extreme humiliation, I asked the boy with a man bun at the front desk for a pair of climbing shoes to rent; his mouth said yes but his eyes scoffed. What kind of climber doesn’t have climbing shoes? Well, I’ll tell you what kind: the beginner kind. The beginner kind of high school girl who is being forced to try something way out of her comfort zone. The energy in the building is electric and while it seems to set the other climbers on fire, all it does is shock me. I stared at the twenty foot bouldering wall that I was being told to scramble up without a harness in disbelief, but I try to scramble anyways.
I fall off the wall repeatedly while hardly even being able to get onto it in the first place. I walk away from the gym weaker and less confident than when I began.
So why go back? Why did that incredibly embarrassing experience make me desire to put my hands on those plastic holds again and launch myself into the great beyond that is the bouldering wall? It was something about the way my forearms tightened in the most excruciating and wonderful way possible; the strength I felt after sticking a move, only to fall off one move later; the pure adrenaline of completing my first route after an endless amount of attempts. The feeling of it all drew me.
Let’s go back to the beginning. I’m a female college student, and not a very experienced one at that. It’s the second quarter of my freshman year and although I feel like I have everything all figured out already, I know that I still have so much to learn. This climbing wall at my university has been one of the places where I have learned the most since beginning college.
The environment of the climbing community here was immediately more comfortable, open, and accepting than any other community that I had ever been a part of. This community allowed me to grow and strengthen my body and mind. While the sport can be incredibly overwhelming at times, it forces you to realize that you are capable of so much more than you thought yourself to be (and this is coming from an ex-soccer player who owned noodles for arms before becoming addicted to climbing). The sport is equally as much mental as it is physical. You need to look at the routes and map them out in your mind like a puzzle; you have to figure out how your body will complete the moves and fit into the holds. Once you are physically on the wall, it’s a constant battle with your mind to keep your energy and confidence high.
While many climbing gyms can be small, such as the one at my university, this quite literally forces you to become close to the people around you. Climbing is an entirely collaborative sport. Everyone at the wall is always willing to help someone figure out how to finish the route and work on the problem together. In this way, I have been able to make some of my closest friends at this school. I have met a variety of people from all different walks of life through this sport, whether they be male, female, old, young, or anything in between. This incredible sport has allowed me to grow and develop; I am a far more self-confident and passionate person than I have ever been.
I started this climbing journey as a clueless beginner, just as everyone else does. The important thing to remember when climbing is that everyone begins somewhere. The climbing community is one of the most accepting communities I have ever had the pleasure of being a part of. While there are of course the few judgemental climbers, as there are in every sport, almost everyone is just trying to have a good time. When trying new and difficult things, it’s inevitable that we will feel uncomfortable and out of place before succeeding. The sport of climbing builds friendships, skills, strengths, and general mental health in a way that I have not experienced with any other sport.