Tufas Bouldering Lounge in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia, PA

What Bouldering Teaches Us About Success

Judy Russ
Judy Russ
Dec 4, 2018 · 5 min read

“The forest floor is blanketed with pine needles soft enough to walk on barefoot,” I wrote in my journal, “but the sandstone has ripped my hands to shreds. I’ve been bleeding from my knuckles for weeks. I have chalk so deep in my nail beds it’s impossible to wash out. And failing at this whole climbing thing is just adding insult to physical injury.”

It was April of 2017, and since my Moroccan visa had expired, I’d been trekking through Spain towards the El Camino de Santiago — and desperately needed a place to stay to wait out the colder weeks of Spring.

It was in a small village called Albarracín that a guesthouse offered me a bunk in the garage in exchange for housekeeping.

I was stoked. Not only was Albarracín a top rated bouldering town in Europe, it was also declared “The Most Beautiful Village in Spain” several years in a row by a National Newspaper.

There, I figured I’d have the opportunity to learn to climb amongst some of the best boulderers in Europe.

But my fantasies of scaling rock walls like a spider monkey were met two harsh realities: Bouldering is not for the weak. And my Spanish was terrible.


This photo was taken on my very first day of bouldering. Not intimidating at all.

A Reality Check

It is true, that we can do anything we want to do. But it comes with a disclaimer: there’s work involved. And depending on where we’re starting, some situations require more than others.

Though I had been consistently practicing yoga and commuting to work via bicycle prior to this trip, it was ignorant to assume that I’d be a “natural” at bouldering, which requires the endurance, balance, and stamina of an athlete.

“VENGA!” my new climbing friends would encourage me in Spanish and English, “You can do this, Judy! Trust your legs. Trust your toes!”

But I didn’t believe them. And I’d eventually come plunging down to the crashpad, leaving half of the skin of my left shin on the rock. Then, I’d leave my spirit with the pine needles of the forest floor.

Embarrassed with both my body and my ability, I was well known to tantrum all afternoon. “Fuck this problem. Fuck all these problems! I’m not built for this shit. I’m short, and fat.”

Though I realized that this was doing a disservice to both myself and the climbers around me, it didn’t seem to matter. I behaved this way every day, without fail.

I never got any better at bouldering in Albarracín.


Same Problems, Different Attitude

Almost a year later, I found myself in an REI checkout line with a chalkbag in the shape of a fuzzy blue monster with buttons for eyes, and a pair of Sportiva climbing shoes.

“Are you sure about this?” my boyfriend questioned as I swiped my card.

“Never been more certain,” I replied, unfazed by the hefty total of my purchase.

That month we’d been planning a two week roadtrip to the South, and booked an AirBnb for a three night stay in Nashville. The house was a block away from a climbing gym, and I found it to be all too serendipitous.

Though it seemed like a random decision, I knew it was my chance to get started with climbing again.

And get started, I did.

It was horrendous.

I fell countless times. I couldn’t do the most basic of problems. My grip strength was nonexistent. I even scraped both of my elbows, somehow.

The next day, I couldn’t even hold my dog’s leash.

But I was happy. As happy as someone with excruciating forearm pain could be. And I dawned my bloody finger bandage accessories with my summer dress and fancy sunhat proudly at dinner that night.

What Gives?

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” — Henry Ford

When I was first learning to boulder in Albarracín, I was severely depressed.

I can remember walking home from the bar one night, looking at a sky full of stars, full on weeping. There was another time when I accompanied a large group of climbers to the forest — but when we arrived, I walked away, laid on a rock, and stared at the sky for 3 hours without moving.

I was unspeakably lonely in a town full of people, had very poor Spanish (that was entirely my own fault), and was unable to make connections with anyone.

I felt shitty that I wasn’t “grateful” to be having the experience of a lifetime travelling Europe alone. I felt immature for needing to feel validated and being a brat when I didn’t. I felt like an outcast for being such an unskilled climber, embarrassed for not speaking their language, and shameful for the amount of cigarettes I smoked (putting most Europeans to shame, at the time).


While no one recipe for success is the same, I can attest to the fact that it never includes self loathing and depression as an ingredient.

Climbing asks us to move forward in spite of ripping the skin off of our hands, repeated failures, unsolvable problems, and scary falls. We can compensate for our lack of physical strength if we have the grit to mentally conquer these feats.

But without a healthy foundation in either able-bodiedness or emotional fortitude, climbers are destined to fail.

By the time my boyfriend and I visited Nashville, I had experienced a massive life shift.

I’d returned to the states a year prior, and been participating in strength and cardio conditioning for the better portion of nine months. I’d found a community in a fitness club where I’d felt supported. I had a partner who understood me. My confidence was all but entirely repaired.

The icing on the cake was visiting a city for three days that I knew I could make a fool out of myself in.

Most of all, I was ready.

I was ready to face the physical pain, and the seemingly endless defeat. I was prepared to start slowly and be patient with my progress. I was willing to admit to myself, honestly, where I was (and how far I had to go). I was supported by my partner and my community. I was ready.

I was ready to succeed.


My name is Judy, and I’m a poet, copy/ghost writer, and content curator specializing in Fitness, Travel, Outdoor Adventures and Personal Development.

I write full time in coffee shops all over Philadelphia, or at home with my pitbull mix Riley dropping tennis balls in my lap.

You can follow my newly (chaotically) launched writing career on my instagram (@amongst_mountains) — or read more fun content on my website, Amongst Mountains.org.

Judy Russ

Written by

Judy Russ

Part time writer, Part time cook. Making it up as I go along. (Food, Personal Growth, Adventure & Travel)

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