The objective of my STEP Signature Project was to further explore my interest in rock climbing that I started developing during my second-year. I hoped to grow my climbing skills, and in the process use climbing as means of pursuing adventures. The bulk of my project consisted of me pursuing climbing training more deeply than I had before (at indoor climbing gyms), and in the process learning more about the sport and myself. My project also included a handful of trips to outdoor climbing locales, where I could enjoy the fruits of my labors in the gym and fully experience true rock climbing.
As a result of this project, not only have I found a new passion, I have found that climbing has allowed me to forge new friendships, pursue new adventures, and challenge myself in new ways. It has also played a significant role in changing and developing my personal philosophies and objectives in life. First off, while pursuing climbing I have discovered an over-arching love for outdoor activities in general. My continuous perusal of climbing literature and articles has led me to realize that there is a whole world of worthwhile activities to be pursued outside. Subsequently, I have found myself going on multi-day hiking trips; going for long, challenging bike rides; and just enjoying the natural world and the outdoors more than I ever have before. In short, this climbing experience has been a gateway drug to a broader interest into all of the adventures that the world has to offer.
I have also seen my philosophies on what I seek in life evolve over the course of this experience. I’m a mechanical engineering student, and prior to this experience I lived a life that was very focused on – and very dependent on – my engineering career goals. I invested almost all of my value and self-definition in these goals; they made me who I was, and as a result I clung to them intensely. Any time I felt like I was falling short on those goals would lead me to stress, frustration, and depression. But – at the risk of sounding cheesy – climbing changed me. It gave me a new outlet, something more to invest myself in. From a day-to-day perspective, climbing at the gym gave me a chance to rest my mind and clear it the stress that often felt like it was consuming me. In order to climb well, I had to put all of my mental efforts into figuring out how to ascend, leaving no energy left to be spent dwelling on whatever troubles I might have been experiencing. It was a simple release from worry, and a time to slow down and to enjoy myself. But even better, as time went on I found that that release from worry was not a transient, fleeting thing that only existed during the act of climbing. It started to become a part of my mindset. I started to worry less in all situations. Even in the face of tough times during both my summer internship and the ensuing academic year, I found that this mentality I had found through climbing really helped me to mitigate my stress levels. To put it in colloquial terms, climbing and the other outdoor activities that climbing has led me to have made me a much more “chill” person. They have allowed me to retain my motivation to achieve my goals, but in a much more sustainable and enjoyable manner.
Climbing also changed my philosophy about what defines a life well-lived. If you had asked me prior to this experience, my answer would have been something along the lines of how life is all about achievement and doing great things. But, like my tendency to stress out over career success, that philosophy changed. I realized that there are too many things worth experiencing in life to put all of your effort into one single thing. I realized that this was exactly what I was doing, and while that lifestyle definitely comes with some rewards, it just wasn’t worth it to me. It wasn’t what I wanted. I made up my mind to start living for more. I went on cool trips with friends, and climbed all the time just because it was what I felt like doing, and started developing this idea that I should do whatever feels right to me at the time (within reason), and not waste any time regretting it or wondering if I could have been doing something better. Because what I’ve realized is that whatever feels truly worth it to you is actually what you should do.
Before this experience, I used to just do school work and other engineering-related things all of the time. Even if I was well ahead on my school work, I would often abstain from things that could have been fun just because I didn’t want to feel like I was wasting time where I could have been productive. But now I know better. As long as all of my responsibilities are taken care of, I’ll do whatever I feel is worth doing. If some friends want to go wander around, go on a hiking trip, go climb, go for a bike ride, play music, hang out, or do whatever, I’ll do it. Life it way too short to not spend it doing what you want, and it sure as heck is too short to be spent worrying about what you should and shouldn’t do. [end impassioned rant]… So anyway, if you were to ask me what defines a well-lived life now, I would say this: “The best life you can possibly live is the one where you put all of your time and effort into doing the things you find enjoyable, worthwhile, and rewarding, and sharing those experiences with people you care about.” I like this philosophy a lot more.
