I got my concussion on a day where I didn’t really feel like climbing, but I did anyway.
Before anyone asks, I will mention I wasn’t wearing a helmet – which was dumb. Always wear your helmets.
I was on a run-out slab sport route in Squamish, BC, and I probably should have known before I clipped the first bolt that this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. I was determined to do at least one climb to give myself permission to leave and not feel like I wasn’t just being lazy. That idea, among lots of other things, sent me up the wall and onto a slippery ladder where my right foot blew and I whipped metres down past my last bolt, hit the wall sideways and began a year-long journey back from a head injury.
My relationship to rock climbing has changed frequently over the four years I’ve been in the sport. There have been moments of absolute bliss, looking out over the views, and down at what I just managed to climb. I’ve been grateful for the access to the lands near Vancouver, mainly the Squamish Nation that affords climbers access to their land and the rocks that make for amazing climbing. I’ve also gone through real doubt, questioning my ability to manage fear, learn the proper skills, and adhere to a training programme to get strong enough to achieve my goals.
After my concussion, it was like someone had hit the reset button and suddenly I was back to the basics of how to be in the world. Climbing is one of the areas of my life that the injury really made itself known – I couldn’t make moves I knew were within my skill set, for fear of falling. I had a hard time participating in the climbing community, socialising had become pretty difficult for me, and I wasn’t able to organise my thoughts in ways that could understand a schedule so training wasn’t really an option. Those symptoms lasted a couple of months before I transitioned into this weird, invisible world of post-concussion syndrome. I learned pretty quickly that if I didn’t advocate for myself and offer myself compassion around my head injury, no one would know what was going on. Sometimes it would take a while to register something as being a symptom of my concussion and I would spend some time feeling pretty anxious or depressed.
It took the full year for me to regain enough confidence to get back to, and finally surpass, the level I was climbing pre-concussion. Initially, fear of falling again was a big obstacle. I dealt with that by forcing myself to lead routes at a reasonable grade, which resulted in emotional breakdowns at the anchor and almost having a panic attack midway up a route. My friends and my partner finally talked me out of that approach, very wisely noting that I would only associate climbing with fear and anxiety if I kept putting myself in stressful situations in an attempt to “get over it”.
I decided to change my approach as the seasons changed and we transitioned indoors and into a morning climbing course. That was the first time I had a regularly scheduled routine indoors. I top-roped and did drills to build endurance back slowly, and I socialised a little bit but it was the early morning so I didn’t feel pressure to be overly engaged with anyone and they didn’t seem to mind the quiet, either. I started to regain focus and shifted my intention to improve, with my partner’s encouragement, on the mental side of things. I did a month-long course with Jen Olson at the local rope gym in Vancouver called Mental Training for Climbers. That was the beginning of really exploring the mental side of climbing.
I’ve come to realise that my lived experience is as present in this sport as in any other activity that I undertake in my life. And in practising a range of things like mindfulness, self-compassion, and self-care I feel like a weight has been lifted off me to climb any specific way other than what works best for me. One year and two months after my fall, I feel more determined to stay grounded in these practices as I keep training. I don’t feel the same need to put undue pressure on myself to climb a specific grade; I’ve noticed that as I build on these ideas, my fortitude builds and I tend to hit the gym more often and climb harder grades when I feel up for it. I imagine each person’s relationship to climbing looks a unique way – for me, it wasn’t until I had to hit the brakes hard that I started to undo patterns of putting myself down, or mistaking what is just my own process for the “wrong way”. I am back now with more self-awareness than before and am still, slowly, piecing together this past year to make sure I’ve taken every lesson away with me, so that I can keep loving what I do.