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?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Full-Circle

I stood at the base. A perfect crack split the face, slightly flaring in the shape of a butt-crack. The tower was maybe 30 ft tall and grainy, uninviting for the hands. I began putting cams on my harness, mostly hand-sized pieces.

The last time I was here was just over two years ago. I thought to myself. 'Two years ago, surely I’ve gotten better since then...'

It was May of 2012. The sweltering heat of Yosemite Valley pushed us into the high country for the weekend. My first real trad climb in Tuolumne, one I could lead and call my own, was Ivory Tower Center, 10a. It was that uninspiring, short butt-crack, but I was motivated and ready to test my skills after spending a few weeks in the Valley leading 5.8’s and 5.9’s and a couple of 10a’s. I grunted and karate chopped my way up, stopping to place a cam when it was at my thighs…regressing in the progression upward. I peeled off.

“Ugh, I’m never going to be a good climber.” I said to Michael as I touched the ground. “I try, and try, and try again, but I’m still scared, still sewing it up, still flailing.”

That trip, in 2012, was my first long climbing trip, three months. I had my backpack,  a friend, and dreams of places we wanted to see. We didn’t have an agenda; we couldn’t without a vehicle. The climbing community I had met earlier that year subtly encouraged me to take this leap of faith, to abort a summer internship, and be free in the wild.

I wrote every single day that summer. I noted every single person I met, where they were from, what they were doing. I wrote about each pitch I climbed, the beauty of the movement, and my surroundings. I often snuck off to hang out by the Merced alone and reflect when I was there. I was so happy. This is what I want to do. This is what I’m meant to do. Explore, learn, love.



Somewhere along the way, I started to focus more on goals and objectives, proving myself and getting somewhere. Somewhere along the way, I lost that twinkle in my eye, that openness to experience and to be in the moment.

That summer, I got scared. I fell. I failed. I climbed majestic routes - the granite fins of Mathes Crest and the perfect wave corner on OZ. We had nights around fires with whiskey and tortillas filled with sugar and butter, fiery sunsets on the coast of Maine, rainy days when everyone in the campground congregated in the squamish leisure center.

We shared moments of ab-aching laughter. After I failed on Ivory Tower Center, Daniel decided to try one of his first off-width climbs, a Tuolumne 10b. It was a 5 inch crack that split a left facing corner. We thought he was crazy, but Daniel, he was determined. He started up the crack. First, it was grunting. Then, it was moaning as he slowly inched up the crack by shear will power, no technique to be found. Finally, he was nearly in hysteria, cursing, yelling, battling with the rock.

“UGH, WTF. FUCK!! I’m just going to jump out. I’m going to do it.” He threatened as he strained in the off-width.

We couldn’t stop laughing.

“You’re bellowing like a moose in heat!” Alan yelled up, clearly amused by this show. Everyone at the cliff stopped to watch Daniel. It was like watching the season finale of your favorite show - you couldn’t take your eyes off of him.

He did fall a few times and eventually made it to the top with lots of battle wounds, and no energy. Daniel had character - he stuck it out, and went for it. I met so many people like him that summer. I was amazed, always in awe, always stoked to try something hard for me. I tried hard. I had little trad experience, no background, nothing to prove - the beauty of being a new climber.



I never made it back to Tuolumne after that season …until now.

We walked up the moderate trail to Olmstead Canyon - the land of short, stout cracks, cracks of all sizes and shapes. This walk brought back many memories of that day. It was only one day in Olmstead Canyon, but it was a monumental day, one of those days you always remember, filled with tears, laughs, and many many grunts.

And now, I was at the base of that dreaded short, uninspiring 10a to get revenge at last. I had  butterflies sputtering in that empty pit of my stomach. I knew I was stronger. I had logged over two years of climbing under my belt, but still, I was nervous.

The day before, I left the hub of my friends in search of solitude. No agenda, no climbing, just somewhere to be. I found myself in a meadow across from Lembert Dome, gold and soft green, next to a pool of stagnant water that a stream fed into. Fish were jumping out of the water; insects were buzzing. I massaged my hands into the damp, dark earth, stuck my toes in too, and I let myself get lost in the beauty of my surroundings.

