Friday, June 30, 2017

Reflections from Freerider


The sun traces the landscape in the fall, hanging low on the rim of Yosemite Valley, greeting the many south faces with warmth. Freerider on El Capitan is south-facing. Therefore, by 9:00 AM, the sun sears into one like a cattle-brand.  We packed for six days, intending to climb the 31 pitches of Freerider in five days with a day for leniency. The bags weighed more than Bronwyn and as much as I. Thankfully, we had stashed two bags on the wall to minimize the amount of hauling.
The bag was as big as her! Photo: Jacob Cook

“Bronwyn, it’s so $%#@ing hot right now. What do you want to do? … My vote is to move to the alcove and come back down in the evening.” I nudged a bit.

“We should just try it. The heat isn’t too bad. Besides, the breeze is helping.” She encouraged.

I had tried the Freerider in the spring. I knew that more time spent in heat meant more fatigue, less energy, and generally a harder time for the rest of the wall. But I didn’t want to control the situation, so we decided to give it a go.

Placing the yellow alien at the edge of the crack before the downclimb, I took a deep breath.

“Oh boy, it’s hot Bron! But I’ll try. I’m nervous!!!” I glanced up one last time.

And off I went, reverse laybacking, under-clinging, and smearing my feet to a small seam for a finger lock. Ping! Off, I went.

“Ahhhhhhhhhhh!!” I screamed, swinging hard right through the air. Bronwyn shot a jumar down to me, and I jugged back up to the beginning of the pitch. Again, I tried - this time making the reach into the monster offwidth. Ping! Again, I was propelled back to the belay. I tried, and tried, each time with regression.

“Want me to try?” Bronwyn offered.  

“Sure, I’m tired. Need some rest.” I handed her the two sixes, a four, and a finger piece with some draws to protect the beast.

With ease, Bronwyn danced to the end of the traverse and came off. Instead of coming back to the belay, she rehearsed each section of the traverse as best as she could. On her next attempt, she latched the crack, but could not get in. She attempted the down climb a few more times, and then opted for a rest.

I went again, fighting and falling reaching to the crack. Our screams echoed in the Valley corridor. Bronwyn wanted one more attempt before continuing up to the alcove. She took a single six. And it worked. Her effort was heroic, inching and squirming up the 7 inch crack for nearly 200 ft.  

***

Our alarm went off at 5:00 AM. We rappelled down to the crux pitches on Freerider, the easiest free route up El Capitan. Bronwyn and I were newly acquainted climbing partners. Her patience and support were unrivaled. While I often doubted our efforts, Bron’s fighting spirit drove us up that wall. Like a musician picking apart a song, Bronwyn felt each hold on the Boulder Problem with great attention to detail and body positioning. A ripple in a small seam, when pulled down on, was useless, but pulling it sideways and pushing the rock away with your feet allowed for a passage to the flat edge up and right.

I went next, pushing and pulling, balancing on this foot, falling into that position. With rope tension, I figured out a likely sequence. By 9:00 AM, we were in the full, blazing sun. The rock was warm and greasy like a well-deserved burger, except we hadn’t earned that burger yet. I attempted the puzzling Teflon corner and strung it together with a few falls.

A glimmer of hope, I thought. We ascended up to our sloping ledge bivy, the Block, to hide from the big yellow dot in the sky. We moved slower than we anticipated having spent half a day fighting to get into the Monster Offwidth. It was our fourth day on the wall and every hard pitch had yet to be sent. We planned for five days, packed for six - maybe we would even consider a seventh.

***

Five days did turn into seven with the help of our friends. Ledge life and exposure became as comfortable as lounging in the El Cap Meadow. We found ourselves gazing at the buzz of the Valley floor, wondering who and what people stared at all day. With the sun as our compass, time was irrelevant. The time was now, surrendering to total presence. The moments between darkness and light were the windows of trying, a window so small, yet so remarkably beautiful. The light would bend, refract, and sweep up the wall as darkness gave way to light in the quiet times before the daily toil.
We chilled a lot on the Block Photo Credit: Jacob Cook

We were there, small and fragile, bruised and swollen, cracking the puzzle and focusing on the minutia. Push, keep pushing. Higher. Find the dimples. Hardly a hold to work with except for ripples in the rock. Body position, faith, tension. 

Try. Try again. Keep trying until the sun hit the rock. Retreat. Escape, siesta, and wait until the time of transition when the alpen glow illuminated the stone and the last rays of warmth faded into darkness. Into the darkness we climbed, again trying so hard our fingers may explode. 

“Yaaaaaaaaahooooo!” I screamed and screamed, adrenaline rushing and limbs shaking. Tears framed my smile creased face. By headlamp, I free climbed the Teflon Corner after dozens of attempts. I was so psyched! I didn't even care to finish the route, happy with my effort and determination on my hardest redpoint. I put my heart into that pitch, that route. That experience beamed with light.
PSYCHED! 30-40 attempts later, and a send! Photo Credit: Bronwyn Hodgins


*** 
Click. My headlamp turned on. Bronwyn handed over some draws, a #4, and a few small pieces. The slab below us extended beyond the roof above. This was the last technical pitch on Freerider. Calling it 10d is laughable, downplaying the difficulty this short, stout scar-ridden roof traverse. I stemmed my way past a small seam of pitons in a corner. Strenuously, I clipped the pitons in the horizontal roof and down-climbed back to the stance. My fingers searched for something to hold, small crimps an inch below the roof allowed me to reposition my feet, balancing over to the flat ledge at the end of the roof. Full extension, my arm caught the hold, but I fell.

