I clung to the rock face, tears streaming down my face. ‘’I’m scared!” I called out to my husband, Jay, who was supporting the rope at the bottom on the cliff. My mind flooded with negative thoughts. I’m too old for this! I’m not strong enough! I’m scared. I can’t do it.
“It’s okay. I got you tight!” Jay called back. “Just take a break. Sit back for a minute, rest on the rope. You’re safe. You got this!”
His words helped calm me. I trusted my belayer (the person who holds the rope and gear that keeps you from falling) and knew we had been through all the necessary safety checks. The fear coursing through me was purely psychological.
I took a deep breath, and though my heart was beating fast, I let go of my death grip on the rock and rested back into my harness, dropping about two inches.
The truth was, I was doing it. I was in my mid-50s, terribly afraid of heights, unfit with no real arm strength, but here anyway: climbing a 55-foot-tall rock wall on top rope (fixed lines secured to an anchor above my head). Who would’ve thought?
I took a deep breath and looked up at the rock face. The negative, fearful thoughts faded into the background. Instead, I felt an excitement, a feeling of potential. I can make one more handhold.
I called down to Jay, “Okay, I’m climbing.”
“Got you,” he called back.
Five minutes later, I reached the top. I did it!
I felt undeniably proud of myself, empowered, and full of potential. I couldn’t wait to go again.
How I Became a Rock Climber at 55
And so it began, a new chapter in life that brought me to some of the most beautiful places I’d ever been, though they were all in my west coast backyard: Yosemite, California; Red Rock Canyon, Nevada; City of Rocks, Idaho; Ten Sleep, Wyoming; Bishop, California; Squamish, British Columbia; Lake Tahoe, California; Maple Canyon, Utah. In this chapter, I grew strong and fit. I exceeded all my expectations of what I might be capable of. Less than a year after learning to climb, Jay and I bought and outfitted a Sprinter van and enjoyed incredible rock-climbing adventures both alone and with our kids and their significant others. Plus, we met a whole new group of friends—older, like us—all stoked to get out there on the rock.
When Jay and I started, we were careful, mainly climbing at the gym and always on top rope to gain strength and agility. While we had never been a gym-going couple, we were suddenly excited to go to the local rock-climbing gym three times a week. We watched ourselves get stronger and more confident. Everyone at the gym was always friendly and encouraging, no matter at what level we were climbing.
For a long time—many months—I hit a psychological wall on my first climb of the day. I’d get halfway up the wall and freeze, tears streaming. Invariably, I’d call out, “I’m scared!” My belayer (usually my husband, but sometimes one of my kids or friends) would call back, “I got you! It’s okay. No hurry. Take a break.” And I would. By and by, I’d head back up.
The psychological fear was real, but it lessened its hold as I climbed through it repeatedly. I no longer have the same irrational fear; only a healthy one that ensures I climb safely and don’t take unnecessary risks.
I noticed my arms beginning to take shape, gaining muscular definition. Exciting! I began to think of other things I could do to get stronger to help me rock climb better. I had always had a bad back, having wrenched it when I was 16 lifting a U-Haul trailer. I had convinced myself I could not do core exercises because my back would go out. But I desperately wanted more core—imagine another set of muscles that might help me climb! I started a Pilates routine with a good friend (who would also become a climber.) She patiently and gently persisted with me until I began to get a little stronger and develop some abs. I slowly got more robust.
Why Rock Climbing Is Suited for Aging Bodies
Rock climbing seems like a sport for 20-year-old risk-takers, but that’s not true. In many ways, top roping is one of the safer forms of exercise you can do at an older age because it does not put undue force on your joints.
When you fall, it is only a very short distance (inches), so you don’t tend to torque any part of the body. Rock climbing helps you increase your balance by moving your tethered body up small footholds. It enables you to gain agility as you reach upward and sideways for hands and footholds. Rock climbing (at the lower levels) is like climbing a ladder and helps build endurance and strength.
Rock Climbing as a Meditation
As we grow older, we tend to rule out activities without ever trying them, yet pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone helps us grow physically, mentally, and spiritually. We learn to question our long-held assumptions. I can’t climb. It’s not for me. Is that so?
I was at the gym one day when a hush fell over the gym. A young woman and man called, “Nice, Dad! You got this! Keep going.” I turned my attention to see an older gentleman on the wall. He had Parkinson’s disease—the tremor noticeable—yet he was making his way up a 65-foot climbing wall. It was one of the most inspiring things I had ever seen. There were several wet faces in the gym that day.
One of rock climbing’s significant advantages is that it is not boring. It is unlikely you will “zone out” when you rock climb. Some call it embodied concentration meditation. The mind, which might have a psychological fear of falling, is attentive and focused as it puzzles out each move. It’s hard to be distracted while climbing a rock wall!
Rock Climbing as a Community
For the first few years that we climbed, Jay and I mostly climbed together or with our kids. (Our oldest daughter, Jaime, got our family into rock climbing. Less than a year later, our youngest daughter, Sanni, met and is now married to professional climber Alex Honnold.) Whether we climbed on our own or with the kids, we have always appreciated the friendliness of the rock-climbing community, who seemed to see us first as rock climbers and second as older folks.
A couple of years ago, we moved to Red Rock near Las Vegas, Nevada, to live closer to Sanni and Alex and world-class rock climbing. Here, in Las Vegas, we discovered a vibrant and active senior rock-climbing community. Making new friends as we age can be challenging, but these rock-climbing compadres quickly became good friends. Now we regularly socialize and climb together (inside gyms and out on the rock), supporting and encouraging each other through the inherent struggles of older age. No matter what you are doing as you march toward old age, there is a great chance of illness and injury sidelining you for a while. It’s nice to have peers along the way.
Some say I have become a rock-climbing evangelist! I can’t help it. It has significantly impacted my life and made me think everyone should try it. Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to do, as rock climbing has dramatically gained in popularity. Sport climbing recently debuted in the summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, and rock-climbing gyms are popping up all over.
How to Begin Rock Climbing
Curious? Take a chance. Try out this empowering bastion of physical and mental wellbeing, and experience healthy aging at its best!
Below are a few tips for getting started.
Seek out your local climbing gym. Learning to climb is not difficult, but there are necessary safety rules that all rock climbers must understand and adhere to. Your local climbing gym is the perfect place to take a beginning rock-climbing class. You can rent gear to start.
Look for rock climbing meetups. Meetup.com is a great place to meet other climbers and find belay partners. We joined a meetup group called Vegas Hikers (which included a subset of rock climbers, where we first connected with other senior climbers in the area). We taught a friend to climb, but her husband wasn’t interested. She quickly joined a meetup group in her area where she could meet belay partners at the gym.
Join a Facebook group. There are often Facebook groups of climbers for a given geographic climbing area. For instance, where we live there is a group called Vegas Climbers. Facebook climbing groups are a fun way to meet other climbers or get information on an area you want to become more familiar with. There are even groups designed especially for senior climbers. We recently joined a group called Grey Power (50+ climbers), which has nearly 8,000 members from all over the world sharing tips, meeting up, and supporting each other!
Explore ways to heal yourself with time in nature.