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Hope on the rocks

Friday, January 16th, 2015

I am not a rock climber. Aside from that ill-fated day at elementary summer camp when I was forced to rappel which resulted in emotional trauma so severe they made a special exception to let me call my mom afterward (thanks a lot, CAMP REDCLOUD), I have never been roped to a rock wall – or, you know, however it works.

But I can’t stop tearing up about Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson.

If you haven’t heard, these two climbers made history on Wednesday, being the first people to ever summit El Capitan’s Dawn Wall via free ascent – that is, using only their hands and feet against the natural formation of the rock, and using ropes only to stop a fall. This 3,000 foot (remember, that’s over half a mile) granite slab has long been considered the world’s most difficult rock climb – but after 19 days living in mid-air, sleeping on cliff tents and pooping in bags and having supplies ferried to them by cohorts, they made it.

So why does this make me tear up? Mostly because I gave up on them.

Here were the rules, as I understood them: both men needed to free climb the 32 pitches (segments the length of a rope) without falling. If one fell, he had to start again from the beginning of that section. And Jorgeson? He attempted Pitch 15 time after time, and fell every time. While Caldwell waited above, Jorgeson kept falling. For days.

And in that time, I thought, “Yeah, this isn’t going anywhere. What a bummer – this dream they have isn’t going to come true.”

I come by my negativity honestly. I was raised to be emotionally cautious, opting to prepare for the worst rather than hope for the best, all the while marinating in that Christian pessimism called Calvinism. Stack on top of that a plethora of personal disappointments and a decided absence of fairy tale endings, and you can see why my default might be to assume that all of our best efforts usually end in defeat.

But then again, sometimes they don’t.

After 11 attempts over 7 days, Kevin Jorgeson made it through Pitch 15. And less than a week later, he and Tommy Caldwell reached the top together.

The other night, I was immersed in Sara Hagerty’s beautiful book Every Bitter Thing is Sweet (read it read it read it), completely engrossed in the account of her adoption of two girls from Uganda. It’s an amazing story, full of miracles and unlikely providences. This part stopped me in my tracks:

“It has always been safer to expect that God allows suffering in the interest of refinement. While I still believe this is a significant aspect of his nature, Uganda had given me the chance to discover new frontiers of his generosity. For he also allows joy.”

He also allows joy.

When they reached the top, Kevin Jorgeson said he hopes that their accomplishment inspires others to “find their own Dawn Wall.” None of our stories will mirror the achievement of Jorgeson and Caldwell exactly – but we all dream of something, right?

I don’t know what you’re hoping for. Some of my dearest friends are waiting for things that feel so far off that at times they seem impossible – waiting to get pregnant, waiting to be matched with a baby to adopt, waiting through a season of prolonged singleness, waiting for a job to improve, waiting for a spouse to change, waiting for an illness to shift, waiting for the pain to lift. I am well aware of the things I am personally waiting for. And hope? Hope can feel cruel – because by its very nature, hope means that the thing we want hasn’t happened yet.

But like I once heard it defined to a child, hope also means “something wonderful is about to happen.”

I’m not a rock climber, and I probably never will be. But I’ll remember Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson as long as I live for reminding me to check my doubts at the door – because he also allows joy.

DawnWall

Photo credit: Corey Rich

 

Self-arresting

Monday, July 1st, 2013

Yesterday, in the process of climbing Wilson Peak, I slipped on a steep snowfield and had to self-arrest. Now before you go thinking that I’m a badass who almost died, I should say that while I could have slid a good deal further than I did, even if I had hit the rocks below, I would have been okay; it wasn’t a lethal slope. But whatever the case, it’s shocking when the ground crumbles from beneath your feet and you suddenly find yourself in a free fall.

When I slipped, I immediately rolled onto my stomach and dug my fingers and toes into the snow. I had just about stopped myself when out of the corner of my eye, I saw Dan Clader flying through the air to tackle me (if you know Dan Clader, I’m sure you can picture this). To help stop my descent, he wound up straddling and half-sitting on me, which was one of the more horrifying/hilarious moments of my life – and while my first reaction was pissy annoyance that I had slipped at all, I wound up laughing hysterically, belly to the snow, with bloody knees and frozen fingers and no power to do much about it.

