Musings of a Mediocre Mountaineer

On Tuesday and Thursday evenings in the Queen’s University gym, you can find rock climbers hard at work on a two-story climbing wall, rappelling down and then clambering back up to the top again and again with skillful ease.

And then there’s me. I suppose what I do can technically be considered rock climbing, though I rarely make it all the way to the top and there’s nothing skillful about my ascents. As far as I can tell, the different pathways up the wall range from a difficulty level of “Everything hurts” to “Everything hurts, and you must defy the laws of physics.”

I joined the mountaineering club as a way to make friends while trying something new, and I’m pleased to report that I have succeeded at those two objectives. But now that I’ve started, my competitive side has taken over, and I find myself discussing strategies for trickier portions of the wall – many of which seem to include developing what I’ve been told is called “upper body strength”.

My nascent climbing endeavors have paid off in other ways too. I find myself celebrating small victories, like getting a few feet higher up the wall than I thought I could. I’m learning how to accept encouragement when I tell the person belaying me that I’m ready to get down, only for them to tell me that I can make it a little bit higher if I just go for the foothold to my right. I’m honoring a commitment to myself every time it’s dark and rainy and I just don’t feel like going to the climbing wall, but I force myself to show up anyway.

Most of all, I’m embracing the freedom of pursuing something that I’m naturally mediocre at. There’s no striving to be the best, just trying to do better than I did last week. There’s no fear of failure, because I’m so used to it at this point. What started as a way to trick myself into getting exercise has now become something I’m surprised to find intrinsic joy in, even without the possibility of any external validation.

A few weeks ago, I went with a group of friends to hike Slieve Donard, the highest point in Northern Ireland. Despite my lack of experience with rock climbing, I’ve long been an avid hiker. I’m lucky enough to have experienced many mountain ranges in different parts of the world, but I was especially taken with the beauty of the Mournes. We went up on a clear day, and from the mountain’s summit we could see the vast peaks stretching out in the distance, while on the other side the blue sky blended into the sea until the two were indistinguishable.

I hope that my current efforts at indoor rock climbing will enable me to someday reach mountain peaks that I can only dream of attempting now. Just as importantly, I hope to remember that I’m as much of a mountaineer on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, as I struggle for every inch I gain on the wall, as I was that day standing at the top of Slieve Donard.

At the top of Slieve Donard, the highest point in Northern Ireland
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