three people hiking in the mountains

Rock Climbing With Asthma 

Standing with the tip of my toe on an edge, the width of a dime, a football field of stone below me and sea of stone above. I reach to my harness, grabbing the rope that's loose and waving with slack; it connects me to my partner below, whom I am trusting with my life. I clip into a piece of protection, a moment of safety before plunging into the next stretch of the unknown. As I’m alone and vulnerable, about a hundred feet above my partner--who’s words of encouragement are fading into the breeze--there's one thing that keeps me centered, calm and controlled: my breathing.

How I started climbing

I started climbing about 8 years ago, as a college student looking to find a more exciting way of exercising. I went to a local climbing gym one day, bored with typical weight lifting. It was exhilarating and playful! To try really hard, but fall on most things I tried. It was encouraging in the most ironic way.

I found myself leaving with a pumped out body and a feeling of accomplishment, although I only got to the top of a few things. I remember that initial excitement, 'this could be the exercise for me', I thought. At the time, I just wanted to be stronger; little did I know, this new passion would make me stronger in more ways than I could've imagined. More importantly, climbing would make me thankful for something I always thought would limit me.

Why I climb

I climb because it makes me physically, mentally, and emotionally stronger. It’s evident that such intense physical movement would create a stronger physical body, but the exposure to risk and overcoming that risk has made me much stronger both mentally and emotionally. Climbing has also changed the way I rationalize and address challenges, with lessons that have transcended from rock into many other areas of my life.

The most valuable lessons climbing has taught me:

  • Identify your weaknesses, train them and see where they take you.
  • Trust the process; noticeable changes don’t happen instantly or often, persistence is most important.
  • Large goals are met by finishing many smaller goals; focusing on the smaller goals helps to avoid getting overwhelmed.
  • Be present and be prepared for what’s to come.
  • Breathing and gratitude are most important.

All of these lessons have directly improved how I think of and manage my asthma.

Rock climbing, elevation, and asthma

Traveling up into the mountains, I sometimes go to around 8,000-10,000 feet of elevation. When in higher elevation, my asthma makes its presence known; shortness of breath and wheezing are common, especially when the approach hike is long and strenuous. I notice my asthma bringing fatigue into my muscles earlier than I am used to while training at lower elevations.

While it can be frustrating at times, there’s never a moment where I am not thankful for my ability to use my body outdoors.

My climbing triggers

Indoor climbing has become very popular in the last decade. Although there are beautiful indoor facilities for climbing, there is a clear issue for asthmatics in these gyms. My worst asthma trigger as a climber is chalk, when in a gym, the chalk is an unescapable haze. I noticed this less when I first began climbing and always attributed my post-climb wheeze to being a tad out of shape. However, it became a real issue when I began working in a gym. Like many people, this workplace trigger led to me leaving that job.

When climbing outside, my triggers are like most other allergic-asthmatics; the pollens and dusts of the outdoors can certainly trigger me. Being at elevation can exacerbate any trigger that might arise, too. So, I always make it a point to keep two inhalers with me when in the gym or in the mountains. Sometimes, I choose to pre-medicate if I know that the possibility of being triggered is high--both indoors and outdoors.

How my rock climbing helps my asthma

Even though there are asthma triggers associated with my climbing passion, climbing has helped me understand my triggers more and manage my asthma better. Spending time exercising at higher elevations makes breathing at lower elevations much easier and the fresh mountain air feels refreshing from the stale city air. I've realized that, like rock climbing, it's best to take asthma for what it is in the present moment and do your best to manage with what you have available; that said, it's always good to be prepared.

Most importantly, climbing has helped me to recognize my breath as a tool. As a child, my trouble breathing was always seen as an obstacle for me to navigate. With climbing, I focus on keeping my breath slow and steady, to maintain composure and concentration; much like yoga. This control over my breath and how my breath has control over me, has given me a new sense of gratitude and respect for my lungs, which I have long desired.

The wrap-up

I have come to understand that asthma management is a mountain to climb in its own right, and every person is on their own route--some easier and some harder. My rock climbing has both harmed and helped my asthma, in different scenarios and experiences. I am grateful to be a climber, and proud to be a climber with asthma.

I hope my story is greeted as inspiration for others to learn more about their asthma, manage it in new ways, and challenge themselves to do their best, even if they fall repeatedly. There's a lesson in every fall, the important thing is trying again with some new knowledge.

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