How climbing taught me about trust

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At the beginning of August, I have been to my first ever festival: the Women’s Trad Festival. Trad stands for Traditional, a style of outdoor climbing that requires the placement of gears to ensure safe climbing. The festival was thought of with inclusivity in mind.

Despite my excitement for getting the ticket at a ballot (yeah, I got lucky!), I was hesitant: the pandemic impacted my fitness level and motivation and how comfortable I would be around others (mostly big groups). After months of isolation and connecting to people mainly online, this felt like a big step. And oh my, if I got rewarded for taking it.

As an occupational hazard, I couldn’t but think of all the teaching and learning I absorbed during this long weekend in the outdoors. The overall theme for me was about connection. Connecting to my body, the people around me and the land was facilitated by fostering an environment where trust, respect and safety would thrive. 

Trusting yourself

In 2019, I went to a talk by Hazel Findlay, a renowned British trad climber. Something she said particularly struck me: since a young age (as young as 11), she was trusted to and made responsible for decisions around her climbing. This learning served her in life to launch her career first nationally then internationally as a professional climber.

Something that night clicked for me: each one of us has the innate ability to know what is best for us, which is a fact. Incidentally, different systems of oppression affected our ability to listen to that voice fully. And if you went through trauma, your body may feel like an empty shell with nothing to trust or connect.

The belief we shouldn’t listen to ourselves goes something like –

   you are not 

          old

          knowledgeable 

          wise

          careful enough

Enough for what? You may ask. Enough to take the right decision, a decision that would be best for you. We are brought up to believe that somebody else (anyone else) knows best. We are brought up to believe that we shouldn’t trust our guts. Therefore, trust becomes a shaking and unreachable concept to grasp.

In climbing, that showed up as a voice that was making me question whether my feet and hands would be strong enough to keep me close to the wall. Or by reminding me those past sport-related injuries were a sign of my body being too weak for movement. In all these cases, the truth was somewhat different: I injured my body because I didn’t listen to my body in the first place. And how would I? Everything around me told me there was no point to trust my body and that I had to rely on others to know.

As a climber, I am continuously re-learning to fine-tune my body. Those hands and feet would keep me close to the wall if I trusted them. Fear would take less space if I did trust my body more.

Trusting others

A few years back, one of the first things I learnt about climbing was to trust that my partner would catch me if I fell. That meant one thing: I had to believe that my climbing partner cared about my life as much as theirs and that they had my best interests at heart. 

On a rational level, this sounded quite logical. Emotionally, it was a different ball game altogether. Asking to trust someone blindly felt dangerous, especially if most of our traumas are relational. 

Climbing taught me that it is possible to learn how to trust others safely. Here is how. 

Direct communication

One of the things I love about climbing is straightforward conversations. For example, if you feel like the rope has too much slack or is too tight, or more, your partner didn’t secure the equipment to safety standards, there is no room for half conversations. And this is something that everyone knows: to make it safe for both of you, you need to speak up. It is so much part of the culture of the climbing community that it eventually becomes easy to share.

These experiences gave me the confidence to be more outspoken in my everyday life, knowing that my words would come from a place of safety within me. 

It’s all about learning

No one first accesses the climbing wall and becomes a professional climber on that very first day. Learning is part of the process which involves staying open to other people’s suggestions, comments and observations. Ultimately, we all want other climbers to succeed and improve and have fun because that influences how we respond to the environment and difficult scenarios as they arise. Staying open to this process allows us to lower some barriers and encourage trust. 

Knowledge 

Climbing offers plenty of opportunities to get to know your climbing partners. You will eventually end up befriending the people in your climbing community through a communal passion, the one for climbing. This process will help grow a mutual sense of trust that will translate well both on the wall and in your life.

Respect and safety

Without respect and safety, trust can only last so long before giving space to the feeling of disconnection from everything and everyone around us. 

As an outdoor therapist and human being, I cherish the relationship I have with nature. Over the years, I learned to respect it as much as I value other living beings. As an outdoor enthusiast, I’ve discovered how the relationship with the world around us can foster a sense of connection that feels mutual and enriching. 

At the climbing festival, I learned that rocks could be delicate too. I learned how important it is to ensure that the environment I climb in can absorb my footprint. I learned that this varies and I shouldn’t take it for granted. 

Climbing taught me the importance of nurturing my environment: if I respect it, it will be there for me to go back. 

Conclusion

We may not have experienced an upbringing that puts trust at the centre, but trust is something we can work towards if we have the right tools and support system around us. Trusting your climbing partner and community takes time. And this is true in all the other areas of our life. 

Befriending the trust in our abilities can help us to move forward from that place of stuckness that makes us feel disconnected. At times, this journey can show as small steps. Other days, we may feel like we are going nowhere, our world is shrinking on us and the hope that things would change are in the far distance. 

Joining a club or a sport can be beneficial, but it may not be necessarily true for everyone all the time. It’s important to find what feels comfortable for you enough to give it a go. And who knows, one day you may even climb walls you one thought were out of reach.

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