Lessons from the Dark Side

What follows is a few short (by my standard) stories detailing personally significant experiences from my fall season in Yosemite. While this spring I was a student of El Capitan and the sunnier east side of the Valley, this time consistently warm weather kept my partner Harrison and I exclusively on the opposite side, which sees almost no sun this time of year. The dark side of the Valley is home to the Sentinel, the Cathedrals, Fifi Buttress, the Leaning Tower, and others; big routes that can be completed without sleeping on the wall for those driven enough to endure long days. For me it was yet another series of lessons on how to redefine myself, embrace failure and struggle, and toe the line of the seemingly impossible in pursuit of the kind of person I hope to one day become. Buckle up, buckaroos.

[Harrison leading the crux pitch on Border Country]

1. The Edge

“The Edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others-the living-are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. But the edge is still out there.” -Hunger S. Thompson

This is the place where they died.

The thought ran through my head as I sat alone, feet dangling off the side of Dano Ledge at the summit of the Leaning Tower. On October 23, 2006, one of my biggest heroes, Todd Skinner, fell from this wall to his death. Eight years earlier on November 23, 1998, so did climbing legend Dan Osman. Perhaps this was why the Leaning Tower had so strongly called to me. This wall had inspired them to push the limits so close to the Edge that they went over, and I needed to know why.

I had been searching for something within myself for quite some time, without even fully knowing what the question was that I was trying to answer. Something about how deep I could truly dig, how close to my physical and mental limit I could truly push myself, how close I could get to the Edge, though not exactly in the sense of Thompson’s quote. I wanted to find a way to tap into some deep reserve of willpower that I know exists within me; to find the strength to continue when I think I’ve reached my absolute limit. In those moments where I feel like I have nothing left, I wanted to find a way to keep going.

The Westie Face seemed like the perfect place to look. With one pitch of 5.13, five pitches of 5.12, only one pitch of 5.11, and 200 feet of free hanging jumaring up the only stretch of the wall that doesn’t go free, it seemed like something I could definitely do, but that would require me to really push past that point where I thought I would have to quit. It was something where my desire to succeed could maybe overcome every muscle in my body telling me I was going to fail.

[3rd pitch of the Westie Face]

At the beginning of the day I had told Harrison that I was stressed about the climb, because I knew I needed to at least try to lead every pitch in order to find what I was looking for. I couldn’t just ask him to take over and give me a free ride to the top, or I wouldn’t learn anything. Sitting on a comfortable ledge below the final pitch of 5.12-, in a moment of weakness I asked if he felt like leading it.

“Is that really what you want?” he asked knowingly.

Yes. Guarantee my success, let me take the easy way out, said my ego. I stood close to the Edge, and I was beginning to pull back.

Instead I started racking up. I didn’t really think the odds were much in my favor, but he was right, I had to try. This was why I came here.

“Atta girl,” he said. Pride washed over me, giving me a small but much needed boost of energy.

“I hope it’s soft,” I said, only half joking as I laced up my shoes.

As I laybacked up the final stretch of hard climbing, I could feel myself about to fail. After a thousand feet of climbing, the daylight was fading and I had so very little hope of climbing this pitch again, even on top rope, if I were to fall now. In that moment it was either sink or swim. Each move felt like it would surely be my last, but a voice from my partner, normally so quiet, yelled at me to fight. I held no faith that I would succeed, but I was damn sure not going to give up until I felt air rushing past my feet… except it never happened. Just as I could hold on no longer, a better hold appeared, and then a shaky stance, and a hand jam, and suddenly I did believe.

In the end I hadn’t done it in perfect style, sending the crux pitch from a stance and having to repeat the 5.12c roof pitch on toprope after a heartbreaking fall on my onsight attempt, but I had done it to the absolute best of my ability. Exhaustion racked my body. My eyes watered and a single tear rolled down my cheek as I watched the sun setting over the southern reaches of Yosemite Valley, knowing this breathtaking view was the last sight that the Tower’s victims had ever seen. I couldn’t help but think that they would have been proud, and at least for a moment, I felt like I understood. The lure of the Leaning Tower was the same thing that calls to any of us in climbing, myself included; a beautiful place to explore, an adventure to share with someone special, and above all, the desire to see what we are truly made of.


2. Imagination

This soul search I had been on had been largely inspired by my partner Harrison, and my constant awe at the things he is capable of. It’s not that he’s the kind of climber that is so strong that he never falls, gets tired, or makes mistakes; it’s that he is the kind of climber that does fall, but when it comes time to really turn it on, he always somehow finds the strength to succeed, no matter the obstacle in his path. It’s a trait I greatly admire because he’s not the kind of person that gets by on natural talent, but rather passion and determination; the things I value most in myself as well. Even when totally exhausted, he can still somehow perform at his best.