I marveled at the beauty encompassing me, getting that feeling I initially had when I decided to take that trip, to feel free. Life felt whole again. I had that feeling of gratitude and love I first had when I started climbing outside more. I realized again why I fell in love with climbing. It wasn’t to be a big-name sponsor or to prove to others I could climb big things. It wasn’t to spray to people online and feel good from others' opinions. It had nothing to do with that. That summer I didn’t have a phone and had never owned a smart phone. I was detached from social media and social pressures.

When we returned to Olmstead Canyon, my heart started pounding, my body tingling, my smile so big because all of those memories that began to flood my memory. I was giddy like a child again.

We strolled to the base of that butt-crack and I was nervous. I racked up and climbed it to the top. Things felt like they were coming full circle when I reached the anchors, a cycle of emotions had come to an end for now. I rediscovered why I chose this lifestyle. I chose it because of the community and the raw beauty of our natural surroundings. I chose it because I wanted to be free - free from the conventional lifestyle, that 9-5 job my mom always talked about, free from attachment. I chose it because I felt at home in the environment.

Sometimes, it takes a good talking from an old friend to get your head back on straight. This time, it was good ole mother nature, reminding me why I chose a life outdoors, not because of external factors, but because of passion filled meadows, valleys, and forests of people in harmony with its surroundings. Because my love for the earth and for you.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

With Us

“Give ‘er…Give ‘er” Cory shouted to me as I started up the layback. I fiddled in thin gear and wavered. “You got this!” He encouraged.

Pop. I was off.



I looked down to Cory in shock. His long, unruly, sun-kissed hair swayed with the wind. He chuckled. His smile eased my nerves.

We were in the southern Sierra, a place called the Needles. Granite spires, perched high along a ridge above Sequoia National Forest, created the skyline. This wasn’t your typical granite, it was glowing a fluorescent green that became even more radiant as the sun was setting, as if there was some sort of magic involved with this place. The spires had names like Sorcerer, Witch, and Warlock. The climbing was thin, perplexing, and hard to read …so was the gear. Magic. Pure magic.
Cory and I on Atlantis Photo Credit: Vitaliy

With Cory, the three mile approach felt like 5 minutes. He told me about his travels. He encouraged me to follow my dreams, many of which we shared - big walls in remote places, adventure, experiencing everything life has to offer.



“Cory, your shoes are wrecked…” He pulled out a well-worn Muira, delaminating along the sides with his toes nearly poking through. He laughed and continued to put them on with socks. I gave him a look of concern. “No really, you’re not going to wear those, are you?”

“Aye, these are perfectly good shoes…third resole. All of my shoes are old.” Cory laughed and began to tie into the rope. “I haven’t rock climbed in months. India got me weak and out of shape. This will be interesting.”

I was nervous and I had been climbing all fall. Atlantis, a four pitch 5.11c, was known for being a bold climb with thin gear.  Cory casually climbed the first pitch, protecting the pitch, but not the move. I struggled to muster up the courage to climb above my gear on the second pitch.

Up and down. Up and down, I climbed, back to the belay. He was so patient, insisting there was no place he’d rather be than there…in the moment. His words of encouragement pulsed through my veins as I felt the adrenaline rush of committing to face climbing. True to his words, I did not fall. 


After Atlantis, we decided to climb another spire via an easier route. The climbing was smooth, fast, and we summited just as the sun was starting to set. We sat in an evening glow with a slight breeze. Cory talked about his plans for the rest of his motorcycle trip. He told me about his sisters, his parents, growing up in New Brunswick, about crazy stories and people. That weekend, I never saw him frown. It was then, I realized that I wanted to live like Cory. His calm, optimistic demeanor, adventurous spirit, and on-the-fly problem solving skills were traits I really admired. He was a good listener, insightful and helpful. He laughed a lot- we laughed a lot that weekend.

Me following Cory up the crux pitch of Don Juan Wall

I was lucky enough to meet up with him in Bishop the following month. We bolt-clipped, stacked pads, and plugged cams together. He also taught me how to open a bottle of wine.

“Ok Alix, here we go. I’m going to put this bottle in the shoe and smash it on the ground.” Cory boasted, sure of himself.

“I don’t believe you.” I was skeptical, but he continued through with his plan.

He lifted the wine-filled shoe and hucked it down to it’s fate. SMASH …into a million little pieces.

“Aww Alix, I’m sorry. It’s worked in the past.”

“No worries, that’s why we have two bottles.” I smirked. We enjoyed the other bottle of wine and the starry night.

