Why does Air Force veteran David Lithgow love the sport of rock climbing so much? One reason: life’s stresses seem to melt away when he is scaling that tall wall. “You certainly don’t think about your everyday concerns when you’re busy thinking your way up the climbing route,” he said. “It’s almost like meditation.”
Stress relief—and the chance to get together with other vets for a fun activity—were the main reasons that veterans had approached Jessica Levine, program director of CHD’s All In: Barrier-Free Recreation, about the possibility of having a rock climbing night of their own. All In, which provides adaptive sports and recreational programs for people with disabilities, already had an established climbing program at Central Rock Gym in Hadley, so she was more than happy to give those who served—or are still on active duty—the opportunity to grab some rock and enjoy some vertical adventures on the third Wednesday of every month.
Lithgow, an Air Force pilot on active duty from 1964 to 1970—including a year in Vietnam—and who was in the Air Force Reserve until 1977, has an agent orange disability. He had been climbing for years, but had stopped during the height of the COVID pandemic. Then he had a fast-growing lymphoma, and the chemotherapy sapped him of his strength. Through the Northampton VA Medical Center’s Gerofit program, which promotes health and wellness of patients, he began attending All In’s climbing nights to get back into shape.
Despite the fact that he’s still regaining his strength and stamina, he eagerly strapped on his harnessing and climbing shoes and managed to scramble all the way up the wall in just a few minutes.
“Climbing is a mental as well as a physical challenge that uses virtually all the muscles in your body, and it’s good for your flexibility as well,” said Lithgow. “And you have to use your brain to figure out the holds and navigate the route. It’s a challenge, and it’s fun. Time just flies by—it’s not like going to the gym and counting reps while you’re lifting weights and looking at the clock.”
Nationally, there has been more interest in rock climbing since the sport debuted in the 2020 Summer Olympics. Because adaptive climbing has also become more popular, and veterans across the country have been flocking to similar climbing gatherings, Veterans Climbing Night was a natural progression for All In, and it is the only such activity in the area.
In a Wounded Warrior Project survey of the injured veterans it serves, 30 percent of respondents expressed that physical activity helps them cope with stress and emotional concerns.
Other veterans’ adaptive rock climbing programs have been shown to help those with PTSD gain skills necessary to deal with stress. How? The act of climbing trains the brain do deal with a new, stressful situation—being high up on a wall, when the fight-or-flight hormones kick in—assessing the true potential danger of the moment, and making decisions to work around the danger, or determine that you aren’t really in any danger. Plus, you have to communicate with your partner and let go of the idea that you must control everything. Climbing teaches those with PTSD to respond instead of react to a situation—engaging with a stressor rather than avoiding it.
Lithgow said that joining rock climbing’s unique subculture is not only helping him recuperate from cancer, but also enabling him to make lifelong friends. “The veterans are a great social group, but the climbing community is as well,” he said. “It has a great ethos of making everyone feel welcome, no matter what their ability.”