Three years ago, my life looked a lot different then it does now - I was a lot different. My self confidence was non-existent - I didn’t know who I was or who I wanted to be. I was living in Hamilton, Ontario and enrolled at McMaster University. And I was terrified of everything, including heights. Rock climbing was a hidden world I had yet to discover - hidden in plain sight, subtly pulling at me until I turned around and my eyes widened.
Before I found climbing, weekends were spent getting drunk and going home with strangers then nursing my hangover in the library. Weekdays were lectures and appointments with doctors and therapists, trying to get my mental illness under control. Although I had a really great time in University and I’m glad I have my degree, there was always this part of me that was begging for something more, for some sort of freedom. But freedom from what?
When I was introduced to climbing at the local gym, the world around me began to transform. All of a sudden, my life had purpose. I was excited for the day. My mental illness didn’t seem to have so much of a pull. I wasn’t very fit when I first started - I hadn’t played sports my whole life or had a natural knack for movement - but I worked my ass off. Quickly, I began going to the gym once, twice, five times a week. I started feeling the subtle hardening of my muscles and staying on the wall slowly became easier. I remember the first 5.10- I sent in the gym, I tried with everything in me to get to the top without falling and when I did, I felt the perfection that I now spend my life trying to replicate as many times as I can. My body and mind became one, I flowed through the movements, I was on autopilot, and when I reached the last hold, although I didn’t know it then, that was the moment that changed everything. It was never really a decision to dedicate my whole world to climbing, it kind of all just fell into place. I felt like I belonged in this world of adventure and grit. And maybe some part of me knew that this would lead to the type of freedom I had been looking for.
My whole world became climbing - when my first outdoor season came around, I was a girl possessed, I climbed outside every chance I got. I made good friends in the community who shared this obsession. As soon as I began outside, plastic holds just didn’t do it for me anymore. I still appreciate them for training, but it just wasn’t the same. I knew I needed to get outside as much as I could. And then I got my first serious climbing injury. I had driven to a crag around 2 hours away with the guys I usually climbed with and on my warm up, I got really scared clipping the second bolt. After asking for a hard catch so I didn’t deck, I came into the wall too hard with my ankle hitting a ledge under me. Instantly, I heard a crack and knew something was wrong, the pain came moments later. Despite my stubbornness, the guys took turns carrying me out of the woods over top of the rugged terrain. When we got to the car, I insisted that they stay and climb while I drove myself to the hospital, it was my left foot that was hurt so driving would be fine. This was the first instance that I knew I was becoming a different person. The old me would have been terrified to go to the hospital alone, to drive myself in the amount of pain I was in, and sit by myself while waiting for the doctors. But instead, I thrived off of this lonesome adventure and I was psyched my friends got to continue their adventure without me.
After months of climbing with only one foot, and after months of still obsessing over climbing despite my mothers dismay - I could finally climb without a cast. But not for long. One evening, I was climbing in the gym and after jumping down from a boulder, I heard that crack again, but on the other foot. This one was bad… really bad - I knew it right away. I would be out again for quite a while, and now, a year and a half later, I am still managing the injury. But instead of seeing it as another obstacle, I saw it as another training tool - time to climb with one foot again and work on my dynamic climbing. This is when I was absolutely sure that I was emerging into a new person, someone who came alive in hard times, who saw obstacles as adventures, and learned the word “resilience.” That winter, while finishing my degree, working full time at the gym, and rehabbing my ankle, I was mostly focused on training as hard as I could for the next season. And although I know that I’ll never truly be satisfied with my ability - there is always more training to do, more climbs to send, and more stoke to feel - I knew I had a lot of catching up to do if I wanted to reach my goals. I made the decision that the next climbing season I would join my climbing partner in Squamish, B.C. and devote as much time as I could to this radical sport. And as soon as spring came around, I packed up my car and drove myself across the country. I was finally becoming the girl I had been looking for - independent, resilient, and hungry for adventure. Still searching for some kind of freedom, I arrived in British Columbia and began a new life.
When I got to Squamish, despite the mountains surrounding me and the town of people who shared my passion, my mental illness hit hard - it didn’t like this person I was becoming, so it began fighting back. I felt isolated; alone. I was away from my support system I had spent years building, and now I had no one who understood my pain - no one who knew the old me. During the months of darkness that surrounded me in Squamish, I climbed harder than I ever had. I began Traditional climbing and fell absolutely in love with multi pitches. The person I am when on the wall became so clear - she feels so definite and I’m proud to be her. But as soon as I came off, parts of my past took over, I couldn’t fight back. And in my lowest moment since I had moved to Squamish, I realized that the freedom I was looking for was freedom from my own mind. Mental illness is an emotional cage and I feel like I spend most days trying to mitigate the world from behind bars. I have always craved control over the thoughts and patterns that take over when I have two feet on the ground. Control like what I feel when I’m on the wall.
Rock climbing is closing this gap between the person who I used to be and the girl I am learning to love. It’s teaching me confidence and control. It gives me a reason to push on when life, or climbing, gets hard. I love feeling the rubbery backs of my hands from climbing cracks and the calluses on the inside of my hands from sport climbing. I love feeling muscle when I rub my arm and that when I walk outside my gaze instantly goes to the closest rock face. I love the psyche that I finally feel for life because of everything this lifestyle has brought me. I love that now I live alone in my van and that I can be hundreds of feet up on a climb and know how to safely get myself off. I can pull myself through hard sequences and force myself to push past my own limits. I may not have money saved up for the future or a career lined up - I spend most of my time training, climbing, or working to afford gear - but I am free, I am happy, and I am alive. And although my life may never be one of comfort and security, ever since I pulled onto my first rock climb, my depression hasn’t felt so heavy and life is a lot more fun - isn’t that what life is about anyway?
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