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  • Writer's pictureIlana Newman

I stopped trying hard. Then I sent my first 5.12.

Technically, this is somewhat of a follow-up to my last post. I guess despite being a full-time writer, I never write for my own blog. So if you haven't read the last one, check it out after this to see two different perspectives on climbing, a few years apart.

Two years ago, on my first trip to Zion, I threw a tantrum on a 5.10 multi pitch. Terror filled my body, I was shaking, and felt incredibly insecure. The climb was all cracks, well within my ability and I felt like it should be easy. I didn’t know why it wasn't.

I thought something was wrong with me, I didn’t want to be climbing, but here I was, on a climbing trip for two months around the desert Southwest. It felt like everything I had ever wanted, so why didn't I feel good? Why didn't I want to climb?

Our bodies hold onto all sorts of trauma. From the big, intergenerational traumas to the smaller day-to-day comments, to injuries of body and mind.

Now, years after the fact, I recognize that I was going through a trauma response when I tried to force my body to climb but it didn't actually feel good. I was healing from an injury, and it affected me mentally more than I realized at the time. I was struggling with my identity, and tying it solely to climbing didn't feel good.

Since that day 2 years ago, I’ve learned that at least for me, climbing needs to start from a place of security, of comfort, of joy. That if I am not feeling good in my body, I won’t have fun.

So I stopped trying to push myself. I went out and had great days with friends. I climbed a lot of 5.6. I gave up on my goals of improving, of needing to reach a specific grade.

But the other day, after leading a variety of hard-for-me finger cracks this season, pushing myself when it felt good, and chilling when I wanted to, I found myself back in Zion.

And I just simply felt good. I was feeling confident on lead and psyched about the pretty finger cracks that I love so much. So I got on lead on a known-to-be-soft 12a crack that I had toproped clean a few years ago.

And I sent.

Somewhere, from a place of confidence and trust in my body, I found the headspace I needed. I placed and trusted my gear, and climbed above it. The stances were there, and my fingers knew when to pull. I felt calm and relaxed. I pulled through the tips crux with a grey Metolius TCU nestled in the crack, smearing my feet and reaching high for the finger lock above. Breathing and shaking out, I willed myself to hold on and climb strong as I moved through the thin hand jams to the last 50 feet of 3s above.

3s suck for my #1 sized hands. I have worked hard on feeling confident leading this awful cupped size, and I knew all I needed to do was jam my arms as deep in the crack as possible and keep my feet moving.

I made the goal to send 5.12 on gear years ago. When I first started climbing, I was motivated and strong. I did not yet feel the fear that comes along with the reality of injuries, losing loved ones, and other things going wrong. But as those things crept in, I had to fight harder to find the carefree try hard that used to come so easily.

I kept telling myself I "should" want to try hard. I "should" climb so and so route, or I "should" get stronger.

But my body said otherwise. My body was scared. My body was uncertain. She was just trying to keep me safe.

So I learned to let go. I started deconstructing why I like being outside, why I want to climb. Because I still did, I just felt scared.

My whole identity and self-worth were tied up in how hard I could climb. Once I let go of that, I was free. I could be a climber when I felt like it. I could climb, just for fun. I could just go sit at the crag and hang out with friends and not even touch the rock.

And from that place of security, fun, trust, and love for my body, climbing, and the people who support me in this crazy sport, I was able to touch something even deeper.

I climbed hard not in spite of my fear, injuries, setbacks, and stress. I climbed hard because of it.

This road is not linear. Just because I sent 5.12, and got to cross this old goal off of a literal and metaphorical list, does not mean that I will always be able to do that.

Trusting myself means knowing when I don't want to climb, or when I want to climb only things that make me feel ooey gooey lovely like 5.7 hand cracks. Trusting myself means knowing that improvement doesn't always follow the numbers. It means knowing that improvement is not even the end goal.

It means letting go of everything I have ever known and thought about climbing and being outside. And just climbing. Just to feel good, and because we love it, not to climb hard.

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