All That Glitters

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the darkness shall spring,
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.”

A lot has changed in my climbing over the past eight months, as I’ve gotten swept away by a desire to push my comfort zone in new ways and truly test my limits. I dove headfirst into the pursuit of bigger and bigger walls, culminating in ten days spent questing in “ground up” (the most adventurous style of big wall climbing) on the Muir Wall on El Capitan just before a harsh temperature spike brought an abrupt end to the spring season in Yosemite. The more I embraced the unknown of these new challenges, the more I realized that they weren’t nearly as out of reach as I had once thought, simply because I learned I was capable of adapting and enduring far more than I could have ever imagined.

Climbing on El Cap was the highest high I could ever imagine; there’s just nothing else like it. The light of that sun baked monolith shone so brightly that once I left the Valley, I found myself rather lost in the shadow that it cast. Everything else just felt so small, both physically and metaphorically.

As record breaking heat consumed the Western United States at the beginning of summer I felt drained of energy, strength, and psyche, with no idea how to recharge. Climbing back home in Index tugged at my sentimental heartstrings, but offered no answers. My eyes and ears were open as I searched for a new calling, but how can you top the experience of spending ten days climbing 5.13 on the most historic wall in the world with a partner you love? How do you dream bigger than that? Even now I’m not convinced it can be done.

[Dreaming big on top of the world. Photo by Garet Bleir]

With no clue what to do about my climbing path, I decided to let life take the wheel for a while instead. I finished my summer work and left Washington in a hurry and headed for South Dakota; I hardly knew anything about the place, but it was where my heart was telling me to go. My boyfriend Harrison was living there for the summer, and after a month apart I was so lonely that leaving the Pacific Northwest was all I could think about. Plus, a brand-new place promised mystery and adventure that I hoped might shake things up as I waited impatiently for fall, when we could return to the Promised Land (aka Yosemite).

My first weekend in South Dakota coincided with Pumpfest, the annual climbing festival in Custer State Park. As I stood in a crowded bar at kickoff night, Harrison walked up to me with an older man in tow.

“This is Paul,” he said.

“I hear you’ve been doing some climbing,” Paul Piana said to me as I tried to keep my jaw from hitting the floor. Our conversation was brief before he vanished back into the crowd, but how much it meant to me was enormous. What better sign that I was where I was supposed to be than to meet one of my biggest heroes on pretty much day one?

The next day we helped the guides, all friends of Harrison’s, set up top ropes for the event before heading off to do some climbing of our own. I was shocked at how foreign the rock and climbing style felt. After almost two decades of climbing I hadn’t thought there were still so many places out there that could make me feel like a beginner again, but I should know better than to assume I’ve seen it all.

Mica from the long, adventurous pitches glittered in the sun, making it look as though the rocks were covered in bolts, when in reality the strict ground-up, hand drill only ethic usually meant there were often far fewer than one might desire. Before long all my belongings glittered too, like they were coated in some kind of fairy dust; much the same way desert sand dyes everything red when I’m in the Creek. I was reminded of the poem by J.R.R. Tolkien about ‘All that is gold does not glitter,’ and soon found it stuck in my head every time I came to the Needles and saw the glimmer of the almost magical-looking rocks. It started with just the first stanza, but the more I climbed there, the more I found each verse representing an important part of the journey I had unknowingly already begun.

[Mica from the Needles]

At the end of the day, Harrison took our posse to look at one last climb, the Phoenix. It was one he had told me about before while trying to get me excited about coming to South Dakota, but the pictures I’d been sent could not begin to do it justice. According to Mountain Project, Paul Piana had once called this crack more beautiful than the Salathe Headwall, and while I don’t think that’s really possible, to say so wasn’t actually too much of an exaggeration. An intimidating flared seam snaked its way up a 35-meter overhanging blue and orange streaked wall; the only remotely climbable feature on the entire face. It wasn’t really a crack climb per se, but after seeking mostly splitters for the past few years I had been trying to regain my long-lost affinity for face climbing anyway. Another part of my endless pursuit to be as well rounded as possible.  

When I asked Harrison if he was going to lead it, he was quick to respond with a “Hell, no!” After getting the second ascent a few years ago, he claimed he never needed to lead it again. To hear that from such a brave and bold climber was my first clue into just what kind of a challenge this climb was going to be.

