I awoke this morning, as I do most days, with my body a ticking time bomb. I stalled as long as possible in bed, listening to the light pitter-patter of rain on the roof of my car until it was almost too late. Suddenly there was no time, not even to wipe the steam off the inside of my windows as I threw myself behind the wheel and made a mad dash for the McDonalds and it’s waiting bathroom.
With my windows a dripping mess, it was almost raining inside my car as much as out, where yet another new storm had rolled in the previous night. As I peered out the small patch of visibility in my windshield, I considered the words said by my friend Cody the night before: “If I can see the chief tomorrow, I’ll consider going climbing.” I couldn’t see the chief through the rain. There was a literal “rain warning” for the amount of precipitation we were supposed to receive today.
It wasn’t the first time a thought crossed my mind– not “what am I doing?” but “what the fuck am I doing here?”
Of the near month I’ve spent in Squamish, it’s rained almost half the days, mostly consecutively. September is usually a pretty dry month in the Pacific Northwest, so when I arrived on the 1st it was swarming with climbers ready for perfect fall temperatures. It didn’t take long for the first storm to roll through, promising day after day of constant rain for as far ahead as modern meteorology could predict. Sitting at Zephyr, the cafe that provides a home base for many dirtbag climbers seeking internet, coffee, and shelter, plans were being thrown left and right.
Skaha? It’s only 5 hours. We’ll come back after the rain. Leave tonight, get out of here ASAP. Some people waited a day or two for the first scouts to test the waters, find camping, confirm bluer skies, but after a few days there were almost no climbers left in Squamish. I thought about it too, but I had just arrived and my business here was unfinished.
I came to Squamish with a fantasy ticklist of hard fingercracks, ambitious multipitches, and line after line that I knew would challenge me in new and different ways. Weather aside, I knew the answer to the question I asked myself on more than one rainy morning: what the fuck I was doing here was trying to work on every possible weakness I could find in my trad climbing: Hands, fists, chimneys, offwidths, slab, sustained cracks, roofs, long days, etc. Everything that defines Squamish hard climbing was everything I was bad at, so this was where I needed to be, rain or shine.
After living in the Pacific Northwet for the past 8 years, I knew that the rain did not mean the end of climbing, it just meant you had to be flexible with your objectives. Since stepping outside my comfort zone was already my goal, it was just a minor obstacle to overcome. As one of my regular partners and good friends Louis said in his French Canadian accent, “when it rains, we just go harder!”
We climbed at the monastery in a full on cloud, we climbed on the Zombie Roof in a downpour, we climbed slabs in the smoke bluffs when it stopped raining for brief chunks of the day when the wind would dry the rock quickly, we climbed on projects when they were completely wet except for the crux holds. One of my proudest rainy day climbs was My Little Pony, the 5.12+ inverted roof offwidth/fist crack that presented a style of climbing with which I had ZERO experience.
It was an adventure, trying to find what was dry and accepting that so long as we could climb something it was still fun, even if we had to let go of many aspirations. We were kept going by perfect weather promised at the end of the storm, yet every day it seemed to get pushed farther and farther back. The words of my friend Pat echoed in my head with dismay, “Sometimes when it starts raining it just never stops.” Soon even things like My Little Pony had started to seep, and bigger multipitches would take weeks to dry.
Friends in Skaha would text that the rock was dry, sun was shining, and that I should head for Valhalla immediately, yet in Squamish I remained. There were so few climbers left that we banded together, forming close friendships and enjoying many a board game, movie night, karaoke party, shared meal, or van circle to block the wind.
At times I would continue to ask myself that question, “seriously, what the hell am I doing here,” because objectively speaking, it was a ridiculous place to be. If you tried to describe this September as a Squamish selling point to someone who had never been, staying here as long as I have would sound insane. Subjectively speaking however, the strange opportunities presented by the bad weather have collectively made me the happiest I’ve been in a long time.
Despite the precipitation, there have been dry days, and I was able to send some projects that weren’t roof cracks as well. Favorites included an onsight of Polaris, P2 of the Calling, and Big Daddy Overhang, and redpoints of Flight of the Challenger, Hypertension, Sunny Days in December, and a few various sport climbs. I have accomplished everything I came here to do. I got on almost all the lines I wanted to try. I sent the ones that were within my current ability. I tried things that made me scared and slowly watched that fear turn to confidence as I learned the style. I watched strangers become close friends. I felt my fingers tingle with excitement and my heart race with adrenaline and my spirit overflow with passion for the life I have. Objectively many things I do may seem crazy, but nothing about a climber’s lifestyle has ever been status quo anyway. We follow the calling, rain or shine. Besides, you can never grow if you turn tail and run at the first sign of a storm.
Deep in the forests of the Skykomish valley in Western Washington lies the tiny town of Index and behind it, hundreds of feet of sheer granite cliffs that are home to some of the finest trad and sport climbing on the planet. The most easily accessible and popular sector, the Lower Town Wall (LTW), lies just across the rail road tracks from the parking lot. The wall is split in two by a singular line of weakness that scars an otherwise completely blank and dead vertical face. This is City Park. Index isn’t known for splitters (perfect cracks), with most if its classics combining crack and face climbing. That’s okay because I’m not much known for climbing splitters in the first place. Nevertheless, no one who has ever visited Western Washington’s local’s paradise could deny the appeal of the perfect and unmistakable line that is City Park.
