In this personal essay, Nicole Gross (pictured) explains how, after more than a year of turmoil that left her in poor physical and mental health, she found spiritual refuge in climbing. Photo by Nathan Young.
There are countless explanations as to why people are willing to hang from the tips of their fingers, crush their toes in tight fitting shoes, take +20-foot falls while pushing their physical limits to make that next clip, and hike numerous miles off trail and through harsh wilderness to find the perfect crag. For some, it simply provides a unique approach to a full-body workout. For others, it holds a much deeper, spiritual meaning.
I’ve been climbing three to five days a week for the last 15 months. Out of that, I’ve probably only missed about 2-3 weeks of climb time total. So why do I climb? The best way I can answer that question is to first explain how I started climbing.
My early twenties have been defined by a common theme: struggle. I have struggled, fought, bleed, cried, and died. I worked unethically long hours at a job I hated that barely paid me enough to keep a loaf of bread and expired orange juice in my fridge. At 22, I was looking at ulcers forming in my stomach, a number of eating disorders, insomnia, chronic depression mixed with high levels of anxiety, and full-blown alcohol dependency. My body ached constantly. I don’t think there was a night I laid in bed without my back throbbing for the first 15 minutes. I became a master at avoiding pictures and mirrors, and like a plant that is never watered, all my passions and ambitions began to wither into decay.
At the very start of 2016, from January through the tail end of February I had about five days off total, and worked an average of 12- to 15-hour shifts. The physical pain was nothing short of agonizing – but the toll on my mental health was without a doubt the greatest.
But as bleak as everything seemed, March rolled in with a whirlwind of unexpected changes. My work life finally found stability, and despite how grueling those long and arduous shifts were, they provided the financial support that was so greatly lacking in my life. After the proverbial dust had settled, three things happened within me that I never imagined would.
First, I became a vegetarian COMPLETELY out of the blue. I cannot forget sitting in the cafeteria at work and taking a bite of some baked chicken, and within seconds struggling to maintain my composure as I hurried to the nearest trashcan to spit it out. At first I thought it was just a piece of bad chicken, so I went back got another piece. Nope! I simply couldn’t stomach it. So as weird as I found this, I was oddly at peace with it. When it came time to try some beef, I was met with the same reaction. Even the alluring sizzle and melodious crackling of freshly cooked bacon no longer held sway over my tongue. I could not physically stomach meat in any form. This revelation was incredibly profound for me because it meant that for the first time in my life I was listening to what my body needed, instead of forcing what I thought I wanted.
Second, I stopped drinking. My body’s rejection towards meat transitioned to my alcohol consumption. There was a saying between a friend and I that we called the “Nico Special”, which translates to drinking an entire six-pack of Stella in about an hour and a half, then slamming a few more before reaching what I found to be an acceptable amount of numbness. One day after I got home from work, I made my usual migration to the fridge, popped open a cold beer, and couldn’t even get three sips in before I was pouring it down the sink. There was no craving for it whatsoever, yet once again I found myself completely at peace with the reality of the situation. I didn’t want to be numb. I wanted to FEEL for the first time in years – and feel everything!
Third, I apologized. I sat on my living room floor and I told myself, “I am so, so sorry I’ve left you alone when you needed me most. I am so sorry I didn’t feed you when you were hungry, or take you to bed when you were so exhausted. I’m sorry for all the things I said to you when you were trying not to cry, or how good I became at making you believe that gravity was the only thing holding on to you. I am so sorry I hurt you. I love you, and I’m so sorry.”
Soon after this, the stars of climbing aligned for me. I had a couple of good friends that climbed regularly, so I figured that, with my new burst of energy and desire to start taking care of myself, I might as well give climbing an honest attempt. I couldn’t afford gear, so I showed up to my friends’ place and told them that I was going to bite the bullet and just use rental gear until I figured out how to get the equipment I required.
“Hold on a second,” my friend said as he rushed to the stairs. It turned out that a mutual friend of ours had expressed an interest in climbing serval years back. He went ahead and got a pair of climbing shoes (Miuras VS), a harness, an ATC, and a chalk bag that went unused after he abandoned his climbing ambitions. I sat down on the stairs to try the shoes – and they slid right on! I was having a real-life Cinderella moment! My rubber “glass slipper” fit perfectly, and at last I was permitted to enter my kingdom with all the tools I needed.
Since that day in March 2016, I have been climbing 3-5 days a week, and these days I usually climb outdoors at least once a week; I’m a part of an all-women’s bouldering group that has weekly climb sessions; I keep to a healthy diet to support the amount of physical activity my body goes through; and I do still enjoy myself a nice cold beer after a long and fun day at the crag.
When I climb, I don’t think about my problems, what I have to do at work, or what’s happening in my personal life. I’m not bombarded by thoughts or desires. Whether they be important or superficial, they can’t find me on the walls or boulders. The only thing I have to concern myself with is where my hand needs to go next. How the position of my body effects the strength in my arms and hopefully have enough endurance to keep pushing on the project despite the shaking in my legs.
When you’re climbing, you’re not focusing on the top; you’re putting the puzzle together. When it finally happens – when you get a clean send on a route you couldn’t even start two months ago – the first thought when your feet touch the ground isn’t, “I finally made it to the top! The top is everything I wished for!” No, usually that’s not the case at all. As soon as your project is completed its, “What’s next?”
I think that’s what I love about climbing the most. There is no desire to stay at the top of your accomplishments, but to use it as a means to accomplish something even greater than you thought was ever possible.
So, why do I climb? I climb because it centers the very core of my being. Because it gives my life and spirit a purpose – a constant goal to work towards that never bores me. Because at the top of each summit I reach, I find a new part of myself that could only have been discovered by surrendering to the unknown and allowing myself to fully trust my skills and the experience ahead. I’ve found a cocoon of love in the climbing community that really feels like home, and through that I have gained a family of vagabonds, adventures, misfits, philosophers, and dreamers who constantly encourage me to push my abilities and passions further that I thought possible. Why wouldn’t I climb?