We eventually got off of the slope and finished the climb; I’ve now summited 32 of the 54 14ers, and am going for my 33rd tomorrow.

But today has been a rest day, and I’ve spent it in my hometown of Montrose, Colorado. I haven’t lived here in 13 years, my parents haven’t in 10, and I haven’t even visited for 2.5. While some things remain the same (this is the only place I’ve ever been where rather than digging out the old tree stump, people hire a chainsaw artist to carve it into a vicious, soaring eagle or three bear cubs in a totem pole: instant lawn art), so much of the town has changed. It sprawls out in every direction for miles further than I remember the boundaries to be. I know basically no one. Our old house has been painted so drastically differently, I barely recognize it. There are new businesses and new restaurants, while the storefronts for some shops I remember sit vacant.

And when I think about the life I used to have, the life my family used to have, all of a sudden I find myself in a free fall.

It’s so different. Everything is so different than it used to be, relationships and location and home. The familiar parts of this town are a palpable reminder of what my family has lost. The future looks nothing like what I envisioned as a child growing up in Montrose, and on my worst days (the past few days being some of the very worst), I feel like our inevitable fate is to tumble down the slippery slope and crash against the boulders of Rock Bottom.

We tend to think of “hope” as a positive feeling, one of potential and possibility and the anticipation that tomorrow will be better than today. But I’m realizing that hope is actually a painful emotion – because by its very definition, the thing we are longing for is not.

If it was, there would be no need for hope at all.

Hope is hard work. It’s an acknowledgement that things are not the way we wish they were – and yet, that it might not always feel this way. It’s a willingness to carry the uncomfortable weight of imperfection. It’s anticipation with no guarantee.

Maybe more than anything, it’s simply a decision against resignation.

So I dig in my fingers, dig in my toes, and self-arrest before hitting the bottom. There is so much more ahead, and I want to know what it is – because what if it’s worth seeing?

Longs Peak

Monday, September 10th, 2012

On Saturday, I climbed my 31st 14er, and my toughest one to date, Longs Peak.

Believe me when I tell you that two days later, my entire body hurts.  Not just my quads, y’all – my entire body.  I’m talking about the fronts of my ankles, and the tops of my shoulders, and that fat little hand muscle below the thumb – the one that I imagine would taste like a buffalo wing.  (Consider yourself warned: if we ever find ourselves together in a life or death situation a la “Alive,” I’m going for the buffalo wing.)

The day started just two hours after I went to sleep.  My alarm went off at 12:30am, and I drove to meet the band of strangers that would be my companions for the day.  The only girl in the bunch, I introduced myself, ate a Pop-Tart, and at 2:30am, we were off.

The first 4 hours were in the dark, our path illuminated only by our headlamps and a half moon.  At one point, we turned off our lights to look at the stars – and I can’t remember when I’ve seen stars that bright.  Despite my lack of sleep, I was energetic, and kept up with the men just fine.

As the sky began to grow light, the mountain started to reveal itself.

Longs Peak looming large

And I turned just in time to see the sun come up.

Sunrise

Six miles in, we approached the Keyhole, a huge rock formation that serves as the gateway to the last mile and a half to the summit, and the game changer in terms of terrain.  Up until the Keyhole, it’s just a long hike – but everything from the Keyhole on is a tricky and challenging climb, with an abundance of narrow ledges, loose rock, and near vertical ascensions.  My dad’s advice to me the day before was to “manage my emotions”; he knows me all too well.

The Keyhole - Longs Peak

The Keyhole – Longs Peak

First came the Ledges, a series of vary narrow ridges along a cliff edge.  Hearing that I’ve historically harbored a fear of exposure, our fearless leader Mark gave me the advice to always keep a hand on the rock wall and to never look down.  Now usually, when presented with the command of “don’t look down,” I almost always look down; ever pragmatic, I want to know the grave reality of my circumstances.  But this time, I took Mark’s advice – and I made it across the Ledges with no moments of panic.