It was first opened by the pitons of Roger Johnson and Richard Mathies in 1966 and has since become an iconic part of Index history and a popular aid route. It consists of 35 meters of 5.10 bolt ladder, 5.11 splitter fingers, 5.12 tech, and 5.13 pinky lock after pinky lock after pinky lock above nuts and size 00 cams. The smallest trad gear on the market. The caveat is that the entire climb shares an anchor with the most popular 5.9 in Washington, Godzilla. So it is that everyone and their mother who has ever plugged gear at Index has, at some point or another, lowered down over City Park’s striking pods and pockets and wondered…
So it was on my first attempt. Three years ago I visited Index with my friends Miles C., Jeff S., and Stefan B. for the first time and led Godzilla, my first 5.9 trad climb. What was this other thing I was looking at on the way down? Washington’s hardest trad climb and the top rope is already rigged? Of COURSE I was going to try. That day I don’t think I freed a single move. The crack was fully saturated with a winter’s worth of seepage and snowmelt, and it took alternating between two cams and my belayer’s gracious assistance for me to move even halfway up the climb.
At the time I couldn’t even fathom what it would take to send City Park. I knew nothing about how small the gear is, how runout the cruxes all are, how the sharp rock will only let one try once or MAYBE twice every 4-5 days, how the break/undercling seeps for half the year and how it’s too hot to stand on the microscopic feet for the other half. I also didn’t know how few people had done it nor how many had tried and given up. I didn’t know the stories of the five legends that had clipped the chains before me; about how Todd Skinner had to burn grease out for his first ascent, or how Hugh Herr had invented his own prosthetics to enable the second. I had never heard of Chris Schlotfield’s pinkpoint send or heard my friend Per try and describe why they call him “Snickers.” I had never met Blake Herrington while wading across the Skykomish river to climb at secret sport crags, or belayed Mikey Schaeffer on his first 5.14a down at Smith Rock. I had no exposure to all the things that made City Park appeal to me, and yet even on that very first day, somewhere in my heart I knew that one day I would come for this beautiful, cruel rock climb. I didn’t know if it would be in one year or thirty, but somehow I knew. In a certain way it always seemed inevitable. I didn’t always know I would send it, but I always knew I was going to try.
Views at Index
In the fall of 2017 I pitched off of the final crux move of Pornstar, a 5.13d at World Wall that I had been working for several months. I had never been closer, and yet somehow simultaneously never felt farther away. “What more does it take!?” I screamed at the wall as tears streamed shamelessly down my face. Whatever the answer was, I no longer cared. My inspiration for the project was gone. I walked away with no regrets, right into the open arms of Index, a corner of the map I had thus far left almost entirely unexplored.
I fell fast and I fell hard, with a few early experiences changing the way I saw both the crag and myself as a climber. My favorite Index partner Pat S. introduced me to local climbers and classic climbs, spraying me with enough beta for all the classic Lower Town Wall 5.11ds to fall one after another. Guidebook author Chris Kalman showed me the beauty of some of the less travelled terrain and infected me with his contagious psyche whilst listening to me express my fears of leaving sport climbing behind and accepting what it meant to be something of a beginner again. “Don’t be afraid to redefine yourself,” he told me as we were driving to the crag one day; words I’ll never forget. All the pieces fell into place in exactly the way I needed them to most. Suddenly Index was the only place I wanted to climb.
I left Index when the rains came in November for drier conditions in the Red River Gorge, but when I returned Washington was graced by a rare weather window in December. My friend Jasna H. and I ventured out with one goal in mind: we wanted to top rope the one and only City Park to see if it just might be possible. By the end of the day on December 6th I was bleeding from more than half my fingers and had managed to link less than half the climb.
Jasna was in the same boat. I consider there to be five distinct sections, and the one in the middle remained a huge blank question mark. In that part in particular the feet disappear almost entirely, and the crack gets especially thin. Nevertheless, I wrote down all my beta for the bottom and top, and figured I had to start somewhere, even if I couldn’t even see how to do such a huge number of the moves.
Three weeks in Mexico came after, and it wasn’t until I was back in Washington in January that I can really say my skin had finally healed after that initial siege. Winter was also here to stay this time, so I did not revisit the route again until May 11th when I returned from an extended period of travel around the south west. During the previous weeks I had watched conditions in Index start to improve as spring arrived, but I had unfinished business in Smith Rock so I did not return to City Park at first opportunity. That day in May I drove out after work with one of my best friends Eric H., after having not climbed together in months. Everything turned out to be wet, including my project. It may have been wet, but it was also COLD, and when I climbed it my feet stuck to the wall like they never had before. For the first time I was able to do all the moves. I finally also figured out a sequence that could consistently get me through the break at the end of the middle crux, right before it eases off a bit for the final sprint.
The travel bug was still in my veins a little more than the City Park obsession, so I left Seattle once more and tabled the project yet again. Early June brought me back and I kept top roping, slowly putting the pieces together and checking off micro goals that I had set for myself. Top rope the top 2/3rds clean after starting at the bottom; make it to the top clean from below the break; things like that.
On June 15th I arrived at the base of the climb to find a line four people deep for Godzilla and none of them willing to trail my rope to set up a TR for me. After a pep talk from Eric I decided I might as well make this my first lead attempt. I was absolutely terrified, but as I racked up all the small gear I could find, Index staple Randy L. walked by the base and called out to me, “you’re my hero!” It gave me the last little bit of confidence I needed, and I tied in and left the ground.
That first lead burn took me well over an hour. I placed an absurd amount of gear, and aided through many of the moves. If I had thought I was closing in before, I suddenly felt miles away. Nonetheless, it was still another box checked on my mental list of steps that stood between me and one day clipping the chains.
By the end of June I managed to TR one hang it for the first time while climbing with Maiza W., and then the next day Julian B. belayed me as I made it through the break from the ground. Three days later I came out with Pat yet again to find the route soaking wet, so I figured out all the gear in better fashion then my initial rack from the lead attempt. I mock lead it despite the dampness, and managed to fail spectacularly on some of the easiest moves.
