Climbing and bouldering as mastery activities


A mastery activity is any relatively complex task or series of tasks that is initially learned by observing others doing it and if possible, being instructed or mentored, and then is refined from initial competency into a level of true mastery after hundreds of hours of practice.  A mastery activity can turn into a career, a fulfilling hobby, or a process you put yourself through simply to enjoy the benefits — many fitness enthusiasts see the pursuit of fitness as a hobby, and many see it as a discipline that they simply “exercise” with their own self-discipline in order to enjoy its benefits.  And then you have the sort of activities that are undeniably enjoyable when you are able to participate in them, which suddenly avail themselves to you as possible hobbies or past-times simply because you are more fit than ever before.  For me this was a long time coming with climbing.

As a kid, I had very limited upper-body strength and a big gut.  I liked to scramble up rock piles but had no aspirations of doing more.  When I look back, it’s easy to see how this weakened my self-concept and confidence and as I learn how one “attains” physical fitness, I realize that I just saw no logical path towards getting into better shape and resigned myself to an uncomfortable fate.  I had no real “physical education” despite going to “gym class” and having access to the internet in my teenage years, so by the time I was an adult I figured that simply running a lot and imposing calorie restriction was how you “get in shape.”  As a kid, exercise was just miserable and uncomfortable and I didn’t have a solid grasp on delayed gratification and the type of progressive effort it takes to slowly progress your way towards fitness.  I wore “husky” jeans and lamented that Levis were so sought after yet proudly displayed your waist measurement on the back, and couldn’t do an over-handed pull-up, ever.  Looking back I realize that the pull-up represented the ultimate “unattainable” milestone where I truly couldn’t see how one would work their way up to doing it.  Either you can do it, or you can’t.  How do you work through that?

I feared and loathed gym class because for the most part I didn’t enjoy it and was always looking to spot the one or two other kids in worse shape than myself and see how much trouble they were having running a mile or performing a successful high jump…it seemed that gym class was awesome if you were in shape, but if not, there was zero emphasis on teaching you how to improve.  I witnessed the same pattern even in weight lifting classes, which could very well be the ultimate foundation for learning simple progression and lurking behind the scenes, one part of the solution to “how does an out-of-shape person achieve a pull-up?”  I didn’t pursue weight training as an elective beyond a brief 8-week stint in middle school, where we were essentially told “you should be able to bench press 80% of your body weight, as in, right now, today, and if not, you suck.”  Obviously my memory is a bit tainted but I vividly remember the culture being entirely focused on praising the already-fit and mocking the rest.  As a fat kid I was already at a significant disadvantage there, and could maybe manage 50% with an obvious strength imbalance that strained my left shoulder considerably.  I vividly remember this toxic attitude in a class that ostensibly is about teaching you how to get into better shape rather than being praised for already being there: being essentially told you’re either strong or you aren’t, and you were soundly ridiculed for trying to actually manage a weight you could successfully knock out 5-8 reps with.

Flash forward to the present and after a solid year of working on physical transformation, I found myself at Earth Treks climbing gym in Colorado faced with the prospect of embracing a challenging and potentially expensive hobby with intensity.  This wasn’t my first trip there, as I’d accompanied my son for a birthday party that involved some of their half-sized walls and he did well.  He’s always shown some interest in climbing, whether pushing the limits of playground equipment rules or in trees, and at fairs and carnivals where a portable climbing wall has become an increasingly common concession.  One of our local swimming pools features a bouldering wall (I recently learned the importance of that distinction) with a difficult overhang and we spent many hours there in aggregate this winter trying to scrap our way up.  The process was exceedingly difficult and he was discouraged because it takes a lot of wingspan and strength to make any headway, but I reminded him that even just hanging on the hand-holds for awhile and just struggling to get anywhere was a form of progress that would eventually reveal some benefits.  We’d do water-assisted pull-ups overhanded and underhanded and we went on a near-weekly basis which allowed us to slowly make some progress.

The half-size walls at Earth Treks are just a bit taller than your typical carnival equipment, and if you don’t have a membership, it costs $22 for one person to climb three runs.  I encouraged my son to give the full-size walls a try to really get a workout and make the best of the cost, and he agreed, in part because he was excited that I was also going to be climbing and enjoying the experience with him.  One consequence of this is that he learned that at his current skill level matched with the walls he’s taking on, he needs to take breaks to let his arms and legs recover long enough to keep climbing.  This process of resting itself has to be learned.  You have to realize that you need to rest rather than simply giving up and coming back down, that resting is part of getting to the top and not a sign of failure, and you need to communicate with the belayer (though the instructors are pretty intuitive)  to take up the slack and hold the line, and then face the sense of vertigo that comes with letting go of the wall and letting yourself hang there.  It turns out you feel a lot more out of control and weirded-out just hanging on the rope vs. clinging to the wall.  If you don’t let go, you can still get some rest, but your muscles will be contracted the entire time and you won’t “reset” or recover your strength sufficiently to make big moves.  My son slightly freaked out a few times and we positively encouraged him to reset, shake his arms out, trust himself that he can get to the top.  This happened on two separate outings with varying degrees of intensity (“I don’t think I can go any higher!” vs. “I know you can do it buddy!”) and each time I figured “he’s getting tired and doesn’t realize that he can rest and keep going.”  He’s so confident while moving and coming down that it never entered my mind that he might specifically be anxious about the experience of resting and hanging on the rope itself.