It’s been an emotional roller coaster following Cory’s death. First, it was sadness. Then, it was emptiness. I tried to put it past me. I didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t believe it. I wanted to believe so much I was going to see him in Patagonia or take him up on his offer to teach me to ice climb in Canada, but I knew, deep down, it would never happen. I tried to not think about it, but then, I wouldn’t be able to live on in his spirit - with intention, love, and gratitude. Instead, I’m learning to embrace his existence. I feel grateful to have shared a rope with him, a few moments in different places, and many long distance conversations.

***

After four days of rain, lightning, and thunderstorms, a day of splitter weather appeared. Jim and I decided to climb a route up Merriam Peak, just outside of Bishop. We longed for a big day in the mountains and in the spirit of Cory, we chose to do the route car to car. We hiked - 8 miles up, 9 miles back.

After we wrestled the talus to the base, we were forced to make a decision about our route options: climb behind a party of three on the route we planned or adventure up another route with a vague idea of where to go.

We chose the second. I knew that Cory would have enjoyed that. Jim and I embraced the situation with a new-route mentality, choosing a line that made sense. There was no chalk to be seen, loose blocks, crumbling footholds, stellar climbing, and even more stellar weather, no wind and sunshine. It was the epitome of a perfect day in the mountains.

We found glorious hiking through a creek-carved meadows. We found vast, open landscapes. We found beautiful, thought-provoking corners and a clean passage to the top of the peak. And I found a part of Cory’s spirit within me. Three of us summited that day - Jim, I, and Cory. I realized on the summit that he’d never be gone. In the mountains, his spirit would be with me. In scary situations, his boldness. And when things went wrong, his optimism.

I thought of the words he last said to me, “See you down South.” I will see you down there Cory, I will. 
Cory Hall Photo Credit: Rovert Wallshinback

Friday, May 30, 2014

Off-Balance



“Alix, remember that balance is the key to life,” Steve reminded me as he had many times before.

Yeah, Yeah, whatever Dad. I thought to myself.

It’s just too much fun to want to do anything else. Story of my life

Before climbing, I toured with a band, STS9, for 3-4 years, investing into over 50 concerts. Before that, I partied and raved non-stop for two years. And before that, I played competitive soccer for 10 years on three different teams simultaneously for a few of them.  If I’m passionate about something, it drives my life. It consumes my thoughts, my dreams, my ideas…everything. This isn’t the first time I’m feeling burnt out.  I didn’t think I’d start to feel this way about climbing…

And now, here I am, again, having ignored this idea of balance to chase dreams and feel-goods, and I am feeling weak, tired, and unstable.

The sound alarms at 3:20 am. Awesome, I’m pretty sure I just got woken up after my first real hour of sleep.

Bail. Bail. Bail.

Jim and I bike the chilly Yosemite loop to our car to get ready for Watkins.

“Jim, I didn’t sleep last night. Wanna bail?”

“Alix, you said you don’t bail if your partner’s psyched. I’M PSYCHED.”

We peddle on. Three hours later we arrive to the base of the climb…

I lead my pitches, bitching and whining through the first half of the climb, wishing I was on a beach surfing somewhere in South America. Yeah, that sounds good. Warm water, sunshine, and a surfboard.

We finish the climb 16 hours later and sleep on top of Watkins. Guess I’m earning every summit I get in Yosemite

“I’m tired Jim. This isn’t working…  I need a break from climbing so I can be psyched again.”

I started climbing 3.5 years ago, but until I discovered Yosemite two years ago, it wasn’t my passion. Since then, I have balanced school with climbing; traveling the past two summers, but always going back to school, another focus.

I graduated college in December and have been only rock climbing since then. When I’m not climbing, I work at a coffee shop in Bishop, the local climber hang out. I talk about climbing. I cruise the internet for blogs and videos. I fantasize about the Salathe headwall. I hang out with climbers.

There is no balance. I have become a monotonous drone enslaved to the big stone.

I’m ready for a change, even a small one. I don’t want to throw climbing away like I did with soccer or STS9. I need to balance out my obsessive habits. Lately, the ocean has been sounding more and more appealing. I grew up by the beach and I’m missing the warm, salty kisses the ocean gives me. I miss hula hooping and slack lining with my friends. I miss getting my lungs filled with salt water and feeling that temporary sharp pain that reminds me I’m a human. I miss my family, my little brother who’s almost two now, and all of my friends.

