Rock Climbing is Therapeutic Exercise, Says Oregon Enthusiasts

In recent years, rock climbing has become a popular indoor and outdoor sport and is used for exercise. The sport has evolved to include many different types. One type is free soloing, where the climber is not attached to rope. This is the most dangerous type because it is assumed that if the climber falls, he or she will die. The second type of climbing is called free climbing which involves only hands and feet for upward progress, but attachment to a harness and gear is common for safety. A third, bouldering, is similar free climbing, but usually takes place on lower surfaces. Lastly, aid climbing involves using a harness or rope for upward progress and usually takes place where the terrain is too steep or without natural handholds.

Like many activities, rock climbing is capable of providing an outlook for climbers young and old. Joe Torrey is a climbing fanatic who runs Leading Edge, an outdoor adventure program for youth with disorders in Portland, OR. He strives to allow children coping with disabilities the opportunity to exercise and gain experience climbing.

“Often times, people are caught between a desire to perform a challenging task and a physiological repulsion to that activity. Practicing a tolerance for uncomfortable situations and emotions is what makes us more adept at performing in those situations in the future, and grows one’s self efficacy and grit,” Torrey said.

Torrey’s interest in climbing began with a trip with his brother. “I wanted to come down soon after starting to climb. He encouraged me to keep going through asking me questions and giving me recommendations for moves,” Torrey said.

He recalls later using these same motivation techniques with a member of his staff who was attempting rappelling outdoors for the first time. Rappelling involves leaning backwards over a ledge and controlling your decent.

“I gave her the same choice that my brother had given me on my first climb. She could stop at any point, but she wanted to do it. This is why rock climbing can be a powerful metaphor for other goals and challenges in one’s life,” Torrey said.

The rock climbing interest of Torrey and many other outdoor enthusiasts is characterized by a social purpose, but others climb for more personal gratification.

Max Tepfer is a former rock climbing instructor at the University of Oregon Outdoor Pursuits Program (OPP). He is certified by the American Mountain Guides Association as a rock guide and is a Timberland Mountain Guide. He has been climbing since high school and his interest has developed into a career as a guide.

“I most enjoy teaching climbing (or teaching anything) when the person or people I’m working with are as excited about it as I am. It’s…satisfying to work with people who are passionate about the sport and have clearly defined goals that I can help them work towards,” Tepfer said.

Tepfer describes climbing as a physically strenuous sport that weighs heavily on mental motivation.

“Prior to committing to a larger route, there’s usually a multi-hour butterfly period where self-doubt flares up and dominates your psyche,” he said. He says that once he has begun his climb, he is so focused on performing to the best of his ability that all sounds disappear.

“One of the coolest things about climbing, is that when you’re doing it right, it quiets every other thought and the noise of day to day life dies away.” He says this is a natural sensation that occurs when someone is committing all of their willpower to one task.

Though climbing is extremely strenuous on the body, Tepfer describes the process as a form of meditation or relaxation. He confesses that these sensations overpower any feeling of an adrenaline rush and create a type of addiction among climbers who relate their love for climbing to drug addicts.

“Climbers frequently jokingly compare themselves to junkies and they’re not far off the mark. Most people who really get into free climbing become as addicted to the sense of progression and improvement as anything else,” he said.

Oregon has numerous locations for outdoor climbing. One of the more popular sites is Smith Rock, located in central Oregon near Redmond. Many people have fond memories climbing there.

Jenna Starr is a Portland native who taught classes at the University of Oregon Outdoor Pursuits program and graduated from the Environmental Studies program. She was instantly drawn to the physical challenge and social camaraderie of rock climbing.

“My best climbing memories are at Smith Rock State Park,” she said. She described how her major obstacle during her first climb was nervousness when beginning the climb.

“Climbing forces you to push the limits of your comfort zone and in turn you learn how to manage your fear and anxiety when you’re physically strained, which translates into other things outside the climbing world,” Sarr said.

“I feel like I am following in the routes of rock climbing pioneers when I climb there. It is a beautiful spot, and I can’t help but feel inspired by its history,” said Torrey who is also drawn to the Smith Rock climb.

A common sentiment among climbers is that climbing can be used as a metaphor for many things in life. It has been compared to perseverance required to survive and overcoming challenges that allow personal growth.

Climbing goes beyond the physical benefits and allows a therapeutic outlook. The strength and adrenaline that usually accompany the act of scaling a steep cliff rarely characterize the experience climbers take away from the sport.


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