By now everyone knew that if I invited them to come to Index with me, I was basically asking for support on this single project. We wouldn’t be doing a multipitch, and we wouldn’t be hiking past the LTW. It had become a completely selfish pursuit, but I had long since accepted that if I was going to have a shot I had to do absolutely whatever it took. I often would write exactly that on my hand, so I could keep the discipline to stay away from the temptations of beer, junk food, or other routes… At the same time I was plagued by guilt at the sacrifices I was asking of my belayers. I tried not to talk about the route too much, or seem too egotistical about the process. I didn’t ask for photos nor spray too often about progress unless it seemed particularly meaningful. I wanted it more than I had ever wanted any rock climb, and thus I struggled to find the balance between selfishness and necessary evils, because that was what it would take for me to send. Sacrifice not just from me, but from my friends who left work early for me, sat in traffic for me, or offered constant words of support and encouragement to me.
July 4th I had managed to recruit Pat yet again for a belay, and I tossed around the dream that maybe it would come together out of the blue on my first real lead attempt. Instead I almost puked at the pure physical effort it took to reach the chains. I also managed to whip on a brass nut so many times that it took a hammer to remove. Later that day I also decked off a 5.11a because I didn’t have the strength to pull through after climbing City Park. Not exactly what I’d been expecting, but by the end of the day as I watched fireworks explode over the town of Index, tears fell down my face as I contemplated how grateful I was to be in such a beautiful and magical place, and how I would not have traded these moments for anything in the world. Surrounded by friends, filled with good food, and celebrating a place I love, I felt like I would burst with the power of it all. That, or maybe it was just some damn good weed that had me feeling particularly sentimental.
Three days later, July 7th I gave my third lead attempt while surrounded by a crew of some of my favorite Index personalities; Mike Massey, Pat, Eric, and others. I blasted up to a dramatically new high point, avoiding whipping on the nut and instead testing out the security of my next piece, a 00 shakily placed during the briefest moment of reprieve that two slightly above average pin scars offer after finishing the first real crux and before starting the second. For some reason I decided that I should change the way I held the undercling hold at the break, and try and place more gear to protect the next moves in case the 00 didn’t hold a fall from the upper crux. I thought it was a breakthrough discovery, but in the end I abandoned the change and reverted to my original sequence. That night we ran the Via Ferrata and I one again felt Index’s beauty take my breath away.
During my lead attempt that day as I was climbing, a party descending from a pitch above began to lower a rappel line on top of me, not suspecting that someone would actually be trying to free climb City Park. It’s not exactly a common scenario, and as I watched the line snake down from the skyline I felt my heart sink as I and everyone around yelled at the party above to pull their rope back up because I was still on point (hadn’t fallen yet). The folks at the belay were very understanding and accommodating, and even took a few photos as I was nearing the anchors. The graciousness with which these strangers treated me made me more than ever consider the many complex emotions I had wrapped up in this climb.
I had only been climbing at Index regularly for a short time before I started trying City Park. I had never done so many of the classics, or even visited many of the other walls. I had never bolted any new lines, nor cleaned off old ones. I didn’t know how to rope solo, and I hadn’t even camped in the climber lot more than once. I looked at City Park and the people that had climbed it before me with stars in my eyes every single time I left the ground. Who was I to be trying to follow in their footsteps? Sure I knew I was strong enough to do it eventually, but did I deserve it? Should the first female ascent belong to me, who could barely climb Japanese Gardens and had never even been on the Davis-Holland Memorial Route? This route was so intertwined in Index history that I often wondered these things; in making my mark, was I doing justice to a place that meant so much to me? More than sending City Park, I wanted to send it in style. When Todd Skinner first began trying it, locals poured grease down the crack to thwart his efforts because they didn’t want him to have the honor. I wanted to be someone that deserved the honor. Someone that people could celebrate not for, but with, and someone that would inspire others to get on the route in the years that would follow. To me, City Park is the perfect rock climb, and I wanted so desperately to be worthy of something so pure. Every time I pulled the final moves I imagined what it would feel like to do them while sending, and every time I trained at the gym I dreamed of the day when it would all come together. I wanted my send to inspire not simply because of the act itself, but because of my work ethic, what I give to my community, my passion, dedication, and all the other pieces that would be critical for success.
On Tuesday, July 10th I saw the last weather window for as far ahead as the forecast could predict. I got the day off work, and I locked down my partner Eric. Having last tried the route only a few days ago, my skin was shit. My new shoes had been backordered for months, and got shipped only the day before, so my shoes were also shit. I spent all morning being agitated at car traffic on the roads and human traffic in the many stores I visited while looking for my preferred brand of superglue so I could make tape stick to my pinkies. Eric was late (through no fault of his own) and as I sat in my car in Monroe waiting for him I listened to a homeless man yelling at nothing as he ambled around the parking lot. Basically my mental game was shit. My elbows hurt from training and my back hurt from heavy lifting at work. Nothing was right, but nonetheless I had to try.
As I stood on the ledge at the top of the bolt ladder, first cam in place, I looked down at my body. My heart was racing so fast I could see my shirt twitching with each heartbeat. I waited, but it showed no signs of slowing down. Accepting that this was just going to be one of those fear burns, where I never caught my breath and never found flow, I set off in resignation. I reached my high point and placed the 00 with energy to spare, though I could feel myself slipping. I moved into the break and tried to place the new nut I had added to the rack, and in doing so lost my grip and fell. I fiddled with the gear, then fiddled with the crux, and discovered a bit of micro beta that seemed to make a big difference in getting through the most insecure moves right after the break. As I rocked up on a heel hook at the end of the final 5.13 section, for the first time it felt real; like I had a shot.
I came down and said as much to Eric and he agreed and asked how my skin was. I had just assumed it would be a horror show after how thin it had been at the beginning. It was raw and painful, but not bleeding. Maybe I could try again. I had nothing left to lose.
That was when a crew of aid climbers arrived and declared their intentions of spending the evening on City Park practicing their techniques. That was fine, I needed lots of rest anyway and how long could they possibly take? Eric and I went to the country, did a few pitches, and returned around 8:45pm as the sun was beginning to set. Paloma was still on the route, and she wasn’t very close to the top. Apparently some of the nuts were very stuck. As she cleaned the rest of their gear I watched the daylight fade along with my hopes.