My mind was consumed by fatigue. Every part of my body was reluctant to climb, to move upward. Yet we were so close. I lowered back to the awkward belay stance and pulled the rope. I tried, again. And again. And again.

“Bron, can I use your headlamp? Mine is dying.” I needed everything I could get. My hand latched the flat edge around the corner. My left leg extended to the same rail allowing myself to toe hook the corner next to my hand. Matching both hands, I moved the toe hook into a heel hook and mantled onto the ledge. It was far from graceful, but just barely worked. My body fell into the rhythm in the wide crack and I wiggled my way to the anchors of the last pitch on Freerider.
Epic adventure with Bronwyn Almighty, the darkest of horses! Photo Credit: Jacob Cook

***

We summited in the darkness on our seventh day of effort. Bronwyn got a near free ascent, coming short of one pitch. I managed to achieve my lifetime dream of a ground-up free ascent of Freerider. A few asterisks blemished my ascent to others, but it didn’t mean much to me. Two slab pitches were done from no-hands rests, and due to circumstances, neither Bronwyn nor I lead the second Enduro Corner. Such is life.

I could barely comprehend my own experience when we reached the summit. I was in disbelief. I felt empty. What I thought would be a many year project turned into a season of effort on my second free attempt.

Nothing had changed. I thought there would be a summit celebration. I thought my friends would be excited for me. I thought I would get to share this experience with those I held dearest to me. But I was wrong.

Instead, I felt lost, empty, directionless. Years of expectations and excitement about this ascent built its own fantasy - a fairy tale where witch turned into princess. Maybe I thought my life would change drastically and I would be a shiny, new Alix as an El Cap free climber. My life would be categorized as pre- and post- Freerider. I would have earned the respect of my elders, peers, and myself. I would have had an ‘AHA,’ this is it moment.

But that all differed from reality: I was an emotional whirlwind, destructive and depressed. My problems before the experience didn’t evaporate with the early season rain.

It was November 11, one day after Bron and I returned to the Valley floor. Teary-eyed, I frantically packed up my kitchen from the El Cap Meadow bear boxes. Back and forth, back and forth, I went. Chris, English/Canadian wall hero with an amazing ability to make people feel good, tried to lift my spirits.

“You should be happy right now Alix… You just free climbed that!” pointing up to El Capitan. “Soak it in, mate.” Even still, his truths didn’t strike a cord. I continued to tear apart my van, mirroring the raccoons pillaging Camp Four bear boxes. Tears turned into sobs and that dark cloud followed me out of the Valley.

During the previous week, we were fully immersed in the moment. It felt right to be up there. But a day later, I was shoveling my life into my van, heading somewhere foreign to earn a buck because I was in debt. 

It was the most anticlimactic experience I’ve ever had. 
A bit of a shit show all the time 
I was still a dirtbag scraping by -  stressing about relationships, where my next paycheck was coming from, and how I was going to fulfill my commitment to meeting Katie in Spain for five weeks. Nothing changed. My reality was starkly contrasted in two days. How could one go from feeling so alive and present to an utter meltdown in one day? 

***

It's been two and a half months since we packed up our haul bags and meandered back to the Valley floor. Bronwyn went home to Canada. I migrated north, east to Utah, back to Bishop, and out of Vegas to climb in El Chorro, Spain.

Katie and I were walking to the crag one day and I turned to her. 

“I should have been so happy after that experience, but I was a fucking wreck. I have put my entire life in question.” 

“Maybe it’s the gift of reflection you get from these achievements.”

She was wise. Maybe she was right. I had put everything into question. I signed up for online classes to start the process of nursing school/midwifery. I picked up a ukelele, read books on love and Buddhist philosophy. I started obsessing over the topo for the Salathe wall, hungry for more. I found closure in tumultuous relationships and ultimately, came again to the realization that I didn’t love myself and that was the root to all of my problems. 

So often, we throw ourselves into passions or distractions, narrowly skating around our reality because it’s messy. We just don't know what we want. Anxiety about the future and it's unknown and repeating patterns formed in our past plague our wakeful existence. I was hardly present last fall when I wasn’t on the wall. My thoughts drifted to people, decisions, consequences, “what ifs." I was in the thick of transition for a while. 

I lacked acceptance for “what is.” 

Wisdom takes years of trial and error, repeating the same mistakes until one day it all makes sense. I wish someone told me at a young age that happiness ebbs and flows, that our lives are complicated and messy, and that we’ll makes mistakes. And that all of it’s ok. All of it. 

Times of transition offer opportunities for reflection and growth. Climbing is not the only medium I have learned to deal with adversity, but it is the only practice I’ve engaged in that has confronted me with my insecurities, time and time again, also shown me that I carry great strength and focus - that I can love myself. 

My soul was up there on Freerider all year, hiding from the mess of my physical being. It's watchful eyes greeted me with compassion and moments of clarity on every lap I did. The irrational, fearful child inside of me could sometimes see through it all - the fragility of our environment, how tiny and irrelevant our issues were in the grand orchestra of human existence, and the beauty of the journey. 

