Patrick Truchon's Web Portal

What Makes Rock Climbing (or Math) Fun

Posted by Patrick on November 19, 2010

Four years ago, when I worked in Taiwan, a colleague of mine brought me to iClimb [1], the local rock climbing gym in Hsinchu. I had been to climbing gyms a few times before when I lived in Vancouver, but this time was the beginning of a passion. Over the next four years, the friends I made there taught me a lot about climbing and helped me improve my skills tremendously. I learned to lead climb [2], started climbing outdoors in LongDong [3], and even tried trad climbing [4] a couple of times. I am by no means a pro, but I love the sport.

Since I’ve been back in Quebec, it’s been harder to go climbing. There are a few outdoors spots, but no gym, and I haven’t met people who do it regularly yet. A few weeks ago, my dad let me build a rudimentary climbing roof [5] in his unfinished basements. For the first week, it was awesome! It took me a day or two to go completely across, and a few more days to make a complete round trip. The (good?) thing about climbing is that you can always push yourself; I could probably make two round trips across the roof if I worked at it for a few weeks. But to my surprise, I was getting… well… bored?! Why? I had been climbing at iClimb for four years (sometimes more than 5 days a week!) without ever loosing interest and here I was getting bored after only a week…

I continued climbing a little bit everyday hoping the interest would come back, while in the mean time focusing on some of the benefits. Climbing is a good workout, which means two things: the exercise helps me be a healthier person and it empowers me in other activities. These two reasons may seem the same but they are quite different. Being healthy feels good no matter what I do, but being fit feels good when I’m able to do unrelated physical tasks more easily (like chopping wood with dad, who is, incidentally, a very fit guy!). These are two instrumental reasons for climbing: personal health, and greater ability to complete other types of demanding, physical tasks.

These reasons, however, are not why I loved climbing for four years. I like that I get those benefits, but I’ve never had the discipline to workout because it’s good for me. There had to be more.

A few days ago, I thought of something. In climbing gyms, you usually don’t use just any holds on the wall, that’s too easy (and boring). Instead, pieces of coloured tape mark different routes of varying difficulty levels. So I made myself a route. The pleasure instantaneously came back, but why? Yes the route was more difficult than being allowed to use every hold, but using every hold can be hard too by adding distance. So that’s not it (or just it). The missing piece came right after my first (failed) attempt at completing my route.

The first time I tried the route, I made it to the third hold before falling. Then, the crucial moment arrived: I unclipped, lied on the floor, looked at the ceiling, and thought. The part I liked the most about climbing was the puzzle-solving part. Climbing is not just about fitness or technique, but also about problem solving. It took me two days to figure it out. Every time, the process was the same: try something, get stuck somewhere, unclip, lie on the floor, look at the ceiling, visualize a move that might work, try it, get further, fall, …

The third reason I like rock climbing is not instrumental; it’s intrinsic: I like puzzles.

Immediately after I finishing the route, I made a video of it [6], sent it to my friends in Taiwan, and asked them to make me a route to try and solve. Back at the iClimb days, we’d spend hours working on routes together. Bouncing ideas off each other, considering moves that might work better for a person or another, helping and challenging each other.

The fourth reason I like climbing is that it’s social and collaborative.

These four reasons are the same reasons why I like math and physics. In order of relevance (to me at least), these subjects are fun because:

  1. They are filled with interesting puzzles.

  2. They generate interesting conversations with other people also playing with these puzzles.

  3. They sharpen my mind and clarify my thoughts in specific ways that I value.

  4. They allow me to perform useful tasks (like calculating the length of wire needed to fix a rooftop antenna).

Sadly, most of my students only care about the fourth reason, and when I can’t find an utilitarian answer to the eternal question of “what is this for?”, they tune out. A few times, I’ve been dead honest with them and answered that I had no idea what it was for, but that it was fun and beautiful! Most of them looked at me like I was from another planet, but a few had twinkles in their eyes because I had just confirmed something they already knew. This also means that, if by chance, some students have already discovered the fun of math puzzles (and are probably pretty good at it), the best way for me to kill their interest is to give them more boring problems instead of more interesting ones.

As a teacher, I don’t know how to help students see that math is not just useful (sometimes) but fun. That, to me, is one of the greatest puzzles to solve.



  1. iClimb <>
  2. Wikipedia: Lead climbing <;
  3. ClimbStone, <>
  4. Wikipedia: Traditional climbing <>
  5. Patrick Truchon, Climbing Roof Pictures, <>
  6. Patrick Truchon, Roof Route 1 Video, <>

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