Climbing, Contentment and Middle Age Article

© Megan Holbeck

Megan Holbeck explores how her love of climbing has changed as 'real life' has become more real...

I was 17 and itching to get out of the boredom of school in suburban Canberra (Australia) when I first tried climbing. It was the '90s, and skittering up holds on the walls of an old squash court was the best thing I'd done all year. I stayed for hours, and couldn't hold a pen properly for a week. That was probably the pinnacle of my training dedication, and definitely the start of something that shaped my life for decades.

Megan In Scotland in her early 20s.
© Megan Holbeck

I was never a very good, very disciplined or very committed climber – I found training boring, and weekends away often got in the way of my drinking commitments – but climbing gave me a framework to build my life around. A gap year in an outdoor centre in the Lake District turned into years of gallivanting around the UK. I climbed everything from sea cliffs in Cornwall to smooth grit quarries and long Scottish mountain routes, while cleaning houses in Yorkshire, bar tending at Glenmore Lodge and eventually going to uni back in Australia.

I loved climbing without investigating why, without digging into the big muddled mess of good times, belonging, adrenaline and adventure. It was never as simple as being fun – if you start something young enough, and use it as a support for your sense of self, it rarely is.

The scene was part of it: being part of a world with hidden places and meaning made life shinier and more exciting, provided contrast and separation from the ho-humness of 'normal life'. I made friends who were different to me in age, experience and background, with a definite leaning towards misfits and quirk. Interesting people proposed interesting stuff: everything from mountaineering trips to New Zealand to quick trips to sport areas with more time spent behind the wheel than on rock.  

Megan climbing in the Arapiles in her mid-20s.
© Megan Holbeck

Part of it was the physical movement, the addictive glide when you were in the zone, the adrenaline and satisfied glow afterwards. Or, when it wasn't your day, the relief that it was over, followed by the tidy compartmentalising of memory.

And the places I got to go, now an internal slideshow of reminisce: traversing through a sea arch in the northern tip of Scotland, the waves pounding and echoing, below the ruins of a Viking fort. A day spent scampering up Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis in the sun. Multipitch climbing above a backdrop of gum trees in the Blue Mountains; the spires of the Warrumbungles rising like a set from Jurassic Park. It gave me a window out of urban life, and a reason to have adventures.

Over time climbing buddies moved away, had kids. I climbed less, and when I was first pregnant my gear moved into boxes under the bed. Three kids in five years didn't leave much space for climbing, but I tried. But instead of bringing joy, it brought regret and resentment: why hadn't I climbed more when I had the time? What had I done to my life? Who was I now if I couldn't do what I loved? Was this hollow, mum-version of me all I had?

These emotions can best be summed up in a phrase best said in a whine: it's not fair.

Enjoying the orange rock of Arapiles.
© Megan Holbeck

I started using the past tense: 'I used to climb.' It seemed more honest, safer, and brought a satisfying sense of closure. Instead of disappointment with what I had now, it gave me appreciation for what I'd done. As babies grew, I clawed back time, with more convenient things taking the place of climbing: ocean swimming, trail running, surfing.

The kids got older, and I started getting out occasionally again. A long weekend at Arapiles with old mates, orange rock blazing against a blue sky. I remembered how to climb the bulgy sandstone; how holds and gear placements appeared when you needed them.

A friend showed me a crag 30 minutes from where I lived in Sydney and we'd go occasionally. I relished the moves as I can't remember doing before, enjoyed the puzzle of figuring out the crux, the battle between nerves and concentration. The sore fingertips were a memento of fun.

I still don't climb much, but I value it more. I really don't care about grades; whether I get up or not. That's not to say I don't try, but there's no ego involved.

Megan Holbeck.  © Megan Holbeck
Megan Holbeck.
© Megan Holbeck

Instead it's about fun, adventure and joy. It's the beauty of it, from belaying while magpies warble and gear clinks. Banter on a baking ledge, sketching out above gear. Looking out over the sea, mountains or trees, being able to feel your heart beat and your self expand. Arriving back at a camp site, sore and happy, satisfied with a good day. That's my new version of climbing contentment.

I'll probably climb more before I start to climb less, my increased fitness hopefully compensating for my increasing decrepitude, for a while at least. Maybe my kids will join me, absorb the things I love while finding their own reasons and meaning, bonding over shared places, times and experiences.

I've always loved Jenny Joseph's poem about growing old disgracefully, beginning with the line: 'When I'm an old woman, I shall wear purple'. I plan to climb in the same vein, my status as an older female bumbly beautifully counterpointed by the fact that I don't give a shit. My subversion won't be about bright colour or helmets that match. Instead, it'll be in action, my joy and attitude.

I'll be very happy with that.

17 Aug, 2022

Great! I love the articles that get published that recognise the diverse experience that 'climbing' means to each of us.

17 Aug, 2022


I go to Sydney every year and not done much climbing there as it's usually too hot and in April/May this year it just didn't stop raining!!

Done quite a bit at Booroomba Rocks (even put a few new routes up), much under rated. I always go and look at Wahroonga Rocks and done a bit at Berowra, never quite comfy with that carrot concept.

Keep enjoying it.

17 Aug, 2022

Why is the like button limited to 1 click?

17 Aug, 2022

Great. I'm taking that phrase, the ho-humness of everyday life and looking forward to some adventures when work and kids are behind us.

17 Aug, 2022

1 click per person? Not overall though, obviously

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