Ultimately, it was the false expectations after Freerider that gave me the sobering view of my stressful life. I wanted someone to tell me I was awesome and worthy, to hold me close and let me know I was just doing fine. I wanted respect from our community. I wanted validation because I deemed myself unworthy of love, incapable of making decisions, and I had lost my own self-respect. I was seeking outside of me instead of within.

I gave Freerider a tall order. I asked the mountain to fix me, repair and consolidate my fragments, round out the edges, and sculpt me into that shiny Alix I envied, the one that didn't exist.

The anticlimactic ending to my dream, though hard to swallow, was the gift of reflection.

Freerider wasn’t life-changing. Climbing has never been the cure. It is the path we chose to walk for self-exploration and truth-seeking.

Climbing is the medium, the practice in which we chose to interact with the world. It's my form of introspection and these completed dreams are but a part of journey.

***

I lay quietly on my thermarest in a crumbling shack on a Spanish hillside. The floor was earthy, made of clay and fractured. Animal feces, dirt, and broken debris coated the floor. A bird flew by to its nest above me. I took a painkiller that evening because of an all-consuming toothache. It often knocks one out, but I couldn't sleep. I was up, fervently writing about my experience with Freerider.

My humble home in El Chorro

Why do I climb? Why do any of us climb? I wrote.

A physical pursuit. A social outing to complement a person’s busy life. For me, it began with pure joy and adventure. Simple. I love Freerider and the Salathe Wall - it's chimneys and offwidths, massive ledges, clean rock, movement, exposure. I am obsessed. But if it were all fun, it would lack substance. Climbing continues to evolve into a spiritual practice and Freerider served as a catalyst for deep reflection and refocus. Painful and dark as it was, I became hopeful and more kind to myself. It gave me tools to soften the turbulence of life, to come back to presence and ignite the connection between body, mind, and nature - the interconnectedness of life.
My home for a month! Love the Spanish countryside

Next to the shack is a wide, flat patch of burned grass, a clearing in the bushes and trees. Vultures swarmed overhead on the hunt for fresh meat. The birds sang their own song. Men and woman glided through the sky above. It was idyllic. Behind me were two limestone outcrops a pitch in height. I lay there naked, hands and feet rooted in the Earth, watching the bubbling life in front of me unfold. My heart sang with the birds. I was present.




Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Electric Africa

I don't really write poems and this was a first for me. It's about a climb in Tuolumne that I am absolutely in love with and the area too. What a beautiful and cosmic place Tuolumne can be!


Electric Africa


Electric Africa, I love you so

Crimps and knobs barely enough for the tip of my toe

I learned to put in the time

To toil and toil until I could climb.

I learned to cherish our magical space

To bring that Jeffrey Pine close to my face

Electric Africa, I love you so

I learned the art of dance

Finess and balance at every chance

You taught me to love the process of life

Slow and steady 'cause there's no need for strife

Electric Africa, I love you so

Tucked behind Pywiak Dome

Is the sacred place I call home


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Heroes

We were sitting in my mom’s blue suburban after one of my soccer games. I was wearing a plaid green AYSO t-shirt with the number nine on back and long, black shorts and green socks with shin guards up to my knees. Long, blond bangs swept over my eyes, sometimes disrupting with my vision. I was eight.
Me, left, and my sweet cousin, Alyssa, on the right. 1995.
“Mom, I want to become a world cup soccer player one day.  I want to be like Mia Hamm. She’s the best soccer player in the world.” She turned to me, with a smile on her face, knowing that I was a dreamer.
 
Mia Hamm, my childhood hero
“You can be whatever you want if you work hard at it.” She responded, putting her hand on my knee, an affirmation of her support.

Spring, summer, and fall passed and I spent every free moment of my time playing soccer. When I wasn’t playing a game or at practice, I would dribble the ball around the house. The soccer ball became an extension of my foot. On Christmas, I found a collage of Mia Hamm photos my mom had made for me. She put it in my playroom to go with all of the Mia Hamm posters I had collected. My Dad made me a Mia Hamm fansite called. ‘miakicks.com.’ I dreamed that one day I could meet her. She was my childhood hero.

Years passed, and she was still my hero, but I added another person to that list – Derek Fischer of the LA Lakers basketball team. A family ritual we had was to watch basketball games together. Three years in a row, they won the national title and we felt an overwhelming pride for our region of the country.

Derek Fischer was smaller than the rest. He was unassuming. He wasn’t Kobe, who’d had consistent 40-50 point games. He didn’t shine like Kobe did, but he was crucial in their success those three years. Derek was a team player. He pulled through with reserves at the end of the game, making key defenses, and play-making for the offense. I always thought of myself as a Derek Fischer, not gifted but driven, driven to put in the hard work and make it happen. I got a signed player card from him and added it to my little shrine in the corner of my bedroom.
Derek Fischer, the MAN! 


***

In my mind, heroes were untouchable. They were the gods in the heavens, doing all that is right and good in the world. They were passionate and driven, kind and giving. They'd help you when you were down, are self-less, and stoked.  Now that climbing has become the driving force in my life, I have found myself referring to climbers like the heroes of my childhood. Unlike Mia or Derek though, we get to interact with our heroes because we share the same space to play- Yosemite, Indian Creek, Squamish. Our heroes are everywhere and it’s not uncommon to meet them at the crag or on El Capitan. Sometimes I ask myself, “What would Dean or Croft do?” I make references to their boldness, stoke, or demeanor. I idolize them with posters in my cabin for inspiration and read old climbing magazines to fuel the stoke. It brings out the child in me, envisioning a future where I could be like them.