The Phoenix did not disappoint, as technical liebacking, stemming, kneebarring, and occasional jamming left me so sickeningly pumped I could barely keep down the last discount protein bar I’d eaten. Here was a challenge that I could really sink my teeth into, yet I resisted the urge to commit to projecting when I’d only just gotten here and still had so much to explore. Still, despite enjoying many other interesting and challenging climbs over the next few weeks, the Phoenix remained ever-present in my mind.

Aside from my constant desire for the next life-changing odyssey, it was also one of my short-term goals to tackle a project at the upper end of my limit. I needed to remind myself that I could still send the gnar, not just to feed my hungry ego by bagging big numbers, but mainly to give myself a bigger reserve of confidence and experience from which to draw from when faced with harder pitches on the big walls. 5.13 on a topo as part of a much larger route still felt like a very different thing than seeing the same grade in a guidebook for a crag, and in order to eventually climb the bigger, harder, and longer routes I had recently become interested in, that needed to change.

I got on the Phoenix occasionally, making steady progress each time until I managed to get the “elusive top rope one-hang” towards the end of July. That meant it was time to get on the sharp end, because as I’ve always said about hard trad climbs: you don’t want the one time you do it clean to be on top rope. I also wanted to impress Harrison, who had boldly gotten the second ascent without much top rope rehearsal and had a tendency to just go for things if there was even a small chance of success. I propped up my phone on a log to record my attempt (and any potential mega-whippers), and racked up with all the gear I thought I might need. What little protection the climb offers is so few and far between that the first ascensionist, local legend Chris Hirsch, had resorted to headpoint tactics. Harrison told me he had ripped gear on at least one of his lead attempts as well. Suddenly I had to poop tremendously out of nervousness.

As I launched into my first lead attempt, I was consumed by fear. I was only confident that about a third of my gear placements were guaranteed to hold a fall, and the stances I had planned to place from were far more strenuous than I had predicted, adding to the terror. My climbing was sloppy and inefficient, as I squeezed the grips too hard and missed key feet in my lactic-acid induced tunnel vision. Still, I managed to only fall twice before shakily pulling onto the formation’s summit after being on lead for nearly fourty-five minutes.

Now that I had stopped top roping, it was officially a project because now each attempt was an attempt to send. The more I tried the climb, the more I felt something stirring inside me that had been long dormant, like the legend of the Phoenix itself: a bird made of fire that is reborn from its ashes when it dies. A new inspiration was finally calling me out of the darkness of El Cap’s mighty shadow.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken.
 A light from the darkness shall spring.

After my big wall adventures, a part of me had been worried that I would not be able to find the same passion for hard single pitch climbing anymore. I feared that this thing that I had once considered such a defining and core part of my climbing and myself would no longer hold the meaning it once had. I have worked so hard to become the climber I am, and draw so much pride from all that I have become, that I was terrified to lose my connection to those roots. As always, I feared change, even if that change means evolution. Still, my path as a wandering dirtbag had led me here, to this glittering place, and the more I tried this climb, the less I felt lost. I should have known that my love for hard projecting went too deep and was too strong to be uprooted so easily.

Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

As July turned to August, the heat reached a crescendo of consistent ninety-degree days where Harrison and I were based in Spearfish. Still, time waits for no one, and I certainly didn’t want to wait for cooler weather to get back on the Phoenix. I convinced Harrison we should return to Custer even though the highs were in the mid-eighties, but by mid-day when we arrived it was so hot we struggled to even conceive of going climbing. I had come here for a reason though, and I wasn’t about to let a little lethargy shut me down.

My first attempt was around 4pm, two hours after the Phoenix goes into the shade. I had hoped that the first lead would be the scariest, and that I would become more comfortable with a bit of practice, enabling me to climb better. It proved not to be the case however, as my bowels gurgled with the familiar fear-shits.

The rock was still very warm, and moves that had felt simple before suddenly felt like new cruxes. I fell off the first sequence of hard moves, a new low point. Even on my very first TR attempt I’d gotten higher. One of the cams that I thought only had a marginal chance of holding arrested my fall, the trusty .4/.5 offset remaining steadfast despite its very shallow placement in questionable quartz. A silver lining at least, to know that I could trust at least one piece of pro. The rest of the climb didn’t go much better, as I chuffed my way to the top in another nearly hour-long lead.

