An empty wall in an empty climbing gym.
Look at all that free space! No lines! You can make up any circuit you want! But just make sure you aren't missing the point. (Photo: Eternity in an Instant/Getty)

How the Climbing Gym Cured My Loneliness

Visiting the indoor crag during peak hours helped me cultivate a community

An empty wall in an empty climbing gym.
Eternity in an Instant/Getty
Steven Potter

from Climbing

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Last year one of my oldest, dearest friends—let’s call him Gary—called me up and informed me, over the course of an increasingly upsetting half an hour, that he was “dangerously lonely.”

“What do you mean by dangerously?” I said, Googling flights.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m fine. It’s just…”

So I told my boss I was sick, got on a plane, and flew to California. And while I was in the air, I tried to imagine how Gary—who I’d first bonded with under a spray wall in college—could end up like this. He was a fifth-year PhD student in a city bursting with active and educated young people. He was a climber who lived within biking distance of the gym. And he worked in a department where he and his coworkers could presumably bond over esoteric academic-y things. Surely he knew someone, right?

But, as I was soon to learn, “dangerous loneliness” is not a condition that Gary—smart, handsome, and socially competent (at least until he got out of practice)—just randomly woke up with. It was something that developed slowly over time, thanks to an insidious combination of subtly misplaced priorities and sheer bad luck.

He told me about the bad luck when he picked me up at the airport.

First, he said, the pandemic had turned his work permanently remote—cutting 40ish hours of casual face-to-face human interaction from his weekly schedule. Then most of his PhD cohort finished their studies and moved away. And finally Gary and his longtime partner separated. At which point—voila!—Gary found himself alone in America, going weeks at a time without talking to anyone in the flesh, and growing increasingly frightened by the nature of his thoughts.

“But what about climbing friends?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Californians are aloof. It’s hard to meet people here.”

As a lifelong East Coaster, I was perfectly happy to believe this biased explanation. But over the next couple of days, as I learned more about Gary’s hyper-efficient schedule, I came to the conclusion that at least one small part of his problem was that he’d placed too much emphasis on the asocial elements of our sport.

See, Gary has always been very much an optimization nut—the sort of maniacal spreadsheet-maker who geeks out on finger-taping methods and road-trip gas mileage. He’s also, as you might expect from the above, a devotee of the fingerboard and the MoonBoard—delighting in routine and placing real emotional weight on quantitative, measurable gains.

It was in pursuit of these gains that Gary spent most of his PhD manipulating his schedule so that he could train at his local gym when it was minimally crowded. He’d get up at six, work until nine, train at the gym until noon, then work again until seven or eight or nine. And he did this for five years. Climbing mostly alone. Training mostly alone. Growing increasingly agitated when the gym was too crowded for him to do exactly what he wanted when he wanted.

Of course, his devotion to efficiency paid off in some ways. When he started his PhD he had never climbed harder than V8. Now he has flashed V10. But these gains came at the expense of meeting people, of building community, and left him in a socially vulnerable position when all that bad luck came a-knocking.

Now, I don’t believe that climbing is a surefire cure for loneliness. Nor do I believe that if you avoid training at night, when the gym is crowded, you’re doomed to undesired isolation. But Gary’s situation did remind me that climbing comes with a wide variety of benefits, some of which we acknowledge more readily than others. Everyone seems to know, for instance, that climbing is a great source of exercise and that sending climbs or leveling up into new grades is personally validating. And most people seem to appreciate the fact that the pursuit of this validation can lead us to set goals, which in turn inject an organizing principle into our schedules, our diets, and our lives. But I think that some people (myself included) have the ability to focus so hard on those goals that we forget that one of the greatest benefits of our sport has nothing to do with how hard we climb or how much we’re improving or how existentially convenient it is to have an organizing principle into our lives.

The other day I listened to a podcast episode about happiness, hosted by the almost insufferably well-spoken Atlantic staff writer Derek Thompson. In it, Thompson discusses two main subjects: the precipitous rise of loneliness in America despite the proliferation of technologies that are ostensibly designed to connect us, and a selection of findings from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which started in 1938 and is the longest-running longitudinal study about what makes people happy or unhappy—and healthy or unhealthy—over the course of their lives.

Americans, Thompson notes, are lonelier than we’ve ever been. Every year for the last decade, we’ve spent more time alone than the year before. A staggering 20 percent of Millennials report that they have no friends. This seems to be a result of several factors, all of which revolve around the fact that people are de-prioritizing (and therefor getting worse at committing to) high-value social settings like coffee dates, climbing sessions, church gatherings, or backyard barbeques, in favor of lower-value settings like text chats and group-watches on Netflix. (Not to mention the increasingly common antisocial extreme: solo TV binges.) Indeed, one of Thompson’s more obvious but memorable comments is that not all socializing is created equal. Liking an Instagram photo is less socially rewarding than having a conversation with someone on Messenger, which is in turn less rewarding than joining a World of Warcraft guild full of people you’ll never meet but can talk to every day, which is less rewarding than having a beer (or working a boulder problem) with a friend, which is inferior to having a date with someone whose smile makes you forget the imminent torching of our earth long enough to want to start a family.

Most of us know this of course. But I’m not sure we know it well enough to act on it. Because most of us still invest far too much of our precious time engaging in those easier but lower-quality interactions. Which is why I think it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the fact that activities like climbing—or even pickleball—are directly tied to one of the chief indicators of long-term health and happiness as found in the Harvard Study of Adult Development: the existence of friendships constructed around repeat interactions and involving a shared physical activity… which sounds a lot like hanging out at the gym or the crag a few days a week.

And Gary?

After a few days in California, I told him a story about myself. When I—a country bumpkin—moved to New York City for graduate school in 2014, I was paralytically intimidated by the crowds at the gym. So, like Gary, I climbed during the day, focused on my training, and spent my miserable nights drinking whisky and reading Kafka. And, like Gary, I complained about my isolation, decrying the great paradox of city life to my rural friends on the phone: “Everyone’s just so overstimulated by being around people constantly,” went my theory, “that they go out of their way to ignore you. It’s like a survival mechanism. Even the climbers are unfriendly!” But then something lucky happened: I finished my two-year program, got a 9 to 5, and was forced to go to the gym in the evenings. And as I climbed alongside the same people, night after night, it wasn’t long at all before I found myself being absorbed into a community. “It’s like a secular church,” I told Gary. “I mean, where else in modern America can you walk into a space and encounter people you know and like and are interested in the exact same things you are?”

Gary was doubtful. But after some time—and a move to a fresh setting where he knew some people—he agreed to try battling the crowds and climbing in the evenings. And a funny thing happened. Gary met another climber who had been pursuing his PhD at the same California school, during the same period, while climbing at the same gym. But since this other climber used the gym to both train and socialize, the two of them had never met.

They’re friends now.

Steven Potter is a digital editor at Climbing. He’s been flailing on rocks since 2004, has successfully injured (and unsuccessfully rehabbed) nearly every one of his fingers, and holds an MFA in creative writing from New York University.

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