And then, I meet these people. The community is too small to give detailed experiences about people you know or are familiar with, but I realized they weren’t Zeus or Hercules, Luke Skywalker or Frodo - they are just like me, like us. They have insecurities, bad habits, sometimes drinking problems. They can be overweight and boring, living in the shadows of their former self. They can be divas, or stuck-up, assuming they’re above you. And they can be just plain assholes.

I’ve been disenchanted several times with climbing heroes I’ve had. It hurts, and sometimes it feels too personal, like they’ve wronged me even though we’ve never met. My investments emotionally to heroes make me feel like we were friends prior to meeting, like they will be jovial to see me. Maybe I’m naïve - I am naïve. But that’s ok.  So I get mopey for a day or two, start to dislike them, and wonder why I ever thought they were so magnificent and then move on.
 
Daniel Hoer on top of the world, Third Pillar of Dana. Daniel taught me how to adventure, trad climb, and live life to the fullest.
Big-time hero.
This cycle has repeated several times, but each time, it also teaches me that humans are humans – some gifted, some hardworking, some selfless. It makes me happy to be me with my flaws and insecurities, but also appreciative of the qualities that I shine in. After these encounters, I take more time to appreciate my life and lifestyle. I realize I am my own hero.
Public Sanitation Photo Credit: Drew Smith 
Aside from instilling confidence in myself and my path, I also take more time to appreciate the people I have around me. Our tales aren’t in the magazines but shared from ends of ropes or connections made from life-changing shows. They’re shared at inopportune times when things go to shit or over a breathtaking sunset.
 
Yosemite locals, Katie and Ben - everyone's heroes!  Photo Credit: Michael Pang 
My friends are my heroes and I’m fortunate to know them. Vitaliy’s drive and hard-working ethic motivate me to get better and cultivate a healthy competition. If he could do it, I could too. Jim’s optimism on hour 18 of an El Capitan ascent motivates me to keep jugging and suffer on. Katie and Ben, the power couple, do everything with style.  Father Luke, the ultimate weekend warrior, looks out for everyone, making sure we’re stoked, fed, and happy. I could write on and on about everyone who really inspires me, and more than just a sentence, but that would take forever. My inspiration lies in the hearts of all the colorful people in my life, and in myself. Mia Hamm, Derek Fischer, and Alex Honnold may be the best at what they pursue, but our deepest relationships are with our friends and family – our heroes.

Vitaliy, Jim, and Luke to my left on the summit of the Warrior in Red Rocks! HEROES. 




Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Living My Dream

Hand jams, glorious hand jams! It was redeeming when I finally got into the meat of the Stove Legs. Getting into the stove legs is a tricky crux for people on their first Nose attempt. I had climbed it twice before, knowing exactly what I was going to do. Run out the 5.6, clip the tat, swing over and climb slightly runout 10a crimps to a bolt. In a moment, I was on those crimps, scared to commit higher in fear of taking a pendulum. I fell, confused and scared, realizing that I had broken a hold.



“Jim, I’m nervous. I can’t stop shaking.” It had been almost a year since my last Nose in a day, also my last time climbing El Capitan. I felt like a fish out of water, unconfident in my skills or ready to move fast and be bold. 

With a mantra and motivation from the gaining party, I pulled it together to clip the bolt and swing again. Somehow I ended up on the Real Nose, approaching a corner system instead of a splitter hand crack. 



“I’m off route Jim.” I could tell he was frustrated with my  mistakes and slowing us down on our ascent. Our friend Mac showed up below me at the anchors I should have been at.

It’s ok. I thought. Lower down to the anchor, untie, pull, and re-tie. 



Pull it together. Pull it together.

Once the mistake was corrected, I got into the groove again, ruthlessly jamming my way up the Nose, and placing gear only when necessary. A party was rapping as I sped by.

“Good job, you are crushing,” he said.

“Thanks man, I feel like a turtle right now.” I responded, still upset with my mistakes.



2.5 hours to Dolt. It was 30 minutes faster than my last run with shenanigans. Maybe I’m not moving so slowly. 



Jim caught up, gave me gear, and I sped off again - quivering in the Texas chimney, destroying the Boot flake (free’d it!), and nailing the King Swing. Jim took over and I was finally able to soak it all in.

Here it was, early April, in t-shirts, climbing El Capitan with our good friends rallying behind us. I sat there for a few minutes on Eagle Ledge understanding so vividly why I am so passionate about rock climbing and the lifestyle. I felt free, in ecstasy and awe of the world around me - loving the puffy, white-bellied swallows chirping in the cracks I was jamming, the view of Middle Cathedral, the meadow, Ribbon Falls, and all of the subtle features of Capitan.

My favorite moment of the climb was jugging the changing corners, my least favorite pitch on the route due to it’s steepness. That area of rock is so unique with just one feature, the changing corners pitch, and nothing but blankness on either side. The wind was raging, and ropes flying over head. I laughed, and laughed, as I dangled in space almost three thousand feet off of the deck.

