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"A delicate mix of chess... and bear wrestling"

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Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself needing to break down “why” of sport climbing (I’ll refer to sport as “lead” climbing from here on out. Sorry, trad climbers). If someone is enjoying top roping, (or bouldering) why should they take on the work of learning to lead climb, lead belay, and then deal with all the mental baggage that accompanies said switch.

Could you come up with more than ten reasons for someone to do start leading?

Here’s my list: more

  • Increase the challenge of climbing

  • Climb overhanging lines

  • Improve your overall abilities (resting, pacing, “flow”)

  • Your friends lead climb, and you want to be like them.

  • You want to be a better climber, and good climbers seem to all lead climb

  • You don’t want to have to walk to the top of the cliff again to set up a TR!

  • You want to avoid feeling like you’re “holding back” friends that lead climb.

  • You think (for some reason) that big falls look exciting (and intimidating)

  • Every picture/video of any top climber (if they’re using a rope) shows leading. Alex Honnold doesn’t count.

Then, what may be the most compelling reason:

  • Leading is a logical and necessary next step to improving your climbing.

Honestly, I’m still struggling to build a case for leading. I’ll just leave it at this - a segment of the general population climbs rocks (it’s hard to say why). A segment of that population of climbers lead. They (you) don’t need any convincing, they just do.

Isn’t this line of reasoning similar to why we climb anyway? Explaining rock climbing to a non-climber is not as easy as you might think.

The academic “I enjoy the mental and physical challenges associated with this sport” both 1) applies to almost anything (golf, beach combing, unicycling) and 2) doesn’t quite explain why you’ll drive 12 hours to scare the living snot out of yourself just to get to the top of a piece of rock via one method rather than another.

Why do we rock climb and not hike, or run, or ride a bike? Why do we spend the money and time and blood, sweat, and tears, on this pursuit?

These are compelling reasons to me:

  • We have pretty poor hand-eye coordination, and rock moves slow enough for most of us to catch it (Applies to just me? ok, then.)

  • Some of us are too short/small for football and basketball.

  • We usually enjoy the thrill of difficult moves high in the air

  • Climbers like being able to be delicate and graceful, without having to get into ballet or dance (but there is plenty of overlap between those activities and climbing)

  • We enjoy the overlap between thinking hard and trying hard. (A friend calls climbing “a delicate mix of chess… and bear wrestling”)

  • We get to see things that we wouldn’t otherwise see, and from perspectives we wouldn’t otherwise get.

  • It’s  extremely motivating to see a return on investment of all the work and time spent climbing

  • The community (as a whole) is encouraging, warm, and friendly.

  • Our small group of climbing friends shares a bond we wouldn’t otherwise have.

  • Be it an “easy” top rope or surviving a multi-pitch epic in freezing rain - climbing brings us together in a way that our day-to-day would  never do. Similar to how boot camp builds bonds in soldiers, suffering together, working together, encouraging each other, and keeping each other alive (you do that when you belay - did you know that?) builds bonds.

  • Participating in a sport where you would die if you made a serious mistake sort of makes you feel alive. (Nor sure what this says more about: climbing, or the people who identify with this as a reason for climbing.)

  • Climbing is “easy” in terms of participation. The gear takes up minimal space (all my climbing gear fits in a single medium-sized plastic bin) and is easy to transport. (Kayaks, anyone?) Anyone can put up a hangboard and have an effective training tool. “Practicing” skiing away from a mountain, in the off season, seems a bit harder.

  • Climbing gyms. Lets be honest - as much as our community “discusses” proper gym-climbing ethics, grades, what people should/should not wear in the gym, setting, reachy and dynamic and “unfair” moves, sexism, tape vs. colored routes, and all that other stuff - we all care so much because we love our local climbing gym. The people there represent so much to us. I would not be a happy camper if I lost that community.

  • We love being able to get stronger, more technically proficient, or more mentally “strong”, and all of those can improve our climbing.

  • We love being able to all participate in the same event, even if we climb at different levels. If I go for a run with my much stronger running friend, he’ll leave me in the dust well before he finishes his 40 mile run. (Not kidding about the distance.) When we climb, no matter how big or small a difference in our climbing abilities, we can each find good routes.

Phew. That’s a lot of reasons, but I  still think this is missing the point.

I turned to Google to solve this existential question. Here’s the best I could find.

Question: Why climb?


  • Because it’s there

  • Because I can

  • Because it’s good for me

  • Because it is “real” (raw, primal, etc.)

  • For the mental challenges

  • For the sense of accomplishment

  • To get exhausted

  • Because I must

The above answers apply to many sports. Not just climbing. So, I’ll close with this quote from George Mallory:

If you have to ask the reason why…you won’t understand the answer.

There you have it - a completely non-conclusive reason for lead climbing, and climbing in general.

Why do you climb?