Sonja | Belonging

I open my rope bag, take my rope out, and buckle on my harness. In front of the climbing wall I get my shoes on. They are tight and my toes cannot move. I turn around and talk shortly to a couple of friends and my belayer. We chat about the latest stuff that happened in our lives. I start making the knot of my rope and my belayer makes sure it is a good figure of eight. I check his carabiner and that the rope is safe, then I turn around and walk to the wall and open my chalk bag; my hands search for the chalk and I spread the chalk over them. I look up at the route and think of the different moves I may have to do.

This is the moment when I start climbing and my head turns off.

I don’t hear the people around me anymore; it is me, the climbing wall, and my belayer. I start the route. Left hand, right hand, right foot and up. A couple of moves and ‘click’, the rope goes into the quickdraw. ‘Click’, a couple of moves the rope goes into the next quickdraw. I breathe and the higher I get the more I have to trust my belayer. A constant battle in my head – still, and unfortunately, I am afraid of falling, I am afraid of doing moves I have the ability to do but not the mental strengths. ‘Click’, next quickdraw. Once I finished the route and I am down on the ground again, I feel great. It was a good route and a good climb but I need to get better, I need to get mentally stronger and overcome my fear of falling …

Even though these mental battles I have with myself can be frustrating and discouraging at times, I don’t think I can live without climbing anymore.

I love both lead-climbing and bouldering, but lead-climbing is the greater challenge for me. Bouldering is my technical challenge but without fear (ok apart from slabs, slabs are sometimes horrifying). But climbing became also my saviour in a time of my life I struggled mentally.

All my life I’ve moved around the world to live in different places (literally). I always enjoyed moving, getting to know places, people and different cultures. I am also an academic and my research takes place mostly in Latin America.

However, in January 2017 I moved for my first job, after my PhD, to Leeds. So here I was moving again. But it was different this time. I actually did not want to go back to the UK, where I also did my PhD. I wanted to go back to the continent; I wanted to be closer to Germany, my home country. Moving to Leeds gave me the feeling I had no choice in where to go. Additionally, an academic career is very unstable and stressful nowadays. We work all the time, fixed term contracts are usual for early career academics and the UK decided to create a publishing race like no other country in the world with something called REF.

Thus feeling close to burn out seems to be accepted. In sum, academic jobs are rare and I had to take a job anywhere in the world, this time it was Leeds. I also admit the weather in January in Leeds was not helping either.


For the first time in my life I felt deeply lonely and sad. I was in a city and country I did not really choose to become my home, I had no friends, didn’t feel my job was going to well and it was winter. Sometimes I would walk home and all I wanted to do was cry.

Soon, I realised I needed to change my situation and I started climbing. And, yes, it did change my life. Somehow climbing became my passion, my addiction and my balance to work in life. Today I try to climb at least three to four days a week. I love the feeling of my sore fingers from hard bouldering sessions, and the feeling of satisfaction when having climbed a long difficult route on the rope. But what really helped me through my hard days at the beginning in Leeds was the feeling of belonging through being a climber in the climbing community. I feel I belong on a wall and to the people around me in the climbing lab.

While climbing challenges me mentally, the people I got to know through climbing rescued my everyday mental health in Leeds. They became some of my closest friends.

I guess what makes this group so distinctive is that climbers are an inclusive group. It really doesn’t matter if I have published this paper yet, if I managed to get this job yet, or if I am rich or poor. I feel this group of people accepts me how I am.

They gave me a feeling of belonging. We share the same passion and can talk about this one route for ages and why it is so great. We can spend hours together on a boulder problem just to get one more move done. But we also share our private lives, our problems and joys. It is thanks to these people and our shared passion for holds and rocks that I am not lonely anymore. To the contrary, Leeds became my home, even in winter now.  

Thus through climbing and my climbing friends it just made ‘click’ and I was a couple of moves further in life and realised in the end that this move wasn’t too bad, after all.

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