We topped out and got down just as the sun was setting, shared icecream, cheesy popcorn, and good food with my closest friends.

I moved into my shabin in Camp Four the next day. It’s a modest wood-framed tent cabin, but feels luxurious after living in a mini-van with another person for a year. My first decoration was a picture of the Salathe headwall above my bed. Mayan gracefully dispatches the 180 foot splitter in the photo. It is my daily reminder of where I am headed, and what I am working towards. 



Later that night, I turned on my pager to start my first season on Yosemite Search and Rescue. It was 10:30 at night and I heard this unfamiliar buzzing and a person speaking. I was startled. Am I getting called out?



“One to two SAR members needed for a call on top of Yosemite Falls,” the unfamiliar person commanded. Shaking off my sleepiness, I biked to the SAR cache and got sent out on my first mission. I spent half of the night hiking in the rain up the Yosemite Falls trail to locate two lost, young hikers from Southern California. This meant talking to my new friend and SAR mate, Buck, about everything rock climbing.



I’m finally starting to feel like I’m reaching a balance, a balance that is rewarding and sustainable for now. I’ve been battling the extremes in my lifestyle - just climbing in Bishop or just working in Taiwan. I am more psyched that ever to work in and for a community I’m in love with, and to pursue my dreams and become a granite gansta!

That night, I realized I was living my dream.  I am taught time and time again that patience is the greatest virtue. It’s easy to slump in your seat when things aren't working out, when you’re not sending a pitch, or life, or when you get into a situation that ends up less glorious than envisioned. I often think about Taiwan, what I learned, the life I lived there, and how I’ve changed from it, but it’s hard to put it down in words. I will write about it when it flows freely from the depths of my soul, but for now, I will keep learning, practicing patience with myself and others, and push myself to expand my comfort zone in all aspects of life. 




The time is now and it’s time to RAGE!


Mac and Rob sticking the King. We are above. Photo Credit: Kaylene Grove



Sunday, December 14, 2014

Projecting Life



I’m high up and exposed. It’s winter, and the humidity and heat have finally subsided. It’s cold, really cold. The wind chills my body, but fires the core. The wall is 20 degrees overhung. I look up, relaxing the tension in my body, shaking out for a few seconds. Focus on your breath. I put my right foot on a slope on the arete, drop-knee toe-hook (yes really, it’s awesome), pull myself as much as I can into the left wall with my right foot, and huck with my right hand to a crimp above.

My fingers caress the hold and right foot flies backwards in a circular motion toward my left side. And I am flying through the air down, down swinging around the corner like a monkey in the amazon. I let out a scream naturally, I’ve been doing that a lot lately.

“This is absurd!!” I yell down to Ryan. “Seriously, where did this swing come from?” I can’t stop laughing. He looks up and smiles, knowing that I had never had a swing that dramatic before. I felt like a wild animal hunting in the forest. I can’t ever recall a time where I have climbed so dynamically.

Last week, I reached a new high point, doing all the moves on lead except for the throw to the anchor. This climb, The Real Legend, 13a, at Long Dong is the most aesthetic line here. It’s a prominent golden arete with orange and red varnish. The holds are pretty good but spaced far enough away for me to throw, heel hook, or cut-feet for most of the climb. The climbing is steep and the grade, intimidating, but the line is calling my name.

My resume doesn’t qualify me for this climb. When I told Ryan I started climbing 5.12 this year and had sent one 12b outside before, he gave me a silly look. I remember walking up to it with Jim for the first time. We were curious about hard climbing, about putting many months of effort into one climb. It felt silly to go back to it after 4-5 weeks of effort and still not do all of the moves.

Climb. Hang. Climb. Hang. Fall. TAKE!

One day, a few weeks back, I was top roping it, frustrated that I still couldn’t pull the crux. Why am I even on this thing? I’m not strong enough. The mind, the ego, has it’s elusive way of pulling me back with words. This is just silly. You haven’t sent anything since you’ve been here. And you haven’t touched most of Long Dong! I lowered off deflated and upset. Fear.

I tried it one more time that day and held onto the crux crimp for the first time. It goes! It really goes!

Faith had been restored.

Fear of the unknown is a terrifying thought for me, not just in climbing, but in life. Sometimes, I get it and take risks. Sometimes, I don’t and recoil with fear. A lot of this year I have been run over with fear - fear of missing out, fear of failing on a climb, fear of falling,  fear of being alone, of losing myself. This fear has made me lose myself.

Projecting The Real Legend is my metaphor for life right now. I’ve been living in fear, in fear of not being good enough, of not being bold or balanced and not serving others -  always wanting immediate success or known outcomes. After having those thoughts about the Legend, about how I had no business being on it, I decided to say, “Fuck it!”

I love that climb. It’s long, challenging, so beautiful, so powerful, and hard for me. I come back to the same route every weekend (weather permitting) and give it a few more attempts. I find some new beta, make new links or high points, skip clips. Every weekend, I learn something. The process is slow and sometimes frustrating, but I make progress and enjoy it. I laugh at the wild swings and falls that remind me to let lose and relax, that life shouldn’t be so serious all the time. 


Hanging out on one of the awesome 5.11's

We walked down the steep, muddy trail that funnels rivers when it rains. It rained yesterday. Toothy, spiked deep green plants guard the wildlife from people. Two fisherman are perched on a pillar to our right as we look out over the ocean. They are sitting back, rods attached to an anchor, and lines 30 ft down into the water.