It was taking me too long, I decided. I studied my phone videos countless times as I rested, trying to find inefficiencies, strategize where I should be climbing faster, and eliminate certain rests that I was lingering at out of fear, rather than because it actually offered much recovery.

As I got ready for another try, I looked to Harrison for support, vocalizing my fears and asking how he had dealt with them on the route. All he offered was that it never really got less scary. Great.

Frustrated by the lack of encouragement, I momentarily brooded as I laced up my shoes. I was angry that hadn’t he been able to offer me some magic cure for my nerves. As I squirted liquid chalk onto my hands and glared at the Phoenix, determination settled over me. Harrison hadn’t given me the secret answer because there wasn’t one. I realized that I had to find how to overcome this challenge with what was inside myself. No shortcuts.

I thought about one of my favorite lines from The Rock Warrior’s Way, which says, “Look the Ego dragon in the eye and draw your sword. Then pay attention, give your best, and enjoy the ride.”

‘Draw your sword, Brittany,’ I thought to myself. No more looking for an easy way out. If I wanted to climb a hard and scary rock climb, I should stop wishing it weren’t so hard and scary.

Renewed shall be blade that was broken

My grit overpowered the fear, and for the first time I felt as though I was able to climb well while on lead. I moved fast, shaving nearly twenty minutes off my time, and managed to only fall once. From my terrible previous go to this one I felt like a completely different climber. I now knew what it was going to take.

No matter how psyched I was, there was no denying that it was still way too hot to be climbing in the Needles however, as granite is a horribly condition-dependent rock. I complained to Harrison about how my usual process didn’t involve going weeks between getting on the project, but the conditions were beyond our control. We confined ourselves to the sport climbing paradise of Spearfish Canyon to make our fingers strong as we sweated out the apex of summer. I consoled myself by obsessively rehearsing the entire route in my mind each night as I fell asleep in the hopes that when I got my chance, I would make no more dumb mistakes.

It was late August before the weather began to cool off again. I hadn’t been on the Phoenix in nearly two weeks, but a small rain squall promised a slight reprieve from the heat down in Custer. I recruited my dear friend Eric, who was on a brief vacation in Spearfish, to drive down for a day while Harrison was at work. We were also joined by Sarah, whom I had met just a few days before. Unlike all the local climbers I’d met in Spearfish or the Needles, Sarah was not restricted by a work schedule nor family obligations, so we had been climbing together ever since being introduced. Also unlike almost all the locals I’d met, Sarah was a woman.

The climbing community in South Dakota is amazing– full of kind, humble, genuine people, and I felt immediately welcomed into it upon my arrival. Still, almost all of those people are men, a fact that I had noticed immediately. In Spearfish I had only met one woman who climbed hard or with any regularity. Even in the little history lessons Harrison gave me while walking around Custer, I never heard any female names as he listed the first ascensionist of this climb or that. When I asked about it, my concerns were confirmed. Maybe there had been a few women who climbed some of the harder sport climbs in the Needles once, but life had taken them all in different directions.

As a woman seeking hard trad climbs in a sandbagged, adventurous climbing area, as usual, I was alone.

As Sarah and I showed Eric and his friends around the Needles, we relished how cool the breeze felt. Intermittent clouds made me optimistic that the Phoenix wouldn’t even need that much time to cool down, and I felt mentally strong in the long runouts of a 5.11 warmup. As we arrived at the Phoenix, I pressed my palm against the wall, measuring its temperature. It was far warmer than I’d expected, but that was okay, it was still early.

I tried climbing it, only to grab a cam when the carabiner flipped upside down and caused me to fear taking a dreaded ‘clipping fall’ (aka falling with a very large amount of slack out while trying to clip) onto the less-than-bomber piece far below. Only a few feet higher I fell, ripping out my next cam and taking a huge whipper. A few feet higher than that, I realized I had forgotten one of the cams I needed, and had to improvise, pumping out while fiddling around with the wrong gear that didn’t fit. I junk-showed the rest of the way up, logging my longest (and worst) lead yet. I felt miles away from ever sending this climb.