If a passion starts to fade, I loose direction and purpose. This rut is making me feel empty, incapable of empathizing and feeling compassion. I need something new to feel alive and a part of this ever-growing organism of Earth. I have to balance my climbing addiction with something else before the light goes out.

Two days go by and the suffering on Watkins was pushed out of my head. “Windfall to Windchill,” I suggested to Alan when we were sitting on the beach of the Merced. “11 pitches, 11a, shaded.”

“Hm, but I have plans with Lyla. They aren’t concrete… I’m interested.” He responded.

“Jim, you and David should come too! Party wall!” I interrupted his nap.

“Sure, we’re in.” Jim said, half asleep and unaware of what he signed up for.

“Ok, Alan. You’re in now right?” I was pushing it.

“Down.”

The next day we left Camp 5 at 6:30 am. We parked by Wawona and forgot a picture of the formation. We identified what could be the formation and went directly toward it up a steep scree field.

“Man, a beach sounds nice right now. I’m over hiking Jim”

“Yeah, I am, too.”

“David, we’re going to visit you in San Diego. Time for surfing!” I screamed ahead to him.

Nothing changed. There we were climbing a few days later, still fatigued. The clock was ticking and day by day, I realized I was just going through the motions. We rested the next day, and I spent most of the day reflecting by the Merced.

In the back of the North Pines campground, the river runs through it, shaded by the trees. It’s very shallow, maybe a foot deep with small stones blanketing the bed of the river and a fallen log spans the width of the river. I put my feet in the water, allowing myself feel the numbing sensation of the snow melt water. I walk to the center of the log and sit down.

I start to cry, uncontrollably. Thoughts are flowing and I feel alone. Suddenly, I feel guilty for climbing so much, for not being there for my mom when her brother died, for not spending more time with my brother, for not calling my friends. I feel guilty for being selfish. Pain is temporary. Soak it in. I keep thinking to myself.

Hours pass and I find myself back at Camp Five.

“Jim, let’s go for a walk.” My puffy, red eyes suggest it could be “the talk,” but it was far from that.

Jim looks at me like a puppy, afraid of getting scolded and unsure of what’s to come.

We walk toward the meadow between Curry Village and the Ahwahnee Hotel. A wooden board sidewalk separates the two locations and is surrounded by overgrown grass. To the east is Half Dome, a sheer face splits the dome. To the west is Yosemite Falls. The grass moves with the wind and the evening light accentuates the mystical face of Half Dome.

I am in the most beautiful place in the world and I can’t even stop to appreciate the beauty of the present because I’m so self-absorbed. Who is this girl? Where did she come from? I miss Alix.

“Jim, I’m not happy. I’m just not…” Tears form under my eyes. “I blamed Bishop for my lack of friends, lack of community. I blamed all of my problems on everything else…but really, it’s just me.” Shallow breaths start to form, tears are rolling. I can’t look at him. I’m ashamed.

Jim rubs my shoulders. “It’s ok Alix. You can cry.”

“I feel so alone. I feel empty. I have acquaintances, but very few friends. I miss my friends… I miss my family… I miss my mom.” I’m sobbing now.

“It’s ok.” Jim puts his arms around me.

“I’ve been so selfishly indulging in just rock climbing that I’ve lost sight of everything else important in my life. I hate myself, Jim. I don’t like me anymore. I haven’t felt this way since I was 18. I don’t care about anything. I don’t have feelings for people or emotions. I just exist.” I pause, trying to gather some composure, but can’t.

“I don’t want to feel this way Jim. We live in a beautiful place. I have you. I get to experience nature first hand every day, and yet, I’m still not fulfilled. I’m disgusted with myself. I feel lonely and empty.”

 “Alix, I love you.” His eyes are watery, too. People pass us on the sidewalk, but we didn’t care at this point. 

“I know. You are so kind, so patient, and so loving. I’m still not happy with myself. I don’t know what to do Jim…something needs to change.”

“You’re right. We can figure this out.”

We sit in the meadow for some time holding each other, embracing the setting sun, the wind, the warmth, the love.

Balance. I’m off balance.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Over the Rainbow Wall


My triceps ache. My calves are tight. I have a lingering whole-body soreness; this soreness I’ve been craving all winter long, a reason to rest.