The sun peers through the clouds, making the ocean sparkle when we enter the Golden Valley to see The Real Legend. I turn around to see the route I am fixated on. “AH! I’m so psyched!” I shout and giggle. It ignites that fire in me, that stoke and passion that I have let guide me throughout my life

Life is projecting. Life requires persistence, patience, love, and forgiveness. Jim left almost six weeks ago, and I had puffy eyes for weeks. I cried at work, the coffee shop, alone in my room, at Long Dong. I was utterly alone, weekends to look forward to where I could speak to foreigners, but I spend my weeks at a job where I am one of the three English speakers other than the kids I teach. I never realized how a language barrier could be so debilitating.

I wished that over night, I wouldn’t feel this way. That I wouldn’t feel so far away from everything I loved and cared about. But it doesn’t happen that way, just like projecting something really hard for me doesn’t come over night.

I’ve made small changes to my life -  time meditating every day, reading books about Buddhism, focusing on staying present (which is always hard), doing self-reflection, sleeping properly, stretching and healing my body, being open to Taiwanese culture instead of thinking the West has it figured out.

This return to self is coming along slowly, chipping away at the conditions of my past. Some days are good, some hurt. I still cry, but less. I’ve stopped writing to-do lists, rushing to things, creating a sense of urgency to feel productive. Now, I’m just trying to live, slowing down and focusing on healing the body and the soul.

Just like climbing, I am trying to let my soul guide me instead of fear. I hope this finds you well, and I encourage you to think long and deeply about yourself and where you are. Push yourself, step outside your comfort zone, and go for something that you soul calls you to.

With Love,
Alix
 
The views aren't too bad here.








Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Disease

My smart phone broke in a bakery the other day, but instead of being upset about the situation, I sighed in relief. It’s funny, the timing worked so perfectly because I had spent the previous hour researching good cameras online. I vowed to get a flip phone back in the U.S. and just use a camera to document my travels. And then this happened - I can’t afford a new phone, a contract when I get back to the states, and I don’t want to feel connected all the time. I don’t want to be distracted when I am hanging out with my friends - scrolling through newsfeeds, instagrams, looking at mindless bullshit while hearing a conversation, not listening. I see it everywhere.

Aside from pulling a person away from the present, for me at least, it also creates this narcissistic desire to feel loved, liked, and to feel validation for what I’m doing. It’s shallow.

It’s because I’ve been raised this way. It’s engrained in my mind. Do well in school? Pat on the back. Do well in soccer? Parents and coaches love you. Team members want to be you. Desire for fame, perfection, and praise - all decadent. Why is it like this today?

Why do we want to be famous? Why do we want to be movie stars? Professional athletes? Headlined in the newspaper? Why? WHY, god damnit, Why?

I am guilty. I crave these desires. I want to feel loved. I want to be loved, but in the most shallow way. Before, it was beauty. I would look at magazines of the Victoria Secret girls and wish, hope that I could be beautiful like them, then maybe a would find the right guy for me. I grew up in Orange County, a place where beauty is above all. I didn’t have boyfriends in high school - I barely had any friends. All of the boys would turn their attention to my childhood best friend, and I always felt like an outsider, jealous.

My best friend, Gena, taught me to love myself, to feel ok in my body, to embrace each day, and to stop dwelling on wanting something else. I thought I was in the clear. I felt good. I went to college, worked part-time, exercised regularly and ate healthy. I was happy with my life and my decisions. At one point I thought to myself, life can be pretty damn easy.

A few years have passed since this epiphany and now I’m struggling to find how life is really that easy all the time, how it was that easy. Media, social media, social pressures - it is even more abundant today than it was 5 years ago when I was drooling over magazines.

And just as present in the climbing community. Instead of wanting to look like someone else, I fantasize about climbing just as hard or harder than people I know. I wonder what a life in those peoples shoes would like. Everyday, facebook and instagram yield thousands of cliche posts with pictures of people climbing about ‘living the dream,’ ‘follow your passion,’ ‘live for yourself.’ Like everyday is some grand epiphany! And people eat it out of the palm of your hand. 200 Likes, 30 comments of how much of a badass you are.

But really, it’s not that glamorous. I am upset because I am a part of it - I have been a part of it. I am, too, another dirtbag in an alternative lifestyle. We want to be so unique, so different. Like living in my van and traveling across the West is so unique...It’s so not.

And when things aren’t perfect in my life, I question what I’m doing wrong. Why do people like that person so much? There’s nothing special about them. Why is this person getting a sponsorship? They don’t even climb hard. Why can’t I get sponsored?

Climbing has impacted my life in so many positive ways, especially with the incredible people I have met, but it has also made me sick. I am green with jealousy and envy. I want to do these things, to prove to others and myself I can to do them, to gain notoriety, to feel accepted into a community, to feel loved.

It’s so shallow. I’ve been fooling myself for the past two years, but not anymore.

This thing, media - it’s a disease. It’s not going away. With each day, we are becoming more and more connected. With a smartphone, you get service almost anywhere, and you get facebook messages on long routes in the Sierra or in Yosemite.

