The Zen of Bouldering

“I thought climbing the Devil’s Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams.”
― Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

When we go climbing, we are often hoping to achieve something. Whether it be on an expedition to the Karakoram or a weekend trip to Yosemite or even a simple outing to your favorite crag, there is usually the hope that something will be achieved; some limit will be pushed, some new boundary will be broken. Climbing has emerged from obscurity and been successful as a sport, partly because climbers have dreams, sometimes nearly impossible dreams, that they are absolutely set on seeing become realities. These dreams once included ascending Everest and K2, and once included routes such as Adam Ondra’s La Dura Dura and Chris Sharma’s The Mandala. It is because of climbers who dared to dream that mountains and routes such as these have been realized. As much as we may climb for sheer enjoyment, there is certainly a competitive aspect to climbing.

Training indoors to reach the next higher grade can distract from the origin of climbing

Training indoors to reach the next higher grade can distract from the origin of climbing

It is perfectly natural for us to bring expectations to the table. In fact, we should hope we have some expectations. A climber without any drive will rarely push as hard as a climber with a goal and something to prove. That being said, there is something satisfying about climbing without any expectations or goals. Recently, I’ve been climbing pure, aesthetic lines simply because they’re aesthetic and not because I want to climb something challenging. This is a new way of thinking for me, and to be honest, it is discomforting at first. Yet, there is something strangely alluring about the mindful, even “zen”, state I find myself in while climbing without the expectations I put on myself.

Taking after Nathan Williamson, another Kuhl climber, and climbing for the zen of it Photo by Eric Scott Russell

Taking after Nathan Williamson, another Kuhl climber, and climbing for the zen of it
Photo by Eric Scott Russell


I’ve gone climbing with expectations a lot of times, and I’ve sended my projects only a few of those times. Most of the time I spend climbing is spent figuring out a route, working out each move individually, stringing them all together, and then attempting a send. So, just climbing for pure fun without any need for achievement is, in a word, liberating. The freedom that comes with the occasional zen climbing session, no goals and no competition, has made my challenging climbs easier. When we spend all of our time working on complex movements, we forget the simple joy of movement. We forget why we climb at all: because climbing is freedom. Getting back to the zen roots of climbing has made me a better climber.

It can be incredibly difficult to stop expecting so much of yourself. And, I am not advocating it as a permanent training regimen. But, I think that spending more time messing around on fun routes and less time taking myself so seriously has forced me to think about why I spend my time scaling rocks. It’s forced me to remember that I climb to be free, and that’s something that I have found in the aesthetic side of climbing, not the competitive slew of grades and expectations.

There is an idea in Zen Buddhism called Beginner’s Mind. Beginner’s Mind is a mind free of expectations, open to new possibilities and experiences. It is a mind that is unhindered by pressure to perform. There is certainly pressure to perform in the climbing community. While this pressure and competition is not always a bad thing, reconnecting to the roots of climbing can be helpful. Climbing’s roots are full of adventure and exploration, of the places where men and mountains meet, of people just going out and pushing themselves without any expectations of fame or fortune, or even success. These pioneers had beginner’s mind. They went out and excelled, not because they were pressured to do so, but because it was what made them feel alive. The most successful mountain athletes cultivate this beginner’s mind, this acceptance of failure. Whether it’s sport-climbing legend Adam Ondra, or star alpinist Ueli Steck, the ability to go to the mountains without expectation, with beginner’s mind, is part of what allows them to perform at the level they do.

Having beginners mind makes things more fun

Having beginners mind makes things more fun

If we allow them to be, life, adventure, and climbing can be nothing but a series of frustrating events. And, sure, climbing can be really frustrating at times. It takes dedication and determination. That being said, sometimes it’s good to have a change of pace and let go of our expectations of ourselves. The Buddhist monks who practice beginner’s mind while meditating are not so different than the pioneers of climbing. Climbing is a moving meditation, a way to connect with ourselves, a way to feel alive. There is something uniquely beautiful about the aesthetic of a problem, the flow of one movement after another, the thrill of a send. That moment when the climber merges with the rock face and everything flows perfectly, that is the zen of bouldering: the letting go of expectations and the freedom of movement.

Matt Rosen