The Free-Spirited Union of Body and Mind

A Rock Climbing Devotional 

By Sean Dickson

Throughout my life, I have encountered those who do not understand my addiction to pushing my limits. I have always had a love for playing tiptoe on the edge, but have yet to fall off. That is why rock climbing pulled me in immediately. Climbing combines strength, focus and mindfulness in an intense sport, and I was hooked. Alone, climbing is pure devotion to the moment, but together, climbing creates one of the greatest communities in the sports world. Climbers crave the wild. To go into the wild and climb the sheer face of a cliff, until you are hundreds of feet off the ground, takes a mentality that is not readily available to the majority of the population. This mentality can be shown through both a new climber’s perspective on the sport, as well as the world-renowned free soloist Alex Honnold.

Within the climbing world, there are many different types of climbing. Chief among them are: sport climbing, bouldering and free soloing. Sport climbing is climbing with a rope and harness, where you place anchors in the rock for your rope as you climb. Bouldering is climbing with climbing shoes and a chalk bag — no rope, but only a few feet off the ground, with a soft “crash pad” below to protect you from injury. Free-solo climbing is like bouldering, with no ropes, but also much higher walls and nothing to stop a fall. Free-solo climbing is so dangerous that of those who climb, only 1% actually attempt it. Alex Honnold is revered as the world’s greatest free solo climber. He has free solo climbed El Sendero Luminosa in Mexico, the face of Half Dome in Yosemite, and most recently El Capitan in Yosemite, commonly known as the most impressive “big wall” yet found on earth, with a height of 7,569 feet. No climber has ever attempted to free solo El Capitan before Alex Honnold, who was the first person to attempt and complete the climb “Freerider.”

National Geographic released “Free Solo,” a movie following Alex Honnold’s climb of El Capitan, on September 28, 2018. “Imagine an Olympic Gold Medal level achievement, and if you don’t get the gold medal, you die,” says professional climber Tommy Caldwell when describing Honnold’s climb. Honnold has an interesting view of his free soloing. He likes to be “controlled and confident” in his movements, and he does not take “unnecessary risks.” To the outside eye, this may seem like a ridiculous statement, but Honnold feels differently. “I feel like anybody could conceivably die on any given day; soloing makes it feel more present,” he explains in the film. Honnold is an anomaly.

According to a brain scan performed in “Free Solo,” Honnold’s fear center of the brain, his amygdala, needs a higher level of stimulation than the average person. This is because pushing the edge of your comfort zone inexplicably stretches it out over time. “I try to expand my comfort zone and work through the fear to the point where it’s not scary anymore,” says Honnold. While fear is present for Honnold, he has a much higher threshold for it than the rest of us, making him capable of these awe-inspiring feats of human determination.

Luckily, you do not need to be a superhuman to climb, just the willingness to intentionally push yourself out of your comfort zone, and allow your body and mind to work together as one. “I am really scared of heights and I thought it was a good way to challenge myself.” says new climber Mica Mcloud, who was drawn to climbing originally because of the community. The climbing community is encouraging and motivational, full of people who are driven by their passion and want to share that passion with others. Climbing is easy to be welcomed into, but make no mistake, it is a tough sport.

Mcloud said she felt “uncomfortable and in pain” after her first time climbing, using muscles that are not engaged nearly as much in other sports. The finger strength that climbing requires is developed over years of devotion to the sport. New climbers will often feel soreness or cramping in their forearms and hands. This is a normal hump to get over. Finger strength alone is one of the most important aspects of progress, but it is also the part that is most liable for injury. Mcloud uses climbing as a way to see progress in strength. “It’s a way to develop muscle that you wouldn’t normally be working with, and I like to see consistent improvement. You will notice gaps in consistency if you don’t go,” says Mcloud.

Climbing has made its way into cities around the United States with climbing gyms popping up all over (including Berkeley, Oakland, El Cerrito, San Francisco and more), and continues to gain popularity as more people experience what climbing has to offer. Berkeley Iron Works offers classes to get new climbers started with sport climbing or bouldering, as well as classes for experienced climbers to improve technique. Iron Works has a relaxed vibe, and new climbers are always welcome. Walk in and ask someone at the front desk to help you get acquainted with what they have to offer. Bridges Rock Gym is a bouldering specific gym in Berkeley that also offers classes for new climbers. Shoe rentals are cheap and easy, and the staff and climbers are always welcoming. If you are thinking about joining a climbing gym but despair at the thought of leaving your old gym, don’t worry, climbing gyms have a full gym set up as well.

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