Words + Photos by Leslie Kim.
The very first time I went rock climbing was at a little gym in Southern California in 2003. We got a small group of friends together, and none of us had any real rock climbing experience. I didn’t rent shoes because I was probably trying to save money, or just didn’t know that shoes were important. I climbed in my sweatpants and Adidas sneakers and toproped my absolute heart out.
Since then, climbing has always been on my mind. I couldn’t pay for a gym membership when I was broke college kid, but I took up friends’ offers on their free guest passes every five years or so. Even though my visits to the climbing gym were so infrequent, the activity always captured me. Something about it put a smile on my face every time I thought about touching a hold.
In 2014, I finally made the commitment to climb regularly. At this time in my life, I was two years out of a significant but damaging relationship that had destroyed my happiness for five years. My social network was shattered, and any remaining friends I still had from before that relationship were not ones I could relate to anymore. My life was undergoing a huge change, and I was absolutely alone. The only connection I had to other people or the real world was at my job, which was stressful with long hours and was creatively demanding.
For the first time in a very long time, I had a smile on my face again. I was excited to do something new. I forgot about the drudgery of my life and I laughed as I struggled up a climbing wall.
I wasn’t exercising. I wasn’t eating well. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was tired, angry, depressed, and anxious. Desperate, I reached out to a very old friend who took me to a climbing gym. For the first time in a very long time, I had a smile on my face again. I was excited to do something new. I forgot about the drudgery of my life and I laughed as I struggled up a climbing wall.
When I heard LA Boulders was opening up not far from me, I signed up right away. The barriers that had stopped me from climbing earlier in life weren’t there anymore; and I actually had a job this time, so it was totally realistic to sign up for a gym membership even though I had no furniture at my apartment. But hey, who needs furniture when you can go climbing?
…it was totally realistic to sign up for a gym membership even though I had no furniture at my apartment. But hey, who needs furniture when you can go climbing?
I was at LA Boulders all the time. If my body had allowed it, I would have gone every single day. I had no conception of rest days or warmups—I just threw myself at any boulder problem that was open because it helped me temper the negative emotions that plagued all my waking hours. The best part about climbing was that it made me so tired I could actually sleep at night. I’d wake up with a few aches and pains, but getting a good night’s sleep was so worth it.
Eventually, my lack of knowledge and discipline caught up to me, and I sustained a string of injuries that would force me to learn to rest, work on strength training, and be a reasonable human being.
Climbing gave me an arena in which to struggle with myself. I climbed when I was sad, and climbed when I was angry. I climbed on days that I hated life and climbed on days when things just fell into place and I felt that things could not be more perfect. Within that self-struggle, I learned what it took to make tiny steps forward. I focused on getting one climb at at time, one move at a time.
Climbing gave me an arena in which to struggle with myself…Within that self-struggle, I learned what it took to make tiny steps forward.
“What if I do this?” I thought to myself on so many occasions, imagining a move in my mind and probably making a weird face and gesture with my body. “Or what if I try that?” I wondered. I wasn’t strong. Like, at all. So, I had to get creative. I tested out my wacky ideas on boulder problems that either worked or didn’t. When my ideas worked, sometimes I’d surprise even myself. It was an amazing thing to watch my ideas get feedback from the real world.
In my heart, I am artist. I believe I always have been, although I was heavily discouraged from pursuing a career as one. As a kid, I made things because I was curious. Above all else, I just wanted to see what would happen if I did one thing or another. I was an odd girl who was obsessed with making things because that was how I made sense of the world. Decades later, I realized that no matter how far away I got from making art, I was still the same curious and creative person.
Climbing did the best thing for my artist brain that any activity could have possibly done: It made me curious again.
Climbing did the best thing for my artist brain that any activity could have possibly done: It made me curious again. It made me wonder about the possibilities and project into the future. When I was climbing, everything from planning my next move on a climb to planning a big climbing trip put me into a mindset of considering what would happen next.
Through both climbing and art, I was able to be curious and give myself the space to have some wild and wacky ideas. I tested those ideas on the rocks and in real life. I learned to adjust when necessary and try again. I gained valuable insights about the world around me by going outdoors and experiencing nature in more remote places.
I started to value my time now that I had a good way to use it.
I started to value my time now that I had a good way to use it. After a while, I knew I wanted to climb and make art as often as possible. I started to ask for more time off at work, and slowly learned that I did not have a good work/life balance. I changed jobs, hoping the next workplace would be better; it wasn’t. So I started freelancing in order to control my time and take ownership of my projects.
I started making art about rock climbing, and at the request of my friends, printed that art onto t-shirts. That was the birth of my rock climbing apparel brand, Dynamite Starfish. I took Dynamite Starfish on the road and traveled to climbing gyms and climbing festivals all around the country. By traveling, trying to make a living off of my art, and subjecting myself to so many unknowns, I learned that I was capable of so much more than I could ever have previously imagined. I have gained a community of supportive friends who are now like family to me, and do my best to contribute back to that community in positive ways.
Eventually, I learned that the future isn’t something that just happens to us. It’s something we can affect, at least to some degree. If I could choose the type of climbing day I had by choosing my partners, maybe I could choose the types of people I spent my time with in other areas of my life. If I could learn skills that could make multipitching less frustrating, maybe I could learn other life skills that would remove some frustrations from my life. Through the lessons I learned from rock climbing, I learned how to care about my own safety and value my finite time and energy.
Obviously, rock climbing is not a necessary factor for personal growth. Lots of people learn the same lessons I did doing other things. But climbing will always be special to me because without it, I don’t know how long it would have taken for me to find a way to start enjoying life again.