10 Life Lessons from the Wall

How rock climbing is teaching me to stay present, befriend my fear, unleash my radical imagination, and build loving community and stronger social movements.

The author climbing in Auburn Quarry, Lake Tahoe, CA in Summer 2018.

I’m by no means a great climber. I just sent my first 5.12b inside and V6s still mostly spit me up and chew me out with embarrassing regularity and rapidity. But I love it. The climbing wall is where I feel safe, strong, and free.

The lessons I’ve learned on the wall have transformed my life off the wall and gifted me critical insight into social movements so dear to my heart. For years I’ve kept a running list of those observations, which my climber pals have lovingly nudged me to share more publicly, so here it is:

  1. Be present. Climbing demands intense focus. Everything in life does. But the consequences of a wandering mind become more apparent and high stakes 200ft off the ground. Climbing is an invitation to be fully present. It is moving meditation up a wall. When micro adjustments in foot placement or center of gravity make the difference between staying on the rock or taking an unexpected, epic fall, I notice everything: Is the rock smooth or sandy? Is the giant flake I’m reaching for solidly attached to the rock? Does my purchase on a hold change if I drop low vs. stand up? Climbing teaches me to take this demand for detailed observation into the rest of my life: Where do I carry tension in my body? What kind of clouds precede the rain? What are all the distinct flavors I can discern in a single bite of winter stew?
  2. Take your time and make every move perfect. When I warm up on a 5.10a in the gym, I don’t need to watch my feet or really pay attention at all. Except that how you warm up is how you’ll climb the rest of the day. If you can’t make every move precise on an easy climb, you won’t do it on a harder climb either. As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us about mindfulness (I’m paraphrasing here): If you can’t just wash the dishes while washing the dishes, or just drink tea while drinking tea, how can you live even one minute fully present?
  3. Befriend, respect, and thank your fear. Sometimes fear is our friend. It reminds us of real danger and encourages better decisions. Like when fear talked me out of attempting a highball boulder problem with no crash pad or spotter alone on a deserted Sonoma Coast beach last month. Other times, we’re perfectly safe — bombproof anchors, well-protected route, trusted belayer — and fear creeps in anyway. In these moments, to quote Dune, “Fear is the mind-killer.” Fear makes you think not about what you’re doing, but about the consequences of failing at what you’re doing, making you more likely to fail. Climbers (especially men) talk about “conquering fear,” but I’m trying instead to befriend and respect my fear. When fear comes knocking, climbing teaches me to breathe, thank fear for its life saving instincts, assess whether there’s real or only perceived danger at hand, and either address it (down climb that highball boulder!), or respectfully disagree with fear and return my attention to the rock.
  4. Train for both endurance and power. Climbers train for both endurance (climbing longer without fatigue) and power (making a few big, powerful moves). The real trick is to combine endurance and power (being able to make more big, powerful moves in quick succession). As I log hours traversing, doing 4x4’s, hangboarding, and campusing, I wonder how our social movements build both endurance and power. What structures do we need to support the daily work of door-knocking, political education, personal healing, organization building, and culture shifting while going all-in during moments of intense crisis and/or large scale mobilization like Occupy, Ferguson, or Standing Rock?
  5. Plan your rest. Supporting your body weight clinging to tiny 1/2” wide holds is exhausting. Perhaps no more so than working two jobs, fighting pipelines, or supporting a friend through crisis. But climbing fatigue will literally shut your body down. As lactic acid builds up and capillaries shrink, you lose blood and oxygen flow to muscles, and your forearms simply stop functioning. That’s why good climbers plan where/when to rest before they ever get on the wall, looking for that big jug and solid feet right before the overhang. Once there, they relax every last muscle before pushing on. Off the wall, many of our social movements (to our great detriment) equate exhaustion with productivity and martyrdom with commitment. Climbing teaches me that planning to rest and recovering completely is precisely what allows us to make big, powerful moves.
  6. Planning matters, but nimble adaptation matters more. Before I get on the wall, I read the route: How many bolts? Where’s the clip line? Where is it run out or unprotected? What will I hit if I fall? Where’s the crux? When I fail to read the route, I don’t bring enough draws, I clip left when I should have clipped right, or get my hands all out of sequence. Planning matters. But you can only see so far ahead before squinting uselessly up the rock (or into the future). Sometimes in life, we have to start off with incomplete information, make imperfect decisions, F$%* up, and learn to make nimble, graceful (or not to graceful!) corrections mid-route.
  7. Visualize the impossible, then go for it. Climbing taught me that I’m twice as likely to stick a move if I visualize myself doing it first. One of the best climbers in the world, Adam Ondra, says “With visualization you can train more without wasting skin.” As a an organizer, I first heard this same principle articulated by the Center for Story-Based Strategy which tells us, “You can’t take people somewhere they haven’t first visited in their mind.” Just as my body can’t land a move that my brain thinks is impossible, neither can we fight for the radical re-ordering of society without believing not only in its possibility but its inevitability. Our imagination has been so circumscribed by the limits of the politically possible that we’ve failed to dream big. Climbing reminds me to unleash my radical imagination and transcend the limit of what’s deemed presently possible.
  8. Learn from others. Climbers use the word “Beta” to describe any information you get from another climber about a climb: “Match hands, then flag left,” or “Heel hook then mantle.” Sitting on a crash pad full of sweaty climbers at the gym, it’s obvious other people are working the same problems I am and that I have much to learn from them — especially that 10 year-old who just flashed the V6 I’d been projecting all night. Off the wall, it’s less obvious that we’re all struggling with similar problems: how to find meaningful work while affording Bay Area rent, climb out of isolation and depression, fix our relationships, etc. So, I’ve taken to asking for more “beta” off the wall too: “Hey, what’s the beta on fighting an eviction / launching a freelance career / surviving a breakup?”
  9. But don’t compare yourself to others. Sometimes other people’s beta doesn’t work for you. The 6’4” dude with the wingspan of a condor can simply reach up for a hold that this short girl is still galaxies away from. Our bodies and lived experiences are different. What’s true or possible for someone else might not be true for you. Climbing teaches me not to compare what I can do to what someone else can do, only to compare what I can do today to what I couldn’t do yesterday (while still crushing the 5.12a that the 6’4” unnecessarily shirtless bro just flailed on!).
  10. We are each other’s lifelines. Our belayer holds our lives — quite literally — in their chalky, calloused hands. They hold the rope that stands between us and plummeting to certain death. Our friends, family, coworkers, housemates, and larger community are that lifeline off the wall too, or at least the ones we’ve steadily been building trusted relationships (or belaytionships!) with. Whether we’re pumped on an overhang far above the third clip, or spiraling in self doubt alone in bed at 1am, it’s useful to remember there’s someone on the other end of the rope. When we tie in and do our safety checks, the belayer agrees to catch their climber no matter what. It’s not a burden or imposition, but rather exactly what we’ve signed up to do for each other. In my relationships that don’t involve figure 8 knots and auto-locking carabiners, I’m trying to do the equivalent of yelling “Watch me here!” or “Take!” and trust that my loved ones will catch me because that’s the core, sacred duty of friendship, which I only ever rejoice in, not resent, reciprocating.

I’m so grateful for the privilege it is to climb — for the invitation it has been to live a more present, fearless, connected life; for the loving, supportive climber friends it has put me in community with; for the opportunity to marvel at the beauty of this world from a clifftop perch I arrived at by calming my mind and trusting my feet; and for the many lessons I’ve learned on the wall.

Your turn. What has climbing taught you?