Health + Wellness,  Here + Now

Mountains into Molehills: A Fearless Guide for First-Time Rock Climbers

South of the Danforth, in an industrial building that houses art studios, fashion labels, and commercial bakeries, I cling to fake rocks a few metres off the ground. I inch my right foot around a plastic outcropping. Then my left foot slips and I slide down the artificial rock face, skinning a couple of calluses from my hands in the process. Back on the ground, I am unable to wipe the smile off my face.

The Rock Oasis is an apt name for one of the best and biggest climbing gyms in Toronto. When you push open the door, The Rock Oasis appears like a mirage: a two-story expanse of space, undulating walls punctuated by candy-coloured holds. Climbers dangle overhead. If you’re like me, the first time you enter a climbing gym you might be tempted to turn around and run. You might say to yourself, no way.

As an unathletic child and borderline sedentary adult, sports always intimidated me. I couldn’t shake what I believed were the limitations of my body and abilities. It’s no accident that I felt this way. I understood that to run like a girl or throw like a girl were embarrassments, not accomplishments. For me, and I think for many girls and women, my relationship to my athletic ability was always negatively defined: not bad, for a girl.

From afar—i.e. from the ground—I admired climbers who seemed to embody every quality I felt I lacked: strength, grace, courage. Finally, a friend talked me into putting on a harness and getting on the wall. From that first climb, I was hooked.

Finding my sport not only restored my belief in my body’s strength and power, it brought me the confidence to take creative risks, to push past my comfort zone, and to deal with fear. Not to mention the added benefit of regular physical activity, which for me includes more energy, better sleep, and improved mental health.

I talked to my friend and fellow climber Kate Green about how she got started in climbing, and we learned that our paths were pretty similar. We’ve both dealt with insecurities and fears around taking up the sport. Together, Green and I want to be the friends who finally talk you into getting on the wall. We’ve addressed some of our most-heard concerns from folks interested in climbing but are too afraid to take the first step.

1. Yes, you are strong enough.

In climbing, technique beats strength every time. Green says: “Bodies that look strong and are strong don’t always line up in an obvious way in climbing. I’ve had a few experiences of witnessing little crises of masculinity when I’ve out-climbed men…I’ve found it can be very gratifying to undermine those assumptions.”

2. No, it’s not scary.

Dealing with fear is a huge part of climbing, but it’s on a curve. The climbers tackling hundreds-of-metres high cliffs have dealt with the same fears you will the first time you get off the ground. You only have to be brave enough to take the first step. “[Climbing] is a controlled sense of fear that I can contend with, acknowledge, and conquer. [It] involves a lot of failure and a world of persistence. It feels great.”

3. It’s easy to find people to climb with—or not.

Green climbs sometimes with friends but often alone. “Climbing gyms tend to have a strong sense of community, but I sort of relish the space to be unapproachable at gyms,” she says. “As a woman…I spend a lot of time being nice, and I like that in climbing gyms I can be nice, or (as is more frequently the case) I can just be focused on my climbing.”

4. You don’t have to be the best, but you might discover your best.

Climbing is about personal bests. Working to improve my climbing session after session has deepened my connection to myself and taught me a proactive, positive approach to goal-setting. Green sums it up perfectly: “It’s really quite hard to overthink every aspect of your life when you’re desperately clinging to a wall. My mind clears for a few seconds and the euphoric rush I feel when I finally solve a problem that felt impossible is worth everything. On the way to that solution, the persistent repetition and incremental, almost imperceptible improvement as you try and fail and try again feels meditative and calm and beautiful.”

Take our word for it: trying rock climbing for the first time can be intimidating, but it’s worth it. You might even find your sport.

The Rock Oasis is the Danforth’s climbing gym, located at Carlaw and Gerrard. They offer courses for all skill levels, have a weekly time reserved for new climbers, and rent all the equipment you need to get started at their front desk.

Image from Public Domain Pictures.

Kate Balfour is a writer and editor. She lives in Toronto.

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