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 work environment, plus spend my weekends paddling, climbing or mountaineering. During lockdown, climbing walls were only open 4 of 15 months, and the city-wide lockdown of Glasgow meant I could only leave the city for 5 of those months to get into the back country. But as soon as walls opened up again – I was climbing. It has been the one sport which has never failed me to help stay grounded, fully present and help me manage my stress, maintain my resilience and keep my sense of humour in the face of adversity. More than 25 years after I started, I still climb anytime I feel shaky, emotionally – It’s the natural way I’ve learned to maintain my own internal balance.
Urban Uprising helps the physical, social and emotional wellbeing of young people and after such a rough period for us all this is needed now more than ever. Please consider donating here to help more young people receive the benefits of climbing and community.
Lisa Pasquale - Glasgow volunteer on 'Fallen Slab Arête', South Blacknor Undercliff.