It was our second day on a route called The Nexus. On paper it’s only 5.13a, but in reality, it’s between 5.12+ and 5.13- for nearly 900 feet (the pitch breakdown is 5.10, 5.12b, 5.11c, 5.13a, 5.12d, 5.13a, 5.11c, 5.12c, 5.12d). We had only been on it once together, and hadn’t climbed past the last pitch of 5.13 due to my own fatigue. I lead us up the first few warm-up pitches, but when we arrived at the first crux pitch, Harrison took over. He looked shaky, like he was about to fall, as he climbed through the first hard sequence. Yet he didn’t fall. He didn’t fall there, or when he completely forgot his beta in the crux that followed. He didn’t fall on the 5.12d pitch, and despite a terminal pump on the third crux, he didn’t fall there either. It had taken everything I had just to follow his leads, barely keeping my own feet on the wall with a non-insignificant amount of assistance from keeping my microtraxions nice and tight. Even though I was just top roping everything, I had been trying to climb as if I were sending too, just to know what it would take to do something like this.

[Second pitch of the Nexus]

After a long day, we arrived at the final pitch of 5.12+ and I saw him try harder than I have in a long time, onsighting an incredibly cryptic crux and completing the climb having not fallen a single time that day. As for myself, I had nothing left when I started up the last pitch, eventually having to pull through a move after falling many times. Up until now I had managed to stay on my feet through sheer determination, but at last the magnitude of the objective finally brought me to my knees. I had come so far, and tried so hard, just to fail here at the very end.

At last I arrived at the summit, congratulating Harrison on his spectacular performance on an amazing route. With plenty of daylight left, he asked if I wanted to rehearse anything to try the route again. Still hyperventilating and as close to puking as I have ever been in this sport, I told him I couldn’t imagine myself sending this climb. He insisted I was closer than I might think. I knew he meant it, but I felt so utterly defeated that for once, I didn’t believe him.

As we rappelled, I couldn’t stop fixating on those thoughts. How was it that I couldn’t picture myself doing something? My climbing has always been fueled by seemingly impossible dreams; it’s been the foundation of everything I’ve ever accomplished. Not only that, but I am an artist by trade; creativity is one of my greatest strengths, so why was my imagination now failing me? I didn’t understand. I felt like I was hopelessly far away; so much so that I didn’t even know exactly what I was far away from, other than that it was some kind of person that I wanted to become.

I couldn’t exactly see it: what it was, or how to get there, but I knew an intangible something was dangling just out of my reach. It was some way to transcend mental barriers when it came to these hard multipitches. Some way to continue to perform and persevere when you reach what feels like your physical and mental limit. A way to have done that last fucking move on the Nexus. A way to have done that last move, and then climbed another pitch, if the route had had one.

I’ve been pushing my limits in climbing for nearly twenty years; clawing my way up one desperate project after another, yet despite everything I’ve learned, I felt like I might as well be starting over from scratch. It felt like I had an entirely new world to learn when it comes to performance. It is both frustrating and inspiring, because it’s why I know I’ll continue climbing for the next twenty years. It’s because no matter how far I’ve come, there’s still farther to go.


3. Wanting It

There’s fourth class scrambling, and then there is vertical crawling. Harrison had vanished from my line of sight the moment the trail steepened, but I was grateful for the distance between us; it spared me a small amount of dignity as sweat and the occasional burst of tears poured down my face as I fought for each step. Our packs were of similar weight, yet for him this approach was a casual scramble; for me it was an ugly and pitiful crawl.

We were navigating up the steep gully between Middle and Lower Cathedral in an attempt to reach the top of the Leaning Tower, packs laden with hundreds of feet of rope for scoping a route for project potential. At the top of the gunsight I found Harrison waiting for me, bundled in a down jacket whilst I wore nothing but a sports bra and shorts; he had clearly been there for a while. He offered to lighten my load. The weight was crippling to me, yet for him it was nothing out of the ordinary as he strapped one of my ropes onto the outside of his pack. He now carried three times what I did, and I could still barely keep up with his pace.

I felt guilty that I couldn’t pull my weight, but Harrison was unphased.

“You just gotta want it,” he said, and scampered off into the dense maze of manzanita bushes that presented our next trial.

I felt so beat down that all I could think was, how can it be that simple?

.

Hours later, we had reached the summit, and then navigated a complicated series of roofs and steep terrain to finally reach Ahwahnee Ledge where we were supposed to finally do some climbing. Completely drained, I collapsed on the ledge, climbing shoes remaining comfortably nestled at the bottom of my backpack. As Harrison booted up to rope solo a wild roof pitch that loomed above us, I asked him if it was always this much work to fix a long route. He confirmed as much, but to him it was hardly much work at all, seeing as it had only taken us half the day to complete our task. To him it was an entry fee that was easily worth paying.