It’ll cool off, it’ll feel better in a few hours, I tried to tell myself. It did not cool off, and it felt worse than ever after that. I barely made it a quarter of the way up before realizing it was going to be an epic just getting to the chains. I bailed off a few good cams, and took the walk of shame up the backside of the mountain to clean my gear on rappel, trying not to cry. The devil on my shoulder whispered that I should give up, that I did not have what it took. I knew I was physically strong enough to do it eventually, but how many times could I put myself through the mental battle of leading this climb? How many times could I justify leading this climb when there were so many parts of it that felt dangerous?

The angel on my other shoulder fought back. If you quit after the bad days, the good days never happen, she said. In the end I did love this climb. It inspired me, and when I could silence the fear, I felt joy while climbing it. It was beautiful, and was going to make me a better climber. The more I calmed myself down, the more I was able to view the situation rationally. As much as I hated to limit myself by blaming conditions, they did matter. The rock had felt awful, having retained all the heat from the hot days before today, with nighttime lows barely dipping down enough for it to ever get the chance to cool. Things would be different next time.

Sarah and I returned a few days later, joined by another woman, Kelsey. As we rambled around in the morning, waiting for the Phoenix to go in the shade, we began talking about how we had all experienced frustration at the lack of a female presence in the area. Apparently I was not the only one who had noticed.

I thought about the Phoenix. It had only been climbed by two people, both men, just like all the hard routes here. I doubt any women had ever even tried, but I could change that. I could open the door for others, because so often in climbing that’s all it takes: someone willing to go first. Someone who can prove that we are all capable of more than we could ever imagine.

On many of my previous attempts on the Phoenix I had not felt properly warmed up, and had gotten a crippling flash pump on my first try as a result. I had formed a strategy to combat this, drawing from my tactics on Stingray where I would always rappel in and top rope the top of the pitch as a warmup (and to make sure I had the beta for the finish moves super dialed, so I wouldn’t blow it after the crux). I lowered into the top of the Phoenix, brushing holds and rehearsing a few moves on the way down before starting my warmup in earnest. I immediately broke off the only foot on the right side of the crack in the middle of the crux. It had been crumbling away for some time, but now it was pretty much gone except for a few crystals. They would have to be enough, but my foot picked off each time; it felt like the rubber was folding as it slipped. I examined my shoe, only to discover that it had developed a hole in the bottom. Good thing I had a spare pair back in my van. I climbed to the top, cold rock and even colder air making the climb feel completely different than just a few days ago.

After snagging a new pair of shoes, I met Sarah at the base of the climb. Kelsey was nowhere to be found. My new shoes felt like I could stand on anything. The rock was so sticky from the cold that I felt like I could hold on to anything. After having a few more days climbing with Sarah, I trusted her completely at the belay. Yes, I had been scared enough to have to take my usual pre-Phoenix poop, but once I started climbing the fear seemed to finally melt away.

I wasted no time resting pointlessly, but made sure not to rush through delicate sequences that could so easily be fumbled. When I got to the kneebar before the redpoint crux, it felt more secure than it ever had, allowing the lactic acid to drain from my forearms as I calmed my racing heartbeat. I climbed up and placed a cam before returning to the rest, determined to stay there until my calf was so pumped I could bear it no longer.

I passed my high point, finding a new place to rest right in the middle of the crux. Both my arms and my legs ached with pump, but a slip would only happen if I allowed it to at this point; I was completely in control as I cruised up the final twenty feet of 5.11 terrain before I was sitting on top, screaming so loud they could probably have heard me back in Spearfish if it hadn’t been such a windy day.  

“What an incredible feeling!” I gushed to Sarah, back on the ground. Having felt like such a mess on most of my other attempts, to have just performed some of my best climbing on the same climb was a dramatic contrast. There had been almost no fear, no self-doubt, no elements out of my control, just me going rock climbing and finally rising to the challenge.

I stared up at the Phoenix, filled with gratitude. It had given me exactly what I had been looking for, and now I had given it something in return. I had written my chapter into the history of this place, so lacking in female voices. As much as I value climbing for my own selfish reasons and the intrinsic rewards it brings me, if my climbing can make even one person out there believe that more is possible for themselves, it makes all the hard work worth it.

The crownless again shall be king queen.

So this one is for all the women out there pushing themselves on gear, no matter if it’s 5.4 or 5.14.

One Comment

  1. again, love the description and honesty of your climbing. I honed my skills many years ago in the Needles but never climbed in Spearfish. On my list–but not Phoenix. Another lifetime for that!

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