Finally there was only one nut left, and it was around 9pm. I had used normal white chalk to mark where my hands went (tick marks on the right side of the crack for right hand, left for left, with the direction of the tick indicating if my pinky went down or up), and colored chalk for gear. When I saw that the nut was not blocking either, I begged her to just leave it and let me try one last time. (to clarify, I did not clip the nut, I climbed around it as if it were not there) Thankfully, she agreed and descended. Yet again, I chose selfishness because I felt like it was my only option, asking others to make the one sacrifice I couldn’t make myself.
I started up the climb and everything felt different. Because of skin my expectations were realistic, but I was calm for the first time. The fear was finally gone. The pressure, gone. Just City Park and I, alone together as the darkness descended over the Lower Town Wall and the crowd below let their chatter fade to silence as they watched in anticipation, breaths collectively held. The air was the coolest it had been in weeks, yet there was a strange warmth inside the crack; normally one would expect the opposite as the sun heats the surrounding rock but not the slot itself. I knew I would no longer fall on any of the moves below my high point. As I did them I felt my feet stick when I expected them to stick, and slip when I knew they would slip, and I planned accordingly. My new gear beta worked like a charm, and before I knew it I was above the break.
I felt myself slipping out of the last pinky locks but I told myself to weight the foot more and trust that it would stay, the micro beta I had identified on my previous attempt. As I pulled into the final hard section I felt tired, but in complete control. I sang to myself a song I had written about the climb and recited countless times during training over the past several months: “Watch those anchor gates, open up for me, for our City Park sending train.” With each move I became more and more certain that this was it, the moment that City Park had finally deemed me worthy. I placed each hand perfectly, each foot perfectly, and made not a sound until I was standing on the ledge below the final 5.11 section.
“Oh my God!” I yelled, as the small crowd below erupted in cheers of their own. In the past I have stayed on that ledge for up to several minutes, but within seconds I knew the true summit was calling my name and I could not wait. I began climbing once more and the voices below instantly silenced. All precision vanished as I slammed my hands into the final fingerlocks, feet skittering across the polished granite with no grace remaining. As I latched the final hold I let out a scream and felt tears immediately form and begin to fall. It was almost completely dark by now, and by the time I was back on the ground we had to pack up all our gear by headlamp.
In that moment I knew I had accomplished one of the most important and proudest things I have ever done with my life. City Park was never a goal, it was a dream. My dream. It was not about the process of ticking the boxes of each mini milestone, but about the relationship I formed with the route as it was happening. I fell more in love with each move every time I did it, each emotion each time I felt it. Fear, pain, adrenaline, hope, determination, joy, pride, and did I mention physical pain? There was a lot of it. In the end though it is all dwarfed by the overwhelming honor I feel at having been able to join my heroes in Index history as the first woman to climb City Park and the fourth person to place all gear on lead for a true redpoint.
While working it, many questioned if it was fun, or if it was worth the pain. To that I say this: to many it may not be. It’s just another climb, and it’s one that will notgo down without a fight. That is why so few people have done it. City Park is a logistical nightmare. Conditions are critical yet elusive, skin is a constant issue, gear is finicky, thin, and downright scary, and no matter how you slice it the moves are just downright hard. There were parts that weren’t fun. There were parts that plain sucked. Those parts were when it was truly testing me however, and that was when it meant the most.
I’ve considered Seattle home for a few years now, but when I returned in April after a month away, I somehow felt very much not at home in my own apartment, my climbing gym, and pretty much anywhere I went in what was supposed to be my city. I was immediately homesick for the mountains, the desert, or simply just the outdoors. Freedom had become a hard habit to break now that I had gotten a taste of it. After ten days of straight work, rain, and sickness, I eagerly jumped on the opportunity to get out of town and follow my friend Jasna to Smith to support her attempts on To Bolt or Not To Be, a dream project of hers. She told me she could stay for up to two weeks if necessary, so I planted the idea in the back of my mind that I might not be back in time for work on Monday when the weekend was over. I drove down solo on a Wednesday night, she sent on Thursday evening, and Sunday morning I awoke to an empty campground and a note that she had bailed back to Seattle. I had sent nothing myself, having been fighting off my cold the entire time. Thus, I was far from ready for my own departure, despite my sudden lack of partners.
With no belayer for the day, nor place to stay for the night (aside from solo in the BLM land), I had to fight my ever present fear of the unknown that told me to just bail back to Seattle rather than face the uncertainty of being alone. Instead I headed for Redpoint, the local gear/beer/coffee shop, to wait for opportunity to strike. I found a familiar face outside: a friend named Austin with whom at the time I had more mutual friends than actual memories together. We had crossed paths plenty over the years, but barely knew each other on a personal level. Regardless, we were both psyched, and immediately made plans to climb that evening along with Jess (whom I didn’t know at all) when she got off work at RP. The two of them would quickly become one of the main reasons I stuck around Smith for as long as I did. Austin invited me to stay with them at Tree Matt’s house, where a commune of vans had assembled just outside of town that housed an assortment of climbers, slackliners, dirtbags, and Terreboners that would quickly become like family to me.
I quickly fell into a happy routine: waking up slowly to the sun creeping around the edges of my curtains as I waited until the last possible minute to rip them down, crawl into the driver’s seat, and race to Redpoint to use the bathroom. After that I would work for awhile, sit around playing yard games, board games, or music, stretching, or just straight up loitering, and then eventually head off to climb with whoever was most psyched. Usually Austin. When our fingers ached too much to climb any more, or the pangs of hunger were too strong, we would bail back to RP for beer (Bend’s surplus of breweries meant the shop was always well stocked) and usually more chess with whoever happened to be around.
