Climbing and mental health? There is a connection.

I'm sure there must be a clever link between climbing "holds" and everything being on hold. 
I just can't think of it.

And this picture is making me dizzy - look at those holds on the roof!

If you don’t climb, you might not realise that climbing is a workout for the brain as well as the body.

And in Mental Health Awareness Week, it’s worth talking about how it can help people.

Yes, it can be physically strenuous, but it’s also often mentally demanding, like a 3D puzzle. You don’t just run up a wall. You have to think and plan each move. Which way to grip (or not) a hold, how to position your feet, where your balance should be….

While being lean, and having a high power to weight ratio helps, contrary to Sly’s Cliffhanger film, climbing is not all about upper body strength. It’s a lot about mental strength.
NOTE:  An aside about climbing and the muscle myth:  Witness super fit muscle guys new to a climbing wall hauling themselves up with bulging biceps and strong shoulders - which tire after four minutes and leave them spent and unable to climb further.  Now look at the experienced climber, moving slowly, sloth-like, picking their route, using their legs to push instead of their arms to pull. 


Imagine being forty feet off the floor, balancing with your feet and hands on holds the size of a matchbox, and wondering if you can clip in your rope before you fall off. On a climbing wall with a friend belaying you. Or outdoors where your safety relies on some metal jammed in a crack in the rock.

What’s going through your mind right now? Probably not which colour to paint the hall, or how much your car MoT is going to cost, or mulling over that row at work today.

NOPE. Climbing occupies your mind. If you’re climbing close to your limits, it’s total. Humans are meant to be scared of heights.

Your mind will not only be working on technique and the route, it will be blotting out all your other thoughts and worries, as the adrenalin kicks in and your brain tries to fight your natural instincts and keep in control. Keep you alive (a bit dramatic I know, but kinda true).

Here’s me half way up Wintours Leap above the River Wye. When you look DOWN through the canopy of 20metre tall trees to the rocky ground below… you realise just how high you are. And check your harness!

So climbing can be great if your are stressed or worried. It’s almost the opposite of going out and angrily hitting a punchbag, or exhausting yourself physically by running a 5k PB. It’s so powerful you don’t have room in your head for other things – so it gives you a respite from them.

Add to that the sense of achievement. The fact that climbing is a sport where beginners and pros can climb together. An activity where even in competitions, rivals help each other with suggestions for tackling a route. And if you are outdoors, you might get stunning views (if you dare look down!).


In my experience, like a lot of hobbies, people who climb (indoor with ropes, or boulder walls, and outdoors with “trad” racks, sport climbing or scrambling) most of them want to share their experience.

But before I rabbit on about what I get out of climbing. No, before that, the thing I want to mention here, as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, is that I’m actually trying to give something back.

I’m volunteering with Urban Uprising, a charity which uses climbing to help inspire and motivate young people. They started in Glasgow, but by late 2019 had set up in Bristol too (where I climb).

The project takes small groups of young people across a range of secondary school ages, and gives them ten one-hour climbing sessions with professional coaches and volunteer climbing mentors. The idea is to engage them in an activity that inspires them and encourages positive behaviours.

Above: Urban Uprising volunteer development coaches mentoring young climbers at The Climbing Academy, Bristol, one of the charity’s big supporters.

Once people are climbing together, they forget the things that divide them, and their differences. Climbing is an activity where it is OK to fail – in fact it’s normal. Or even obligatory.

Even the best climbers repeat routes again and again until they can complete them.

Falling off (when you are indoors and safely belayed, or bouldering with lots of matting) is not only acceptable – it’s an essential part of pushing your limits, and learning from your mistakes. Then you get back up and have another go.

(c) www.urbanuprising.org


We have 3 themes we work on with the young people. Each theme has a set of skills or qualities.

1. Physical: stamina, strength, flexibility, and coordination.

2. Social: trust, peer support, empathy, respect, communication.

3Personal: Listening, responsibility, resilience, focus, reflection, confidence, problem


The volunteers observe the skills listed above and use this as a basis for coaching the young people.

Urban Uprisers erm… rising up.

You won’t see me in any of the pictures as I was the photographer. They had enough mentors for this Bristol launch, so Programme Manager Ben Campbell asked if I could make a short film or them, and take some photos.

I’ve made a couple of films – the first, a shortie, is on their Instagram:

Here it is on my vimeo page.

All shot on Sony A6300 and iphone 6. Ambient lighting. Ambient sound (sorry soundies). And undirected. You know it’s bloody hard to film young people climbing when you’re not allowed to set up shots or direct them. At all. And climbers are usually facing a wall. So it’s a bit hard to film their faces.


Urban Uprising is supported by TCA, The Climbing Academy, which has four indoor climbing centres in Bristol and Glasgow. A few years back they took over Undercover Rock, which has been running in the old St Werburgh’s church since last century (doesn’t that make it sound soooo ancient!) . This is where I started climbing many years ago and still climb now.