As he climbed, I stared at tiny words on my phone screen, pages of a book I had just downloaded. It was Beyond the Summit: Setting and Surpassing Extraordinary Business Goals, by Todd Skinner. Give me answers, I silently implored. Skinner had pioneered the route we were trying, and I was hoping to find some way to change my attitude about how overwhelmed I felt about its seeming impossibility. I was so daunted that I didn’t even want to climb. It didn’t seem worth the effort, when the project seemed so massive. How had Skinner felt while sitting on this ledge, I wondered.

The book is meant to adapt lessons that Skinner learned in the mountains into metaphors for professionals in the business world, but it was hardly a stretch to just use the analogies for more mountains instead. Early in the book he describes the differing definitions of success through the story of his sixty-day ascent of the first grade seven route in the world in Pakistan’s Trango Towers. Skinner talks of how the allure of the challenge was its impossibility, because it offered the most possible opportunity to grow towards becoming the absolute best climber he could be. He wrote, “Remember that success doesn’t come from standing on the summit, but in rising to meet the summit, and if you choose an unchallenging summit, you will not rise far to reach it.”

It was exactly what I needed to hear, as I pulled my climbing shoes out of my backpack.

.

The next day Harrison returned to the route alone; I was simply too exhausted, and instead found myself wandering the Camp 4 boulders with a few friends. I had been falling off these small rocks for hours, and didn’t see much point in continuing to do so as the sun dipped behind the hills, yet my group saw it differently.

“You gotta want it!” my friend Jordan, another master of big days and long routes, called out as he strapped his shoes on for another attempt.

It was the second time in two days that someone from this world I sought to enter had said those words to me. Maybe it was that simple.


4. Second Wind

After a sudden change in the weather forecast caused the Leaning Tower route to no longer seem like a good project, Harrison and I returned to Fifi Buttress for redemption on a climb we had tried in the spring: the Final Frontier. After a day of recon and a day of rest, we started up the route on what looked to be one of the last days of good weather for climbing on the dark side of the Valley.

Things were going smoothly, as we blasted through the opening pitches with ease, arriving at the first crux pitch, a strenuous 5.12d stemming corner, early in the morning feeling fresh and psyched. Having taken a painful fall on it before, I was a mess of nerves and performance anxiety.

“You need to learn to chill the fuck out,” Harrison joked, but it was true. I was always such a basket case before leading anything hard on long routes. After he gave me a more genuine pep talk, I was able to find a bit more peace with my nerves and climb the pitch without much strife, Harrison easily following as if it were another warmup.

[The stemming pitch on Final Frontier]

We swapped leads and the next 5.13a crux offered little resistance, putting us at the base of the hardest 5.13b pitch with most of the day left. After moving so swiftly all morning, suddenly our pace ground to a halt as several hours later our position hadn’t changed. Harrison had led up to the slippery boulder problem and fallen off, lowered down, and then I went and did the exact same thing. He tried again; same result. We were running out of energy; he was unlikely to try again, but I still had one more shot.

It was all on me now to save the mission. It was my chance to lift the team up for once. Harrison was always picking up my slack, carrying more than his share of the weight, but maybe just this one time it could be me. So often it felt like we were a leader and a follower with me struggling just to keep up, but if I could pull this off then we would actually be a team. I wanted that so much more than I wanted to redpoint this climb.

Time to rise up, I thought; rise up to meet the summit, just like Skinner said. Sink or swim. I laybacked up the thin crack and cranked into the boulder problem crux, only to slip off yet again. With a curse, I returned to the belay. So much for my moment.

“Son of a bitch,” I said with a laugh. To my own surprise, I was not all that disappointed.

I had not sent the climb, but that lead still felt more like a success than a failure, because for that one pitch I had finally been able to get into the mindset that I had been striving for all this time. I had wanted it. I had wanted it enough to shut out all the weird mental blocks that had been nagging at me. I had wanted it enough to climb like I can on the ground. I hadn’t summited the mountain, but I still had risen up to meet it.

The weather was good enough for another attempt the following day, but forecasted rain made it our last real shot. Without taking a rest day it was pretty much a Hail Mary, but we had to try.

Even on the easy first pitches I could tell I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept well, and I felt much slower than the day before. Even hauling our small day pack and mini ledge felt more tiring than it should, leaving me slumped in my harness by the time the small task was completed.

