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!








Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Fear and Loathing on El Capitan


Alone 

“It’s raining, you’ve got to be kidding me, right?” I say to myself sarcastically as I lead the last pitch in the dark. I’m cold, I’m wet, I’m lonely, and I’m on the side of a cliff with thousands of feet below me…and its winter. It’s been hours since I’ve had any real conversations with my partners, and I yearn for human contact.

I find the last set of anchors in the maze of low angle, unprotected rock scrambling and yell, “Fixed!” I slump into a puddle, hide myself from the moisture, and sigh. It’s not over.

 

Darkness

Too much stoke, brash over-confidence, and a round of poker with the weather gods led us here. We lost. Yesterday, we sieged El Capitan with the tactics of Warren Harding, fixing as high as we possibly could, four ropes from the bottom to the top of pitch 7.  With only 12 pitches to climb the following day, we had a chance to beat the 30% predicted overnight showers, and enjoy our first summit on top of El Capitan to the fading sunlight or so I thought.

The day drifted slowly and the sun was shining on our back, a perfect crisp winter day in March. We were the only party on El Capitan.  Daniel led his block, Vitaliy, his, and I was stuck with the night shift. It turned out we were a lot slower than we hoped for. After Vitaliy battled his last lead, he gave the rack over to me for those remaining four pitches. 


Vitaliy leading the hook pitch

Night fell all too quickly, and I was stuck in the dark for what felt like an eternity on a steep, exposed open odyssey. I moved slow, gingerly stepping on all of my gear, afraid for my life. It was cold, and I felt so alone. Alix, you wanted this. You pushed to climb this and you thought you could be a hero?

My logical self was scolding me, shaking her head with a scowl. I felt like I was lost at sea on a small boat with a paddle. I was slowly paddling towards the land, towards safety and comfort.

“I can’t find Thanksgiving Ledge” I cried out. They couldn’t hear me. “And the rock is so wet!” I squealed. It was seeping.

I stumbled through wet climbing and snow covered ledges. The route-finding was nearly impossible and I began to loose my nerve. My hands were swollen and bleeding like I’d gotten into a fist fight. The wind had cracked my lips and I was shaking. I don’t think I can lead anymore, those few pitches took half the night. I was self-conscious, wondering if my companions would ever want to climb with me again, because I was a weak gumby. What am I doing here?

 I kept going, plunging back into the dark recesses of the night. My arms were cramping and I had to warm my hands ever time I stood still for too long. Good thing I’m not at that belay or else I’d be REALLY cold, I thought to myself. As I was progressing upward on the last 5.3 pitch, far from my last piece of protection and way off route, it started to rain.

“I’m really fucking scared!” I screamed from the top of my lungs. I want off this thing. There was nothing they could do, nothing I could to do change the conditions, so I kept going. Alix, it’s 5.3. You can climb that in the rain. Calm down, and breathe. With each breath, I felt better. I tediously worked my way through another passage that led me directly to the anchors.


“Fixed!” I yell and quickly fold into the fetal position. It’s not over. My thoughts drifted between images bundled up by a fire with hot cocoa, my sleeping bag in Camp 4, and my worst nightmare, an unprepared bivouac on top of El Capitan.

Daniel comes up behind me, nudging me in the back. “We did it!” He said with enthusiasm. How is he so stoked? so not tired?

Vitaliy joined for celebratory high five.  He wasn’t completely wasted, either. Wow, am I really that soft? My inner conscience glared at me, No, you’ve never epic’d. You’re a noob, calm down. Daniel and Vitaliy had both logged many long days in the mountains and endured a few unplanned bivouacs. They had truly suffered before. This was my first time in the sufferbox.

“Alix, do you want to lead the way to the summit?” Daniel was looking at me.

“Ugh, no. I don’t want to be alone anymore. I’m done.”

Fear

 
After jugging the last fixed line, we negotiated a steep, sketchy gully system. Now, it was really raining, not just a misting, but enough rain to fill the gully with a small waterfall. I ended up in front, leading the way. I came to the abrupt end of the gully. Beyond it was blank, low angle, but blank and there was 2500 ft of air below. A small foot ledge above me was visible. I felt the weight of my backpack dragging me down. I glanced at my ratty approach shoes and imagined them skidding off the wet friction slab. The move looked desperate. 

This is it. I pasted my shoe on a bare piece of slab with no bite, just friction, and prayed I wouldn’t slip. I eased onto it and it held.

I looked down to my partners and my eyes swelled with tears as I stared intently at Vitaliy before he committed to the moves. Please don’t slip, please don’t slip. His face suggested he was as scared as I was, but in a few moments, it was over. He safely scurried up beside me. Daniel was down below with a giant pack leaning out from his shoulders.

“Can you give me a belay?” Daniel yelled up.

A belay? We’re on a slab. I can’t body belay. We’ll both die.
“No, I can’t.  I don’t know what to do.” I replied with a voice of panic.  “Fuck!” Why am I panicking so much right now? I can’t even think straight.

“Alix, calm down,” Vitaliy asserted. “Daniel, you have the gear. You’ll have to come up here.”

The air was tense. Please don’t die. Daniel put his climbing shoes on, and moved up to join us. I breathed a sigh of relief confident that the scariest, most exposed part of the day was over.

A rope-length stood between us and the true summit of El Capitan. Low angle, discontinuous cracks led to a tree above us. Someone had to climb up there and fix the lines for everyone else. In an attempt to redeem my heroic self-image, I volunteered to climb the last rope length of sopping slab. I changed into my climbing shoes and started free soloing the wet slab.

“This is fucked up.” I whined. I moved timidly up and down, tears streaming down my face. “Fuck, I can’t do this guys.” I broke down and climbed back. I was stressed - stressed I wasted time, stressed about disappointing my partners, angry with my ego.

