How climbing can maintain your internal balance - Lisa Pasquale

I’ve been a climber since I was a teenager. Coming from a background in dance and gymnastics, using my whole body in a way that requires a high level of balance and strength was natural to me. Even though, back then, climbing gyms were training areas for elite outdoor climbers in the off-season. They were unheated warehouses, with a few moveable crash mats, a kettle instead of a cafe, and a few pizza delivery menus next to a phone buried under a stack of old climbing magazines next to some ratty old couches. Nearly no one outside a hard-core climbing community even knew they existed. I really liked their invisibility. Growing up, I needed a lot of time on my own to process various pressures which I frequently found overwhelming but were also largely outside my control to change or escape. So, I disappeared into the training walls, and I climbed.

Climbing became an outlet for me to process my emotions and calm my mind. On days I was feeling emotionally strong and centred, I could flash difficult routes, push grades and tackle really challenging projects. I could brush off falls and slips as just part of the technical and physical development process, without letting it impact my confidence. I could battle a crux move as many times as I could manage until I finally cracked it. I could set my head on not letting the wall beat me.

On days I was feeling more emotionally frail, my physical balance on the wall was noticeably more tenuous. I felt less steady on easier climbs. I felt less motivated to push grades. I was more timid on challenging crux moves. Eventually, I learned to use the days I felt strong to reinforce my confidence, build up my strength, develop my technique and build my connection with other climbers. A naturally shy introvert, the days I felt strong were the ones I was most able to tackle problems in teams (the best environment to push grades, in my opinion). Whereas more frail days, I preferred to climb alone – often just bouldering or traversing to protect my emotional energy from the effort of socialising.

I learned to use climbing to build up my confidence and resilience on more frail days by listening to my body and mind, by setting non-grade challenges for myself to build strength and technique in a way I needed to worry less about confidence knocks that come from falling. On more frail days, I did feet-only slab climbs, rainbow routes, traverses, campus boarding, hang-boarding, or cranked out dozens of easy top-outs as fast as I could to the point of exhaustion. There were days my feet never got more than half a meter off the ground, or never pushed above an F4. But, no matter how stressed I was or how out of balance I felt, I showed up and I climbed. The flexible approach to setting my own goals for a session meant I developed self-awareness of how I felt and what I needed on a given day, and almost always walked away from a session feeling stronger, more confident and like I’d met my goals for the day.

My climbing routines also helped inform how I managed my day-to-day life. If I'd been traversing for weeks because I felt frail and run down, I knew I needed to change something in my normal life, so I could get back to the confident place that allows me to push grades. The emotional balance and self-awareness that comes from climbing has always gone both ways.

The hardest times in my life have been when climbing wasn’t an option. Lockdown, in particular, was extremely difficult. I work in an industry which is 85% men, where bullying can be so relentless, I have to take a zero-tolerance approach to preserve what emotional energy I can. Normally I’d climb 2-3 times a week to manage the stress from my wo