Life was cheap, convenient, and easy. The only thing not so easy about the central Oregon desert was the climbing itself. Smith is known for being sandbagged, runout, spicy, and extremely technical, and after the rough start I had to keep telling myself that I just needed to put in the time and eventually I would hit my stride with the difficult, scary, and insecure style. One of my first days of actually climbing well came when I was invited to venture up into the Marsupials with Alan, a local developer/crusher that was eager to put my psyche to the test when it came to arduous approaches and chances of choss on newly bolted lines. I was hesitant at first, but he sold me on the adventure by promising that we wouldn’t have to carry much gear up the steep hill, so it wouldn’t actually be much more of a hike than the standard Smith Rock slog. The next day as we assembled our packs he asked if I had room in mine for a camera. Sure, no big deal. And also a rope… So much for traveling light! While there may have been some sandbagging to get me to agree to go, it was all well worth it when I got a taste of the climbing at the ‘Sups,’ a more pumpy and powerful (aka more in line with my strengths) style than Smith proper. I managed a second ascent of one of Alan’s excellent 5.13s, the Empire Strikes Back, after breaking off a few holds along the way. The taste of success, as well as the healing of a split tip that had plagued me up until that point, made me start to think that I had finally unlocked the ability to climb well at Smith. Little did I know that my battle for climbing success had only just begun.
Two days later I split another tip on Taco Chips, blowing my send with some sloppy footwork on one of the easier moves well past the crux. Frustrating, but not the end of the world. I could still climb well enough, I thought to myself as I managed to clip the chains on point several tries later. The following day was the Smith Rock Spring Thing anyway, so a bit of rest should mean I could heal up quickly. During the event I signed up for the Marsupials project, thinking how great it would be to give back to an area that had left me with a pretty meaningful first impression. The trail needed serious work, and I was psyched to try and be a good samaritan. We hiked up (the extra long way) and started moving rocks around to build terraces and stairs. In my enthusiasm, I hoisted a particularly large one right on top of my left hand. Pain shot through several of my fingers at once and a feeling of dread hit me as I immediately knew I had done some serious damage. I looked at the back of my hand to see what I had done to the nails, and was surprised to see they all looked perfectly normal. Then I flipped my hand over and had to force down my gag reflex as my eyes were immediately drawn to the dime-sized blood blister that now took up the entire pad of my middle finger. The most important finger for climbing in Smith’s pockets.
Jess and Adam gathered around me as we debated what to do. They insisted I shouldn’t pop it, but it felt like if I didn’t it was going to explode as it continued to inflate with more and more blood. I let the doom and gloom take over my disposition as I was sure I wouldn’t climb for days, maybe even weeks as the skin inevitably fell off, or maybe the nail fell off, or maybe the entire finger just fell off. Tears ran down my face as I wondered if I should just head home right then and there to lick my wounds. After a semi-painful rest of the day, a few drinks and a free rope later, I decided the event wasn’t a total loss and decided to stick it out at least a few days to see what happened. That night as I stood around a bonfire at Matt’s I listened to friends make plans to climb the next day, miserably lamenting my own loss of ability to try hard. When talk of trad climbing came up, my ears perked up like so many of the dogs that loitered at Redpoint with the climbers each day. That sounded like something I could do with the finger!
A lot of tape and a needle to drain the blood and fluid after every attempt enabled me to climb the following day, to my great excitement. Crack climbing allowed me to still get after it without using the finger. The day after that I found myself able to weight it too, though it still needed to be drained after every pitch. Soon it ceased to even cause pain, though each day brought with it all kinds of changes in its appearance, none any less disturbing than those before. At first it was black and blue and full of blood– that was when it was most painful. Immediately following that it turned white and squishy, like all the skin had been submerged in water for too long, or maybe it had just died and started to rot away. After that it became red underneath and hard as plastic, which was when I decided I was fed up with the amount of tape and superglue I was using, and started just climbing on it. Every stage was equally disgusting, and thus it was dubbed it the Zombie Finger.
I was cautious at first, for the thought of the entire thing peeling off to reveal raw hamburger and bone underneath sat at the forefront of my mind as I tested it without tape for the first time. Soon enough though, I discovered that it was at a point where it was only holding me back as much as I was willing to let it. The same can be said for most excuses at Smith. “It’s only heady if you have a weak mind.”
Finally, it was time to crush. Unfortunately the return of my skin coincided with the return of the impending summer heat, and a string of back to back 80 degree days struck all the climbers like a tidal wave of lethargy and frustration. We had to wait until the late evening to climb, then try and crank out a few pitches before the sun set and the park closed. Even doing that made the rubber on our climbing shoes feel like chewing gum on the hot rock, and fingers feel like mush on the small holds that define Smith climbing. Nonetheless, if I could climb through the zombie finger, I could deal with the temperatures. I gummed my way up Karate Crack on one of the worst days, then finally managed to send Oxygen and Nacho Cheese on my last day after a thunderstorm cranked the humidity up to almost unbearable levels.
A last day of project sending ended my time at Smith on a high note, but the majority of my time there was defined not by climbing success, but by important lessons learned, friendships made, and experiences captured. From jamming late into the night with the TerreBand, to finding beginner’s luck at poker, to reconnecting with old Tinder dates, to not scoring a single point at foosball, to second hand smoke, to bonding over shared childhood confusion over Disney characters, to failing to find river crossings in the dark, to the most beautiful sunsets imaginable, to all the things eaten by Jess’s dog, to how to get Austin to take a shower, to second ascents, to so many rest days that ended with going climbing instead, to NOT taking the whip on full Heinous Cling, and most importantly of all, to each and every incredible person I got to know– Smith has once again cemented itself in my memory as a place of real magic. I might have to make every four day weekend turn into a spontaneous three week trip from now on!
“How many more bolts until the end of this thing?” my partner Mike asked as he powered past the crux of a climb.