Next was the Trough, a 600 vertical foot couloir (a word that my fellow climber Jim taught me – one that makes me feel très French).  The gully is filled with loose rock, which made the wisdom of our climbing helmets all the more obvious.  At the top of the Trough, I was tired – but we weren’t to the summit yet.

Photo by Dan Biro – and that’s my booty

Then came the Narrows, a constricted ledge that took us across another vertical rock face.  Whoever named it “the Narrows” was not messing around; nothing forces you into the present moment like the potential of falling to your death.  I found this video that gives a brief glimpse of the path – and it’s even more dizzying than YouTube makes it look.

Finally, we came to the Homestretch, a polished granite slab at a nearly 90 degree angle.  Hand over foot, it took about 15 minutes to climb 300 feet – and by 9am, we were at the summit.

Homestretch

Photo via iorg.com

We had gorgeous weather, and stayed on the summit for a full hour – longer than I’ve ever hung out on top of a mountain.  I had a brief moment of cell service, and posted this picture for the world to see – bright eyed and proud to have conquered Longs Peak.

(And for those who are keeping score, yes, I realize that this is the exact same picture as the one I took on the summit of Mt. Elbert last summer.  Apparently it’s my signature mountain look.)

Believe it or not, the descent was tougher than the ascent, since we were basically forced to crab walk for a mile and a half back to the Keyhole.  Try climbing off the top of a mountain down steep, sheer rock faces – it’s not for sissies.  Many accidents occur on the way down from a summit, since it’s easy to think that “the hard part is over” when, all the while, your body is that much more tired.

When we made it through the Keyhole and back to the trail, I was exhausted.  It was hard to lift my feet, and my legs felt wobbly.  The miles stretched on and on.  With every twist in the trail, I hoped to see the end – only to be met with more of the same.  It felt like it would last forever.

But 6 hours from the summit, after talking about everything from snowshoeing to dating to “Brian’s Song” (note: if you want to see grown men get emotional, just mention “Brian’s Song”), we emerged from the trees.  We were finished, back at the cars, pulling off boots and peeling off socks.  No matter what you go through, I can tell you this: nothing compares to putting on sandals after a 15-mile excursion.

I was so fortunate to climb with a great group of men through the Colorado Mountain Club – seasoned mountaineers who were encouraging, experienced, and pleasant company – and I am more than proud to check Longs Peak off my list.  It’s a mountain that had given me stress dreams for weeks, as I read first-hand accounts of the challenges (and occasional deaths) along the trail.

But I was encouraged to find that my last few years of mountain climbing have strengthened my courage and confidence; as with so many things in life, experience builds backbone.  I didn’t have any moments of panic, never hyperventilated (something that has happened to me on mountains before), and hand over hand, step by step, focused on one move at a time. This climb forced me to live only in the present moment – which is the only place that life happens, anyway.

Chalk it up to another real life lesson learned in the mountains.

Shavano & Tabeguache

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

As some of you may know, I’ve spent the past few summers climbing as many 14ers (mountains over 14,000’ high) as I can.  There are 54 in Colorado, and while I’m not sure that I have a goal of climbing every single one of them, I love the challenge and adventure that each one brings.

As of Friday night, I had climbed 26 14ers – just one away from having bagged half of the total 54.  I really wanted to make it past the halfway point, so I planned to climb two mountains on Saturday, Shavano and Tabeguache.  These mountains are just outside of Salida, which is a good distance from Denver, so I was driving by 4:30am in order to hit the trailhead by 7:30 or so – which already felt like a late start, but the best that I could do.

The 3-hour drive was uneventful, and I psyched myself up for a long day of hiking.  But when I finally pulled up at the trailhead, I was met with a gigantic sign: “NO TRESPASSING. VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.”

I was crushed.  Ever a rule-follower, I didn’t dare take that trail – because it would be just my luck to be met by a man with a shotgun, or worse, a man with a banjo.

Defeated, I thought, “I should just drive back to Denver.”