I would do my best, but I couldn’t help but wonder if today my best would simply be to support Harrison. At least that was what I thought, until he told me hadn’t slept well either, and was experiencing a lot of fatigue and pain in his bad shoulder. Right after that, I fell on the 12d pitch. We agreed that maybe we should just clean all our gear off the upper cruxes and turn this Hail Mary into a Bail Mary. I fell on the next crux too, leaving me 0 for 2 going into the third. Harrison was still on point however, and I thought he still had a good shot to scrap together a send. I felt mixed emotions at the idea. I wanted at least one of us to do the climb if we couldn’t do it together, but I was disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to do it as a team like we’d hoped.

Harrison fired the final crux first try. I’d say it was against the odds, but it wasn’t; such a feat came as no surprise to me. What did however, was when I managed to climb it as well.

[The final crux on Final Frontier]

“That’s what I’m talking about!” he cheered as I panted up to the belay.

Just like that, the mission was back on. It was only 1pm, so plenty of time left for us to both climb the final 12c pitch, and then rap back down for me to somehow send the other two pitches. A tall order, but there was no other way this story ended in my mind. There was a lot still to do, but I had done the hardest pitch. Nothing would stop me from finishing this climb now. I wanted it. My fatigue from that morning was nothing but a distant memory, as I felt some kind of miraculous second wind wash over me. The mindset from the end of the day before was back, and it was here to stay.

Harrison worked out the beta for the 12c and then handed me the sharp end. I couldn’t afford to waste too much energy on this pitch and still hope to return to the lower cruxes. I stabbed to a gaston at the full extent of my wingspan, feeling my shoulder wrench backwards as only two of my fingers latched the hold. I screamed, as nothing but stubborn willpower kept me from falling. I pulled my foot up to match my other hand, and then it was over. How Harrison could do these moves without completely destroying his bad shoulder was unfathomable to me.

“That was an extreme effort. I can’t believe I pulled that off!” I called down with a shaky laugh, before finishing the pitch through easier terrain. Harrison sent it on his second try and we rapped back down to my remaining pitches.

“Game seven, pressure’s on!” Harrison joked.

I’ve climbed some of my hardest routes when it came down to the last possible chance, managing miracles when the pressure was at its maximum, yet have often struggled when the stakes were more medium. I climbed the remaining pitches both in quick succession, floating through moves that before had felt desperate. “Conditions got a lot better when this second wind kicked up,” I joked, because it had been surprisingly humid and warm that day. I felt like a different climber from just a few hours ago. I felt like myself. For once I didn’t feel like I was drowning in this land of the unknown, so far out of my element and league. For once on a hard multipitch I felt like I knew exactly how to do what I needed to do, and capable of reasonably doing it. For once I felt like part of a team; two partners rather than just a junkshow student and her ever patient teacher.

My experience on Final Frontier felt like a culmination of all the things I had been trying so hard to learn from all the other routes in Yosemite. It was a small step forward on a long road to destination unknown, with the only map written in a language the free trial version of duolingo doesn’t include. Perhaps this road leads to the Edge, or perhaps it leads nowhere at all. More likely, it just leads to another road. I don’t know much, but the entire reason I live on the road at all is to find out where and just how far it goes.

5 Comments

  1. 1. This is amazing, I’m training to climb Astroman, so while this is on another level (2 number grades to be specific), it’s pure stoke. I relate deeply to your “moment of weakness” on Westie Face. I am, what my doctors and parents describe as, a chicken shit. And I’m always trying to weasel out of my leads once I’ve run out of bravery juice (which is usually after a pitch of fighting at my limit). And this is why I love multi pitching in the valley. It exorcizes the chicken shit and makes my bravery tank a little deeper each time.
    2. I shit my pants on gunsight. Unladen. I thought I was gonna slip right off that devilish friction at the end.
    3. Fuck, this is so inspiring. In my mind, following you on insta, I’m like, this woman is a super hero! And a total babe, wtf! And now reading that you’re sometimes a basket case before you get on a hard lead, it gives me so much hope. It’s not just me!
    4. You spelled Hunter S. Thompson as Hunger… Maybe you were hungry when you wrote it, I don’t know. Or maybe it was a conscious nod to your “hunger” for finding the edge?
    Thanks for this.

    Like

    Reply

    1. Haha awe this is so sweet. Thanks for reading and sharing! Hunger must have been some kind of Freudian slip, I almost might just leave it that way and see if anyone else notices… I’m glad you found my ramblings relatable, I think a lot of the mental battles we face as climbers are the same no matter the grade or type of challenge we face. I also appreciate that I wasn’t the only one freaking the fuck out on gun sight!! 😬😂
      Astroman is a worthy goal, best of luck getting after it!!

      Like

      Reply

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