“You never really reach the end,” I replied sarcastically. “Greyhound stays with you forever; you’ll never be the same after you clip those chains.” In that situation it was a joke, but for the climbs we would later go on to send that day, the words held unironic truth. Some sends are just a box ticked on 8a.nu or an excuse to drink beer at the end of the day. Others tell a story: of lessons learned, friendships made, challenges overcome, or in the case of Magnum Opus, all of the above.
When I was 19 and on my very first climbing road trip, I met my very first dirtbag. He was living out of a van with his dog and another climber he’d picked up somewhere along the way, and rock climbing was his life. As I traveled around for the next three months, I toyed with the idea of doing such a thing myself one day, but also wondered if I actually had what it would take.
The years went by, and I found myself drawn to the comfort of a stationary life, with a community, friends, a home… basically a support system so that I never really had to face the thought of being truly and one hundred percent alone. I always set ultimatums for myself, with the hope that one day I would be ready to face the adventure of leaving home with just the things that would fit into my car and see where life might take me. When I sent 8a/13b I would do it. That came and went and I only settled down more. When I’d lived in Seattle for a full year, then I would do it. Three years went by. When I turned 25, that would be the year that I’d reevaluate. 25 finally happened, and I found myself with the opportunity I had always been waiting for.
In December of 2017 I met a guy in Mexico named Alex who was psyched to travel and climb together. We hit it off and stayed in touch, and so I, ready to make the most of my last year of Dad’s health insurance, hit the road. I was travelling by myself, but I still had a safety blanket; a seasoned dirtbag to hold my hand as I jumped off the deep end. It was the push I had been waiting for all this time.
Unfortunately he was ready to let go of said hand after a lot less time than I would have liked, and I was faced with a new ultimatum: venture off into the unknown by myself, keep climbing with a guy that had just broken my heart, or head home with my tail tucked between my legs. None of the options were what I had been mentally prepared for when I left home.
I called a few friends, cried for a few hours, drove to St. George, got a hotel, and drank an appropriate amount of wine for what I figured the situation entailed. I felt more physically alone than I have in many years, being solo in a very foreign place with absolutely no plan. Luckily, I received endless support from all of my friends, and that comfort got me through the night.
I couldn’t afford to stay there more than a night however, so I needed to come up with a new plan pretty quickly. I found a place to sleep in my car just outside the city, and considered all my options. I had friends coming in soon, but I wasn’t just going to sit around and wait until they got here. After two rest days, I needed to climb.
I showed up to Moe’s Valley with no knowledge of the area, no crash pads, no guidebook, a marginal amount of psyche to boulder, and a healthy level of fear at the thought of putting myself out there and trying to befriend some strangers in my already emotionally vulnerable state. I walked up to the first people I found and asked to join them. It was a couple from Salt Lake who were working on a V7 called Paradise Lost. I ran two laps on the warmup V2 next to it, and then proceeded to start working the 7 and subsequently dispatching it within three tries. I can only imagine what they must have thought! Who the fuck was this girl? Luckily first impressions are quickly overwritten by honest friendships, and we ended up having a great day together. I began to feel like I could actually make something happen with the rest of my trip, if I was able to see the many opportunities around me for what they were.
At the end of the day I also ran into another few familiar faces from my time in Mexico: Mike and his dog Sequoia. He was on a similar soul searching, partnerless vision quest in Moe’s, and it was through pure serendipity that we happened to sync up that day when we were both wandering through the boulders while actually yearning to sport climb.
After a few more days farting around until my other friends showed up, I rallied my crew around me to head back to the Grail. I had unfinished business, and thy name was Magnum Opus.
Driving back to Lime Kiln brought with it a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Would Alex still be there? Would the place still seem as exciting and magical with a different crew? Did I have a prayer at sending this rock climb? The answers were ‘No,’ ‘Yes,’ and ‘Maybe, just maybe.’
I wasted no time in diving into the project. Magnum Opus was everything I had been told it would be: bad feet, shallow mono pockets, and very few rests for 35m. Pulling on some of those holds felt like an injury ready to happen, and if I didn’t hit some of them just right I had to force myself to just let go to avoid blowing a tendon. I had to tape one of my fingertips and it made many of the moves much harder because I had to be significantly more precise to fit into some of the pockets now, and other holds were now quite slippery. On my second or third burn I split a tip on my other hand too, so now I was double taping.
A rest day yielded hope for the skin, but when I came back the draws had been taken down, so I had to hang my own. Suddenly there was a new pressure: I couldn’t leave without either sending or accepting defeat, because putting them up was an ordeal I was not enthusiastic about repeating. I also didn’t have enough remaining draws to do anything else, so I couldn’t realistically consider leaving to climb somewhere else and just coming back in a few days.
Friday marked the arrival of more friends from my previous stint in the Grail, but they were only there for the weekend, and Mike was also scheduled to leave on Sunday. I had two days before there were no longer any partners I knew, plus I also wanted to meet up with my friends back in St. George. I one hung the climb twice, feeling strong, psyched, and stressed.
Saturday came, and I knew I would need a rest day after that. It was time to sink or swim. I felt terrible on my warmup, and my skin felt like every hold was sharper than crimping on the blade of my pocket knife. On top of that, when I walked up to the climb there was a family toproping the approach pitch, so I had to wait for them to finish to get on. It wasn’t until after lunch that I even tried it that day, but the first burn brought another high point and one-hang. Even with the continued progress, I didn’t think it would go down. There were just too many places that you could screw it up (i.e. every single hand and/or foot move from the start of the crux until the anchors), and even the most minor of errors would send me pitching off with a flurry of expletives.
The main reason I didn’t think it would go down was because that would make everything just a little too easy. I would send the project just as my partners were all leaving, just as my new friends were arriving in St. George, just before my skin got any worse (I was worried about another finger splitting), and just before I would need a rest day. Yet somehow, the universe decided I had earned a break, and I found myself crimping through the crux with confidence. I got to my high point and felt myself slipping off the same hold as before, but through sheer force of will I managed to pull through and get to the rest. From there I knew I could finish it as long as I climbed well.
