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Peaks and Valleys

Thursday, January 21, 2021

by Gemma Hartley

Growing up, I collected trophies like I collected tacky keychains on my backpack: excessively. I did dance (hip-hop, jazz, ballet, tap), cheerleading, gymnastics, tae kwon do, cross country, and track, not to mention casual activities like riding bikes around the neighborhood and attending basketball camp for the thrill of being on the court with my crush.

Throughout childhood, my schedule was packed to the brim with practices, meets, and performances. I look back now and think my parents must have been nuts letting me participate in so many sports at once (that, or they really, really wanted to keep me off drugs). Yet, I also feel incredibly grateful for that packed schedule, because it kept my body busy and anxious teenage mind focused — something which has become far more challenging as I’ve grown older.

Like a lot of folks I know, the mental load exhausts me daily, burdening my mind with its list of fears and demands. For years, the mind-body synergy that I experienced in competitive sports as a kid has seemed far out of reach. This may come as a shock, but as a 30-something mother of three, I rarely get tossed into the air for a straddle jump by a strapping young man, and I’ve found a conspicuous dearth of folks lining up to see my hip-hop dance moves. I tried an embarrassing return to gymnastics for adults and had to face the fact that my pelvic floor is ruined from childbirth. I can still go running, but the truth is, running doesn’t quiet my mind — instead it gives me all too much time to obsess over whatever is stressing me out. That might be helpful for some, but when I work out, I need a break from my thoughts.

Eventually, I moved on to yoga, which gave me the quiet that my mind needs and the physical activity my body required. But I had resigned myself to a life without the blood-pumping, physical thrill that came from pushing my body to its absolute limit. That is, until I found rock climbing.

The thrill overcomes me the moment I set foot in the gym. Climbing taps into some primal part of my brain that allows everything else to fade away. It’s the time I feel most like myself.

It wasn’t love at first climb. In fact, it was without a doubt one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve ever encountered. I went with my husband, who is six feet tall and was easily able to reach moves that seemed physically impossible for me. I felt, for the first time, just how separated my abdominal muscles had become after giving birth multiple times. I was out of breath with each ascent, and so sore the next morning my forearms burned simply lifting a coffee mug to my lips. But for all its pitfalls, rock climbing gave me a taste of something I hadn’t experienced in so many years: the consolidated mental focus that comes from doing the hardest thing my body is capable of.

I quickly found that rock climbing pulls me out of my thinking mind and into the present moment quicker than anything else in the world. There is no choice but to leave everything behind the moment I get on the wall. I can’t think about what’s for dinner, that nagging email I left unanswered, or whether or not my career is progressing adequately when I’m eight feet off the ground with no rope. It’s all or fall (though, to be fair, it’s sometimes both). I don’t have to psych myself up or work into the headspace required for this sport. The thrill overcomes me the moment I set foot in the gym. Climbing taps into some primal part of my brain that allows everything else to fade away. It’s the time I feel most like myself.

The wall has an obsessive pull over me. When I fall, I don’t go back to replaying what went wrong during my day or get racked with anxiety over my next work project (which usually pops into my mind as soon as Savasana begins in yoga). Instead, I stare at the route before me, running through potential moves in my mind. It’s not unusual for me to fall asleep at night working through problems on the bouldering wall. It’s also a regular occurrence for me to bring my son home from his two-and-a-half-hour climbing practice only to return to the gym after his bedtime to give a bouldering route one last crack. My obsession borders on insanity, I know. But I’d rather focus on a wall that I can scale, rather than a million little fears and worries that are almost always out of my control.

My training has become a passion. I arrange my yoga schedule to complement my climbing days. I’ve attached a hangboard trainer in my bedroom closet and spent many late nights watching footwork tutorials on YouTube. I dedicate almost as many hours per week to my climbing regimen as I do to my actual job. This year I trained for and won my first bouldering league competition, and it felt almost as good as publishing my first book.

Rock climbing has given me many things: a community, confidence in my body, arms that would put Michelle Obama to shame. But more than anything, it has given me a passion that quiets my anxious adult mind for hours at a time.Entering the gym isn’t an escape from my “real life” of motherhood and work and adult responsibilities. Instead, it feels like a homecoming. I come back to myself, to joy, to the height of my physical power.


Gemma Hartley is a writer, reporter, and author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward. She specializes in the subject areas of feminism, pop-culture, health & wellness, finance, budgeting, and mindfulness writing. Her work has been featured in outlets including Harper’s Bazaar, Women’s Health, Glamour, The Washington Post, CNBC, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Teen Vogue, and The Huffington Post. Her other regular clients include sites such as Ravishly, Headspace, Big City Moms, Romper, and SheKnows. She lives with her husband, three young children, a wonderful dog, and a terrible cat in Reno, Nevada.