Climbing is a puzzle. A climber is presented with a solid set of features: rock that is hard and unchanging, a peak that has existed for hundreds of years. The climber has to create a way up the rock face. Each person has a unique body and different skills that will get them there. There are standard sets of moves held in the athlete’s repertoire, and sometimes there is even collective knowledge about the best moves to succeed in a climb, known as beta, but it still takes original freedom of thought to piece these moves together with the terrain and find a way to the top.

Since the first time I went climbing I have been intrigued by this problem solving element of the sport. It’s addicting. I will try a move, and fail, and immediately start thinking about how I can try the move differently in a way that will be successful. This isn’t easy. In fact, the more I push myself, the harder it becomes, and it can be overwhelmingly frustrating at times. But ultimately, this is what keeps me coming back: the idea that it is all a puzzle that can be solved.

321337_10151213861151606_246656448_nIn the fall of 2012 I was projecting a climb at my favorite area, Indian Creek, Utah. This climb, Annunaki, starts as a hand crack and progressively gets smaller and harder, so that the hardest move is clipping the anchor from a tight finger lock. Right before this final move the climb zags sharply to the left. The moves on this traverse are very sequential, and if not done correctly, it is impossible to hang on for the finish. I worked this climb over and over and I kept falling at the same spot: a sandy finger lock in the middle of the traverse. This hold really only needs to be used briefly as you cross your other hand to a much larger and more secure hold, but I couldn’t hang on long enough. My parter Luke demonstrated that he, with his larger fingers, could do the move with ease. I would try the same sequence but could’t get my fingers to lock into place. After numerous tries, and climbing the whole route with only one hang, I left Indian Creek dejected, without having sent it.

But I  came back to it the following fall. This time I allowed myself to think about it differently. Instead of trying the same sequence of moves as before, I attempted to solve the puzzle of how I could make it through the tricky section, regardless of how other climbers did it. I realized that if I grabbed the horizontal finger lock upside down so that my hand was pushing up instead of pulling down on the sloping edge, it felt secure and I could pull through the move. Luke watched me make the move and said, “that was weird, what you did there…” I came down from figuring this out, took a rest and a deep breath, and sent the climb. Problem solved.

I have always loved puzzles, and my family has a special relationship with sudoku puzzles. My dad used to print out blank sudoku pages at work and keep a stack by the breakfast table. He would get up in the morning, find the puzzle in the paper, and write the given numbers in sharpie on a board for each of us. Then we would race. I have to admit, I never won (or was even in the running- my dad and sister always duked it out for the win) but I enjoyed the critical thinking exercise anyways.

Creative Thinking: a way of looking at problems or situations from a fresh perspective that suggests uncommon solutions.

The Business Dictionary states that creative thinking can be stimulated both by unstructured processes such as brainstorming, and by structured processes such as lateral thinking, which solves problems by approaching issues from different angles. So sometimes original ideas come to you when you aren’t trying, or you can sit down and systematically put yourself into creative thought mode. Some of my very best ideas (like my idea to start freelancing) come to me while cross-country skiing or riding my bike. Getting my blood moving and having endorphins rush through my system activates the creative portion of my brain, and allows me to develop exciting concepts. But I can also get in creative mode when I know I have to, such as when I’m working. You can train yourself to think in a certain way, which will foster ideas and unusual solutions. (Coffee helps too!)

And this is where layout design and climbing meet: problem solving. With climbing, the problem is “how do I physically move to the top?” With design the problem is  “how can I organize this information in a logical way that looks beautiful so people will get it?” Even though design involves sitting in front of a computer instead of moving in the outdoors, my brain is following a similar, familiar process. And it is a process that I love.

I believe this is why so many creative individuals gravitate towards the sport of climbing. Or is it the other way around? There are numerous artists, writers, entrepreneurs, and photographers who simultaneously devote their lives to climbing. Some are famous: Jimmy Chin, Christian Pondella, and Renan Ozturk to name a select few, but there are many, many more every day climbers and artists who have a creative way of looking at the world. Once you become proficient and thinking creatively and find that it is something you enjoy, the problem solving process can be expanded across all areas of life.