When I first discovered climbing it was love at first sight. Before I even had a chance to tie into a rope, I remember seeing climbers in the Garden of the Gods and thinking to myself, “That looks fucking awesome.” I took the first opportunity to climb that came along and the rest is history.
But lately, I’ve been struggling to find even a spark where there was once a raging bonfire of enthusiasm. The progression I had initially experienced in leaps and bounds suddenly seemed to not only plateau, but backslide. As I flailed on climbs/grades I had previously completed with ease, my frustrations grew. I began to waver between excitedly planning potential climbing trips and anguishing in the despairing thoughts that maybe I really didn’t even want to bother anymore. Maybe I’d never be strong enough, or good enough, to do the climbs I thought I wanted to do.
The holidays loomed near and I found myself with other trips and obligations to fulfill, family to see, and some traveling that didn’t have anything to do with climbing. I hoped that maybe I just needed a break and I would come back refreshed, ready to Try Hard! Crush! Send!
When I came back I decided to give “training” a shot, thinking maybe it would bolster my confidence and make me excited to climb again.
I hated nearly every single minute of it.
Training is boring, repetitive, and pretty much only happens indoors – the exact opposite of everything I had come to love about climbing. It was everything that had kept me away from traditional gyms my entire life. By the end of it, my attempts were half-hearted at best, and my excitement to climb was definitely not restored. Instead, I gave some serious thought to selling all my gear on craigslist and basically starting my life over again. Climbing had taken over my free time, and if I gave it up I’d have to redefine myself again.
But I didn’t.
Instead, as I was going through the motions, I began to spend a lot of time reflecting on how something I had once loved had become a source of such frustration instead. If I truly loved climbing so much, where did I go wrong? Why did it no longer make me happy? All of this pondering eventually led me to consider why I climb in the first place, which turns out to be many different reasons.
Because climbing is fun, because climbing takes me outside, because climbing offers new perspectives of beautiful places, because climbing presents infinite opportunities for me to learn more about myself, because climbing gives me access to a wonderful community that understands all of these reasons I climb, because climbing makes my body feel strong, because climbing constantly reminds me that I could always be stronger, because climbing burns enough calories that I can mostly eat whatever I want and not get fat (this should probably be higher on the list), and on and on and on.
But what isn’t on that long list of reasons I climb is to be the best. To impress people. To prove something.
It took me a while to figure out, but it was the expectation of myself to constantly improve that was ruining climbing for me. Don’t get me wrong, a certain amount of that kind of pressure is healthy, as it drives us to try harder and accomplish more than we might think we can. But too much of it was ruining a good thing.
Over the last few months, I’ve read several essays that have really helped me get a grip on what I’ve been going through. One of them is this recent article by Mark Manson explaining the “Disease of More.” The entire thing is worth a read if you have the time, but the quote below sums up the idea that really resonated with me (bold emphasis mine):
“It took me a long time to accept the fact that just because something can be improved in my life, does not mean that it should be improved in my life.
The improvement is not the problem, it’s the WHY that’s motivating the improvement that matters. When one compulsively looks to improve oneself, without any greater cause or reason driving it other than self-aggrandizement, it leads to a life of immense self-preoccupation, a light and beneficent form of narcissism where one’s constant attention and focus is on oneself.”
The last subheading of the article states, “Life is not a game of improvement, but rather a game of tradeoffs.” The combination of this idea with the bolded statement above seemed to illuminate my dilemma. I had become frustrated with climbing because I felt I was no longer meeting my expectations for improvement. I had set up standards for myself that I could not achieve with the resources I had allotted towards it, and I had done so because I had not considered the WHY for that standard.
WHY did I think I needed to be able to climb 5.XX? WHY did I have to send every route I climbed? WHY did it matter if today I couldn’t finish the same route that I sent last week?
When I stopped to really think about all of those WHYs, I realized that none of them mattered. Because climbing at a certain grade and “achieving” at a certain level is not WHY I climb. My body could be capable of climbing at that level if I put in the time to train it properly.
But in order to do that, I would have to sacrifice time from other things in my life that also bring me joy. Reading for pleasure, spending time with friends whose lives don’t revolve around climbing, sharing meals with my mother who doesn’t understand why anyone would ever want to climb rocks for fun, enjoying any kind of cultural event outside of the climbing community period. Because, life is just a game of trade-offs, after all.
I could be a great climber. Or, I could be a well-rounded, generally happy person who is also a mediocre climber. Turns out I’m way more interested in the latter. Not that everyone who climbs at an exceptional level is an antisocial hermit without a life, but considering my current baseline fitness level and that I have to hold down my full-time job, that’s what I’d have to become in order to achieve at that level.
So, I’ve quit the half-assed attempts at regimented training. I’m back on ropes in the gym during the week and trying to get outside on the weekends when the weather cooperates. I’m breaking up some of my old routines and making a point to meet and climb with new people as a way to change things up and gain a new perspective. Plus, a new climber’s enthusiasm is contagious.
Instead of striving for improvement for improvement’s sake, I’m seeking balance. I’m paying attention to the elements of climbing that I do actually enjoy and using that knowledge to reinvent my personal definition of success.
Because, like Nina Williams, I’ve realized a few things.
“I have nothing to prove.
I try hard for myself.
I climb because I love it.”