If there’s one thing the Grail has taught me about climbing, it is that the difference between climbing poorly and climbing like I should be on this technical terrain is almost entirely in my head (unless I’ve had too much coffee, then it’s anyone’s guess). ‘Climb well, Brittany’ I found myself telling myself whenever my leg would start to shake or my heart would begin to race. ‘Climb like you should be climbing, and you can do this’ and similar mantras became my constant internal dialogue. For me this is a dramatic change from the norm. Usually I find myself thinking things more along the lines of ‘don’t fuck this up,’ or ‘wouldn’t it just suck to blow it right here?’ There is no room for those sort of thoughts on Magnum Opus.
When I clipped the chains my own cheering was almost drowned out by the chorus of encouragements from friends and strangers alike from one end of the crag to the other. The wall at Lime Kiln is such that everyone can see everything from just about any vantage point, so I was lucky to be able to celebrate my victory with the masses who had watched me punt off (quite vocally) so many times before now.
Many other members of the crew sent their projects that day, and it filled me with endless joy to be able to share my experience with all of them. Not only was Magnum Opus the first 13d of my climbing career (the grade receives many different labels depending on who you ask, but that is what I feel is right for me), it is the most tries I’ve put on anything away from home crags, and the hardest I’ve done outside Washington. It represents all of the elements of my journey so far, and also everything still to come in my remaining days of travel. From making pizza for five hours over the campfire, to crossing state lines several times a week, to watching 360 degrees of sunrise en route to Las Vegas, to cooking dinner in parking garages, to sleeping in shooting ranges, to falling asleep stargazing on crash pads, to overstaying my welcome at McDonalds to use Wifi, to bleeding through the knees of every single pair of pants I brought, to sewing car curtains at the library, to getting baked and watching Jumanji in the rain, to ground score potato chips, to so many other memories—These days are long, but the weeks are short, and I am eternally grateful for each and every moment, from the ones that break my heart to the ones that make it feel like it will burst with joy. Every day brings new lessons, opportunities and adventure, and while nothing has tuned out at all like I had been expecting, I wouldn’t change a single part of it.
“What time did you get here today?”
The question came with a laugh; my friend already knew that my answer would be something absurd. It was 8:30 pm and the happy hour crew had just showed up for a bit of climbing before the drinks started flowing at 10.
“4:30,” I replied anyway. I wouldn’t be joining in their session. The remainder of my evening at the gym would be spent in the weight room. How badly I’d wanted to climb with everyone else, but the only way to be done with my workout by Happy Hour was to get started many hours before my friends, and slog through it alone.
Another Wednesday evening, this time in July–
“How was the rest of the event?” I asked a different friend.
“Good, how was climbing?”
He knew exactly why I had left the brewery the night before without saying goodbye. The moment the clock struck 9:30 I had silently disappeared so I could be in bed by 10pm. How badly I had wanted another drink though. How badly I had wanted to stay and socialize. Alas, the rules of my ‘Dawn Patrol’ morning training schedule meant bedtime was not flexible.
A Tuesday morning in August, long before sunrise–
“We are psychotic,” my partner said to me as we stepped out of his car at 5:30 am in the Little Si parking lot. It wasn’t the first time the thought had crossed my mind. We had been doing this for weeks after all. He stopped for the bathroom and I hiked on alone, the first person to clear last night’s cobwebs from the trail. What was that light gleaming just ahead in the total darkness– could it be the eyes of a mountain lion? The caffeine I shouldn’t be ingesting caused my heart to keep racing long after I assured myself it was just my headlamp reflecting off a trail sign. How badly I wished to still be in bed that day, safe from all this anxiety, but this was the only time I could get outside during the work week.
“Third Thirsty Thursday,” a mid September evening–
Free raffle, free shoe demo, free films, free food, and of course free beer. As someone who considers herself frugal to a fault, even one of those freebies is a solid selling point. Thus I found myself at the gym for movie night, hanging around waiting for the show to start. The only problem was that I had given up drinking temporarily to try and send my project that weekend. They tapped the keg and I unconsciously sidled closer, watching red solo cups full of FREE beer being given to everyone but me. The line for drinks finally cleared and the table was left unguarded. Instead of moving towards it (and how badly had I wanted to), I walked in the other direction, not stopping until I was turning the key in the ignition of my car to head home. The free movie hadn’t even started playing, but I knew I wouldn’t have been able to resist the temptation had I stayed. Why was I putting myself through this? It wasn’t the first time I’d questioned my own self-induced suffering. Was all this sacrifice really worth it?
Any given day–
There are times where these sacrifices come without a second thought. I can, I should, and I will skip that handful of french fries off of the plate someone got to share. “Suffer the pain of discipline, or suffer the pain of regret,” or so I’ve heard it said. There are also times where I can’t help but ask myself, what’s the point?
I find myself wondering sometimes why I bother pushing myself so hard that I miss out on all the luxuries of an easy life: food, alcohol, sleep, free time, an unimpeded social life, etc. Why must the cost of my goals be so high, and do they matter enough to make it worth the price?
I find that for me personally, the better I get, the harder I have to work to keep improving. Each new project demands more and more from me, and learning what it takes to keep moving forward is a constant physical and emotional battle. Even just this week I found myself falling off my latest project in tears and screaming “What more could it possibly take!?” at the route, as if World Wall could answer any of my many existential questions. I was heartbroken by how much I had sacrificed for this one and still come up short. I also knew that my ability to care was getting stretched to its limits, and it was questionable if the suffering was even fun anymore.
