Climbing, Health

Life Lessons in Climbing


Growing up, adults always loved telling me how important team sports were.  By team sports, we are talking about the southern American trio: baseball, basketball, and football.  According to them, these activities were the only ways that a young person could learn important traits such as dedication, motivation, and teamwork.  Yet, one quickly learned about heroism, lack of integrity, “all-stars,” and having to yield to authority without questioning.  Soon, I realized that skateboarding and surfing brought more happiness to my life than anything before.  Individualism and creativity were encouraged.  Learning new ways of doing things was a daily activity, and learning the hard way became a mantra.  Anyone who ever learned how to kickflip will tell you how frustrating it was, how many hours were spent staring at your bolts trying to figure out why in the world your board just flew away.  Then one day, you flicked your ankle just right, brought your knees up just enough, and your first ever credit card kickflip was landed.  There was no one there yelling at you to land it, no one there telling you how important it was that you learned that trick, just your own determination not letting yourself give up.

There have been many life pursuits that seem to constantly teach me endless lessons about myself, and climbing is one of them.  Below are a couple of personal aspects that climbing has redefined for me.  And even if you have only climbed once, or just watched Vertical Limit, you can understand where these ideas come from.

Self Reliance and Motivation

Placing your own gear puts safety in your own hands.

Placing your own gear puts safety in your own hands.

In so many pursuits, there is some sort of coach, friend, or some sort of guide that is there to mentally and/or physically get you through tough times.  But when you are 2 pitches up, 300 feet in the air, and 125 feet below your climbing partner, calming words probably won’t make their way to your ears.  You are the only person that can get you up that wall, and you are the only person that can get yourself down.  You have to have the willpower to get through each crux, and the mental capacity to stay cool when you are hitting your personal wall.  If you are leading a route, your partner(s) are relying on you to set the route, and more importantly, to build a safe anchor when you are at the top of your pitch.  No one can get you up the route, and no one can tell you if your cam looks safe when you are 100 feet above them.  Learning to be confident in your abilities and trusting of your knowledge is paramount, yet being humble enough to admit when you need to back off or don’t know the safest way to protect a route is even more important.  You learn to double check your knots, to develop your own knowledge, and before you know it, you learn to trust yourself.


The system is only good when the team is on point.

The system is only good when the team is on point.

People may say that playing football builds camaraderie and trust among players.  While we are not denying that fact, you will never trust someone as much as you do until you take a 20 foot lead climbing fall and realize the only reason that you are alive is because of your belayer.  I often reference Reinhold Messner’s famous quote about how modern climbers have more faith in their gear than themselves.  While i definitely trust my gear, I would say my courage rides in the passenger seat with me on the way to the trailhead.  My belayer has my life, and there is no more solemn way to put in than looking into their eyes before a climb and saying, “My life is in your hands.”  With the rise of sport climbing, and the commercialism of the “sport” itself, we often forget how much we are actually putting on the line.  There are companies that guarantee their gear, climbing associations and standards that the gear must be approved by, and routes that have been climbed thousands of times.  These days, the biggest variable is the human element.  There are conversations at the base of the rock, distractions from other people’s dogs, sunlight in your eyes, and mosquitoes biting your legs.  You can talk, you can squint, you can swat bugs, but the one thing any trusty partner does not do is let go of their brake hand.  And you as the climber has to trust that your partner understands this.  Honestly, I have climbed with people that I didn’t fully trust to commit to this concept.  But their are others who have proven themselves to me, who have literally had my life in their hands after a fall, and I don’t think one can ever explain the bond that forms because of that.


Falling to get stronger.  Photo: Beau Brown

Falling to get stronger. Photo: Beau Brown

Everyone says they are afraid of heights…well welcome to the club.  If you didn’t have a fear of falling 20 stories from the top of a building, I would say something is wrong with you.  However, a healthy dose of fear can do amazing things for your awareness, especially in climbing.  When you are aware of the risks, things tend to slow down, and you take a more methodical approach to the task at hand.  Haste is thrown to the wind, and attention to detail becomes your best friend.  Your fear gives you the courage you need to protect yourself, to make that hard move, to overcome an obstacle that you weren’t sure you could.  People say you climb the way you live, if you live fast you climb fast, if you tend to overthink things you tend to overthink your climbs.  That may be true, but it seems that one side of the coin could influence a change in the other.  In otherwords, if you tend to back yourself up when climbing, maybe you will start backing yourself up for your financial life.  Just a thought.  But in the end, climbing teaches you to face your fears, and every day life has plenty of demons that need facing.


Anyone who has every crack climbed knows that jamming can be a sufferfest.  Just like cranking up an endless uphill on your bike teaches you exactly how far you can push it, the same goes for climbing.  Yet, so much of pain is more than just a physical sensation, it is also a mental awareness related to so much more than just your immediate muscles and physiology.  This pain can be from heartbreak, from the devastation of repeated attempts at one move that you just cannot get, or from a loved one who clipped their last runner.  Climbers and mountaineers are often told that you will lose friends throughout your life in the “sport,” many of them leaving us way before they should.  There is no possible way to prepare for their departure, nor console yourself afterwards when thinking of what may have happened.  The only thing you can do is ask yourself how much you love what you are doing, and if you are willing to push through the pain to celebrate the lives of others by living yours to the fullest.

This week, a dear friend of mine, Grey Liston, passed away from a fall on Mount Olympus.  He was a skilled mountaineer, with professional training and natural endurance.  Honestly, accepting the event has been hard for me, as I just cannot imagine him being here today and gone tomorrow.  I found out the morning before a big climbing day on Independence Pass, and the whole time I felt a cloud of confusion surrounding me.  Each peak reminded me of him, every carabiner clipped I would double check, I was holding back within my own pain.  Grey was a man of the mountains, though, and I knew what he would say if I could talk to him one more time.  He would tell me to live well, to take risks and to challenge myself, and to pursue my passions within reasonable precautions.  He would smile, probably laugh, and tell me how great it feels to stand on top of a hard route, or how excited you are to rip down a fresh pow field.  My promise to him is to pursue life, to pursue passion, and to live this life to the fullest because this is the only life we get (please leave religion out of your comments).  Now is the time to track down your dreams, your fears.  There is no waiting, no reason to weigh yourself down with mortgages and big screen TVs.  Ask yourself what truly makes you happy, and make sure all of your energy is applied to exactly that.  That is what Grey did, that is what he would tell us to do.

Live Like Liston

Live Like Liston



One thought on “Life Lessons in Climbing

  1. Nice article.

    Posted by rliston8 | December 8, 2013, 8:38 PM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 25 other followers

%d bloggers like this: