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Climbing Out of the Dark

Julie Hwang has been rock climbing around the United States since 2005. She’s moved to new cities for it, she’s trained in the offseason for it, and she’s surrounded herself with communities equally passionate about it. She’s gone from not knowing what “send” means (to “send” is to climb a route without falling or resting on any gear), to sending climbs she never thought possible for her. But like any climber will tell you, the path from the bottom to the top is never a straight line. It certainly wasn’t for Julie.  

Letting Go with Julie Hwang | BFGoodrich

Producer & Photographer: Andy Cochrane (@andrewfitts)
Director: Julie Ellison: (@joolyhart)
DP & Editor: Ryan Scura (@doosterfilm)

The Crux of the Problem

One of the climbs Julie completes  in the mini-documentary above was a challenging problem she had been attempting for over a decade (in climbing, specific climbing lines or routes on boulders  are referred to as “problems”). It wasn’t something she tried every single year, but she’d been to the site a lot. It’s a climb very much her style — Julie enjoys crimping, which is a handhold technique used on shallow edges of rock — but no matter how many times she tried, she could never nail the third move. 

That third move was the “crux” — a term that refers to the most difficult single moves or moves of a particular boulder problem. One year prior to shooting this video, after years of getting to the crux and falling, she finally did the move. She was able to successfully repeat it a few times that visit and called it a win. Then, the following season, she returned and finally saw the view from the top.

“That moment really opened up a lot for me. It made me think about all the other problems that I've been attempting for such a long time. I feel like I actually have a chance of doing them now. I feel I have a chance of doing anything now.” – Julie Hwang

Ten years of struggling with this climb, and then all at once, the problem was solved. What changed? 

Glad you asked.

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Shades of Dark

Julie’s life before is a hazy array of grays. Living inside an unhealthy marriage and working through a persistent shoulder injury, Julie didn’t have the room or the range of motion — mentally and physically — to be her fullest self. Her life was not quite her own. As dark as it was in its own right when the relationship abruptly ended, realizing and then dealing with the trauma the relationship itself caused left her in an even darker place feeling devastated and untethered to the world. 

“The darkest weeks were like this awful limbo. It was summer — too hot to climb in the Southeastern US. I can't even remember if I was going to the gym or not. When you’re in an unhealthy relationship, you don't even notice how much you're not yourself anymore. Until it ends and you start moving away. You get far away enough, you start to see things clearer, and you realize how you’re not giving all your personal energy to someone else anymore. Slowly, the world becomes yours again.”

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A Source of Light

For over a decade, Julie had studied and practiced Classical Chinese Medicine, but incorporating such a strong philosophy of balance and holistic health into her life to the extent that she wanted felt impossible in the situation she was in. After her husband left, that changed. And following her stay in limbo, Julie began getting acupuncture and bodywork done on a weekly basis.

Living in Season
According to Chinese medicine, the different seasons are associated with the five elements: Fire, Earth, Wood, Metal, and Water. It is understood that these seasons govern the natural world, including our interconnected mental and physical health. When your body is “out of season,” you feel unwell. Here’s a brief breakdown.

Associated with the element wood, spring is a period of growth that generates movement, vitality and wind. It’s a season for dusting ourselves off, awakening from stillness, and beginning again.

Associated with the element fire, summer is when the world is at its most expanded state. It’s a period of swelling, flowering, and heat. It is a season for getting out there and going big. 

Late Summer
Associated with the element earth, late summer is a period of dampness, stability, and leveling out. It is a season for shifting gears and seeking balance, beginning to return to the core.

Associated with the element metal, autumn is a period of dryness, harvesting, and letting go. It is a season for breathing in what we want to keep and breathing out what no longer serves us.

Associated with the element water, winter is when the world is at its most contracted state. It’s a period of retreat, stillness, and coolness. It is a season for rest and inward reflection.


As she began to adjust and live more in season, Julie noticed that the shoulder pain that had plagued her for years began to fade. Feeling better and better, she started going back to Crux, a small training gym owned by a celebrated trainer who also happens to be a climber.

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Up and Out

The weather cooled down and the earth dried up, gifting the entire Southeastern United States one of the best and longest climbing seasons they had seen in a while. The shift was right on time. With a handful of physical obstacles in her rearview mirror, Julie started climbing outside again, almost as obsessively as when she first began climbing. Being outside and touching rock again with her friends allowed her to feel like herself again, in little pieces, and was the beginning of her climb out of the dark. 

Slowly, the light broke through, and emotionally, physically, and spiritually, she began to heal. Heading out to climb whenever she could, Julie began checking off bucket-list climb after bucket-list climb. Lighter, stronger, and shoulder-pain-free.

“That season was incredible. For the first time in my climbing career, my body would actually do what I wanted it to do. It allowed me to get into a flow state where I didn't care so much about completing the climb, I was just happy to be out there. It's like starting a race when you don't care about the result. You end up just being in the moment, focused solely on the next move. You let yourself go and then boom: you’re at the top. You sent it.”

It was a season filled with athletic leaps and bounds for Julie, who had previously been at a standstill for many years due to injury. Generally, to climb at your limit is to fail most of the time. It’s a tough truth that’s taught the community that incremental progress is the prize to eye. Every boulder problem can be divided into pieces. Like a puzzle, you fit a few moves together at the bottom, then a few farther up. Each small move completed is a reason to celebrate. 

You ride the momentum of those small moments of progress until one day, perhaps, those clusters of moves add up to a send. It’s over in a matter of minutes, but typically, completing a boulder problem at your limit is the result of hours of work, sometimes over the course of many climbing seasons. 

“There's this moment where you’re on something and the move is so hard, you have no idea of even how to make your body do it. And then someone tells you something or you figure something out. A slight body position shift perhaps. It's always something subtle. And suddenly the move becomes possible. When you go through that enough times, you start to realize that impossible is only a perception. And the truth is nothing's impossible.”

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No Shoulds Allowed

Julie’s healing process is still underway, but her life now is a world away from what it was before. She is healthier and more whole than she has ever been. Her world is hers again. And each day is, too. 

“My climbing has changed so much but so has my life outside the sport. For example, whenever it’s beautiful outside and I have the day off, I always feel like I really should go out climbing. But sometimes, my body or my spirit just doesn't want to. Today, I’m in a place where I can listen to that and act on it. Before, I would have pushed through. I would have felt guilty, thinking all day long about what I should be doing instead. Not anymore. Now, I am in charge. My desires. My health. My joy. No shoulds allowed.”  

If you find yourself in the dark, Julie has some advice. Step one is to be kind to yourself. Let yourself be in the dark. Don’t beat yourself up about it, and know that it’s not the end. It may be a very big beginning. Step two is to look at what you do have. It’s so easy to focus on what seems to be missing from your life. Take inventory of what you do have: there are resources, relationships, and skills in your life. Name them. Gather them. Try to find gratitude. Allow those who love you to help you. Step three is joy. If you feel a spark of it, follow it. It will set you on your course. 

Keep going. 

And as winter unfurls into spring, life will do the rest.

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