How Rock Climbing Changed My Life

How Rock Climbing Changed My Life

Rock climbing changed my life. Crazy to think that; crazy to say that — that this niche pursuit gave me so much. Made me a better person, but it’s the truth. Rock climbing literally changed my life.

It made me better physically. It made me better mentally. It made me a better person to be around. It helped me understand challenge. Helped me develop the ability to overcome challenges in every aspect of my life. It helped me learn patience. It helped me learn discipline.

Roughly five years ago I walked into a local climbing gym. I walked into that gym a strange puddle of a person – wrong priorities, stress for all the wrong reasons. Unfit, unhappy in a lot of ways. I walked in probably 12 kgs overweight.

I was 29 years old. Technically the prime of my life but like many I was in the process of letting go. A common story. As a teenager I was a good athlete. I played in most of my high school sports teams. I played soccer, I played basketball, was a talented runner. I won prizes, won awards. I was effortlessly lean. Again: a familiar story, I ate what I wanted, I drank what I wanted.

Then 14 years later I saw a photograph taken at an unfortunate angle and couldn’t even recognise myself. That… was… me?

Bloated. Round in the jowls, love handles pouring over my swimming shorts. That wasn’t the person I thought I saw when I looked in the mirror. But an unavoidable conclusion: yes, that was me. I had allowed myself to become that way. And I had done it almost by accident. Without noticing.

But that wasn’t why I wandered into the climbing gym. I wandered in because I always had the idea that I might try climbing. That I might enjoy it. Despite my physical deterioration I still bore the remnants of that my youthful arrogance when I could do absolutely anything and do it easily. When I could run, jump, swim and win. I could do all those things. Of course I could climb.

I couldn’t climb. Not well, at least. I had to carry every single kilogram I had added to my frame up that wall. My forearms were on fire. An hour and a half of climbing later and I had to literally use both hands to open my car door. The lactic acid was leaking out of my fingertips. My tendons had nothing left to give.

But I had loved it.

Such a strange feeling. For the first time in my life I had thoroughly enjoyed doing something I was terrible at. That never happened to me. Ever. Usually enjoyment for me came from the act of winning, of being naturally good at something. Until that point I had never enjoyed something I was terrible at.

That was a powerful moment for me.

So I kept coming back. I climbed once a week, then twice a week. Soon I was finding the time to climb three days a week and I became obsessed. Like most climbers in the beginning, I improved quickly. It was incredibly rewarding – the progress of it. You’d find yourself breezing up routes that previously felt impossible and the sheer empowerment of that felt amazing.

It was that cliché – nothing is impossible – made real in the flesh.

Then a plateau. The most natural thing in the world for people who enjoy climbing. Progress comes quickly at first, then halts. Or at the very least slows dramatically. From that point forward spurts in grades and climbing ability come from training: you train your technique and you train your physical body to climb harder, to climb stronger.

I fell into a mindset I barely recognized in myself. A real need to improve. I’d never really felt that before. As a teenager I had always won relatively easily. But this time I sucked. I sucked bad — physically and technically – and that wouldn’t stand.

Anyone who knows me knows how much I hate to lose. But this time, with climbing, the competition was purely internal. I wasn’t competing with the person next to me, I was competing with gravity. I was competing with myself. Plain and simple. And I couldn’t afford to lose.

First port of call: change everything. Change my diet, change my attitude towards food, my attitude towards exercise. Everything.

I stopped eating chocolate. I stopped drinking soft drinks. I stopped eating pizza. I watched my portions, I took it easy on bread, pasta, rice.

Slowly I worked hard to replace every single bad habit I had with something positive. I used to drink seven cans of Pepsi Max a day. Now I drink three litres of water, religiously. I used to munch on chocolate and snack on chips. I reined that in and tried my level best to eat planned meals at allotted times that would keep me lean but satisfied.

Kind of strange how one competitive urge started to drive all these positive changes in my life. When I started learning to climb I was 80kg, now I weigh anything between 65 and 68.

(I also now worry and think too much about my weight, but that’s another story.)

I trained. A lot. I read about training, I learned about training, and I tried to apply what I learned to my own regime in an attempt to make myself stronger. I built my muscles, I pushed my tendons to their limits, tried to avoid injury.

How Rock Climbing Changed My Life

And this process continues. Most of this story occurs in the past tense but this is a process that continues to this day. I’m 34 years old and I’m in the best shape of my life.

I’m also the happiest I’ve ever been. Rock climbing has changed my life, every facet of it.

It’s such a strange hobby. It’s physical. Powerfully physical. Difficult routes demand everything of your core, tendons and your ability to mentally focus on one, arguably pointless goal. There is no monetary reward, only a sublime, temporary feeling of achievement, then on to the next… on to the next. Your goals are your own. They are singularly yours. They do not belong to anyone else; they aren’t comparable. You are hauling your own physical body up a pre-determined route. Only you are responsible for the success or failure of this endeavor.

But the ultimate reward: the raw meditative focus that comes from climbing at your absolute limit. The slow filtering of every day stresses and concerns as you direct all your mental energy towards one single goal. It’s a brutal, forced state of physical zen and, for me, it’s absolutely irreplaceable.

And the closer I get to that limit, the better I become. That’s the beautiful thing about climbing – the ability to find your own limits and push past them.


  • This is incredibly true. Climbing for me is a lifestyle, and a journey, and a love affair. Climbing 5 daily was ever the happy occasion – I was bettering myself and I could see where I was going. Like for you, it bettered every facet of my life.

    I am now only 28, however my climbing journey appears to have been set back by the onset of an autoimmune arthritis. Over the course of a year or so I have gone from bouldering V5 and climbing grade 23 to being nearly incapable of climbing (or opening bottles, or using power tools) most weeks.

    Never stop cherishing your climbing. Value your zen. Value your body. I’ll keep reading your stories and those of the others who inspire me, and I’ll look forward to the day I can get back to it.

  • Hey Mark, loved your article.

    I’m much in the same boat with the weight thing, but I’m slowly taking steps to rectify that. I’ve got friends that regularly climb as well, and are constantly praising the benefits of climbing not.

    However, I’ve joined in once before and it didn’t go well, because as it turns out, I’m afraid of heights, or falling – I’m not all too sure. Did you have any issues with that? Any strategies I could use?

    Cheers and Merry Xmas!

    • Hey mate, honestly the best solution to this is to practice falling! Fall from a height you’re comfortable and work your way up.

      On some level almost every climber is afraid of falling , even just a little, and it affects performance. So it’s bizarrely useful to practice falling!

      I mostly boulder, which is climbing without ropes, falling onto pads, but if you’re climbing on ropes it’s especially important to get used to falling on the rope, to make yourself comfortable climbing on the ropes. The more you do it the easier it is!

    • I spent a decade freeclimbing tall structures for a living (and training people to do so).
      I found that fear of heights is often relative to the amount of exposure you’ve had at that height.

      So, if it’s not a crippling fear, I suggest you try putting yourself in SAFE situations at height.
      Stand a while on overbridges, at windows in high-rise buildings, beside cliffs, on roofs.
      My experience is that most people will simply find that their brain stops getting shocked by the height.

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