Tag Archives: release

Bouldering and Mental Health

Anyone who has met me in the last twelve months knows i’m busy. That’s not an exaggeration, and i apologise to any close friends who have heard this sob story many times: i have two young daughters, one a toddler and the other an infant; i have a part time job working at Plas y Brenin as a Storeman while also helping to get the revamped climbing wall going and running our successful retail outlet; i coach part time, either private clients and a weekly, voluntary session; i am also doing a part-time Masters degree related to climbing coaching, taking roughly two days a week; and i’m climbing for myself every now and again.

Please do not mistake this description of my life as a complaint. It really is not. Every aspect of my life was a conscious choice, a decision i made (or made with my very supportive partner) to take something else on and develop my life further. I do not regret any of these decisions – most of the time at least – and wouldn’t have things any other way. What it has meant, though, is there is an enormous strain on my life that can deeply affect my mental health; and that is what i wanted to talk about here.

First impressions would suggest that personal climbing isn’t exactly high on my list of priorities, given everything else and the deadlines i hit on an hourly basis – anything from Masters assignments to nappy changes, they’re all deadlines and jobs that need to be done.  Surely going bouldering for an afternoon isn’t really that crucial? Only, for me and for my state of being, it remains the critical factor that keeps everything else together.

You can think of my life as a guitar string. Every other job puts a little more strain on the string. As things stand now, the string is tight but that creates a sweet sound, a nice harmonic where everything works in harmony and goes smoothly. The stress actually makes everything work better, keeps that sound nice and in tune. As the stress mounts, the strings tightens and the sound becomes higher pitched, tinny, not quite right. Too much stress and the string is going to snap. That’s where the climbing comes in, it eases the tension.

This happened to me a couple of weeks back. I’d employed the “study at the crag” approach and sacked off everything for the Wednesday afternoon on a glorious day to head to the Gwynant valley and an old project perfectly suited to my situation. It had been a little while since my last climbing session – no, squeezing in a few routes around a coaching session doesn’t really do it – and that string was feeling pretty damn tight. Everything seemed to be overwhelming me, i was struggling in almost every aspect of life and i was becoming worried of burnout. Even the walk in had stressed me, as the sketchiest approach in North Wales has become even sketchier thanks to a fallen tree.

I got there and dropped the pad and it was almost as if all my troubles, all my worries, all that stress was balanced precariously on the top. Instantly, it went away and i could literally feel the tension in my muscles ease. The string relaxed and the sound was sweet, a perfectly tuned note once again.

Rewind three and a half years and none of this was the case. I was quite a typical guy in my early-thirties: single, i worked five days a week. That was pretty much it, it gave me plenty of time to go climbing and i was happy with that, for the most part. I wouldn’t say it was a fulfilling existence and looking back, i wasn’t getting much stimulation from work or anywhere else really and that string must’ve been pretty slack. I tightened it up with projects, finding and developing new boulders or training but again, this didn’t really fulfill me.

In hindsight, perhaps my mental health wasn’t actually that good back then. I wouldn’t exactly class it as bad but i wasn’t achieving anything, i wasn’t working towards anything, i was coasting and to be honest, probably bored. However from the outside, going climbing wasn’t exactly a problem as i didn’t exactly have anything else to do.

Now of course, things are different and again, from the outside, it is easy to think that there simply isn’t the time to climb. How can i spend my time out playing when i have so much work to do?!

That is from the outside but believe me, from inside my head, those climbing days are what hold everything else together. Without that release of tension, the string is going to snap. Leave it too long and i can feel it. It’s not an excuse, it is my release, my way of grounding myself, of earthing the circuit. And climbing is the only thing i’ve found that does that for me.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the only thing i do, and swimming or running help to delay the need for a good climb but they don’t replace it. It has to be climbing, preferably outside in the mountains, with or without others doesn’t matter. I seem to have developed to a point where bouldering is directly linked to my mental health.

So why am i telling you this? Am i trying to speak to others who may struggle to find an outlet for their busy lives? Or am i just trying to justify to myself, and others close to me, sacking off my responsibilities for an afternoon? In part, i’m guessing it’s a little bit of both.

Mental health has become a popular talking point these days and i am quite aware of my own state. I’ve had dark spells in the past that i didn’t seek professional help for it as i wanted to deal with it in my own way and i think i did. Now i let things get to me but only when i decide, i choose when to get overwhelmed and to let it out. I’ve found my release, found my way of releasing the tension in the string and it works for me.

We all need that. Every one of us needs some way of relaxing and releasing for a while and what works for one may not work for another. Some sit and relax, others lose themselves in a book or TV, many choose exercise. For me, the only thing that does it is bouldering.

I once appeared on ITV talking about climbing and am oft mocked for saying it’s not so much a sport as a lifestyle. I guess for me it’s almost more than that: it is what keeps me sane.