This whole journey began with my first climbing experience, almost two years from now. It was early in the fall semester of 2015, my sophomore year. Some friends and I were looking for something to do, and one of them had climbed at the Outdoor Adventure Center at OSU before. They suggested that we all go try climbing. Up until that point I had never even considered rock climbing, but I found my first experience to be pretty enjoyable. I wasn’t absolutely blown away by it at first, but there was something appealing about climbing that made me want to keep trying it. So, over the course of the next few months, I continued to pursue climbing and quickly made progress. I learned how to belay, and my climbing abilities improved markedly as I found myself able to climb increasingly difficult routes.
Over those two semesters, climbing became increasingly important to me. I found that I enjoyed the combination of mental and physical challenges into one awesome activity. I also loved that the time I spent climbing really helped me clear my mind. It was an opportunity to focus on nothing but the task at hand, and let everything else fade into the background. Climbing also became a great way to socialize; it gave me time to hang out with friends I would go climbing with, and also gave plenty of opportunities to meet interesting new people.
In spite of all of these benefits, I was really only climbing once every few weeks or so. I came to realize that people who take the sport more seriously tend to go the gym to climb multiple times a week. I started to wonder if that was a lifestyle I would like to commit to; I wondered if I would enjoy that commitment, and if it would make my life better overall.
So that’s where this STEP experience comes in. I used my STEP funding to acquire some basic equipment necessary for me to further delve into climbing. I purchased a harness, shoes, belay devices, and also got a membership to a climbing gym near Detroit, where I spent the summer of 2016 on an internship. Those first steps to taking climbing more seriously came at a very opportune time. I was experiencing a lot of stress from work, school, and some of my extracurricular engineering activities. I was so stressed that my head would physically hurt for long periods of time. I was having breakdowns somewhat regularly. The 2 or 3 times I went to the gym to climb each week were a great relief from those issues. And I was discovering more about climbing every day. I was constantly learning new skills and techniques while training in the gym, and seeing myself be able to climb progressively harder and harder routes was very satisfying. I also was spending more time reading climbing literature and articles; learning new techniques, and being inspired by the adventures of other climbers that I read about. My transformation was beginning. I had a growing distaste for my over-worked lifestyle which brought me stress and frustration, and I was finding relief in climbing. I was starting to wonder why I would put so much of my mental effort into something that made me feel bad, when there were plenty of things to do, like climbing, that felt so much better.
When I got back to school following the summer, I was still in a pretty high-stress state. But I was ready to find something better. I made a commitment with a friend of mine to go climbing at least two days a week, and stuck to it in spite of what else was happening in my life. The relaxed mindset climbing gave me allowed me to find all kinds of enjoyable and meaningful experiences through that semester. I decided to take a step back and decrease the intensity of my involvement in extracurricular engineering activities. I also made an effort to spend less time worrying about being perfect at school; I told myself that as long as I was up to speed on my academics, I should let myself be free to do whatever I wanted. I continued improving as a climber, and continued to find relief, fun, and meaning every time I went to the gym to climb. I still found myself struggling with stress and depression, but I often had this strange feeling that I was somehow starting to work through it. Outside of climbing and school, I spent more time exploring the city and going on random adventures with my friends. The mindset of “do whatever feels worth it” that learned from climbing was starting to influence the rest of my life as well. Climbing was the backbone of my greater transformation.
That semester, in late November, I had my first experience climbing outside. There’s not a ton of climbing to be had in Ohio, but I heard of a small place to boulder called “Witch’s Peak” in Athens. So one weekend, I loaded my bouldering crash pad into my car and drove out there. It was a gorgeous fall day, with crisp, cool air and the ground covered by warm-colored leaves. I hiked my way up a still trail to the top of a hill that overlooked all of Athens, where I found the boulders I was looking for. I didn’t have any real plans of what I was going to climb or what I was trying to do. I just wanted to be out there climbing something. So I spent that day completely alone up there, with no sounds but that of the wind and my hands and feet moving along the cool surface of the boulders. I was able to climb some of the boulders, others were way too difficult for my skill level. But it was awesome. I was having fun and feeling at ease; it was a relieving, meditative experience. This reinforced my notion that life should be lived through experiences like this, and assured me that climbing was a great vehicle for those experiences.