But then I thought of how much money I had spent on gas, and how I’d eaten a gigantic piece of banana bread and needed to burn it off, and how much I wanted to check another mountain off of my list – and I decided not to give up just yet.  I pulled out my 14ers book and searched for another path up the peaks, and when I found one that looked promising, I drove 30 minutes around the mountain to a different trailhead.

By this time, it was after 8am, and the sun was high and bright.  As one with a healthy fear of afternoon storms above tree-line, I had some reservations about starting so late.  “What if I get struck by lightning?” I thought.  “Who would take care of Toad?  Who would water my basil?  I should just go home.”

But again, that slice of banana bread taunted me.  As is the case with so many of my decisions, if nothing else, I needed to burn some calories.  So I decided to start hiking and just see how far I could go before it got too late in the day.  Maybe I would make it to the top of the first peak – maybe – but I tossed aside any illusions of being able to climb both.

I wound up making great time (fine: I tore up the trail, passing every grown man in my path, and felt a little bit smug about it), and was at the top of Shavano in less than 3 hours.  That alone felt like a victory – I had climbed my 27th 14er, and was halfway to 54.  I could go back to the car and feel decent about my efforts.  I texted my dad and told him that I was at the top of Shavano, and was done for the day.  I strapped on my pack, and turned back the way that I came.

But then I looked over at Tabeguache.

It was so close – only a mile away – and yet so, so far.  To reach the summit, I would have to climb all the way down Shavano, and then all the way up Tabeguache – and then I would have to turn around and re-climb Shavano in order to get back to the car.  That would make for three summits in a day.  I didn’t know if I had it in me, but…

“I could do it,” I thought.  “I could do it.”

And you know what?  I did it.  Before I could talk myself out of it, I booked it off of Shavano, scrambling over boulders and scampering down the trail like a – I was going to say a “mountain goat,” but probably a more accurate description would be a “really gigantic, loping mountain troll” – only to reach the base of Tabeguache and have to go straight back up, only to reach the top of Tabeguache and go straight back down, only to reach the base of Shavano and go straight back up, only to reach the top of Shavano and go straight back down.  The thunder and lightning started as soon as I reached tree-line, and it poured for the last hour of my hike.  By the time I arrived back at my Subaru, I was sopping wet and shivering – but so happy.  I was happy to be finished and happy to be alive and happy to have climbed 27 AND 28 – meaning that I’m over halfway to 54.

Even when you’re positive you know how something is going to turn out, maybe you should try it anyway.  Maybe instead of turning around, you should keep going.  Maybe you should risk a little rain just to see how far you can make it, just to see if you can outrun the lightning, just to see what it feels like to surprise yourself.

Real life lessons I’ve learned in the mountains

Monday, September 12th, 2011

On Saturday, I climbed Mt. Massive, which was my 24th 14er, and my 10th of the summer (which checks #4 off my list of goals for 2011).  Saturday also marked the 4-year anniversary of my move from Seattle – which, in some ways, was the initial leap into really big adventure that’s still unfolding.  Needless to say, the two things danced around in my head all day – life in the mountains, and life in general.

There are a lot of ways in which mountain climbing can be compared to life – but how to convey this without sounding cheesy like a Miley Cyrus song?  (Although… sigh.  You know I love that Miley Cyrus song.)

Well, here.  Let’s try it this way.

– – – – – – – –

On the trail on Saturday, I passed a man who, impressed by my speed, told me I had “an engine” in me.  I grinned so big.  For a girl who has never been good at sports, who could never serve the volleyball over the net, who never scored a goal, can I just tell you how good it is to have found an activity that my body takes to naturally?  Hiking just fits – I’m really fast (faster than a lot of MEN), my body cooperates, and it brings me a lot of joy.

Real life lesson:
Find the things that come naturally, and that bring you a lot of joy, and do those.  This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try new things, or work hard at something that might be a stretch (or even a strain) – but pay attention to what it is that works for you.  Sometimes, it’s something that was obvious from a very early age.  Other times, you stumble upon it accidentally.  Whatever it is – music, running, writing, painting, cooking, traveling – foster it, protect it, make time for it, and then allow yourself to experience the joy.