It was evening. The sun was setting and a light breeze made temperatures perfect; warm enough to wear shorts and a tank, but breezy enough to raise the goosebumps -  my favorite time of the day. I was making pasta for our big day and getting the rack together. Jim kindly dealt with spilled milk in the food container.

He turns to me, “I’m pretty intimidated by the route tomorrow.”

“I’m not. I’m gunna climb with it no expectations. My goal is to get to the top.” I responded.

Normally, I am intimidated by routes, and get anxiety when diving into an unknown outcome. I scrutinize the topo, read every report online, and find out as much information as I can for a long route, but today, I felt light. No concerns for the outcome, just stoke to enjoy something that would be hard for us.

Rainbow Wall, although checking in at 12a with sustained 5.11 and 5.11+ climbing for 14 pitches, had rappel stations at every pitch, making a descent or retreat with even a 60 meter rope casual. The noncommittal nature of the route put my mind at ease. Worst case-scenario, we bail. Best scenario, we onsight, but I doubted my abilities.

Two days prior, I onsighted my first 11c gear/mixed route Texas Hold ‘Em, and now we were jumping into a significantly more sustained climb. Jim has an impressive resume including an onsight of Astroman (11c) and the Roman Chimneys (11d) in  Squamish and an amazing ability for onsighting. I had no doubt that Jim could onsight the route. He knew this too. Me, on the other hand, I onsighted my first and only 11b on the Rostrum, and my first 11c two days before. This would be our biggest free climbing challenge yet.

We rock, paper, scissored for the pitches - one person would get the 12a and 11c while the other person got both 11ds. The rest of the pitches would be split evenly. I hoped to get the 11d pitches; they looked better than the 12a crux. Jim won the game and got the crux pitch. My wish was granted.

The alarm sounded at 5:00 am. We were rested, prepared, and psyched. We strolled to the gates 10 minutes early (6:00 am opening) and shoveled last nights leftovers into our mouths. The guidebook states that the hike was 1.5-3 hrs. We figured about 2 hours. Not fast, not slow, just steady.

We got to the base in an 1 hr and 45 minutes, exceeding our expectations. The Rainbow Wall looked much bigger the closer we got to the base. Accents of green, blue, and purple blended the adobe colored rock to make it’s namesake wall. The route was obvious - a long left facing corner to a ledge system to a beautiful red dihedral system up high.

My stomach churned. It’s going to be a long day.

I turned to Jim, “let’s split the 5.11 corners above the first 11d crux. I’m going to be too fried to lead the last 11b.” Suddenly, I wanted to change game plans. Leading the high 5.11 pitch sounded intimidating and I thought I’d be too gassed for it.

“You can’t lead every good pitch Alix.” Jim whined.

“Well, maybe we should just block lead then, and we won’t have to do two hard pitches in a row. People do it all the time. Most people do it on hard climbs.” I was making excuses for not wanting to lead that high pitch.

“Ok... you lead the first half. I lead the second.”

“Wait, but I wanna lead one of those mega-classic pitches up high!!” My voice raised. Those corners looked perfect.

“I want to lead the first crux pitch then. How about you lead the 11c off the deck? Then, you take over and link the 5.11 corners. I’ll lead the last 11b.”

“Deal.” I liked that idea. Unfortunately, I wanted to lose rock paper so I didn’t half to warm up my lead head on an 11c, and now here I was, leading at my limit first pitch of the day.

I started up the low angle, blocky corner for about 25 feet before I had to make a real move to get to the first bolt.

“Damnit Jim. There’s no pro and I have to step on small holds. I hate not having pro.” My mind started to clutter with fear, normally it’s irrational, but I felt justified this time.

“You can come down and I'll lead it or I'll clip the first bolt for you.”

“Ok, clip the first bolt. Thanks.” I ashamedly replied.

Jim scurried up the corner and clipped the first bolt with ease. I haven’t climbed with many people that are as confident about their abilities as Jim was. I could have easily made the clip, but I lose confidence if I think I’m putting myself in danger. I did have to make a couple of extra stem moves to get to the bolt, and was grateful that I had a princess top rope for it.

The rest of the pitch was sustained. Thin movements between face and corner climbing kept me on my toes. And at one point, I had to grab a jug, paste my feet against a blank wall, and just walk them up to get a high foot right near my face. My feet were sputtering and I was gripped. I barely got by, and that moment gnawed at my mind for the rest of the climb.

