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 By: Jens Larssen  | Date: 2009-02-14  | Category: Training    | (5) Comments  
 8a.nu

Climbing Past 40 (Revised for 8a.nu)

By Peter Beal

Thirty years after I started climbing, I have a deep respect for the older climbers who helped me gain a solid foundation in the sport. I realize how difficult it is to make the trade-offs necessary to continue in the sport, especially at a higher level. Married with a full-time job, a mortgage, and a baby daughter, I now know why it’s no big deal that 15 year olds can climb 9a+/5.15. That’s because I see 40-somethings are climbing 8b+/5.14 or even 8B/V13. From my own experience and watching others, I realize that it is possible, given a minimal amount of physical strength, to continue at a very high level indeed. This essay is about my ideas on how to keep climbing seriously at whatever age.

I believe that climbing is primarily a mental pursuit. How else to explain the rapid rise in ability from novice to elite levels by physically immature teenagers? Physical strength is important but not in comparison to mental focus and psychological motivation which is where kids excel and grown-ups can lag behind. As we get older we see that climbing is a game that involves primarily the imagination, a sustained suspension of disbelief. It is ideal for children who can readily immerse themselves totally in an alternative reality. Adults who can sustain that frame of mind are in a good position to excel at this highly contrived, complex, and potentially dangerous game. But like the T-shirt says, “Climbing may be hard but it’s easier than growing up.”

At some point, you have give up on goals that are no longer realistic, such as winning the Nobel Prize or becoming president of the United States, but climbing goals are different. The impossible is just a horizon towards which you move. If you have goals and desires that sit outside the typical modes of acquiescence and resignation, expect resistance and misunderstanding from those who cannot see what you do. Be patient, be realistic, but be persistent.

As a climber, you must always cultivate movement. A flight of stairs offers a chance to visit the problem of maintaining momentum, balance, pace, and a general kinesthetic awareness. A walk down the street allows a close observation of the surface of the road or sidewalk, noting features, textures, and colors. Take off the headphones and listen to the wind, smell the air, and immerse yourself in real reality, the kind that climbing allows you to experience. When you can’t climb outside, use a gym as often as you can. Seek out any opportunity to extend your limits. Use different holds, different body positions, and the less visited features of the gym. Always see what you can achieve. Do this even as you warm up for the harder climbs or problems you aspire to. You may surprise yourself and the delight that comes with that surprise is an ever-renewing force in climbing.

Adults never have enough time. In our hyperactive, work-addicted culture, we are sleeping less, working more, and living in fear of never being caught up. We are never going to be caught up. To be caught up is to be dead. At best we can aspire to equilibrium, balancing competing aims and objectives. This is exactly what the sport of climbing is about. We have to hang on and let go at the same time. We have to take risks but avoid injury. The question is how to reconcile these tensions? First, you must make climbing a priority. If you can’t do this for yourself, what else are you shortchanging in your life? How can you bring a full sense of yourself to your job or your family if this vitally important part of what you are is being suppressed? If you have a job that demands more than 50 hours a week and no vacation, you may simply have the wrong job and your desire to climb more reflects that fact. If you have family demands, you may have to negotiate with a spouse or children for time. Whatever the result, once you have the time, make it count! In other words, use the time that you have to the fullest. Rest on the company’s time not yours. And make sure you are rested before you climb. Turn off the TV and computer and get to bed early.

Our culture worships youth but at a terrible price. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, we hear that once you are past 30 you have no business playing games like rock climbing. You have bigger responsibilities, maybe dependents. Your attention is focused on your career, family, finances, and the many other concerns that teenagers don’t have to deal with. It is very tempting at this point to opt out or make excuses or feel embarrassed. Some climbers state explicitly, “If I can’t keep improving, I will quit.” What does improvement mean? You are a different kind of climber, no better and no worse than before, perhaps with many more things to think about and balance against each other. Regardless, when you do what you love, at what ever level, you are succeeding and improving.

There is unbelievable pressure all around you to give up on your dreams. Some will say that’s an inevitable part of getting older. It is only if you let it. Dreams can take an infinite number of shapes and directions, any of which can be discarded and replaced by others as we age, being more suitable to who we are now. As we continue to chase these dreams however, we draw strength from them, strength that may surprise us as we continue to find our place in the pursuit of climbing.

8a.nu