I don’t want to live like this. I don’t want to be envious of my friends - I want to support them. I don’t want to wish I was someone else - I want to be me. I want to take a stand for myself, and stop wanting something else. I want to free climb the Salathe Wall because it looks fucking rad, not because it will be a ‘badass’ tick. I want to climb big walls because they’re inspiring, beautiful, and in remote locations, not because I think people will be impressed. Deep down, I know this, but sometimes my mind is so clouded with sensory overload that my motives become an illusion to how I feel - jealous and envious.


***

This is a stream of conscious I wrote the other day after I decided that buying a camera was worth it if I didn’t want a smartphone anymore. I write because I love writing, I always have. And using this blog is a share to share how I feel with the world and I know sometimes people will relate and other times, not. That’s ok. And please don’t feel like this writing is any attack on your life or lifestyle. I have just found that social media has been more of a burden on me than anything else. Thank you!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Taking It All In

I gaze intently at Half Dome and beyond. Large, granite peaks and domes fill my view in the distance. It’s a clear day and I am on the Valley rim staring at my home. This is my home, my sanctuary. Yosemite is the first place that has ever truly felt like my home. I love biking down the beat trail to the Cathedrals, gawking at Sentinel along the way. I love hiking aimlessly in the dark through the forest and stumbling upon the spot I will sleep in. I love hiking the trail off of Half Dome.  I love sleeping on top of Watkins. I love sleeping on top of Middle Cathedral. I’ll admit it, I am fond of shiver bivying on top of formations in Yosemite, cuddling up next to my partner after an exhausting day on the vertical frontier. 



I feel so alive in Yosemite, so small and so big at the same time. I love putting in a long day and I love the feeling when my body is worked and tired, and I have the excuse to eat a half gallon of ice cream. I love sitting in El Cap meadow with a box of wine in one hand and the big walls guidebook in the other, gazing at the routes I fantasize about freeing. It’s simple. It’s rewarding and it’s real. Yosemite is a magical place filled with passionate people and the most inspiring landscape I have laid my eyes on. Like the goosebumps you get from a powerful song or message, I get this feeling being here, just being.

But I am not there. The Half Dome I am gazing at is on my computer screen. Day dreaming and job searching fill my free time because my landscape has become a concrete arena with narrow, crowded alleys, scooters whipping by, and street vendors yelling in Chinese.

Ah, my view from home.



 Before I left California, I spent my final day soloing the West Ridge of Conness. We saw two other people on our hike, but that was it. There were granite domes as far as the eyes could see. With cold feet, I was questioning why the hell I was leaving the place I loved most to go to Taiwan. 



“I just don’t know, I don’t why we’re leaving here. I don’t want to leave.” I sighed, resting my head on Jim’s shoulder. We were watching another incredible sunset in Tuolumne, sitting in the meadow in front of the store.

“Alix, Yosemite isn’t going anywhere, and we’ll be back in no time.” Jim assured me. 

“I guess you’re right. If we don’t leave now, we may never want to leave.”

I had the same conversation with many other people that month. Why? Why? WHY?


***

To be honest, I never had any intention of going to Taiwan in my lifetime. China? Yes. Taiwan? No. I didn’t really know anything about it, but one day in August, someone posted on facebook offering their position as an English teacher with good pay and a free flight. 

My mind was turning. Well, I’m just futzing around the Sierra with no money to go dirtbag anywhere else, maybe I should try this out for a few months. Learn about another culture, make money, and then go travel for a while. 



I did some research and found that there was a climbing destination and it even had a guidebook filled with pretty pictures and detailed descriptions. And to my surprise, a friend in Bishop, Matt Robertson, wrote the guidebook and had lived there for 10 years. I took that as a sign. Maybe this could be fun and it will certainly be interesting.

One evening at the Zoo, I bought flights to Taiwan. We had no plan, no work lined up, and barely enough cash to stay afloat while job hunting, but we did have a willingness to dive into the unknown and get uncomfortable.

“Worst case scenario, we travel Taiwan for a month and come back dead broke.” Jim commented, sitting on the couch next to me as I clicked the purchase button. “Best case scenario, we get jobs fast and fall in love with the place.” 




“I guess there’s really no reason not to go then.” The purchase confirmation button popped up. I sighed, “Here goes nothing!” In the click of a button, we had two one-way non-refundable tickets to Taipei.

Before we left, we encountered our first issue in the airport.  


We were packed and ready. 

“Return flight? Why do we need that?” I had that itch in my voice.

“Ma'am, you cannot enter Taiwan without an exit flight. I’m sorry, but you have to purchase a return flight.”

After we begrudgingly bought our flights to China, I called Daniel to tell him about our first ‘incident.’ He told me one very solid piece of advice, “Don’t go to Asia with any expectations and just take it all in.”
 

*** 

 Taipei and New Taipei City (where I live) together have a population of 6.7 million people, and nothing is really that far away from each other. Thirteen kilometers is “far” in a city, but objectively, it’s not far at all. In Bishop, that’s less than a 10 minute drive.  To compare, Bishop is home to 4,000 people with two major streets. The contrast in life between Taipei and Bishop is monumental.  



I live on the 7th floor of a 14-story apartment building with a nice view of more housing complexes. There is rectangular foyer as you pass the security gate with pools of water and sitting areas. A street cat with two different color eyes and striped orange fur, rolls around on his back every day as I walk by. I stop to pet him, but he just claws at me. One day, I will win him over. This is the yard of the apartment building, and it’s charming. But that’s it.

