It’s OK To Step Back From Climbing

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After diving in without a mentor, one climber finds it’s best to slow down and follow for a while.

The last time I went trad climbing—more than a year ago now—it didn’t end dramatically. I didn’t whip and injure myself. I didn’t get spooked 100 feet up a pitch. I didn’t actually even climb anything. My friend and I just sat there, staring up at a pretty standard-looking 5.5 trad route in Joshua Tree, wondering if we could do it. The pit in my stomach sank deeper. The longer we sat there, the more our doubt increased. Our motivation waned, and we imagined excuses why we shouldn’t try it. So we didn’t. Without even putting our climbing shoes on, we walked away.

My trad climbing experience up until that point had been a quick, deep dive without a guide or mentor to show me the way—not something I’d recommend. Just six months earlier, a buddy and I bought a half rack of cams each and showed up in Yosemite to practice placing our own protection while we climbed—and to try to figure out how to feel comfortable doing it. It was how I’d got into most other types of climbing, too—sport, ice and mountaineering.

Looking back, it wasn’t the most effective and safe approach to learning, but we didn’t know a better way at the time. We were outliers in our families and communities, not encouraged to start climbing by anyone we knew but by pictures of mountains we wanted to summit and videos of star athletes picking their way up 8,000-meter peaks. Without real mentors or formal instruction, but with our excitement soaring, we turned to Freedom of the Hills and YouTube, and then just went out to try what we learned or saw, playing “nose-goes” to decide who would lead a particular climb, neither of us with any more experience than the other.

Rather than following better climbers and easing into the learning curve behind someone else, hesitation and shaky leg were a regular part of my process, a part that felt kind of macho. But I know now that solely relying on books and videos can’t replace proper instruction and hands-on learning. And by sticking my neck out so much, I was slowly burning myself out.

As I was starting out, climbing came across as a scary, unnatural thing. The stories I read and videos I watched were full of climbers setting aside fear to complete their mission, and their success was a badge of honor. It made me feel if I wasn’t facing my fears head-on, I was a wimp. It seemed there was only one way to become a better climber: Just suck it up and do it.

In Yosemite, six months before the fateful Joshua Tree trip, I spent a solid 45 minutes looking up at an 80-foot, 5.7 flake of rock. I summoned the tortured “just do it” attitude that had gotten me up most rock climbs and then plugged my way through it. It felt like progress. On my upcoming trip to Joshua Tree, I thought, I’d launch into a climb without a doubt.

Unless you try something you’ve never done before—even if you’re a little scared to do it—how can you ever get better at something? But that same attitude can be toxic if taken too far.

But at some point, stepping out of my comfort zone had turned into something that I wasn’t enjoying. I loved climbing itself, but not having fun had come to feel like the cost of getting better. At first, disappointment and shame had motivated me to get up a route, until I realized that wasn’t working anymore.

I’ll be the first to admit that pushing yourself can have its place. Unless you try something you’ve never done before—even if you’re a little scared to do it—how can you ever get better at something? But that same attitude can be toxic if taken too far.

I knew I didn’t want to quit climbing altogether. Regardless of how uncomfortable it makes me sometimes, I love being outside in the mountains, working with ropes and rock—the challenge of climbing. Topping out on the few climbs I had felt good about, including that first one in Yosemite, felt euphoric. But it finally became clear that if avoiding disappointment was my only motivator to climb, or the fun of climbing wasn’t worth the torture of pushing through fear, it was time to step back.

For now, that means relearning—not how to climb—but how to have fun climbing. No leading. No hard stuff, even if I know I can do it. I don’t feel the need to step up and be on the same level as my friends. My rock climbing career started at a run, without ever learning to walk, so now I'm going back to do that. Two years ago, I moved across the country from upstate New York to Seattle and then Colorado, closer to more rock climbing and friends who can walk me through it like the beginner I never let myself be before. A few weeks ago, after following a friend up a bolted 5.6, my buddy assured me I could lead the route. I knew he was right—I had just climbed it without falling, and I’ve led harder routes in the past, but I still felt happier saying “maybe next time.” At this point, it’s just about getting laps in and reminding myself that I actually do like this.

We often tend to think of activities like climbing as one-way streets: We start, we learn, we get better, and so on. But there’s no reason we need to be stuck on a one-way street, if it means pushing ourselves before we’re ready or beating ourselves up because we feel scared. Maybe I'm not climbing as high of grades as I was—and someday I hope I can get back there—but for now, I'm sweating a lot less and having a lot more fun. For once, I’m taking it slow.