Vitaliy, again calm and collected, greeted me with patience and understanding. “Let’s put a couple of pieces in this seam and build an anchor.”

“I can lead to the top. I have my climbing shoes on.” Daniel agreed to finish the route.

“WOOOO,” Daniel belched. He was on the summit at 1 a.m. 

Summit Glamor Shot Photo Credit: Vitaliy

 

Lost

Snow, snow, and more snow. It was snowing and there was snow everywhere. We attempted to carry out our original plan of descending the long Yosemite Falls Trail. It seemed like the safest and most obvious option. So we hiked the snow ridden granite, treading 2 ft, sometimes 3 ft, of snow amidst sparse trees and big boulders in hopes of finding a trail. 

There was no trace of human activity and we were left to wander the through the depths of the night. We crashed through dense thickets of forest atop El Capitan, post-holing through layers of snow. Our feet would punch through and twist between rocks, fallen trees, and bushes. Vitaliy fell a few times on slick ice, smacking his hip on the cold, hard earth. I battered my ankles. Daniel paved the way, looking for signs of a trail. I feel like I’m on drugs right now. I trudged behind like a zombie, watching the headlamps fade in front of me.

Where the hell are we?  We had stepped into another realm, as if we were deep in the Ent forest from Lord of the Rings. My eye sight became impaired. Spots of red and orange blurred my vision. I’m so tired. I couldn’t think straight. I could barely talk. After a few hours, the headlamps stopped in the distance.

When I caught up, Vitaliy and Daniel were conversing about our options.

“There’s dry wood over there. We could stop here and build a fire.” Daniel suggested.

“We should keep going. I think we’re close.” Vitaliy responded. Daniel nodded in agreement. They both turned to me.

“I think we should stop. I’m seeing things and I don’t feel mentally safe right now.” I replied.

“How about we keep going a little ways and if nothing looks good, we’ll come back here.” Vitaliy offered.  I reluctantly agreed and we staggered onward.

We climbed a steep, snow blanketed hill. Still, I dragged behind the others. I found myself falling more and more. I could barely move forward. We might have to call Search And Rescue.  I was drunk with exhaustion.

“I hear water.” Daniel was up ahead. “It’s a stream, a big one…we can’t cross it.”

Vitaliy caught up to him and was perplexed. We were utterly lost. “Let’s go back.” Vitaliy surrendered. 

Fire

 

Alive

My nose was filled with the smell of burning wood mixed with wet, dank forest. I opened my eyes to see Daniel adding more wood to the last embers of the night. The sun was creeping up over the east side of the valley. My body was wet and I was shivering. I can’t believe I managed to get an hour or two of sleep. Vitaliy turned and groaned. We survived the night, but it was time to go.

“Sleep well?” Daniel smiled, with a kick in his voice. He looked alive.

“Yea, I thought I was on a bad acid trip last night. That was intense.” I stretched my arms wide feeling the stiffness in my body. “Hanging in there V?”

“Yea.” He started gathering the clothes he left to dry by the fire.

The snow fall ceased. It was the first time in hours we weren’t getting any weather. Our only option was to find the east ledges descent. We headed towards the rim, out of the forest, back to the top of El Capitan. Within the hour, it started to pour rain again.  The gods plagued us with another exposed slab crossing. My thoughts raced with more what-if’s. What if we don’t get down today? Surely, we won’t survive another night.  “Maybe we should call SAR, Daniel.” I was losing hope.

“No, we are DEFINITELY not calling SAR.” Daniel said firmly. “We will find a way down. We’re so close.”

Vitaliy and I opted for a higher crossing in bush-whack territory while Daniel bee-lined straight across the slabs. We navigated down steep gullies, snow, and rappels off multiple fixed lines back to the valley floor.

“Good thing we didn’t wall it out,” I chuckled. We touched down at just before noon, 33 hours after we woke up. 

Daniel on the east ledges descent Photo Credit: Vitaliy


Daylight


We hobbled back to the Manure Pile parking lot. Dirt streamed down our faces with the rain. Bloodied hands, bruised hips, and saggy eyelids were souvenirs from our first trip up El Capitan. We followed the road back to El Cap meadow where our car was parked. Two rangers stood by the bridge with binoculars. One turned to us as we got closer, “Excuse me, did you three climb El Capitan yesterday?”

“Yea, we just spent the night up there…pretty cold,” I responded.

“Well, a man by the name of Jim Reynolds, called in about an hour ago. Said there was a team up there with no bivy gear, and they shoulda been down yesterday…we were just looking to see if y’all were on the wall.”

“Oh, that’s us. He’s our friend. No need to worry.” Daniel told them.

“You know it’s winter, right?” The other ranger chimed in. I smiled. “Glad you’re safe.”

We stumbled back to the car in fits of laughter. Our trip up El Capitan was absurd, but one thing was certain, I’d never felt more alive or more fragile in my life.

 Photo Credit: Vitaliy

 

Down the fixed lines Photo Credit: Vitaliy
After-thought

Climbing El Capitan at the end of the winter season was a rewarding but very humbling experience. It made me realize how little I knew about climbing, about Yosemite, and about myself. When faced with danger, I panicked. I wasn’t the hero I envisioned myself to be.

With a year of trad climbing experience before this ascent,  I was naive to think that everything would go as planned. We learned the hard lesson to not chance the weather in Yosemite.

Despite my short-comings, I had one of the most memorable experiences of my life, where the only thing that mattered was survival. As a child, I fantasized about being an elf in Lord of the Rings or Luke Skywalker saving the galaxy. I dreamed about a life outside the modern world. Lurking Fear was my first adventure that felt just as grand. Would Frodo have survived El Cap in a snowstorm?