I’ve found that you don’t experience a lot of anxiety about the height so long as you’re making progress upward, holding firm to the wall, or rappelling down.  This isn’t to say that fear of heights isn’t an issue at all while you’re climbing, but because you’re focused on the task, fear is less powerful, and it becomes decreasingly potent the more you face and develop competency in the task of climbing, overcoming a natural fear of heights in the specific setting of being belayed and harnessed.

The thing is, I didn’t realize my son was dealing with all of this anxiety because he always seemed fearless about the climbing process itself.  He just sounded “urgently tired” here and there and was thankful that me and the instructor had confidence in him.  I didn’t grasp it until my third time out to the gym, because I was getting up and down very quickly and with minimal rest and never spent much time “just hanging there.”  I was pleased that on my first attempt, I didn’t gas out, just powered my way up.  I am a total newbie and didn’t focus entirely on a single color-coded set of hand and footholds designating a specific route, but chose my own personal difficulty setting by “trying” to stay on a color while allowing myself to cheat as needed.  By the third route that first day, I could stick with a specific color, but was still choosing easier difficulty levels in the process.  At any difficulty, the process triggered profuse sweating and on the first day out, I had no desire to exercise any further after my three runs, realizing that that short amount of time scaling the wall was a significant bout of exercise for me.  Each outing, my butt was thoroughly kicked, my back felt like it did on any other intense back workout day, and I was content with how strenuous the activity was.

I determined that was able to quickly scale the wall (and was getting a lot of encouragement from the instructor on my speed) because of my height and relative strength, and because I was more deeply control my breathing.  It was a very challenging process, but I took all of my rest periods while firmly grasping hand-holds, so in retrospect, I wasn’t making it particularly hard on myself.

It wasn’t until my third run of my third trip that I decided I’d been taking it too easy and needed to do something that was more on the fringe of “I don’t know if I can actually do this.”  I realized that I was starting to listen to my own hype, enjoying the “hey, you’re fast!” and “your dad is fast!” comments from the various instructors and priding myself on moving quickly, when I really need to be doing something that I can’t do quickly to really push myself to another level.  I chose a 5.9 wall with a challenging overhang, and told myself I’d absolutely get up there.

Now I knew exactly what my son was going through during those “hang-and-rest” periods.  The process of getting up felt like an eternity and stretched me to my absolute limits.  I had many, many moments where I genuinely felt like I had to give up, that this was ridiculous.  I had to absolutely rely on the belayer to pull slack, sometimes making short gains of just a few inches before having to reset again.  The process thoroughly raked me over the coals physically, but what stood out to me is just how anxious you feel climbing a wall when your muscles suddenly fail and you have no choice but to rely on the rope.  I must’ve hung at least 10 different times and it was a task that looked increasingly impossible as I approached the overhang.  It wasn’t really the most difficult part, but was a huge psychological barrier.  For most of the climb, which felt like 10-15 minutes, my mind was stuck in a combined state of “you can do this, you will do this,” and “I don’t think I can do this, there’s no shame in quitting.”  And there would’ve been no shame in quitting, because I still would’ve come down stronger and more prepared than before to try it again.

Later that day I was explaining to my wife why climbing will quickly become a hobby that my son is proud of participating in.  We’ve always been ever-so-slightly concerned that he has very little interest in team sports (and neither did I) and that his default answer when people ask “what’s your favorite activity?” is “video games.”  Now I’m convinced that if we continue to go out there and engage in this mastery activity, he will slowly transition to a new response.  And as he becomes increasingly strong and fit due to his interest in climbing, other options will open themselves up automatically.  Climbing is a challenging mastery activity that lets you dial in your own personal difficulty level, and appeals to introverts and extroverts alike due to the value of internal drive and external motivation and coaching.

He doesn’t seem to have much fear of heights at this point:


And more importantly, a lot of fun can be had in the real world on boulders or other climbable things like trees or ropes as you gain confidence and strength

And about those pull-ups: my first day of climbing the instructor told me that with rock climbing I’d be doing my first pull-up in no time. A week later, I was deadlifting a one-rep max, dropped the weight, and almost out of instinct grabbed a pull-up bar overhead, and sure enough, up I went over that bar.  I have no endurance at this point going for reps with a full, strict, pull-up, and I have hypermobile elbows that bother me whenever I pull too hard with full extension, but I’m strengthening those suckers and absolutely did achieve something I’d never done before.