– – – – – – – –

People die on 14ers every year, often when struck by lightning.  When climbing Mt. Yale a few weeks ago, the seemingly benign clouds above broke into a lightning storm right overhead – bolts of lightning overlapped by cracks of thunder that reverberated across the entire sky.  I’ve never prayed so urgently or run so frantically as in that moment – I bombed down the ridge toward treeline as fast as I could, projecting ahead to my own funeral and wondering how my family would find the password to my blog in order to post the bad news for you all to read.

After that, I was afraid to climb again.  That lightning had scared me on such a primal level, and when my alarm went off on Saturday morning, I was tempted to turn it off and stay safe and comfortable in my bed.

Several hours later, I was once again above treeline, watching the sky with such trepidation, thinking that the puffy clouds might unify and create the lightning that would be the death of me.  But they never did.  I made it to the summit, and then all the way back down to my car, and the entire day had been beautiful.

Real life lesson:
Learn the difference between the threats in your life.  Know when a situation is dangerous, when you should run for dear life.  Then again, know when it’s not worth your fear, because before you know it, the danger could simply burn off into blue sky, and you might as well enjoy your day.

– – – – – – – –

This summer, I had a hard time finding people to come climbing with me.  For some reason, no one wants to wake up at 4am on a Saturday only to drive 3 hours, hike 14 miles, gain and then lose 4,000 feet of elevation, stumble back to the Subaru, and then drive back to Denver in a silent daze.  I can’t imagine why.

As a result, 7 of my 10 14ers this summer were climbed by myself.

I’m not stupid about it – the peaks I’ve been climbing haven’t been super technical, and I plan my climbs to fall on days when there are sure to be others on the mountain.  I tell people where I’m going, and when I should be back – lest I wind up needing to cut off my own arm with a dull blade.  And sometimes, I make friends on the trail – kindred souls who also find the sacrifices worth it.

Real life lesson:
We live in a culture of safety and comfort.  The trail toward beauty and adventure and risk isn’t terribly popular, and thus, traveling companions may be scarce.  This is okay.  Certain paths can be walked alone.

But even in the midst of solitude, don’t disconnect from the people who love you most.  And don’t close yourself off to the unexpected friends you might meet along the way.

– – – – – – – –

You can hold it.  There is no reason to pee in the woods.
The sun burns.  Wear sunscreen.
Keep going.  Those miles aren’t going to walk themselves.

Real life lesson:
Those just kind of translate over.

– – – – – – – –

It’s been a great summer in the mountains.

And it’s been a great adventure I’ve been living.

Take a chance.  Wake up early.  Drive an unmarked road.  Work hard, and don’t quit.  You just might find yourself in the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen.

American Basin - Lake City, CO

West Nasty

Monday, October 4th, 2010

Nashville Miranda has been visiting this weekend, and on Saturday, we climbed Quandary Peak in our East Nasty shirts.  Miranda did awesome, because she is a hoss, and this brings my 14er total to 13.

Depending on weather, I might climb yet another this coming weekend.  It’s still in the 80s in Denver.  I’m still waiting for fall.

On Saturday night, we saw the movie “Catfish.”  Because the marketing scheme for the movie is “don’t tell anyone what it’s about,” far be it from me to spoil the plot.  But I will contribute to the frenzy and tell you that it’s worth seeing.  The internet is weird – so, so weird.

The [weekend]

Monday, August 16th, 2010

What did I [climb]: Pike’s Peak – all by myself, and SO FAST.  Seriously, I hope this doesn’t come off as all braggy-face of me, but I scampered up the entire mountain, and barely broke a sweat.

Sir Edmund Hillary?  How about Sir ANNIE PARSONS.

What did I [burn]: the backs of my calves.  Why does this always happen?  Why doesn’t the sun wrap around to my shins, too, bathing all 360 degrees of my legs in that horrible blazing Vitamin D?  It’s a mystery, and that’s why so is mankind.  [If you get that joke, you win.]

