Often known for its boosts to physical wellbeing, climbing doesn’t often make it into the big headlines for mental health benefits. But for Beth Thomas, it couldn’t have been more important. Read on to hear her full story.
Originally from South Wales, some of my earliest memories are of walking in the Brecon Beacons with my family. As far back as I can remember I have been an explorer of hills and mountains. And when my family relocated to Italy, I spent lots of time walking in the Alps and the rolling hills north of Milan.
I was first introduced to climbing as a 12-year-old on a school trip to the peak district and then at a summer camp in the south of France. Although these experiences intrigued me, they were one-offs, and I soon forgot about them when back in school.
During my teenage years, apart from being involved in a few Duke of Edinburgh trips, I lost connection with the outdoors when I became mentally unwell and developed low self-worth and an eating disorder. I remained unwell for a decade, becoming increasingly dependent on alcohol and engaging in self-abuse through disordered eating and thoughts.
I moved to Manchester to attend University and had no idea of where I was geographically and what lay on my doorstep, not even making the connection with the school trip I had all those years ago. I would continue to suffer from anxiety, depressive episodes and disordered eating, remaining in the urban landscape of Manchester city centre and having no idea about the possibilities that lay outside.
The route to recovery
In my early 20s, although my mental health was gradually improving with the involvement of professional help, I still felt like a huge part of me was ‘missing’. My life took a turn when I was bought a ‘learn to climb’ course at an indoor wall and was taught the basics: how to tie a figure of eight knot, how to belay, and safe practices. The course was short but enough to give me the skills to begin top roping with a friend. The issue was that I hardly knew anybody who climbed and didn’t trust my top rope partner enough to make any real progression. This meant that I dipped in and out of climbing and it still felt like an unobtainable and intimidating challenge to even get to the wall sometimes, especially when my mental health was poor.
It wasn’t until I built up the courage to post an advert on a climbing partner finding website and met who I consider to be my first proper climbing partner. I was excited to begin climbing with her and was secretly happy she was a woman. I felt more comfortable getting to know a female stranger and learning to trust her with the rope work. We had a lot in common: we both enjoyed the outdoors and a good chat, but also we were both eager to climb as much as possible. We learned to lead together and I found that for the first time in years I felt confident and respectful of my body, especially when I was able to finish climbs I had previously only gawked at in bemusement.
I took a leap and booked myself onto a women’s only five days climbing holiday in Spain. I had found that, especially initially, I felt more comfortable climbing with other women. Now I enjoy climbing with anyone but there was definitely a sense of less bravado and more encouragement from women when I was starting out. This was my first experience sport climbing and I loved it. Of course, the sunshine and great company helped!
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The more I climbed the better I was feeling, mentally and physically. When my partner could no longer climb I found a women’s weekly climbing meet and got involved with like-minded and lovely people, some of whom I now have deep-rooted friendships with. Although I didn’t attend the group for long, I found new partners and contacts through this avenue and soon had a network of climbers, both male and female, who I could call upon to climb with. I was lucky enough to have a friend who took me outside to learn how to place climbing gear and set me on my way to trad climbing outdoors.
I have been in recovery for six years and, although the dips in mood still occur, my mental health remains stable and certainly manageable. It is no coincidence that this coincides with learning to climb, both indoors and out, and through rediscovering my love of the outdoors. Climbing helps me focus: it encourages mindful thoughts, movements and takes me away from the sometimes unhelpful mental chatter that can be exhausting. Not only do you get a good opportunity for mental focus but you achieve a great respect for the way your body works and how to treat it well. There is also no better feeling than getting to the top of a challenging route, particularly outdoors, invigorated by the beauty of the landscape.
Booking yourself onto a beginner’s climbing course is the best advice I could give for anyone who is unsure about where to start. You and everyone on the course will all be in the same boat and you can learn the basics. Once you’ve done that, look for a regular partner/meetup/club, whether this is single or mixed sex, to help further inspire you. Climbers are a passionate bunch and have open arms to help people develop skills and enjoy climbing to their full potential. Oh and it’s also really really fun J
Beth Thomas: 29, climber and mental health advocate living in Manchester.
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