Indoor rock climbing is a simple sport. To do it you need a wall covered in grips, some harnesses, and a rope connecting two people: the climber and the belayer.

WORDS BY KAM GREVILLE | Published in Spotlight: The Arts Wellbeing Collective Magazine, Edition 1

Indoor rock climbing is a simple sport. To do it you need a wall covered in grips, some harnesses, and a rope connecting two people: the climber and the belayer. The climber goes up while the belayer stays on the ground and acts as a brake. No matter what your level of fitness, hauling yourself up a wall takes strength, bloody-mindedness and courage – it’s high up and its hard work.

I go climbing most weeks with my partner. If you met me, I may not immediately strike you as someone who likes this sport. I’m big and bookish. I wheeze in cold weather. I’m afraid of heights.

That said, going climbing all last year was a bright spot in what was otherwise a very difficult time for me. I was feeling burnt out and depressed. I was reassessing my work and how it fit into my life.

In the end, I made the difficult decision to move on from a permanent role at Melbourne Theatre Company and into more independent, creative practice. Rock climbing helped me with this.

Halfway up a wall recently, I realised rock climbing has given me three great lessons for how to grow through tough times and not get stuck in them.

1. You are only ever in competition with yourself

When I was in my mid-twenties, I blew my knee. I wish I could claim a heroic reason but the truth is: I was squatting down in an industrial kitchen wiping food waste off a plastic trolley. Getting down I heard a slight click in my right knee. Getting up was agony.

What followed was 18 months of scans, physio, losing my job, and finally, surgery. My knee swelled to three times its normal size and stayed that way. I spent months using a walking stick, unable to take stairs or carry things. Luckily, surgery fixed the issue.

Fast forward to now. I’m still on the easiest-rated walls after more than a year of regular climbing. I use multiple colours to make my way up. I see other people on harder climbs and over-hangs and am awed at their strength and flexibility.

Sometimes, well-meaning people see me on the easy climbs and say things like “Are you just starting out? Don’t give up!”

I get why they say this but it makes me feel small. In my head I reply “my story is my story, my legs are my legs, my climb is my climb.”

I do not give up and I’m stronger than last week. I remember the walking stick and am awed at my own strength and determination. Every single grip I climb is a victory.

2. There is more than one way up the wall

I’m fascinated by people. We’re all so different. Our histories, bodies, perceptions, sensations, and experiences are unique. Trying to conceptualise that glorious diversity blows my mind. I try to understand what makes myself and others tick, so I read widely and talk to as many people as I can about their experiences.

One thing I’ve noticed in my reading is that no matter what the issue, there are people who claim to have ‘the answer’. Want to be less anxious? Do this! Want to lose weight? Do this! Want to be successful / happy / perfect? Do this! Anything that offers a one-size-fits-all answer gives me the shits.

What I love about climbing is that each wall is a puzzle you solve with your body and your brain. There is no set way to successfully negotiate a climb. I have seen different people go up the same wall using completely different techniques. Perhaps you are much shorter than the last person so the same grips are not within your reach. Perhaps you can only grab that next hold by balancing on your left foot. The challenge is the same, but the solutions are as individual as the climbers.

Figuring out a way through tough times, and finding the elements that allow each of us to live well and thrive is something we ourselves must do – taking into account our own preferences, circumstances, and limitations. I can learn from others by reading, talking, and watching them ascend. But it’s up to me to choose the route. It’s up to me to make the climb.

3. You need three points of contact to move

To let go of the wall and actually climb, you need three points of contact and some slack in the line. As you move up, you need to balance your weight so you’re supported in three places to get a hand or a foot free. Plus, the person on the ground must not hold the rope so tightly you can barely move at all.

The goal, of course, is to climb up and not fall off. If you do fall off, the rope catches you. What I love about this is that it’s a pretty decent metaphor for what to do to support your mental health, even when times are really rough.

I reckon most of us understand that physical health is mainly good food, water, exercise and sleep. (Simple to say, harder to do!). When I was feeling at my worst last year, I wondered: is there an equivalent simple model for mental health? Yes. More than one, as it turns out.

One that I came across which is pretty good comes from Positive Psychology. The model is called PERMA which stands for:

  • Positive Emotions (feeling good)
  • Engagement (being – and doing – in the moment)
  • Relationships (sustaining connections with others)
  • Meaning (living with purpose)
  • Achievement (striving for and savouring successes)

So what does PERMA have to do with rock climbing and how does any of this help?

For a start, the actual activity does a pretty good job of hitting all these points. It feels good, takes concentration, requires teamwork and trust, offers structure, and is full of opportunities for accomplishment.

Through climbing, I have learned that I need balance. I have learned that I have to rely on others and let go. And when I am low or worried, or stuck in a bad place, I have learned that I just need three points of contact to keep moving.

Say I don’t feel good right now, but I know why I am here, what I am working towards, and who matters to me. Great! 3 out of 5, keep moving. Or maybe I have just lost a meaningful relationship but I can find simple pleasures like a bath or a walk, and I have a pottery class on Tuesdays where I get totally absorbed in what I am doing, and I’ve recently had some great feedback from my boss. Great! 3 out of 5, keep moving.

Life is really tough sometimes, worse than tough. I get it. But as with physical health, if today you wake up exhausted but manage to drink a bit more water, chat to a friend, and have a walk, well 3 out of 5.

You’re going to be so much higher up that wall. You’re going to be one step further towards feeling good again.

Come climbing with me. Keep moving. We got this.