Stress management, on the rocks 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY VINCE SHULEY - climbing the walls Are the beautiful views and exhilarating accomplishments of rock climbing worth the stress?
  • Photo by Vince Shuley
  • climbing the walls Are the beautiful views and exhilarating accomplishments of rock climbing worth the stress?

Over the last few months, I've had two very-athletic skier friends explain to me why they don't enjoy mountain biking. "It's too stressful," was the explanation I received. And I get it, sort of. Thinking you're going to crash on a mountain bike is stressful. Crashing on a mountain bike is stressful and can hurt. Staring at an advanced feature or difficult section of trail from the top is most definitely stressful. The level of stress felt comes down to skill, experience and mindset, and that's different for everyone.

With mountain biking I've learned to embrace the stress somewhat. It still gets in my head, but I know not to stand on top of things too long thinking about whether I'm going to ride it or not. I also know that if I'm not feeling it or don't like the look of it, I can walk away without a bruised ego. Same goes for skiing.

The sport that I struggle the most with stress is rock climbing. One of the purest mountain pursuits, rock climbing asks a lot of you; overcoming one's fear of heights, reliance on rope skills and knots to keep you safe, strength and endurance to make it to the top of the pitch and the technique to conserve that strength for longer and more difficult climbs. When I first entered the sport I was in my late teens, zealous and determined to blitzkrieg my way up the learning curve. I didn't have mountain biking or skiing in my life at the time, so rock climbing was my sole adrenaline outlet.

Coming back to the sport more than 15 years and a shoulder surgery later, I'm glad that I haven't forgotten my technique—and my rope work just needed a quick brush up. But the finger strength and muscle endurance? Gone. And the stress-coping mechanism? Yep, that's definitely gone. So without wanting to spend all my allotted recreational time solely training on rock, I defer and climb easier routes. But as anyone who recreates in the mountains knows, "easy" can be a relative term.

Last weekend, I joined some friends to climb in Cheakamus Canyon. All routes there are lead sport routes, meaning the rock face is bolted and you clip the rope into the protection as you ascend. If you fall, you plunge twice the distance between your waist and the last bolt where you clipped in (this can be stressful). The belayer then has their turn, but gets to climb with a top rope belay, meaning they only fall the distance the rope will stretch under their weight (this is far less stressful). Since our group had agreed to "keep it mellow," I threw my caution to the wind and started off the day with a lead.

I like to think that I can do a decent lead a 5.8/5.9 grade climb "off the couch" without any training or conditioning. I was able to achieve that for my first climb of 2018, but it wasn't without the requisite stress, what's referred to in the climbing community as being "gripped."

"Being gripped is more than just the fear of falling, it also has a physical effect on you," says Eric Dumerac, a 30-year rock climbing veteran and owner of Whistler-based Mountain Skills Academy & Adventures. "When you're in trouble, say when you're running out over a bolt or relying on a piece of protection you placed yourself that you don't entirely trust, it's a slow realization. You have a lot of time to react. You need to build a lot of mental fortitude if you're pushing your own limits with lead climbing."

Precariously balancing in my painful shoes on two slivers of outcrop granite, my left hand was desperately combing the slab in front of me looking for a hold. Just when I thought I had the move figured out, my left leg starts bobbing uncontrollably like it's powering an old-school sewing machine. I looked over my shoulder at the potential fall distance and gritted my teeth, nervously biting at my shirt sleeve. With a deep breath, I grunted and made the move, the new handhold an instant respite. I clipped the Quickdraw sling to the bolt, clipped the rope to the Quickdraw and breathed easier knowing that the crux of the route was behind me. My climbing partner and I alternated on the lead for two more pitches, but not without more stressful, "gripped" situations.

What I remember most clearly from my prime days of rock climbing—before shoulder surgery and mountain bikes got in the way—is that there is no sport more rewarding, none that make you feel more accomplished, that gives you a near-superhuman surge through your veins when you are successful and overcome the big challenges. And that, my friends, is worth the stress.

Vince Shuley likes to de-stress in the outdoors. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider, contact him at or Instagram @whis_vince.


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