I like to make things feel easy and look easy. Climbing is a beautiful art and one of the reasons I love it so much is when things just flow like a well-choreographed dance, but done as improv with grace and beauty.

I clipped the chains. I’ll take it. Desperate and thrutchy as it was, I onsighted my second 11c and I was elated. The next pitch was the first “hard” pitch of the route.

A wide layback off the anchor guarded the corner up high with the cruxes bolt protected. After Jim moved through the layback, he yelled down, “So this is what hard climbing looks like.” I couldn’t see anything, but I assumed the corner was desperate and thin.

Jim huffed and puffed his way up the pitch. He moved to the face and did one of those jug, foot paste, high feet scramble, that I did earlier as well, and then back into the corner. We realized that much of the climbing on this route required this.

When he clipped the chains, he let out a big howl. He was psyched. It was his second 11d trad/mixed onsight. I followed the pitch clean, not feeling as desperate as I did on the first pitch and climbed in control. It was a combination of burly lay-backing, precise smearing in the corner, stemming, and thin face climbing.

The early hard pitches were over. According to Yosemite and Red Rocks hardman, Dave Allfrey, who convinced us to climb this route, the middle 7 pitches were soft and could be done quickly. We swung leads and linked a couple of the pitches. The two 5.11 pitches were still thought provoking, but much less sustained than the first two pitches. After simuling through the 5.7 blocky ledge and chimney system, we were at Rainbow ledge.

One more pitch of 5.8 lead us to the base of the next two crux pitches of a beautiful red dihedral system. It was my lead. Off the anchors, there was powerful lay backing and stemming past a bolt to a large jug in the corner. After pulling myself up onto it, I was staring at a blank corner. Tiny crimps of nothing were chalked on the right wall. There were also large chalk stains on the blank face where people smear palms. In the corner were two tiny seams that you might be able to press a thumb on one wall, and crimp the other; there wasn’t much. The left wall had one garbanzo-bean-sized foothold chest height and nothing else. I couldn’t get my foot that high.

The bolt was at my chest, but I was still scared. Did I not want to fall because I was afraid of falling or did I not want to blow the onsight? Any fear associated with the fall was irrational. I was completely safe, but I still had to keep telling myself that. Despite the bolt right there, I was scared.

I climbed up and down, up and down, trying to find something that would work. Everything felt weird and awkward. The crimps on the right face were shit, and the ticked feet on that wall made no sense. The left wall didn’t have much for feet.

I convinced myself I was safe and that I should try a sequence, commit to something. I found a smear for my left foot, pressed my right palm on the right wall of the corner, used the seam as a thumb catch, and stood up on that foot. I stemmed between the two sides of the corner, and found myself statically reaching for the jug. The movement felt graceful and secure.

I was in disbelief. I yelled down to Jim, “Did that just happen?!”

My heart was racing and I had to calm myself before finishing the pitch. Even though the boulder problem was over, the rest of the pitch was still sustained. I moved up slowly, placing gear when available.

I hollered at the anchor, “WOOOOO!” 

I extended my anchor so I could watch Jim do the boulder problem. He tried the high left foot, but it was too high for him too. Then, he tried my beta. He followed it perfectly, and executed the crux sequence. He was at the anchors in no time.

Now, we sat under the last crux pitch of the route, and the hardest pitch -  another corner with a couple of bolts, and no feet. It was Jim’s turn to take over.

“I know you can do this Jim.” I assured him.

Getting past the first bolt was tricky. Both sides were mostly blank, but there was a tiny seam to use in the corner for your hands. Jim smeared his knee on the left wall, pushed his hand against the right wall, back stepped, and reached for a crimp to stem out. The first crux was over. He lay backed and stemmed, placing gear through strenuous incipient corner cracks to the last bolt. From there, desperate stemming on smears lead to a jug. He was through the crux. Jim let out another howl, unaware that the climbing wasn’t over.

There was more 5.11 climbing to the anchor, but Jim’s greatest strength is pulling out his reserves through endurance climbing. He finished the pitch clean, his first 12a onsight. We screamed like monkeys on the side of El Cap. I was proud of him.

I followed the pitch clean, but just barely. It was a strenuous lead and I fought for every layback and stem. I was grateful for the top rope.