Catching one last burn before the sun hits the wall
My battle with that particular route aside, I find that in general there has never been a point where I was completely satisfied with my climbing. Perhaps that is what drives both the need and ability to sacrifice. I’ve always been in this game to see how far I could go, and how fast I could get there. What it would actually take to get there might come later. I’ve never lowered from a set of chains without thinking of what the next even harder project might be.
Most of the time I’m good at making sacrifices for climbing, because even if it doesn’t yield the desired result, the choice to push myself is a reward in and of itself. Even if it feels like I’m barely moving forward at all, when motivation is at rock bottom and all I want is to go home and do anything other than train, I’m still going faster than if I’d stood still. I call this state of mind ‘focusing on my ability.’ It comes from the lyrics to my favorite song, and it’s always been my motivational failsafe. What it boils down to is that when everything sucks and I have no answers, all I have to do is shut everything else out and simply focus on my ability. My ability to climb, my ability to train, my ability to improve myself in even the smallest ways. I make sacrifices for climbing because of that desire to keep trying to be the best possible version of myself. The version that didn’t fall at the crux, or that didn’t turn down an objective because the approach was too long, or that didn’t miss the podium by just one boulder problem. It’s an endless pursuit, but that makes it no less meaningful.
Sometimes the ability is simply to make whatever sacrifices I can. I’m a better person, or at least a better climber when I have the focus to do these things. To get up early. To eat healthy. To take a burn on the project when the conditions are bad or skin hurts. To take a rest day. To wear the more aggressive shoes. To not be stopped by fear. To not give up. Sometimes just to start in the first place when it would be so much easier not to.
I’ve long held the belief that I was in the climbing game to see how far I could go, and how fast I could get there. I’ve had goals, dreams, and fantasies about what was possible for me since I first learned what the Yosemite Decimal System was. Over the years I’ve crept my way through the grades, sometimes jumping multiple in a season, and sometimes slogging through multi-year plateaus of injury, burnout, and bouldering. Sure, when things get hard I wonder if this is it, if I’ve peaked at the ripe age of 24. Still, most of the time I think it goes against human nature to accept that at any given moment in time you have already reached your limit, actualized all the potential you’ve got inside you, and are on the decline for the rest of your days. There may always be ebbs and flows, but it’s a rare breed of climber that would gladly confirm that they had absolutely already done the hardest thing they were capable of, and accepted that they were in a permanent ebb. Thus I now tell not the story of Fight Club (since the first rule of Fight Club is that you aren’t supposed to talk about it), but rather the tale of the aftermath.
With all my desires to be in a constant state of flow rather then ebb, so it was that I found myself engrossed in the biggest project of my life. It was a climb that would test me like never before, in terms of mental fortitude through many long gym sessions, and many redpoint attempts in which I struggled to inch my highpoint closer by progress as minute as a single foot adjustment. Along the way I managed to rally a support group around me, both for the heinous training days and the long and emotional belays. After one particularly savage plastic beatdown, a friend dropped a comment about my project that made me laugh at the time, but has come to haunt me in the months since. “Once you send Fight Club you’ll be set adrift,” were he words he used. He was implying that I wouldn’t know what to do with myself in the aftermath, as this process was quickly consuming my entire world. It would be a problem I’d gladly accept, I thought back then, because it would mean I had sent the hardest climb of my life! I had no way of knowing just how relevant that passing sentence would come to be.
Those months of training were filled with a passion I had never known. My oxygen deprived brain would conjure up visions of clipping those chains to get me through cruxes in the weight room and I found pockets of strength I hadn’t known existed. Dozens of weeks of rain and the ending of a relationship left me with nothing but time and pent up energy to spare, alongside a desperate need for purpose and challenge. The project consumed me and all facets of my life. It was the first thing I thought of in the morning, and I would fall asleep rehearsing beta at night. Absolutely everything, EVERYTHING was Fight Club, and it was absolutely electrifying.
Entering the crux on Debate Club, the intro pitch to Fight Club
I sent on a Wednesday evening after work, just before the cave was totally lost to the darkness of the approaching night. That gave me two days to celebrate before I had to face the gravity of the inevitable question: what came next? There were so many things I wanted to try, and finally I was free to do so. I tried Hellfire, fell off that. I tried Chain Distraction, fell off that. I tried Baby Fight, fell off that. I tried Flatliner, and Van Halem, and Meridian, and fell off all of those. I sent a few moderates, and trained aimlessly in the gym, and it was fun, but through it all I knew deep down that something was missing. It wasn’t burnout, I’d been down that road before. I wanted to climb, I just didn’t know WHAT I wanted to climb. I yearned for a new project with all of my heart, but everywhere I looked, I found no inspiration, no motivation, no excitement. I wasn’t liberated at all, I was lost.
I went to Europe, continuing to chase that feeling that Fight Club had given me. I climbed world class limestone in country after country, and I climbed it well. I sent hard and I celebrated the joy of all that climbing is supposed to be: world class rock, best friends, beautiful places, tufas, kneebars, and sweat soaked glory. I was literally living out the stuff of my dreams, but still I found it lacking. My partners insisted it was okay to not be psyched all of the time. At first I found it reassuring, but after the first few months the sentiment started to lose its comfort. After all this time, all I’d managed to find were dozens of places where the answer was NOT.
I returned from Europe with a mixture of relief and nervous anticipation. I hadn’t found what I was looking for abroad, so maybe it lied somewhere back in the muggy summer sun and slippery (and often wet) crimps of the Pacific Northwest. I half halfheartedly plunged into a few new projects upon my return, but the fickle psyche remained elusive. More time has passed and still things remain somewhat in a standstill, albeit less and less so as time passes. The contagious and indoctrinating psyche for Little Si from the Dawn Patrol crew has brought some relief fromthe chase, but it feels like the answer is lurking just out of sight, teasing me from around the next arete or waiting at the next belay station. Climbing will always be fun, but I know the day will come when I’ll find the next big thing (or more likely it will find me), and my world will once again be set on fire. Until then…
“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”