Of Climbing and Lawyering

Low angle view of a female climber achieving her goal of reaching the top of a mountain

On the cusp of my 40s, I began toying with the idea of a midlife rejuvenation. I wasn’t shopping around for a full-on crisis or reinvention, just something to add to my repertoire of interests. I was daughter, auntie, girlfriend, and lawyer; but while I had plenty of roles, I had a striking scarcity of hobbies. It was time to take inventory of how I spent my free time and perhaps add a little spice to my days.

I needed something physical to appreciate my health while I had it, before the inevitable mobility limitations of aging showed up to the party. I tried rollerblading, mountain biking, and—for a split second—archery. None stuck.

During a trip to REI to look for inspiration, I wandered into the previously ignored section of ropes and mysteriously elfish footwear. I eavesdropped on a salesperson explain the benefits of something called a locking carabiner. She was enthusiastic and met with the same from her shoppers.

Rock climbing. I had an old boyfriend who occasionally did it. I had seen the award-winning documentary Free Solo. I knew climbing was a thing. Maybe I could make it my thing.

I started dabbling in this potential new pastime with an apprehensive trip to the bouldering gym. I ignored the voice in my head that said I needed to be sinewy to have any measure of success. I paid for a day pass, rented the extremely uncomfortable shoes, and bought a pouch of chalk.

I sulked around the walls until I summoned enough courage to climb. I looked over the smattering of plastic holds bolted across a 10-foot-high plywood wall reinforced with who knows what, and thought, “I’m sure this place follows industry standards and has appropriate liability insurance. I’m going for it.”

The first few times on the wall, I jumped down prematurely of my own volition. Embarrassment wasn’t on the agenda. Over the course of a few visits, I pushed myself to make it to the last, highest hold. The validation of a definitive win, a solid finish, was feeding my trial-attorney soul.

But then I fell—really fell. Having forgotten that I had a bag of chalk dust strapped around my waist and now working with some very sweaty hands, I slipped off the last hold and I lost my footing. “This is it,” I thought, “this is where my climbing shoes get tossed in the closet with the rollerblades, soon to be joined by crutches.” But after a moment of breathtaking fear, relief came over me. I stood up stunned and smiling on the padded flooring. I had fallen and I had survived. As someone who was not yet convinced on the valor of failure, this was an accomplishment.

I moved on to single pitch and big wall climbing, signing up for classes and guided ventures that brought good climbing partners and practical advice. While I was not particularly good at the sport, I was drawn to the feeling that came with a pure focus on a singular goal with no time for equivocation. This was not the place to host a roundtable discussion or consult smarter minds. I had to reach the top before my legs shook themselves off the rock and my forearms went up in flames. While the literal pivoting and readjusting was reminiscent of the metaphorical practices of law, it was not hidden in a pile of competing interests or posturing. This was a different sensation, one I did not realize I needed to balance out the controlled chaos of litigation and certainly one I did not realize had a place in my legal practice.

As lawyers, our minds are often in a million places, as we consider contingencies and strategies for each of, often, several cases or clients all at once. I’d bet good money that a lot of us have a dry erase board on our office wall displaying a solar system of words and concepts—potential problems, possible solutions, perhaps a doodle of levity added by the scribe during a lull in the brainstorming session. Of course, “do not erase,” will be prominently featured somewhere on that board, because the solar system grows as we keep thinking. After all, we are hired to identify and avoid potential problems, just as we are hired to solve current ones.

Not so in climbing. It is only the present moment’s problem that demands focus and resolution. Everything else needs to take a number and take a seat. In this way, climbing rejuvenates one’s ability to keep a clear head. Such a skill isn’t just for when I am hanging off the side of a big rock. It is useful when providing pointed, urgently needed advice, or confronted with the unexpected. Perhaps most often, clearing our heads is useful when we feel like the solar system is coming too close to swallowing us whole. And here I thought climbing would just improve my upper body strength.

Over the past few years of this new hobby, its value continues to reveal itself. Failure isn’t such a dirty word. With preparation and planning, I try routes I know I may not finish. And sometimes I don’t. I try moves I know I may not make. And sometimes I don’t. Regardless of the outcome, I am reminded that the risk of failure cannot bar bold attempts. Learning to fail, and fail well, means we trust ourselves to try new things. Proffering a novel argument, presenting an unusual demonstrative exhibit, or trying a new presentation technique all are easier when we realize failure isn’t the end.

I was recently lucky enough to climb in northeast Spain with Cecilia Buil, an accomplished professional rock and ice climber. She has been climbing for three decades and is an incredible guide. As she belayed me from above on the third pitch of a 500-foot climb, she saw me struggling at the route’s crux. She could see that I was looking down, not at my feet but at how far I could fall. “Don’t look down, you aren’t going that way,” she said, without any hint of Brené Brown metaphorical encouragement.  Cecilia’s advice was practical. “You already cleared all that; that’s done.” Of course, she was right. Seems you don’t get sponsored by Patagonia (or climb the Patagonia Mountains) without having some sense.

I looked up and away from the bottom of the wall and told fear to take a seat. With the help of a few holds I hadn’t initially noticed—being too busy imagining myself falling into a pile of bushes—I was able to keep going. The lesson was a reminder that the distraction of past mistakes is useless, and expending energy on what is outside of our control is counterproductive. Solidifying this simple concept through a spicy new hobby is perhaps the best rejuvenation I could have hoped for.