As I stood on a cliff face looking down to the ground a whopping 30 meters below, past which was another 200 meter drop, I wondered, again, what the hell I was doing with my life. The answer was easy: I was rock climbing in Croatia. The more difficult question was why. On the surface, I shouldn’t have been: I unfortunately inherited much of my father’s fear of heights, I was never one of those kids climbing trees or jungle gyms or fences or anything, and I had never had an interest. But here I was on yet another climbing trip, and I was loving it.
Two years ago I started dating my boyfriend, a climber and an employee of UA’s Outdoor Recreation program, leading climbing trips and working the indoor rock walls. He spent months trying to convince me to climb with him, but I resisted up and down. It had no appeal for me, it wasn’t my thing, I didn’t want to try to learn something he was so good at, just no. But when I moved to Austria in January for a semester he pushed harder: “You’re in one of the climbing capitals of the world and one of the birthplaces of climbing as we know it. If you ever decide to climb later in life, you’ll regret it. You should really learn there.” I still wasn’t convinced, but when the first real friend I made in Austria, Gemma, invited me to indoor climb with her my very first week in Austria, I took it as a sign and said yes. Indoor climbing – and this was actually bouldering, which is a little different – was so much more than I thought it would be. Though still an important component, it’s so much less about the physical aspects, as I had assumed; it exercises the mind, and that happens to be one of my favorite things to work. Quickly I was hooked on both climbing and this new girl and over the semester both our friendship and our climbing blossomed. We’d hit the walls twice a week or more. As soon as the weather was nice enough, we joined some friends for my first ever trip outdoor climbing. I didn’t know a damn thing but they harnessed me up and let me give it a go. When I topped out (made it to the top) on my first climb. I was hooked. I came back down but couldn’t wait for my chance for that physical and metaphorical high again. My family couldn’t believe me when I told them – this girl who hated heights was scaling 10, 15, 30 meter walls. But it’s not so tough to believe when looked at from Tinbergen’s behavioral concepts.
Historically, there were no ladders and roads and neatly trimmed hiking trails in Mother Nature. Our human ancestors climbed when they had needed to. They climbed cliffs, rocks, trees, whatever they needed to do. Rock climbing started out of necessity, but by the Victorian age was becoming a part of the sport of mountaineering, and by the late 1800’s was beginning to be seen as a sport. Going back even further, apes are climbers. Not as extensively as monkeys or other primates, but they still climb. It makes sense that all humans still have that instinct and that ability within them. And on a related note, that fear of heights I have – not a true phobia, nothing paralyzing – is just a rational aversion to dangerous situations evolved from this very skill: Climbing is okay, as long as you’re careful. Functionally, we’re designed to be decent climbers. Not great, and certainly not nearly as good as other animals, but we still have some basic adaptations for it. Notably, our hands and opposable thumbs which we can use for grasping. Our legs are (on some of us, anyway) flexible enough to manage stepping up some pretty big distances. We have enough strength to support our bodies via even tiny ledges, whether it be by standing on it or by holding onto it. And finally, we’ve got the complex thinking capacity to figure out routes (and the capacity to figure out alternate routes when those first ones don’t work out).
Proximally, I wanted social acceptance. I wanted to befriend this Gemma girl who seemed like someone I could like (man oh man I did). I wanted my boyfriend to quit bugging me (now he just bugs me to climb with him). I wanted to be able to belong to and hang out with another group – the occasionally douchey but prevalently accepting and encouraging group that is Climbers. Climbing is an intrinsically social activity – outdoor climbing requires at least one other person to belay you (unless you’re one of those sort of weird people who prefer climbing alone via setting up automatic belayers – I’m looking at you, random dude I met in Croatia). It’s an excellent bonding experience. When you let someone else belay you, you are literally entrusting your life into their hands. Beyond that, most climbs require some hikes and some help and those all beg for talking and bonding. Beyond that social acceptance, I maybe wanted some acceptance from myself: I wanted to prove to myself that I could overcome a fear and push myself to do something like that. Developmentally, this need for social acceptance and self-growth are both appropriate for a 20-something college student. I wanted to fit into a social group as well as expand my social connections. This is a prime time for humans to explore who they are and hone their hobbies. I am young enough that I will take more risks than someone more settled in life with a family and children to worry about. I am in prime physical condition for such a sport. (Though all the little kids/monkeys are way better climbers. Hmph.) I was in the right place and time in both the world and developmentally to pick up a brand new hobby and I’m so glad I did.