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Sarah Spurell | Climber | St. John’s NL

A tall and lean redhead walked across the parking lot to meet us, openly smiling yet a little shy. About to turn 21, you could barely decipher in her eyes she had already lived three lives.

In her first one, while Sarah was a young teenager, this straight-A student was fitting the archetypal nerd role — good in school, bad in sports. She needed to do two hours of physical recreation a week but couldn’t find anything she enjoyed. Having grown exceptionally bored of walking, she decided to visit a rock climbing gym near her house to give it a try.

“I was terrible at it, it was funny for everyone else. I broke my shoulder pretty badly when I was in 6th grade and never really regained a full range of motion. I couldn’t lift a two-litre milk jug. I used to climb on Sunday. We’d do 90 minutes of climbing, 10 minutes of conditioning and 10 minutes of stretching and I would be sore until Friday.”

Despite all that, Sarah enjoyed climbing. It was hard, but she liked the challenge. After a year of training, her coach approached her about joining a pre-competitive summer camp where she would climb for six hours a week. It went well and she really liked it. The coach loved her attitude. He thought She would be a great role model for kids and the next fall, he put her in the competitive team. Sarah started competing the following Spring. She placed 6th in her first competition and 2nd after that.

“I did not expect to excel at it, and neither did my coach. I kept going with them and the next season I placed 1st in two out of three competitions. It was really great.”

She started climbing more and more, indoors, outdoors, bouldering, rope climbing. It was terrifying, but she absolutely loved it. Turns out, Sarah enjoyed scaring herself.

“I like being scared in situations where I feel, objectively, that I am safe. I have assessed the risk, assessed the consequences and accept them. I like that feeling.”

Climbing was life changing for Sarah. It was improving her physical health, but it was also very good for her mentally. When she was 13, she started having severe panic attacks and showing signs of anxiety.

“In junior high, I started pulling my hair to the point where I had bald spots on my head and was missing half of my eyebrow for my prom. It was really helpful for me to be able to put myself in situations that felt scary but that I knew on an intellectual level were safe. Having the physical sensations of panic without having to have an anxiety attack first and being able to work through those sensations. It was really good for me to learn how to deal with panic.”

Discovering climbing and overcoming the panic attacks was major for Sarah, but it wasn’t the end of her struggles. She was starting to feel like something was not right with the way she was feeling day to day and was starting to have a lot of rigidity and anxiety around food. After a pre-competition visualization exercise, a few kids went to her to tell her that she was their mentor and the person they wanted to make proud.

“I was beyond flattered and humbled. I realized I should get my act together because there were people watching me. I became suddenly aware that with these kids watching me, I needed to figure out what didn’t feel right if I was going to continue to allow myself to be a role model for them.”

She started seeing a counsellor hoping it would help her feel better, but she didn’t expect it to make her feel worse. Where Sarah thought she only had a slight tendency to build rules in her life and stick by them, the counsellor saw right through her and started challenging her rules. It went terribly, and Sarah began to unravel.

“I got pretty sick pretty fast. I was already pretty mental worn out but physically I became worse. I stopped eating and started picking up more and more eating disorder behaviours. She diagnosed me with eating disorder and referred me to a clinic. I became physically unable to do any kind of sport at all. I had to pull myself off of the provincial team”

It took Sarah over a year to get out of this nightmare, first as an outpatient with the HOPE prohram, an eating disorder support and advocacy group in St. John’s, and the inpatien treatment. It was a lot of work, with many ups and downs, and sometimes seemed insurmountable. Thankfully though, she met her angel. The chaperon from her previous year climbing trip introduced her to a girl her own age who was going through the exact same thing.

“I had a date with this girl that I didn’t know who was going to be in therapy with me. She had climbed on the provincial team up until the year I started. She lived three streets down from me. We went to the same school yet our path had never crossed. We started hanging out a little bit. We both really loved ducklings, rock climbing, naps and chocolate. We got along incredibly well.”

This friendship helped Sarah get through the rougher times. Even though she was removed from her climbing family, she had beside her someone with the same climbing background and the same love for it.

“We would use climbing to motivate each other when things got really really tough. We used that to remind each other why we were pushing and what we were pushing for. What we could have when all this was done.”

The battle was hard for Sarah. Her steadfast diet would help her anxiety, but the two acted like a tipping scale; the better her eating disorder got, the worse her anxiety would be. She was eventually diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

“At one point I was hospitalized. I was feeling so… done with it, so scared all the time, so vulnerable to the thoughts I was having. I had developed my own set of obsessions and compulsions and felt very helpless when it came to dealing with them.”

She was hospitalized for a while, until she made a decision at one point to try to suspend her beliefs and obsessions long enough to see what happened if she lived without them. It was incredibly scary but Sarah was, at that point, physically able to start exercising again.

“I remember a friend picking me up from the hospital and we went straight to the climbing gym and I went straight and hung off the roof for a couple hours and forgot about everything.”

In June, both Sarah and her friend Jess were discharged from the outpatient treatment. To celebrate, they hiked three hours to Gunner’s Cove where they camped and bouldered for the weekend. Sarah had hidden a cake in her backpack and was both surprised and ecstatic to have the cake intact at the end of the hike.

“It was really something special to come out of all that and at the end have this life that we loved waiting for us. We spent all of June, July and August, just loving what we had. It was really wonderful. There were darker moments but it was pretty easy to kick them when you had plans the next day to go swim in a waterfall.”

They were spending all their time outdoors, climbing, working on some route development and working towards some first descents, excited to finally have their life back after all the turmoil. The celebration was short lived.

“I was climbing in August, with my friend Jess. I was working on a route with my partner and she was cleaning a route with hers. I heard her yell out, then I heard somebody fall. We did everything we could do.”

A series of unlikely events led Jess to a fatal fall. The next day, Sarah climbed Jess’ last the route because she wanted to be the first one to touch what Jess had touched last. Sarah didn’t climb for three weeks afterwards. She went away with her family, cried a lot and tried to make sense of it all, tried to understand how climbing could have betrayed her like that. Eventually, she returned to the sport she loves.

“I came back to it because I wanted to climb. I questioned that a lot, wondered if it was a betrayal or if I was disrespecting her memory. I decided that climbing made me feel closer to her and it was something I wanted for myself even if that was going to be hard. While climbing has very occasionally reminded me of the accident, it more often reminds me of hiking three hours in the woods with a cake with rose pipes on it and taking it out to surprise her and having the roses all intact and just be so proud.”

It’s this feeling which has made Sarah go back to her sport. It’s where she feels she is her best self, where she can pursue happiness, where the world is whole again. Climbing has allowed her to connect with her body, people and the land in a more positive way and she wants to continue to have this. Despite all which has happened, despite the immeasurable loss, Sarah keeps her head up, enjoys the present moment as much as she can, and looks forward — towards the future — with a surprisingly positive intake on life, one we could all learn from.

“In my mind, it’s a complete victory, to be able to live free of all that stuff. Even when it means to live a life where you are taking risks sometimes, it’s nothing compared to the risks that you take by allowing yourself to be ruled, owned and controlled by demons.”

You can often see how much Sarah loves her sport. When she grapples with a tricky section of rock or falls off the wall, she will often whisper quietly to herself or scream out loud: “I love climbing!” and when life knocks her to the ground, she gets back up and screams to the world: “I love life!”




  1. Ellie Fowler Reply June 30, 2016 at 1:53 pm

    What a story!Go Sarah!

  2. Anne Bright Reply June 30, 2016 at 8:28 pm

    Your story is so inspiring Sarah.

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