WEIGHING IN Does Climbing Need an Eating-Disorder Intervention?

We’ve all heard of someone who harnessed the magical power of food poisoning or giardia to send. The stories originate in the usual places: El Paso taco shops, South African watering holes, Thai cafés. A climber spends a few days near death after contracting a food- or waterborne illness and, like Lazarus, arises to fire their project. Never mind the season’s worth of training they’d put in; they swear up and down that the five pounds of water weight they shed was the magic ingredient.

Recently, a friend traveling in Asia sent me a photo of a painting on a concrete wall near Railay Beach that advertised the “Tonsai Tummy: get that lean Tonsai look! Climb harder through rapid weight loss.” As insane as it may seem, not all cases of Tonsai Tummy are accidental—it is not unheard of for a visiting climber to intentionally drink the water in Thailand to drop weight. Enjoying perfect January conditions on the first day of my 2019 bouldering trip to Hueco Tanks, a few friends and I sat under Babyface (V7) on North Mountain. As we all took turns falling off, one friend who had already sent joked that his training regimen included deliberately inducing vomiting for a few days pre-season. Another friend laughed and said, “You know, they have a name for that!”

“The name for that” is bulimia nervosa, a life-threatening psychological disorder characterized by purging—usually through self-induced vomiting, over-exercising, and laxative abuse—to lose weight. Bulimia is defined in the DSM-5 as a Feeding and Eating Disorder, a family that includes binge-eating disorder, pica, and myriad other psychological maladies. This family also includes anorexia nervosa, which manifests as an extreme pursuit of thinness through the restriction of food intake. “Anorexia” is also a cliché route name for crimpy climbs.

While drinking well water in South Africa to excrete yourself into fighting weight for The Hatchling might not qualify you for a diagnosis, it certainly ranks as disordered eating. And in the climbing community, normalizing—and sometimes even lauding—these behaviors is frighteningly common. It’s also dangerous. With so much at stake, changing how we talk about bodies, weight, and food can make a huge impact. So, how do we shift the conversation?


I am intimately familiar with anorexia and bulimia. My battle with an eating disorder has run me into periods of starvation, binging, purging, and endless self-abuse through diet and exercise. After two stints at inpatient treatment centers, a whole lot of therapy, and more slipups than I care to mention, two years ago, at age 22, I finally reached what I’ll tentatively call a healthy relationship with food. I am still working on liking, much less loving, my body. Every day is difficult, and some are still knockdown, drag-out fights with my own mind.

Fortunately, climbing has become a respite. It is the one place where my body and I can communicate constructively. My first outdoor climbing experience in Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, sent me on a path that had me commuting from Indiana to the Red River Gorge nearly every weekend.

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