Lauren Gilliam: Stone climber uses healthy-coping to take control of her mental health

By Gabby Alfveby

Lauren Gilliam has been literally climbing her way to the top, winning 2nd place in the women’s intermediate division at the annual Stone climbing competition, Stone-A-Versary. Last year Gilliam won 1st place in her division. 

But for Gilliam, boulder climbing isn’t about competing or winning awards. Instead, it’s about learning how to combat or improve her mental health.

“I’m doing this for myself, for health and for fun when I’m having a really crummy day,” Gilliam said. “Mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Getting here is absolutely always helpful. Even if I end up just falling a couple of times and crying, it’s better than not doing anything and just being stuck with my feelings and my body.”

Breaking barriers in sports whether that be your gender, race or age is challenging. 

There’s always a worry in the back of your mind about what other people will think or if you will physically be able to compete because of factors such as age and experience.

“Being someone that never competed as a kid, I just didn’t do competitive sports. I’m learning stuff in my thirties that a lot of people probably learned earlier, but I think I’m learning how to compete for myself,” Gilliam said.

Gilliam is a mom, a glassblower, and a local musician but that’s not the most interesting thing about her. Gilliam is a climber at the local Saint Augustine climbing gym, Stone.

Gilliam’s top climbing goal currently is to complete an outdoor climb.

Boulder climbing has been a way for Gilliam to release her emotions in a healthy way.

“It’s better to feel healthy. Feelings can get stuck literally in your body and just moving and sweating and pushing yourself. It doesn’t make them go away, but it helps you move through them and maybe you’re better at expressing them or even acknowledging them if your body feels better,” Gilliam said.

Gilliam competing at this year’s Stone-A-Versary competition. Photo by Megan Soto.

Showing up at Stone and participating in boulder climbing has allowed Gilliam to strengthen her mindset.

Sometimes it’s hard to dismiss emotions when you have so many things going on in your mind. 

“When you just feel crummy you end up kind of sitting around and doom scrolling [on your electronic device] or turning on something or drinking something or smoking something else, cause you’re not you’re not ready to deal with the feeling,” Gilliam said. “If your body is moving, even if you end up just going out and doing those things anyway, at least you feel a little bit better about it.

Gilliam looks at climbing as a positive escape with an interesting perspective. 

“I think about it like a bowling ball. If you’re starting your day doing something like this, you might still end up in the gutter, but maybe you won’t hit the gutter quite as soon,” Gilliam said. “It is aiming slightly more towards the target by starting your day, by doing something or dealing with the heavy thing in a way that might not get you where you’re trying to go, but at least gets you a bit closer and you feel like you know you’re going to do a little bit better next time, hopefully.”

Gilliam always wanted to climb and grew up with a gym in her town but she never thought it was something she could do.

“I probably went a handful of times, but it was something I’d always tried every once in a while with friends. And every time I did go, I could be good at this if I tried really hard,” Gilliam said.

Stone climbing gym in St. Augustine, Florida. Photographed by Gabby Alfveby

When Gilliam heard the Eric Hires was opening his own gym in town, she knew she wanted to actually begin climbing more regularly.

“So, when I heard Eric, I was opening a gym here. I got really excited, and I think I probably hype it up to everyone I talked to for like 6 months straight. Like, oh yeah, I’m going to be there all the time,” Gilliam said.

Gilliam hasn’t been able to take her skills outside of the gym yet but plans to in the future. Her long-term goal is to climb a real mountain outside of the gym setting.

“Every climbing trip I have tried to go on has gotten rained out and I’m a musician as my full-time job, and so all of my free time is basically during the day and I work on the weekends and evenings,” Gilliam said. “So, when everyone else goes, is when I’m not free. So, I do have a friend and we’re going to try to plan something either in November or February.”

Before she goes out and climbs a real mountain or structure outside of Stone she wants to master lead climbing.

“I’m trying to get better at lead climbing, which is where you’re literally clipping yourself in as you go, which opens up a whole world. If you know, how to lead climb you can basically climb anywhere in the world. You’re not just stuck bouldering,” Gilliam said.

She has been looking exclusively at boulder climbing trips until recently when she got into practicing lead climbing.

“What I’ve been looking at doing is bouldering trips, which is just shorter climbs that you’re not roped into anything and you’re bringing all these mats and stuff,” Gilliam said. 

Devils Tower – Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Gilliam’s dream outdoor climb is far away but is something she’s passionate and enthusiastic about.

“The biggest mountain I really want to climb is Devil’s tower, but that’s on the other side of the country,” Gilliam said.

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