Rock Climbing Is The Most Wholesome Pyramid Scheme

Climbing sucked me in with its culture of aggressive friendliness and addictive progress. I hope I never leave.

two hands about to touch on a rock climbing wall

This past summer, while I was top-roping with a friend at the climbing gym, I tweaked my left shoulder. It felt fine on the wall, but as soon as I was on the ground, I could tell I’d pulled some tiny muscle in a nasty way. When it was still bothering me after a couple weeks of denial and ibuprofen, I decided to be responsible, stay home, and give the injury time to heal. And then, at the advanced age of 35, I began to experience a profoundly foreign feeling: I wanted — no, longed — to go to the gym. When, I wondered, would I be able to go to the gym again? And, maybe most importantly, was everyone hanging out at the gym without me?

This was historically without precedent. Unless you count a few summers of middle school tennis lessons, I’ve never played a sport or considered myself an athlete. The gym, for me, was inextricably linked with the ritualized humiliations of the Presidential Fitness Test and the mind-numbing hours I spent counting calories on elliptical machines in college. But since I started climbing, around a year ago, it’s become something completely different: a place to get a workout, yes, but also a playground where my burnt-out brain can build fresh synapses; a classroom to develop skills I never knew I had; a social hub where I’ve made new friends and built new relationships with old ones. I don’t just do it for the health benefits, although my newly swole arms are a gratifying side effect; I actually find it fun.

Among possible hobbies to adopt when you’re an urban 30-something searching for meaning and muscle tone, rock climbing is not a particularly original choice. The trend has been picking up steam for years, especially since the sport made its Olympic debut in 2020. It seems like everyone has a bouldering photo on their dating profile or a carabiner holding their keys together. I’m at peace with that. In fact, part of what made climbing feel accessible when I started was knowing that I was just one among countless other fully grown adults who had no idea what they were doing. Though my own initial interest had more to do with impressing a particular climbing-obsessed cutie than any sense of how much I might enjoy the activity on its own merits. The cutie, sad to say, proved too elusive to get anything regular going with. The climbing stuck.

Knowing that a partner holding the rope is there to catch me lets me push past what I already know I can do into what I might be able to do, if I tried. And, if I lose, I haven’t tanked anyone else’s shot at the playoffs.

I discovered the joys of clambering up a wall covered in plastic blobs at what I would call a low ebb in my lifetime levels of ambition. I was enjoying a post-crisis cooldown period after a couple of professionally harrowing pandemic years that had seen me quit two different (meaningful, exhausting) jobs and develop a Pavlovian panic response to receiving email. That spring I had started a fun, flexible gig that left me a lot more time to spend on things that weren’t work, and for the first time in a long time, I had the energy to try new things. I was looking for satisfaction that had nothing to do with a paycheck.

For me, climbing offered the perfect cocktail of motivating factors. What at first looked like gibberish on the gym walls resolved into numeric difficulty ratings, which let me measure a pleasingly fast learning curve as I progressed from the friendly ladder of a V0 boulder to the finger-shredding crimp holds of a V4. If I lost patience trying to crack a tough overhang sequence, session after session, I could rack up a win in the meantime on a finesse-forward slab route I knew was within my comfort zone. And maybe most crucially, climbing not only forgives but requires a lot of failure along the way to any meaningful success; if you’re not falling, you’re not learning. As someone who has always lived in mortal fear of getting less than an A+, this is as much therapy as it is exercise.

Climbing is also a nice combination of individual and collaborative effort, which has been healing for my lifelong Little Red Hen complex. Bouldering (climbing shorter routes without ropes) can be a solo activity, but the only real way to get better is to watch other people and try their moves, or have them watch you and give advice (“beta,” if you’re nasty). And with anything involving a harness and belaying, the metaphor becomes literal: Knowing that a partner holding the rope is there to catch me lets me push past what I already know I can do into what I might be able to do, if I tried. Still, at the end of the day, it’s me against the wall. If I lose, I haven’t tanked anyone else’s shot at the playoffs.

Friends are a key ingredient in climbing, both for practical reasons and moral support. The good news is that if you don’t already have them, they will be easy to find. Climbing culture, at least at the casual amateur level, is aggressively friendly and built on a tradition of people eager to share their freakish enthusiasm and highly specific practical knowledge with anyone who wants to listen. When I was first starting out, I casually mentioned my interest to my cousin, and her crew of friends warmly welcomed me into their weekly gym routine, offering guest passes and cheering me on. I’ve met lovely people through classes; multiple friends and Instagram-level acquaintances have revealed themselves as undercover climbers; after a recent first date with someone who didn’t seem like a soulmate, we painlessly pivoted to bouldering buddies instead. No rom-com-style meet-cutes at the gym yet, but I’m holding out hope.

Of course, there are barriers to entry. This isn’t something you can do for free at home, and it takes a fair amount of gear (especially if you want to climb outside, on actual rocks, which I’ve only dipped a toe into and would love to do more). But my experience has been that climbing is a kind of wholesome MLM of a sport — eager to suck people in and reluctant to spit them out.

I once briefly, for about six months at the end of college, got into running. Even when I started to feel the high that other people talked about it still seemed fundamentally punishing, and after I got derailed from my usual rhythm by the chaos of graduating, I found it impossible to get back into the habit. This summer, yearning to be back on the wall after weeks of turning down climbing dates and willing my shoulder to get its act together, it was hard to believe how different the feeling was. I missed the triumph of figuring out a brain-teaser bouldering problem, and the adrenaline of taking a fall on a lead route, and the sweet dogs people bring to the gym, and the pleasantly boring chitchat over beers after a session. I kept squeezing my forearms and hoping they wouldn’t waste away before I could get back in the game. Now, cleared for takeoff by my physical therapist and a few climbing sessions into my comeback, I’m relieved to find that I’m not starting from zero. But if I had to, I would.