Whoever Says There’s No Crying In Climbing Is Dead Wrong

Climber

The more I tried to stop it, the hard­er it got. My chest tight­ened and my vision blurred as I tried to blink away the tears of frus­tra­tion. My left foot wedged painful­ly into the wide crack, I clung des­per­ate­ly to the rock wall with one hand while I mopped tears away with my oth­er shirt­sleeve. I want­ed so bad­ly to fin­ish the pitch for so many com­pli­cat­ed rea­sons, but most­ly I just want­ed to stop crying.

I’d scoffed at sport climbers who burst out in tantrums over falls and tough projects. Didn’t they know that climb­ing is sup­posed to be fun? There are far too many more impor­tant things in the world to get upset about. But there I was, weight­ing the rope and try­ing to breathe away sobs and pull myself together. 

Why do climbers—especially women climbers—cry? I’m not one of those peo­ple who cry at the drop of a hat, so it dis­turbed me that—when I felt like I need­ed lev­el­head­ed­ness the most—I couldn’t keep my emo­tions under wraps.

The most frus­trat­ing thing about cry­ing is that it feels beyond our con­trol. It’s the tough-to-fight phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of an over­whelm­ing rush of emo­tions. And what could be more emo­tion­al than push­ing your body and mind to their lim­its on a rock wall? What’s more vis­cer­al than the fear of falling? In that light, it makes per­fect sense that climbers would cry. 

A hand­ful of pro climbers have recent­ly writ­ten about women cry­ing at the crag. “Pre­vi­ous­ly, I saw cry­ing about climb­ing as a sign of weak­ness, an indi­ca­tion that I was too attached to some­thing that didn’t mat­ter,” wrote pro­fes­sion­al climber Paige Claassen. “But recent­ly, I’ve had to accept this dis­play of emo­tion as just anoth­er part of my process.”

Climber on rock

Pro Emi­ly Har­ring­ton described her strug­gle to learn to lead alpine trad: “I bleed and cry, my ego is stomped on repeat­ed­ly, and my thresh­old for suf­fer­ing is test­ed. These feel­ings nev­er fail to show up. And yet, every time it’s over and done with, I feel the great­est sense of hap­pi­ness and peace. There’s noth­ing like it. I always want to go back and do it again.” 

Cry­ing at the crag was such a con­sis­tent strug­gle for one of my friends and his for­mer girl­friend, who at the time was stymied by a recur­ring injury, that they coined a new term: tear-free ascents.

While let­ting the tears flow can open us up to judg­ment for being over­e­mo­tion­al or out of con­trol, it can actu­al­ly serve a help­ful, healthy func­tion. Cry­ing helps flush out stress hor­mones like cor­ti­sol, which build up under stress­ful sit­u­a­tions. Read: climb­ing. Aside from help­ing release stress from the body, stud­ies sug­gest that cry­ing also stim­u­lates pro­duc­tion of endor­phins, the body’s feel-good chem­i­cals that help it deal with pain. 

Of course, los­ing your cool on a climb can be a safe­ty issue. Climber Jenn Ven­non gave some good advice on Prana’s blog: “If you find your­self cry­ing on a route, clip in direct and take a few min­utes to calm your­self down.” Obvi­ous­ly, if you’re in tears, you’re not going to be per­form­ing your best, she points out. Once you’ve col­lect­ed your­self, you can either take a deep breath and push on, or calm­ly make the deci­sion to low­er or bail. “Either way, leave the tears on the route,” she wrote.

I wish I’d had Vennon’s advice the day I was fight­ing sobs mid­way up my own crack of tears, but thank­ful­ly I walked away from the crag with two feel­ings: accep­tance of my emo­tions, and a smol­der­ing desire to come back and try again.