*Trigger Warning* This article discusses self-harm.
“Look at my hands!” I hold my blistered and scabbed knuckles out to my friend Alison. She isn’t as impressed as I hoped she’d be.
It is 2017, and it’s my first week of trad climbing. I’m in Yosemite Valley, and until recently, I’ve always had the soft hands of an office worker.
Alison smiles and gets back to making her dinner. I ask her to take a picture of my gobies, and then I depart to my van for the night.
I undress and stare at my body in the small mirror.
There is a galaxy of bruises blossoming around my right knee where I learned a hard lesson about knee jamming on Generator Crack. The classic off-width took everything I had and then some, leaving me defeated and gasping for breath while hanging on a rope. There are small leopard-print bruises running up my thighs from where the cams have been grinding against my legs all week. My shoulders are a raw mess. My first attempt at that off-width came and went with nothing but a tank top on.
Banner photo of the author by Tony Archie Kim
I relish in the wounds and the small reminders that my body is frail.
I am not only learning to trad climb, but I am also recovering from a broken heart. It was only a few weeks ago that I decided to end my relationship of five years, the most significant romantic partnership of my young life, and strike out on my own. I had wanted to go, he had wanted to stay, and as that relationship ended, I gave up everything to come out here and learn to climb.
My body was soft; my hands were softer.
He had loved my soft body and my soft hands.
I shake my head of the thought and flex my hands instinctively, looking at my swollen knuckles. The torn skin is already beginning to harden.
Climbing would free me of that; climbing would make me confident, make me strong, make me someone I am proud to be.
I stand naked in my van and look at the person I hope I will become.
I finally dress, satisfied with the damage I have done, and fall like the dead into a dark, dreamless sleep.
In those first few weeks of learning to trad climb, I use the fear, the exertion, and the suffering of climbing as a knife, cutting away the soft parts of myself to make way for a newer, stronger, more confident me. I push away all the things that he loved about me; I am not that person anymore. And instead I remember the way he limited me. I channel all my bitterness, all my anger, all my sadness into every painful finger lock and every grueling fist jam.
The tears in my eyes are from squinting at the sun now, not crying over some boy who never wanted me to fly.
And every night I take stock of the bruises on my body. I need to see the proof that I am not the woman he loved. I am new.
The scars I still have on my hands today are a guilty pleasure. It is physical proof that I am tough enough to do things other people only dream about.
Over the course of the next four years, I learn the lesson so many climbers learn during the early days of climbing: pain is motivating.
When I am at my lowest emotionally, I can climb the hardest. It is easier to ignore the pain in my hands when the pain in my heart feels so much more present. And when I clip the chains on my project, I don’t even notice until I reach the ground that I am bleeding.
At the campfires later, we compare gobies with glee. Puffy, swollen hands and dirty fingernails displayed by firelight are crooned over and admired. Shouts of disbelief and, “Wait, wait, look at this!” all clamor over each other. The backdrop of stars twirls above us in the night as we lay our wounds bare, ripe for judgment.
What are we trying to prove?
We are not what we once were. We are stronger now.
Climbing is a sedative. It soothes my broken heart, giving me something more present, more alive, more consuming to think about. The scars on my knuckles, the bruises on my thighs prove just how much I don’t care anymore.
I’m over it. I swear.
It is 2021, and I am in Vedauwoo, staring up at the hardest climb I have attempted to date: Whipping Boy, 5.11c. The grade is misleading, as it feels several grades harder than most of the 5.12s I’ve attempted in other areas. It starts with a chimney, 5.10 at the most, that eventually gives way to a slick and rat-shit-covered ledge that leads up into the belly of the beast. There’s a slick, flaring roof that requires a stout invert and the most heinous sit-up you’ve ever done in your life, to a flaring 4s pod followed by an ultraclassic, greasy Vedauwoo hand crack.
I am wedging my right arm into the most painful chicken wing I’ve attempted in a long time, my feet are desperately scrabbling against the rocks, and I feel myself slipping.
My right elbow has bled through my right sleeve so badly that I am sliding out of the crack, slick with my own blood.
I fall nearly upside down, my head brushing against the ledge below me as I fall out of the crack.
I scream in frustration. The pain in my arm is a grisly reminder that I won’t be able to try again until I stop the bleeding. I shout at my belayer to lower me, fuming and demoralized as I return to the earth.
My friend Mary is waiting for me at the bottom of the climb. “You ok?”
