Climbing and the Art of Gentleness

Discovering how to bring more zen into your climbing

By: Larissa Runkle

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I have spent the better part of three months top roping. For those of you who know, top roping is rock climbing — from great heights. Harnessed in to your belay buddy, you climb a wall averaging 50 feet in the air. Some of these rock walls are completely vertical, but many, are at an angle — a slope, that has you leaning backwards, hands poised, back arched, hair dangling.

And when you fall off one of these sloped walls — getting back on it can be a challenge. When up against a vertical wall, it’s simply a matter reaching out and restarting your climb. But when you fall on these sloped walls, your rope will inevitably leave you dangling several feet out of reach, unless, immediately after falling, you begin to push yourself away from the wall — a makeshift swing 50 feet up in the air.

This was something that as a new rock climber I struggled with. Your comfort with climbing, or at least mine, occurred in stages. The first stage sounds something like this:

“OK, this is fun but I don’t want to go up high.”

My initial interest in rock climbing had been purely related to bouldering, in other words, staying very close to the ground at all times. But then the second stage occurred.

And in this second stage of rock climbing — you realize that you are only writing poems with your feet when you could be writing novels. And so you let go of that fear and climb heights. But even as you begin your epic ascent, you’re scared after the first ten or so feet have been passed, and you focus on your steps — avoiding the obvious tendency to glance down.

But finally, you do look down. And then one day, when climbing one of these higher sloped walls, too tired to finish in one run, you will find yourself with two choices: end up dangling out of reach with all of your previous efforts wasted, or swing high in the air to catch your next attempt.

In the second stage of rock climbing — you realize that you are only writing poems with your feet when you could be writing novels.

You might not do it on the first, or even second time. But once you’ve put the sweat and bruises into a climb — I promise you, the fear dissipates amidst your efforts, as what you are doing becomes more important than any fear or consequence. The self-triumph melts away everything else, until there is only you and a challenge — life at its most raw form.

And so when this happens to you — you inevitably swing.

For three months now I have been swinging (off walls). And in my underlying tension and stress, I found myself pushing so hard away from the wall that I would get tangled. I’d turn and twist, sometimes even around my belay partner’s rope, ending up backwards and unable to grab the wall.

Two weeks ago I hurt my arm climbing. I’ve been off it for over a week now, but when I’ve gone to the gym to use the other equipment and catch a spin class, I’ve hungrily watched the climbers. And I was so envious of their strength to be on that wall, that I found myself drinking in their every move, studying their footwork, internalizing the smooth glide of their rough chalk-covered hands from one rock to another.   And so when I finally landed back on the wall two nights ago, it was even more of an intense experience than usual. I was deeply thoughtful in all of my movements, not hurried or rash as I usually am, as most days leave me feeling as though I must do everything quickly and efficiently to match my peers in my new urban existence.

But on this day, when I fell from that sloped wall that I have told you so much about — for once I didn’t push against it so hard. In fact I pushed as lightly as I would play shuffleboard.

And I realized I could catch the wall again easier with this light push, this small and unimpressive gesture would bring me closer to my goals than a sweeping swing across the old factory’s high ceiling ever could.

As I sat up there swinging and resting my arms to finish the climb, I wondered how I hadn’t possibly thought of this before.

This small and unimpressive gesture would bring me closer to my goals than a sweeping swing across the old factory’s high ceiling ever could.

I learned how to play shuffleboard last week.

Through a drunken haze, my shuffleboard partner told me that to win, “I would need to go way way slower than I thought”. Being American, I rolled the ball with brute force. It skidded across the sand and landed in the gutter. The next several tries went much the same.

But finally, and slowly, I learned how to master the art of gentleness.

And as I was swinging from this wall I knew I had caught onto something here. This gentle push and knowing its power was infinitely more important than possibly all the lessons rock climbing had taught me thus far. I was learning how to sit comfortably without my feet on the ground — both physically and metaphorically, I was becoming at peace with my transitions.

I was in movement but I took it in gracefully — I even relaxed into it and for once let my hands hang to the side, releasing the senseless grip on my rope- the grip that wouldn’t save me in the event of an accident. So I let it go — I rocked gently on and off the rock, I even looked down and smiled at my handsome belay partner, and when I was ready — I began my final ascent.

(Photo Cred: Samantha Sophia, Mars Williams, Danka & Peter, and Topich.)

Thanks for reading. I’m Larissa, writing poems, lists, and stories about my life. Follow me and check out my latest adventures here.

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