I’ve been lying in bed feeling like an exhausted piece of crap for the last few days, so my climbing experiences have been limited to either my laptop screen (thank you YouTube and fiberoptic broadband) or my imagination. As my gradually more puddle-like physical form melted into the mattress, feeling like all the strength had been sapped out of my normally pretty strong body, I found myself thinking back to something several people have said to me when I mention that rock climbing is my main hobby:
‘Oh, I’d like to try that but I’m not strong enough for rock climbing’.
Now, granted this could have been a polite way for my friends to tell me they really weren’t interested in joining me for a session at the bouldering gym and they would love it if I could talk about something else for a change. If I was too oblivious to notice this, I do apologise and the friends in question may absolutely disregard the rest of this blog post. However, I’ve heard this often enough to believe that, for some, this was a genuine concern.
On the surface this seems like a reasonable statement. When you see people climbing, it looks like a feat of strength. It’s easy to imagine climbers spending hours in the gym, cranking out pull-ups with one arm while pouring protein shakes down their throats with the other. And there’s no denying that being strong helps you climb better.
However, in a beginner, this attitude has often puzzled me. To me this sounds like deciding not to take up golf because you’re bad at hitting a small ball with a fancy stick. Or not joining a yoga class because you’re not very flexible and thought warrior two was the title of a shit Steven Seagal movie. Or not giving running a go because your half marathon time is terrible. What I’m getting at here, is that you don’t generally start a brand-new activity already in possession of the qualities required to be good at it.
Initially, I really didn’t take to climbing and had many reservations about giving it a go.
I was scared of many things including making a total tit of myself in front of friends and strangers alike, breaking some extremely useful part of my body, or being so frightened when I got off the floor that I’d just cling to the wall and cry until my arms gave out. However, the idea that I wasn’t strong enough didn’t really occur to me.
Throwing shapes and getting lost on the wall
And this wasn’t because I was already a physically strong human being. My main forms of exercise before taking up climbing were badminton, cycling and moving costumes around various theatres across the country. Only one of these activities required much in the way of upper body strength and lifting a few items of clothing is a totally different kettle of fish to lifting your own body weight up a wall on brightly coloured plastic holds. I certainly wasn’t unhealthy, but I would never have called myself ‘strong’. I had arms like wet noodles and a pretty shoddy core.
My main problem when I started climbing was a fear of falling. Now, I love falling. Falling is great. Falling shows you’re trying difficult stuff, pushing your limits, and falls look excellent smushed together into a fail montage for Instagram. The first thing I tell any beginner climber now is ‘if you’re not falling, you’re not trying hard enough’. Experiencing falling early on helps to build up your confidence that you can fall off a climbing wall and live to tell the tale over a pint in the pub afterwards. Personally, I have made great progress in this area, but I’m still predominantly a boulderer and highly likely to produce a fair bit of fear-pee if attached to a rope and forced to climb higher than a few metres off the ground. There’s always room for improvement.
The first time I fell off a climbing wall when I wasn’t expecting to, I cried. It was at Kelsey Kerridge sports centre in Cambridge on the vertical wall on your right as you go in, just past the hangboards and the kids’ wall. I was reaching for the next handhold and my left foot, that was supporting most of my body weight, suddenly slipped off the hold. I fell straight down, landed on my feet, didn’t hit a single hold on the way, and didn’t hurt myself at all but I was very taken aback by the whole thing and had a little cry. Luckily my coach/husband was there to get me through the traumatic experience by punching me in the arm and telling me not to make such a fuss. It sounds harsh but this technique has proved to be very successful at soothing a crying JoJo over the years.
The other notable falling incident in my early climbing career occurred the first time I got to the top of a problem that I couldn’t climb back down from. This was also at Kelsey Kerridge, this time on the overhang straight ahead of you as you go in, just past the shelves on the left, if you’re curious. I was forced to drop from the top of the bouldering wall onto the crashmat below for the first time. This was my first successful ascent of a 5+ boulder, a low grade that I would expect to complete first go now. But at the time I honestly wasn’t expecting to top it.
After a series of very pleasant and swingy moves, I found myself hanging by both hands from the top hold with my feet dangly beneath me asking Husband what to do now. The answer appeared pretty simple from where he was standing (and laughing) but the idea of just letting go seemed ridiculous. I would obviously be killed. But, as Husband pointed out, I wasn’t going to be able to hang there forever and I couldn’t get my feet back on so I might as well just get on with it and let go. The insensitive maniac! Unfortunately, my arms did indeed give out before I could come up with a witty retort or a better solution to my current location problem. So, I dropped down from the wall, had a quick check to make sure I was in fact still alive then celebrated my excellent achievement of climbing my first boulder of that grade.
One of my earliest climbing videos. I'd like to think my technique has improved!
Dealing with the fear side of climbing has definitely taken more focused work, for me, than building strength, especially as a beginner climber. Getting stronger was something that my body was just quietly doing in the background the more I climbed. Of course, this is not the case once you get to the higher levels of climbing, when strength training is obviously more of a requirement. But as a beginner, you will simply build strength by repeatedly pulling your body weight up gradually more difficult boulders. Especially if your technique is shit, as it probably will be when you first start out. It's like gradually increasing the amount of weight you can lift on a weightlifting contraption as you repeat the exercises week in and week out. Except, for me at least, significantly more fun.
The changes I’ve experienced in my own level of strength since I took up climbing have surprised me, especially because, until recently, it’s not something I've consciously tried to improve.
I would catch sight of my bicep in the bathroom mirror while brushing my teeth and be both delighted and astounded that there appeared to be a lump of firm muscle where the wet noodle used to dangle. While setting up for a show one night backstage, I pulled on a bar above my head and was genuinely shocked to find myself not just off the floor but with my chin above the bar. I’d suddenly become strong enough to do a pull-up without setting foot in a conventional gym.
Additionally, as my core stability improved from all the time spent trying to keep my feet attached to holds on steep overhangs and horizontal roof climbs, the lower back pain I’d experienced in my late teens/early twenties completely vanished. I certainly don’t have a six-pack as I enjoy both making and eating baked goods far too much for that. However, there is definitely a tougher set of abs beneath the small layer of cake-based flab than there used to be.
But enough about me and my sculpted physique. The overall point I’m trying to make is that you don’t need to be strong to take up climbing. I understand the belief that many people have that you must be ripped to become a rock climber and I know this aspect of the sport puts women off in particular. I’m not telling you about my own magical transformation to show off or brag about the fact I can actually do a pull-up now, although I am extremely proud of this fact. And I’m sure I’ve bored many of my friends to tears with my constant climbing based chatter and repeated badgering offers to take them for their first ever bouldering session.
I’m telling you this story, dearest readers, because taking up climbing has been one of the best things I ever did, and I’d hate people to be put off giving it a go because of a misplaced idea about some non-existent prerequisite for becoming a good rock climber.
So, are you strong enough to start rock climbing? Abso-fucking-lutely. Now let’s get you into a pair of mildly uncomfortable shoes and falling off fluorescent plastic holds before you change your mind.