How Rock Climbing Helped Me Find Community and Purpose After College

In college, I thrived socially. I was a member of multiple student organizations, I lived with fun roommates, and I had a close group of friends. Because I went to a mid-sized school, I also had a large number of friendly acquaintances. I spent most of my free time surrounded by other people—being an extrovert, this made me really happy. For four years, I felt an enormous sense of belonging in my college community, without ever having to work very hard to find opportunities to socialize.

But this all changed drastically after graduation. I got a full-time job and moved to a nearby city, into an apartment of my own. I was excited to live alone and enter the “real world,” but the transition ended up being way harder than I had imagined. Because I went to a fairly regional college, I thought that many of my friends would stay in the area after school ended, but I was wrong. Most of them ended up landing out-of-state jobs and moving away the summer after graduation. My social circle shrank dramatically, and I was left with way more free time than I knew what to do with. I felt completely isolated, and I realized that I didn’t really know how to go about making new friends.

During this transition, I turned to rock climbing, a hobby that I picked up in college, to stay busy.

Anytime I didn’t have plans but wanted some, I would drive to the climbing gym and spend a few hours working on new routes. Climbing—specifically, bouldering—was the perfect distraction for me because it is essentially like solving a big puzzle. To successfully send (climber lingo for “climb”) a route, you have to work your way up the wall one strategic move at a time. It requires serious focus; you need to learn to recognize the wall holds and use them to your advantage, and know when and how to shift your body weight to get to each hold. It’s a tough workout, both mentally and physically—which is what makes it so gratifying for me.

In college, I climbed once a week; now, I was heading to the gym three to four times a week. I started feeling noticeably stronger and tried sending harder routes. In a matter of months, I went from climbing boulder routes graded between V0 to V2 to routes graded between V3 to V5. If you’re not familiar with bouldering, this is a significant jump in difficulty. (Most gyms usually max out at V10 or V11.) In college, I never would’ve imagined that I’d be climbing V5s—those were the routes that I would sit back and watch other climbers tackle. Now, I was successfully climbing routes I never would have attempted before—and I felt prouder of myself than ever.

Feeling empowered by my progress made me realize I was capable of more than I previously thought, and that really helped me find a sense of purpose during this time.

To my surprise, the climbing gym ended up being the perfect place to meet new people.

I turned to climbing to keep busy and get stronger, but when I started doing it more frequently, I noticed many of the same staff members and climbers frequented the gym each night. This familiarity was actually really comforting—even when my interactions with others were minimal, simply being around other people in a social setting for a few hours was enough to make me feel significantly less lonely. It felt really good to have somewhere I could always go and know I’d see a friendly face. In this way, spending more time at the climbing gym actually made me feel less alone.

Because climbers share wall space at the gym, there are also a lot of opportunities to casually chat. It’s not uncommon for climbers to talk to each other about the routes on the wall, and I ended up meeting a lot of people through these interactions. Over time, these short exchanges turned into longer conversations, and eventually, friendships. It actually turned out to be a great place to make new friends because everyone shared one big common interest with me already.

I met one of current best friends during this time at a climbing gym. I had gone to the gym to climb with my brother (we made plans on occasion, but for the most part, had completely separate social lives at the time) and his friends. My future-friend happened to be dating one of my brother’s friends, and we hit it off immediately.

We initially started talking because I asked her for advice on a route. But after a few hours of climbing together and talking, we realized that we had a lot of other similar interests, like yoga and hiking. She, too, was looking for more friends to climb with, so we started making plans. Flash forward two years and she is now a great friend and one of the few people that I see on a weekly basis. Yes, we technically met through mutual friends, but it was those hangouts to climb together early on, when I felt totally in my element, that our friendship really blossomed.

Climbing helped me feel like I belonged to a community again—and it still does every time I travel somewhere new.

Another perk of the climbing community is that it transcends any given gym or city. In December, I visited family in Chicago and decided to try out a local climbing gym while I was there. Even though I had never been and did not know a single person in the room, I still felt totally welcome and comfortable climbing there. It’s pretty awesome to know that I can travel to any city that has a climbing gym and have somewhere to go where I feel a sense of belonging.

I have now been out of college for two years, and I still rely on the sport when I’m feeling lonely or overwhelmed. I still meet new people at my local gym, too. Rock climbing is a really special activity to me—it was my outlet during a bumpy time, it introduced me to many of my good friends, and it has continued to provide me with a sense of community throughout my life transitions.

Climbing has obviously become a big part of who I am, and I’ll always be grateful that I found this community when I did. Even more, I’ll always be glad that I just put myself out there in a new place—because that’s what ultimately helped me find a place where I could feel at home again.

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