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The Science and Zen of Rock Climbing

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

woman sitting on rock cliff
Find your peace - find yourself

About 300 years ago one of the first mountaineers said that being on top of a mountain brought him "closer to God"

There is something about high elevations in nature that resonate with the human spirit...causes us to look inward and become more at one with our surroundings. Science and Zen. Two apparently distinct and opposite disciplines with seemingly distinct and different empirical and the other ethereal. Within the context of rock climbing, the science here refers to the physiology of movement, i.e. control, focus on specific movements like in Martial Arts. The Zen refers to the climber's state of mind. Alex Honnold, the only person in the world who has free soloed El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, said when you are a thousand feet off the ground without a harness it is a completely different universe than when you have a rope. Your mind must be completely in sync with your body. Every move you execute must be something you know will work because if it doesn't, you fall.

A good rock climber or free soloist equally trains body and mind. Picture yourself on the rock face, 3oo feet off the ground, no rope, no Belayer to catch you if you slip or make a bad maneuver. Your next move is a difficult one, but one you have done many times with a rope and harness. You focus upon your next move, see yourself executing it flawlessly, then at the moment you make your move, a huge spider crawls out of a crack in the rock and onto your hand, or a bat comes screeching out of a crack in the wall. For the untrained or inexperienced climber, this could mean a fatal fall. It takes a very relaxed and focused mindset to experience that and not completely lose it.

It is the ability to control fear and panic that will save you. Most athletes (especially professional athletes) know that relaxation is key to high performance. There are all sorts of bad things produced in the body by fear and stress; lactic acid, elevated heartbeat, excess perspiration, not to mention negative thought patterns, skewed perspective, exaggerated imagined outcomes. "No matter what, when you're that high in the air, your body is going to send those signals," says Sara Buxton of the Chicago Center of Behavioral Medicine. The best rock climbers know that they must accept that their body is going to react to dangerous situations. But they also know that emotions like fear begin in the mind, and thus can be mastered with enough practice. Three-time Bouldering National Champion Angie Payne knows this all too well. "You can't just turn off your brain, it takes preparation and work outside of the moment to be ready for it"

According to the latest science, sitting for just 20 minutes a day can drastically benefit our lives. Meditation reduces stress levels, lowers blood pressure, increases our ability to manage pain, helps us overcome depression and anxiety - all conditions that can be easily induced by a dangerous rock climb. Kristie, a rock climber and writer at the website Flowing Spirit Journeys, says,

"Climbing can be one of the greatest practices to experience the clarity of meditation. It can be a place where one lives in a powerful state of presence, thoughtlessness, and focus. When a person is hundreds of feet up in the air, gripping the rock, unsure where to go or what comes next…. thinking about anything but that moment is simply not an option. Emotions or fear may attempt to creep through, but the awareness watches learns, and allows it pass with the next move, the next breath, ascending a little bit higher on the rock, and within oneself."

Understand your fear.

Fear and stress are signals from your brain that tell your body that you are doing something that involves risk of harm. Guess what? Climbing up a vertical rock 300 feet off the ground is absolutely risky! So the fear you experience is natural. How you mentally process that feeling is what counts.... and what will get you to the summit or not.


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