“No.” I lean back, body against stone, the cool rock behind me, the hot sun on my face. My elbow is seeping blood, but it hurts less than my wounded pride.
Mary looks at me critically, her red hair like a flame in the sun. “You have the moves down; you just need to rest. You’ve been coming at this multiple days in a row. Just take a few days off, and come back to it fresh.”
I don’t want to hear it, but I nod and clean the route.
That night I undress and stare at my body in the small mirror in my van.
It has been four years since I started trad climbing, and I have indeed changed myself into someone new. The pain of the relationship I was grieving all those years ago has long since faded. I am harder, my hands calloused and worn, my knuckles permanently swollen from scar tissue buildup. Climbing has made me into someone new, someone I am proud to be. I thrust my chin up at the reflection in the mirror.
I am proud to be her.
And yet, it has not saved me from heartbreak. I am here, once again on the road, climbing away from a breakup. The familiar ache in my chest is a fresh wound. Once more I had been in a relationship with a man who wanted me to stay, and all I wanted to do was go. So I left.
I look like shit.
My eyes are red, with deep-purple bags under them. I don’t sleep well here; the bruises on my knees hurt so badly I can’t sleep on my side for fear of them touching and jolting me awake in a lightning strike of pain. I am sunburnt; tender pink skin zebra stripes my shoulders where my sports bra did a meager job of protecting me from the sun. My thighs, shoulders, knees, and of course, my right elbow are torn up from days and days of hard off-width climbing.
“You have the moves down; you just need to rest.” Mary’s words come to me as I stare at my torn-up body.
I need rest like I need air. For the first time in a long time, I take it.
I warm up a small metal basin of water and wash my hands, watching the grime of the day flow down the drain. I sit on the van floor and pull out my med kit, laying out small tan bandages and sterile squares of gauze. Night falls around me outside, and I can hear the chirping of crickets, a warm breeze wafting in through my cracked door.
I take a deep breath and exhale.
It takes time, it takes focus, and my sore muscles protest as I move stiffly from wound to wound, but I begin to take care of myself.
As I do, something I didn’t know I was holding on to releases. An intangible tension leaves my chest, and I feel good. I am caring for myself as I would a loved one. I bandage my wounds, I drink a cup of warm tea, I put on clean clothes, and I sleep.
In the morning’s pink-and-orange sunrise, I wake myself tenderly. Something has shifted.
Three restful days later, I walk up to Whipping Boy and send it on my first try.
I don’t cry when I make it to the chains, but I do lie down on the rocky ledge, the weight of everything I’ve been holding on to releasing into the blue sky above me.
This is what strength is.
I close my eyes and feel the warm sun on my skin; my belayer is cheering me on from her spot below me. I am not ready to face her. You only get this moment once.
I can’t feel the bruises on my knees yet or the healing wound on my elbow. My body is light, my muscles relaxed and soft, my hands uncurl from their fists, and palms up, they face the sky.
The surrender is here, and it is complete. I open my eyes.
That was the turning point for me. Taking care of myself became more important than hurting myself. Climbing was the venom—and the antidote. I wanted to become a climber, I wanted to show the world that I was strong, and I needed the bloody, scabbed-up proof to display itself on my body.
But…I wanted to be a climber. And not just a climber who tried hard, I wanted to be a climber that was dedicated and capable.
It was then that I learned the lesson that so many climbers learn after a few years of hard climbing: I couldn’t abuse myself into sending harder.
If climbing is really important to me, I can’t break myself into pieces in order to send. I need to care for this body that has taken me so far.
I need to take care of myself.
Tending to my wounds has become a nightly ritual. Doing my physical therapy is an act of self-love. Bringing enough water to the crag, my weekly yoga class, and taping my hands to avoid cuts and scrapes have all become a part of my self-love practice.
Since then I have sent routes that at one time I only dreamed of.
Rock climbing taught me how to hurt myself productively. Climbing taught me how to use my pain as the ultimate motivator, but it also taught me that this mindset is limiting. You can only whip yourself for so long. Climbing showed me how to love myself in little ways, which lead to bigger ways, and bigger ways, until the two words became synonymous.
Climbing is an expression of self-love, and in order to keep doing it, I have to constantly be showing up for myself.
Because although I cannot abuse myself into sending harder, I can love myself into sending harder.
Kaya Lindsay is a writer, photographer, and co-owner of the Climb Moab Gym. She lives full-time in Moab, Utah, where she spends all her free time climbing off-widths and spends part of the year in her van, where she spends all her free time driving to different states to climb off-widths.