By Catherine Wearing
I first started climbing (indoors) in 2009. I’d wanted to try rock climbing for ages but I didn’t know anyone who did it and (in the days before meetup and the proliferation of climbing gyms) it wasn’t obvious how to get into it otherwise. When I happened to meet someone who was climbing in the gym, I went along with them and fell in love with climbing. As someone who tends to get interested in something for a while, only to gradually lose enthusiasm and eventually turn to something else, I have been surprised by the ongoing passion that I feel for climbing. Almost a decade and still going strong. I fantasize about being a climbing ‘dirtbag’.
So that’s some relevant background. What I want to focus on is what could perhaps be called a ‘side effect’ of my passion for climbing, namely, injuries. Because I climb as often and as hard as I can, I tax my body – and especially my upper body – pretty severely. As a result, I’ve had a whole slew of minor soft tissue injuries over the past decade: both wrists, both shoulders, several fingers, and most recently, my right elbow. None of these injuries have required surgery and some have healed with rest alone. But most have required doctors’ visits, several months of physical therapy, and in some cases, X-rays or scans of various kinds to pin down what exactly is wrong.
In reflecting on this history, I’ve been led to wonder about two things in particular:
First, the threat of injury doesn’t act as much of a deterrent for me. I hate taking time off climbing to rest an injury, but I seem to end up doing it at least once every other year (and sometimes more often). Rationally, it is obvious that my body simply cannot climb as hard as I would like it to and so it should also be obvious to me that I should scale back my climbing ambitions to better suit what I can do. But I have incredible trouble doing this. When I am injured, that forces me to scale back (or stop), but when I am healthy, I only want to try to push myself a bit harder than before. For me, a significant draw of climbing lies in tackling problems that I’m not sure I’m capable of doing. I have learned to be better about building up my strength gradually and pacing myself (especially in the gym) to avoid overdoing it. But my ongoing string of injuries suggests that I haven’t mastered this self-control (if that’s what it is) yet.
The second thing I find myself thinking a lot about is that I consume a lot more medical resources than I did before I started climbing. On the whole, I have been fortunate not to need much medical care beyond routine preventative check-ups and tests. The various climbing injuries which send me to the doctor and the physiotherapist are essentially ‘self-inflicted’. That is, they’re not the results of accidents, but of overdoing it, of not exercising self-control in how hard I push myself. Given how overtaxed our medical resources are, I’m not sure this behaviour is justified. I suppose I could argue that climbing keeps me happy and healthy in ways that go beyond my ligaments and tendons, which might in turn help me avoid other kinds of medical care. But who knows whether that’s true? Perhaps I’d be almost as healthy if I stuck to the forms of exercise that I enjoy but am not as passionate about.
I’m trying to learn from experience, to push myself less hard and to draw as much enjoyment as I can from simply being outside on the rock, even when I’m climbing something easy. And I think my rate of injury is gradually slowing. But as I continue to age, I expect the physical demands of climbing, even at the easier grades, to increase. It fills me with delight to see climbing friends still going strong in their 60s and 70s. So I’m hopeful that if I can find a better balance, I’ll be able to keep climbing for a long time. But in the meantime, I wish I could do a better job finding the mid-point between the challenge which brings me such joy and a level of physical demand which my body can sustain.
Catherine Wearing is a philosopher, feminist, and rock climber. Also a runner, tea drinker, and mystery novel reader.