Goldfish on the Rocks

On Climbing

Betsy Lam
4 min readNov 24, 2015
On a route I can’t remember, Red River Gorge, Kentucky. May, 2015.

I’m not an adrenaline junkie. Or a giant risk taker. I don’t particularly like facing fear, and I’m not a big fan of falling. I’m a rock climber, but I’m no daredevil.

So why do I love climbing?

There’s a lot I love about climbing: the mental and physical coordination, the symbiosis between balance, power, grace and endurance, the playfulness, the problem-solving, the camaraderie on the ground, the solitude on the rock, being outside, breathing fresh air.

But the most magnetic thing about climbing, for me, is the way it stretches time. It pulls at the center of a moment, stretches it like taffy and slows it down so you can live inside it for awhile.

If that sounds sorta silly and romantic, it’s because it is both of these things.

While I’m climbing — when I’m really in it — I’m enveloped by that moment. Not the moment that came before, not the moment that comes next. There is no room for worry or distraction. There is only the beautiful Bubble of Now. I love it there. My mind is clear, my body feels fluid. The air hums softly at my ears, my breath is rhythmic and my heart pounds with purpose. Everything is connected. Everything is free. There is nothing like it.

Sometimes, I finish climbing a route and I cannot describe a single sequence to you, but I can tell you how I felt while climbing it.

My friends tease me about my climbing memory: I am a goldfish.

Sweet as it is, the whole love-of-the-moment thing — along with “Goldfish Brain” — is the thing that often keeps me from sending, or climbing a project without a fall.

Climbing requires vital anticipation.

On a climb, each section of rock holds a sequence. A puzzle to unlock. It might be a little different for every climber depending on, say, height or finger strength or twitch speed — grab the rock here, turn your hips that way just so, dig your toe into that divot down there — either way, you need to figure out the moves that will get you from where you are to where you want to go.

Sometimes, you can problem-solve on the fly. And it’s a beautiful thing when it’s successful. The stars align. Do that from the ground to the anchors without falling during your virgin voyage on a route, and you’ve flashed it. But when the stars are strangers, you gotta bust out a map. You climb a challenging route again and again to wire the moves - to memorize the map - so that one day, you climb the whole damn thing without falling.

I’m working on my cartography skills.

I can’t describe the sequence here, but I know it was tricky and fun. Red River Gorge, Kentucky. May, 2015.

No doubt, rock climbing is strange. You put yourself in precarious positions at precarious heights because why?

My son is 2 years old. He’s a little delayed in his speech, so last week it was pretty cool when he started saying, “I deed eet!” (Translation: “I did it!”). He likes to exclaim this after completing a puzzle, successfully putting the lid on a container or shooting a basket. I love it because he is so proud of himself — both for the accomplishment itself and the newfound ability to express himself. There’s an element of surprise in his declaration. And so much unabashed joy.

My friends and I talk about the why of climbing a lot. Sometimes on the long, seven hour drive down to Kentucky for a whirlwind weekend climb at The Red. Sometimes as we soak in the hot tub at our cabin rental after a rigorous day of climbing. Over McDonalds on the drive back to Chicago. In between climbs at our local climbing gym.

Why do I climb?

Because I cannot not climb. Because, I suppose, standing below a rock face, looking up, eyes full, palms sweating, blood pumping, I am clamoring to exclaim, with equal parts joy and surprise, “I deed eet!”

Relaxing between climbs at a beautiful Kentucky crag. November, 2015.