Atop Witch’s Peak in Athens, OH. Some of the boulders I climbed are shown in the background.
I continued to climb regularly in the gym for the rest of the academic year. My next experience was not planned as part of my STEP project and does not involve rock climbing, but I give my pursuit of rock climbing full credit for leading me to do it. Over the course of my reading about climbing, I also started to learn a little more about hiking. In particular, I learned about the Appalachian Trail and became fixated on it. I was talking about the trail with a friend who is an experienced hiker, and he proposed the idea of hiking a section of the trail in the Smoky Mountains after we finished our finals. Instilled with my new “do whatever is worth it” attitude, I immediately agreed. We ended up spending four days hiking in the Smokies, with a large portion of our hike being on the Appalachian Trail. And it was splendorous. It was my first time doing a real, multi-day hiking trip, and actually my first time camping as well (and by camping I mean sleeping on a hammock in the woods). To be out in nature with a good friend, experiencing the beauty of the natural world around me in complete isolation from everything else, was amazing. We had nothing to do but hike, think, talk, and look at nature in awe. It felt more meaningful than anything I had experienced in a long time.
At Clingman’s Dome – the highest point in the Smokies – on my hiking trip with my friend, David.
My next great set of climbing experiences happened this summer. I was fortunate enough to have an internship in California, where I knew there were some cool rock-climbing experiences to be had. I met a friend with some experience top-roping outside, and together we explored some of the climbing locales in the area. Our first trip, and the most significant one for me, was the trip we took to Castle Rock State Park. I had never actually climbed large walls outside, so this was my first time doing any sort of roped-climb outside. I won’t deny that I was pretty nervous climbing outside for the first time, but the experience overall was totally worth it. I felt pretty darn cool actually climbing on real, large rock faces for the first time. It felt like everything I had been working for climbing in the gym was culminating in the ultimate experience of actually being out there having a good time working my way up the rock. It felt like the realization of a goal, and the end of a crazy transition state in my life. I had started this experience wondering if I could find something meaningful in rock climbing. I had to work through tons of mental and emotional health struggles I was having with other aspects of my life, and I had to learn to let go and just enjoy life. I did all of this with my pursuit of climbing as the backdrop. Now I was realizing one of my main goals I initially had when I first took up climbing, and I felt at peace as a result of the progress I had made in reshaping my life philosophy into something I found enjoyable and meaningful.
Rappelling down after setting up a top-rope while climbing at Indian Joe Caves (in Fremont, CA).
In summary, this experience began with me wondering “what will happen if I start getting more into climbing?” And it evolved into an experience that would have an impact on me far beyond just the sport of climbing itself. The way I live my life was transformed, very much so for the better. Right when I was at what might be the lowest I’ve ever felt in my life, climbing showed me another path. And I have chosen this path and although I am still working on refining my approach, I feel so much better about the way I live my life than I ever have. Also, I now think that climbing, hiking, and all of that fun stuff is totally rad, and I plan to pursue them even more as my life progresses.
As for my academic and professional goals, I believe this experience is helping me to achieve those as well. While I worked towards those goals almost ceaselessly for the first few years of my education, that lifestyle felt like it was quickly burning me out. By giving me additional things to devote my time and energy to, and also teaching me to be more relaxed, my STEP experience has led me to a more balanced lifestyle. It is this shift, I believe, that will allow me to stay motivated to work towards my goals without burning myself out. In conclusion, my STEP experience has shown me new passions that can coexist with my existing passions, and the combination of the two will allow me to sustain and enjoy both for the rest of my lifetime.