 As I step into our apartment, we have to take our shoes off. The living room has three tables filled with our roommates sewing stuff as she is a fashion designer, a big flat screen T.V., and no couch to sit on which makes the area feel more like a sweat shop rather than a cozy home. My room has a bed, a desk, and two dressers. The walls are white and bare, and they will stay this way because I’m not allowed to paint the room. I did get to make one house improvement and that was my addition of “Salathe Free,” my new hang board. This sits right over my doorway with a photo of El Capitan on one wall and a photo of Cerro Paine in Patagonia on the other. The kitchen is small, but comfortable, and in Taiwan, there are no ovens - just woks, fried food, and the Taiwan tummy roll. 


Just hanging out on the "Salathe Free"
 “Alix, I’m not qualified for anything. I’m just wasting away in the city and playing too many video games.” Jim walked into the living room with a frazzled look on his face, fingers running through his thick, curly hair. “I want to go home.”

“Jim, we haven’t been here long. I don’t think we can make these judgements so soon. It’s a rough start.” I hated hearing him say this. I feel the same way and I often glance through photos of Yosemite and tear up. I wanted to feel hopeful, I still am hopeful, but both of us yearn for something so different from this. 




Jim grew up in the wilderness and a running joke is that he rappelled out of his mother’s vagina (Sorry Mary). He spent his days scrambling peaks in the Trinity wilderness and biking through rolling track hills. One time -Jim was in 5th grade-, in March as things were starting to thaw and snow was turning into frost, he left home after reading The Hatchet to embark on his journey to the snowy mountains. He had a bow, a hatchet, and a couple of matches. His friend and him managed to survive the night and he was found cold and shivering the next day. If there is any story to portray his sense of adventure and personality, this was it. Jim is a man of the mountains, but somehow he ended up on a tropical, humid island.

***

Enjoying some beautiful, hot sandstone in Golden Valley
 The Golden Valley in Long Dong is enclosed on three sides and it overlooks the ocean. The rock is red with yellow and orange varnish, and salt crystals form beautiful intricate patterns that can be used for feet or handholds. The most striking feature in this area is a steep, left leaning arete that requires both dynamic, powerful movements as well as precise technical footwork, The Real Legend (13a). It’s considered the most prized sport climb by many in Taiwan, so it was fitting we decided to project this route.

“They keep saying it’s going to get cold, but I don’t think winter ever comes.” Jim greased off a hold and was being lowered to the ground. Beads of sweat were dripping off of his nose and face. “I mean… come on, it’s a fucking sauna here and it’s October!”


 

“Yeah, I think we’ve had one day of good conditions since we’ve been here. It’s either raining or a furnace…” I could feel his discontent, I felt it too. It’s like you perpetually get blue-balled with the hopes of climbing amazing rock in a perfect setting, but then, the forces of nature taunt you with extreme humidity and heat, so extreme for me that I considered buying bigger shoes because my feet couldn’t fit into my comfy shoes, OR it’s humid and rainy, where the water and chalk form together into a foamy paste that makes your hands slime off every hold.

 

“Maybe we’re just soft. Everyone around us is climbing at their limit.” I sighed, taking him off belay. It seemed like a losing battle. I was so used to 10+ pitches a day at home with good weather and rock I could read, but here, I had a hard time onsighting, a hard time figuring out movements, and a hard time with the heat. 



“I miss winter. I wanna go home.” Jim was frustrated and it was increasingly obvious that he needed to leave.

Room with a view, our bivy in Second Cave

 ***

 After a lot of deliberation, we both agreed that being in Taiwan was not in his cards. It just made sense, especially since he doesn’t have a college degree, to go back home; no point in trying to save money here if you’re not qualified to work.

And for me, well, only time will tell. Despite these adversities in the city, I am finding more solace with each day passing. I find beauty in the dense, crowded streets during all the hours of the day. People are alive and invigorated. They are enjoying the bustle of their market stands, a cigarette break with friends, a gathering in the park to play ancient Chinese music. They are happy.

The loveliest children around!


I am finding joy when my students surprise me with their creativity, when the little vegan diner allows me to order food even though they closed ten minutes before, when the lady in the local bread shop notices my pack and asks if I climb mountains, when an old man has his son translate that I am beautiful, and when I zoom off on the bicycle and pretend like I’m on a scooter whizzing past others in traffic. I find solace when I’m greeted with warm smiles at the bus station where new friendships have blossomed out of our love for climbing. I find solace in the fact that everything is temporary and I choose to live this life every day. I am not forced. 




I would be lying if I said I was ready to tackle Asia alone without my best friend flanking me. I’m scared. I’m really scared. But I know that this is the way it has to be and that it is temporary. I’m excited to continue to feel uncomfortable, to make crazy gestures in hopes that someone will understand what I’m trying to say, to laugh when things go wrong, to grease off holds 50 times, but stick it the 51st time. I’m excited to put myself out there and meet new people. And hot damn, I’m excited to go to China to climb sandstone splitters. 



But most importantly, I’m excited to really focus on my well-being again, to learn to love myself all over, and to be happy with my life because I choose it. I’m just going to take it all in, one step at a time.
New friends at LD. Peter (to the left of Jim) was perpetually stoked!