It took a yoga retreat to spark Sarah Haughton’s passion for rock climbing. The 2012 gathering in the Holcomb Valley of California’s San Bernardino Mountains included climbing expeditions — and it changed everything.
“Our guide encouraged me to get on the wall, but I was very scared. It was very intense,” recalls Haughton, a San Diego–based yoga instructor. “But once I pushed through the fear with the support of the other people on the trip and got to the top, I fell in love with climbing. I felt so alive and invigorated.”
It’s all about concentration, says Meg Tuazon Shemai of Summit to Sea, a wellness-retreat company that helped Haughton discover climbing. “To learn focus, there’s no better place to be than ‘on the rock,’ paying close attention to each hand- and foothold — or the lack of them,” she says.
“But climbing has many other health benefits. It strengthens not just your core but all the little muscles surrounding your wrists, as well as your forearms, fingers, legs, and toes,” Tuazon Shemai explains. “Your balance also becomes on point.”
Haughton is now an avid climber who regularly attends climbing-and-yoga retreats, the latest twist on a sport that has boomed in the last decade.
Whether it’s pursued for a couple of hours at an indoor climbing wall or on a weeklong expedition in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, climbing has taken hold of an estimated 7.7 million Americans. These “cragspeople” create an economic boon, too: They’re credited, for example, with bringing some $12.1 million annually in tourism revenue to the New River Gorge, an internationally renowned climbing destination in West Virginia.
Humans have probably always been drawn to the act of ascending. But the popularity of the sport has risen along with the development of climbing aids. Pitons (metal spikes that climbers drive into rocks’ cracks and seams), hammers, carabiners, and other gear contributed to the success of one of the first recorded technical climbs: ascending the slopes of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in 1910.
The physical benefits are part of the draw, but people are also attracted to the mindfulness that’s required to climb safely.
“If we had to choose one word that best describes modern life, it might be ‘distracted.’ Being in a constant rush and trying to pay attention to the constantly moving targets in our electronics creates a split between body and mind,” says Chris Noble, author of Why We Climb. “In a way that few other activities do, climbing heals that split and focuses our attention. Once we find ourselves more than a few feet off the ground on a vertical or overhanging wall, we discover that we are fully present in our bodies.”
Climbing can also rewire your internal biology to produce more confidence, says Erin Owen, a Philadelphia-based executive coach. “In rock climbing, if you can use your cognitive function, your proprioception, your muscles, and at the same time manage your emotions to reach new heights, forming new neurological connections — the more confident you become.”
Hilary Harris, founder of EVO Rock + Fitness climbing gyms with locations in Colorado, Maine, and New Hampshire, calls climbing “moving meditation” — great exercise that clears the mind.
And forget the myth that you need a ton of upper-body strength; you can start climbing at any age and fitness level. “It’s a full-body workout, and I can’t think of another sport that involves the core the way climbing does,” she says. “Because it’s fun, you don’t realize that you’re getting a workout. Getting in shape is just a perk of it.” (To find a climbing gym or wall near you, visit www.indoorclimbing.com.)
Sure, climbing can be challenging — just watch expert climber Alex Honnold’s frustration after losing his grip in the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo. It can also be dangerous (see the same movie). But the sport can open up a new world.
There are some 400 indoor climbing gyms in the United States, each offering a place to connect with adventurous friends or meet new ones. “The gym is really the new crag of this decade,” says Harris. “It’s a great social experience.”
And climbing can reconnect us with nature, adds Noble. “It invites us to travel to some of the planet’s most beautiful places, and it introduces us to a global community of extremely psyched and like-minded new friends.”
Though plenty of climbers learn the sport outdoors, an indoor gym is a great place to take a few initial classes; it’s also ideal for training in any weather. Most gyms rent the equipment you’ll need — a harness, climbing shoes, belay device, and chalk bag — and many provide instructors as well.
For those ready to embark on a bigger adventure, outfitters offer expert guides who teach the fundamentals while leading climbers to stunning locales. They provide equipment and perform strict safety checks before the climbing begins.
These trips go beyond simply climbing, however. “You can gain a lot of awareness about yourself, the environment, and the culture during a climbing retreat or trip,” says Nicole Meyer of Kentucky-based Southeast Mountain Guides. “It’s about exposing your limits, increasing awareness, growing, and learning. And it’s unique in that, with your climbing partners, you’re experiencing it alongside other people. It’s very encouraging and inspiring.”
Retreats that combine yoga and climbing, meanwhile, originated from the recognition that the two activities share similar mental hurdles, explains Tuazon Shumai. And as her client Sarah Haughton can attest, such retreats can conquer fear and replace it with the confidence to keep pursuing this lifelong sport: “If you’re considering a retreat, do it,” she says. “You never know what might happen, what might change in your life, who you might meet, and just how powerful these experiences are.”
No matter your career and hobbies, there’s another bonus of rock climbing: It can improve your creativity.
Alex Pang, PhD, a Silicon Valley consultant and author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, writes about the importance of “deep play,” noting that rock climbers do this because their sport is both physically and psychologically challenging. (For more on the benefits of deep play, visit “Deliberate Rest.”)
Chad Peele of San Juan Mountain Guides in Colorado agrees. “I see a creative link with the merging of action and awareness,” he says. “Mental distractions become silent, and the focus of attention to the problem at hand brings out our true self. Once that ‘truth’ blends with the flow of movement, a person is truly capable of being themselves and letting their true creative side guide them.”
Climbing contributed greatly to Harris’s academic success and gave her the confidence to launch a business. “It’s been an incredible journey,” she says.
Noble points out that Henry David Thoreau believed his daily walking influenced his daily writing.
“Creativity is all about seeing new connections. Therefore, it requires a fresh, relaxed, and expansive perspective, not the hurried and harried perspective most people accept as normal,” he explains.
“Climbing, like Thoreau’s walking, gets people outside directly engaged with nature. It cleanses the mind of the anxiety and neurotic spinning of modern life, and thus gives us a chance to relax, see the big picture, and let new thoughts arise.”
Looking for a gem to scale? These routes will challenge you and offer stellar views along the way.
- Narcissus: A classic climb in West Virginia’s stunning New River Gorge. It’s often considered the gym rat’s ideal first 5.12a climb.
- Technosurfing: With as many as 20 ascents on a busy weekend, this is the most popular 5.12b in the premier sport-climbing area of Rumney, N.H.
- Waves: One of the best easy routes for exploring the amazing pegmatite granite of Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
- Green Goblin: A quintessential backwoods climbing route on high-quality sandstone that provides a great way to explore the world-class pitches of the Arkansas Ozarks.
- The Edge of Time: A spectacular sport-climb in Estes Park Valley, Colo., near Rocky Mountain National Park. Five bolts for top roping, plus four bolts and a pin along the route, make this a scenic climb for those with intermediate to advanced skills.
- Babe-a-Licious: A well-protected, 70-foot 5.10d route in Logan, Utah, that offers a foray into the renowned limestone and quartzite climbing in the Wasatch mountain range.
- Spiderman Buttress: Newbie climbers can follow the large crack that marks this classic beginning ascent, part of hundreds of routes in Oregon’s Smith Rock State Park.
- Peace: One of the toughest climbs in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows. Completing the long pitch up to Medlicott Dome is a crowning achievement.
This originally appeared as “Such Great Heights” in the September 2019 print issue of Experience Life.