(c) www.theclimbingacademy.com

And that brings us back to climbing on hold(s). Like most sports centres, gyms etc, climbing walls are (as I write in May 2020) still in lockdown. TCA has asked climbers to write “Love Letters to Climbing” to help spread the lurve.

I’ve just submitted mine, and hope it will join many others here:

(c) https://www.theclimbingacademy.com/tca-life/love-letters-to-climbing/

TCA climbing love 14.5.2020 during lockdown

Tips for newby climbers:

– Keep going up! (except when traversing. Or coming down. Or resting. Or falling).

– Fear of heights is normal. If it does NOT scare you, maybe you should give up climbing!

– Watch your partner as they climb. Shouting abuse when they “cheat” will demoralise them – but it might make you feel better.

Get your excuses in early – there’s no point blaming a wrist injury AFTER you’ve failed to make a 5C top rope.

– Keep a deodorant spray in your chalk bag – in case of climbers near you with B.O.

– Don’t drink and climb. You’ll only spill it.

– During lockdown keep up your climbing skills by practicing your grunting and gurning in front of a mirror.

– Also in lockdown scatter chalk dust on your sofa, put on some smelly climbing shoes, and Zoom-chat your climbing partner(s) to re-enact a tea break at UCR.

– Avoid telling people a climb has been graded too easy. If it says 6A+ on the wall, then claim it!

Hope this all helps you to enjoy climbing as much as I do

Like Tom Maidwell (who has already posted on here) I want to share my enjoyment of climbing, so I’m also a volunteer with Urban Uprising, a charity which uses climbing to inspire and motivate young people: https://www.urbanuprising.org/

And finally… One night after climbing I bumped into a non-climbing friend in the Miners Arms pub, by UCR Bristol. “Did you get to the top?” he asked.

Fair enough question I guess. “Not every time” is the honest answer.

Phil Kerswell in lockdown, May 2020


Other groups, clubs and online organisations are trying to cheers us all up in lockdown:


On a side matter… How did I get involved in Urban Uprising ? Well it started with the floor. Bear with me here. Climbing centres tend to have rubber matting floors, industrial rubber matting. So does anyone know what happened to the old flooring at Under Cover Rock, Bristol, when they replaced it in 2019. I have it. Well, I HAD some of it. Briefly.

At the time I was renovating an old stone shed, and wanted an insulated hardwearing floor. When I spotted UCR were chucking their old rubber matting out, I figured it would be ideal. My natural shy personality meant I left it a couple of weeks to ask – by which time the matting was no longer stacked in a pile, but ditched in a huge skip.

Unconcerned, I borrowed a trailer and drove down. Each section of 4cm thick matting was about 1m x 2m – which meant it was an awkward shape weighing a good 15 kilos. And being in a skip into which locals were continuing to deposit their old furniture, household waste and takeaway containers in, it smelt rank. Really rank. Ah well, in for a penny. I climbed into the skip and spent an hour fighting with partly ripped, partly rotten rubber and bags of garbage until I had managed to rescue about a dozen sections.

Great I thought. Get them home, jetwash them and cut to size.

Errr, no not really. Even after three jet washes, they still stank. It wasn’t the covering of waste, it was actually the rubber. Years of stinky-feet climbers had impregnated the material with a foul foot odour. It was disgusting. And there was only one thing – a trip to the council tip.

So how does this relate to my volunteering. Well the deal with UCR was that in return for their old matting, I’d make a cash donation to a charity they support – yes, Urban Uprising. I felt asking for a refund because the matting was hideous would have been like refusing to give your grandchildren a fiver because they only did 99 sponsored skips instead of 100. And when I got in touch to find out how to pay, I started to get hooked into what they do, and decided to volunteer.

So there you have it.

MORE ABOUT CLIMBING AND MENTAL HEALTH (I’m not totally making this all up)

And the proof that climbing helps put you in a better place? I’ve seen some of it with my own eyes through the terrific work of Urban Uprising and its many volunteers. At the sessions I filmed, I saw young people totally immersed in a fun group activity, cheering each other on and loving every minute.

Inspired and uplifted by climbing.

Here’s how one of their teachers Sam reacted:

Oh yes what do I get out of climbing? Physical exertion, fear, adrenaline, aching fingers (arthritis, you know), the occasional knee pain or nearly dislocated hip (yes that really nearly happened to me!), the smell of other people’s B.O., the smell of my own feet (sweating in climbing shoes), and of course, an activity that’s sometimes so demanding of your brain that other troubles vanish.


Phil K

PS: If you want to get into climbing, the best way to start is find out if anyone you know already climbs and can show you the ropes (that is officially the oldest climbing joke ever).

Or visit your local indoor climbing centre. You can find one at the BMC’s directory. Most run beginner courses, outdoor climbing taster sessions and loan/hire basic equipment like shoes and harnesses.

Or just Google climbing clubs near you.


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