Finding Myself in the Movement

A Climbing Story by Jennifer Fleming.

Each and every one of us is drawn to climbing from something deep inside of us. This week we have the privilege to share the inspiring story of how guest contributor Jennifer Fleming came to love the sport and find herself after some unexpected life changes. 

I started climbing right around the time my last relationship started to turn towards it’s end. I may have known that end was coming, I may have been in denial. I may have been trying to figure out how I could salvage my own sanity and self worth from the wreckage with which I was soon to be surrounded. After a conversation with a friend, he said, “Well, let’s go then! A friend of mine is a long time climber at this gym in Burlington. She can help us figure it out.” And on a lark, we were off.

My first day on the wall I’m pretty sure I galloped like a unicorn that just found a rainbow sprinkles tree. Not especially demonstrative of my affection with my male friends, on this particular day my friend was clobbered with unicorn hugs repeatedly. We took the belay lesson and lingered afterward, testing our new skills. Climbing became a regular escape for me and if I wasn’t outside hiking in the snow (it was February of a brutal winter season) then I was at the gym. I LOVED it. It felt so much like dancing, a full body release and a total spiritual teleportation away from all the bullshit, confusion, and sorrow that my life was spinning towards. Climbing gave me an opening through which to squeeze myself that nothing else could follow me through. It was just me, rope, hard grippy plastic and the next 25 ft route of sweat, huff, puff, pull, push, and balance until the sweetest surrender of finishing at the top. For the tail end of a crappy winter, I had found a happy place.

My relationship with my then partner (now friend) fell away and I moved back to Hamilton. It was summer and I had a lot of grieving and sorting out to do. Climbing fell away and was replaced by some teeth gnashing, pedal grinding, crazy-laughing-I-rode-my-bike-too-hard type cycling for the season. Then I moved (again), and it was another long cold shitty winter. When one day, I heard the call of my climbing gear saying, “Hey girl, fuck this weepy bullshit, let’s go sweat like a pig!” So I did. Twice a week, every week, I was back at the gym. As my friend couldn’t come climb with me anymore, I took to the boulders for a while, and then hooked up with a few other folks. With a nice spread of experience, I was able to both encourage newer climbers to push, to see, to rest, and think, and in turn be pushed and encouraged by more seasoned athletes. The pain of the last year started to fall away and I began to think about the future again.

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Jen in her ‘Happy Place’

That winter while on the wall, I decided that I wanted to do something big and important. So I picked a route, planned the trip, and the following June I rode my bike 300km over 3 days to the place of my childhood ecstasy; Brighton ON. My family used to have a cottage out there. The big picture purpose of that ride was to raise money for SACHA, the Sexual Assault Center of Greater Hamilton Area. The inner purpose of that ride was to demonstrate to myself that I can do hard things. That I am not defined by my story, or my past, or my pain. I am defined by what I choose to do with every present moment I am gifted with. I spent the rest of that summer mountain biking and cycling in Ontario; visiting Turkey Point, Algonquin Park, Puslinch, and the Christie Lake Trails.

When winter returned so too did I to the climbing gym. In October, I bought my annual membership to Climber’s Rock. Climbing was just as much big medicine as cycling. But there was something different in it that I was determined to discover. Cycling is great when I just want to mash myself to pieces and go blind with tunnel vision but climbing provides a completely different kind of release. It is slower, more methodical. It demands that I pay attention to every exact motion because a wrong hand placement may mean the inability to get over to the next movement. It demands clear focus on how my breathing is moving, how my body parts are integrating, and how my weight is balancing between the pull of gravity and my upward momentum. There’s a certain grace and beauty in the control of climbing that I just can’t seem to find on a bike. For me cycling is flailing, frothy, an almost angry exhilaration. Climbing is subtle, precise; the smoother you are with your movements, the easier the whole thing is, the more elegant it is and somehow… the more ME I feel and become. Cycling was a way to smash through the pain. Climbing was the way to reclaiming myself.

It’s March now. The sun is warm when it’s not behind clouds, my backyard is frequented by all manner of birds, and I am planning my summer vegetable garden. I have met some more people to climb with, mostly seasoned climbers from whom I can glean techniques, drills, and drive to grow deeper into this practice. I am anxiously awaiting the new Southern Ontario Climbing Guide so that I can plan and hopefully inspire others to come climb with me on some of our fantastic rock faces. My life continues to move forward in what seems to be a break away pace, but climbing is still there, and will continue to be through the summer (I will make time for it, no doubt) as the quiet, methodical, all-of-me challenging space in which I can continue to become myself.

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Jen has been climbing intermittently for 2 years out of Climber’s Rock in Burlington. When off the wall, Jen practices as an RMT in Hamilton, enjoys mashing on pedals, and any manner of outdoor activity.

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