What did I [buy]: two new pairs of Toms.  I couldn’t decide, so I bought both.  Let’s hear it for happy feet – and shoes for kids!



What did I [hear]:
the golden, dulcet voice of Jonatha Brooke – live.  Oh sweet Moses, y’all.  Do you know about this woman?  KNOW ABOUT HER.  Her “Ten Cent Wings” album is something special – trust me (and really, trust Duane, who originally spread the good news).

What did I [make]: jalapeño hummus.  My new food processor is changing my life.

What did I [feel]: so sad, and so happy.  These days, I’m feeling both, and more than ever – like the spectrum is growing, like my capacity for the extremes keeps increasing.  I wonder if this will continue as I get older – until one day, the sad and the happy will stretch out from my heart in opposite directions, hugging the globe and meeting in Madagascar.

I have a million little pieces glued together for my heart.

I don’t know that that’s a bad thing.

Up on the roof

Monday, July 19th, 2010

Guess who’s here?

GRETA!

Last night, we were walking around Wash Park, and looked to our right to see… a roof-top band!

They noticed us taking their picture, and yelled for us to come up.

Yes.  They yelled for us to let ourselves in through the front door, go down the hall to the staircase, climb to the attic, and then clamber out the window and up to the roof.

And thanks to my new-found Spiderman climbing skills discovered on Mt. Evans this weekend…

… well.  Needless to say, we bonded.

Yes, I played the trumpet.  No, I don’t know whose lips have been on that thing.  But how could I resist?  It was a real live HOOTENANNY.

Wetterhorn

Monday, July 12th, 2010

On Friday morning, my dad and I left at 4am and drove for over 2 hours to hike for 6 and see only one other person all day.  It’s a very, very thin slice of the world’s population who will ever stand where we were on Friday – between the remote location and the 4-wheel drive roads and the amount of physicality one has to employ to get there, you have to REALLY mean to go.

But we had an opportunity, and we grabbed it.  We really meant to go.

The hike was long and steep, but my daily walkoftriumphs have paid off, and we kept a good pace.  Nearing the top, the summit looked so close.

But when we actually got closer, I realized that we were going to have to scale this (see here for another perspective):

Now, listen.  I’m no rock climber.  I have no triceps, remember?  Plus, heights and me?  We don’t get along so well.  It’s not so much the heights that bother me – it’s more of the plunging to my death that really freaks me out.  I don’t even like to skin my knees, let alone break bones, lose limbs, chip teeth, etc.  And wouldn’t you know, the first really scary part, when my dad assured me that the rock was secure, and if I just put my hand *right there*, I could get a good grip – the rock BROKE OFF IN MY HAND.

But there was only one way to the top, and I wasn’t walking off that mountain without a summit.

Despite my fears, and freezing a couple of times, unable to move or breathe, starting the stressed-out-whistle-breath thing, after a long, slow climb, I made one last quick hand-over-foot movement and scrambled my way onto the top of Wetterhorn Peak.

Fears: faced, engaged, overcome.
Self-confidence: boosted.
First 14er of the season: conquered.

(Now go read my dad’s post about what HE did the next day.  AAAAGH.)

Outside

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

This weekend marked the beginning of the Best Summer Since 2007.

The summer of 2007 was my favorite to date.  I still lived in Seattle, and spent every waking moment outside in the sunshine, on the water, in the mountains, with friends.  I knew that my life in the Northwest was a ticking clock, as I was leaving that September for the great unknown – so I took advantage of every opportunity I was presented with.

The summers of 2008 and 2009, I lived in Nashville, and had no desire to be outside.  Whatsoever.  At all.  I was in a bad mood for 4 months.

It’s amazing to now live in a place where I WANT to be outside again.  Between Friday and Sunday, I walked 27 miles.  And then yesterday, along with some family and friends, I climbed Mt. Rosa.

Y’all, my freckles are out of control these days.

My goal is to climb at least 6 14ers this summer, and walk 1,000 miles.  I just pulled that number out of the air right now, but you know what?  I bet I can do it.  I bet I can walk 1,000 miles before Labor Day.

I bet it so much that I’m writing it on my blog.