Jim lead the final 11 pitch which was mostly face climbing, sometimes utilizing the cracks in the corner. I lead the last wandery face pitch to the top.

WE DID IT!! We howled to the setting sun. But when we topped out, there was a ting of numbness. That was it. I suddenly felt directionless like our purpose was lost. We just onsighted our hardest route, but my feelings were neutral. All of the adventure and excitement came to an end in that instant. I was sad it was over. I always thought I’d be overjoyed with stoke after climbing something epic in good style, but I was already longing for another challenge to focus my sights on. We took one more look out the beautiful expanse of Red Rocks and started the long, dark descent.

It was over.


*    *    *

In total, it was a 17 hour car to car clean ascent of Rainbow Wall. Rainbow Wall, although a big day, is very safe with almost all of the cruxes bolt protected and gear the whole way. A light rack of gear and draws with short pitches makes this route very friendly and I strongly recommend anyone breaking into the grade with all day endurance to try it! You might surprise yourself.


It was our first time to Red Rocks and we had four days. We drove out from Bishop and climbed Levitation 29 and Texas Hold Em the first two days, and then Rainbow Wall the fourth day. It was a good sampling of Red Rocks and we’re dreaming for another return! Maybe next weekend :)


That was by far my biggest endeavor and one of Jim’s as well. Maybe we’ve gotten stronger from sport climbing in Owen’s River Gorge all winter or maybe we were just lucky. I was lucky to get by. After single pitch cragging all winter, it was amazing to get high on beautiful cracks and face. So stoked for more trips to Red Rocks and our Yosemite season this Spring!

GAHHHH, I love rock climbing.







Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Joy in Failure


Everyone enjoys success - the feeling of accomplishment, pride, adoration from others, praise. What's not to like about success? Whether it's onsighting a hard route or acing a final in college, we can all relate to the pride and joy that comes with success.

The other day while I was trying my "project" Green Wall Center (V6), by far the hardest thing I've put time into,  I realized that I didn't like bouldering because of failure. One day, I get on Green Wall and feel so good - even reach a new high point. And another day, I can't even get off the ground. I want to give up, to quit, move on to something else to feel success.
Unknown climber on Green Wall Center. Such an aesthetic climb!

I'm tormenting myself inside and negative comments fill my mind.

Why can't I do something that felt so good just days before?

What's going on with me?

I left the bouldering field, broken and discouraged.

I'm never going back to Green Wall. 

As a trad climber, I give everything to onsight climbing. In order to do a long route, it's important to feel comfortable at that grade so you don't get be-nighted (having to climb through the dark).  I give one try-hard attempt to most routes for the onsight and I often never go back to the route. Having had Yosemite as my crag the past two years, I have repeated routes, but rarely more than 3-4 times.

When you're bouldering, you try and try ....and try again. I've tried Green Wall around 25 times, still with no success. So. Much. Failure. 

What I'm starting to learn is to find joy in failure because let's face it, we all fail as much as we succeed and if we're not failing, we're not trying hard enough. And if we're not trying hard enough, we're not reaching out maximum potential. So I can either embrace failure or never push myself and with four more months of bouldering ahead of me, I need to deal with failure.

Failure is good for the character. It keeps me grounded and humble. Just when I think I'm starting to figure things out, I get smacked down. And when you finally reach that goal, send the problem, get into graduate school, it means so much more because you took the time and gave the effort and attention it required to achieve that goal.

I guess I am starting to view failure as a means to success. I just like climbing, the movement and the technique, the attention it requires.  Sending a problem/route is definitely important, but not the means to success. Success should be derived by the path taken and the effort given. Success is trying really hard. Success is consciously working on something you're bad at. Success is having fun.

Ryan on Rubber Tester (v0). Holdless climbing, PSYCHED.

So the next time I get frustrated with a climb, I just gotta remember that the journey is what really matters. Those brief moments of clarity in the mountains. The countless hours of suffering and pushing past your comfort zone. This is how we grow. This is my success.
Easy living in the Buttermilk Country
You might have already come to this realization, cheers to you! Cheers to trying hard! Cheers to failing and having a damn good time! Because at the end of the day, having a good time is what makes us happy, and a happy person gives off good vibes and good vibes are infectious. 

And remember,

"The best climber is the one that's having the most fun." - The Late and great Alex Lowe