El Topo an Epic

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Ben and I have been climbing around the Verdon for about a month and a half. In that time we have done some really good, steep, tufa cragging as well as a good deal of multipitch and technical, typical Verdon style climbing. One of the long routes that has my interest is a line called “El Topo.” Originally established in 1981 with a grade of A2 6b+ the 14 pitch journey now goes free at 8a. Although all of the pitches have been free climbed at one time or another, the route has never really seen a single push free ascent (a team of two Brits free climbed the route wall style this past August, but they did jug out towards the top and ventured into town for baguettes before rapping back down to complete the route.) Thus, my interest is piqued at the prospect of really giving this bad boy a go in a push and Ben has very willingly signed up.

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We decided to give it a go on the Sunday before a week of rain was forecast. We figured the grand effort would have us tired out and appreciative of the rainy day rest days. Instead of partying with the rest of the locals Saturday night we went home, made dinner and packed everything for the next days excursion. Ben took a picture of the route with his iPhone as well as the neighboring routes to prevent any confusion. We even packed a small, telescoping stick clip, just in case. We felt prepared and super psyched.

We arrived at the Gorge around 7am, it was exceptionally cold on this November morning. We decided to rappel with the tag line and the lead line and since we would be hauling a small pack we kept our coats and socks and shoes on. We made three long rappels to a small pillar, we would either rappel down another couple of hundred meters or stop short after two more rappels and start climbing a pitch 5. We pulled and threaded the ropes as we talked about it deciding to make the call when got to the last big ledge a little ways below us. As I placed the ropes through my ATC and pulled in the slack my hand hit Ben’s hand, the iPhone has was holding went flying out of grasp through the air. We stared on, mouths agape as it flop-flopped through space, smacking the next ledge below and continuing it’s summersault out of view. We looked at each other in disbelief, there went the iPhone and the topo, too!

I felt bad and somehow responsible as well as a little concerned about the route finding that lay ahead. We disguised it briefly and then continued on with the rappelling. Our effort would not be thwarted by this mishap. I rapped down to the next ledge, this marks the start of the 2nd pitch of Les Marches du Temps. We had climbed this with French friend Jeff Arnoldi just a couple of weeks prior. The route has been great but I was excited to be on our way to trying something different and harder.

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I arrived at the ledge and noticed a guidebook off and to the left, misplaced in some bushes and teetering on a small ledge. I had hopes that we could get the topo after all. As Ben descended towards me I told about the book and he made his way to it, climbing over trees and under bushes, through loose rocks before being able to retrieve it. Sadly, though, this book seemed to have been lost for some time as it was hard as a rock and could hardly be opened. The pages ripped apart as Ben tried to pry them open and eventually discarded the dead weight and continued with our rappelling.

Ben made one long rap about 55 meters down to the ledge that marked the start of the 5th pitch of “El Topo” I watched as he rapped over the lip, his ropes catching in two small bushes. I didn’t really like the looks of those bushes and thought that we should probably be going to the right of them, but, I wasn’t sure where the next anchor would be and decided to make the call once I was over the lip and could see below better. A few minute later he yelled that he was off and I shoved the ropes into my ATC. I made my way to the bushes with that initial feeling of needing to go to the right, but I could see down to where Ben was and he was positioned more to the left which meant that the ropes might get stuck if they were draped to the right ad dragging through the bushes. Abandoning my instinct to go around to the right I tried to clear them to their left. I shook my head as I passed them feeling that we might be in for a weird pull. On my way down I noticed an anchor halfway down and had the thought that we should be stopping there but looked down another 25 meters to Ben below and kept rapping down.

When I got to the ledge I realized that the anchor was to the far right and that it was totally arbitrary where we positioned ourselves on the ledge. I had a bad feeling about the ropes upon this realization and commented that this pull might be difficult. We started to pull the red tag line and it moved about 5 feet before stopping. We pulled and pulled and nothing. We tried to pull the green lead line, nothing. Ben walked to the far left and pulled – nothing. We both got on the rope together using our weight to help the scenario and nothing. Neither side would budge and after 15 minutes of this we realized that we were indeed stuck there with hardly any rope left to do anything with. We were at a juncture where there were no climbs which led out of this spot except to the far right where “El Topo” snaked its way up a subtle arete – but this did not help our situation. Above us loomed two roofs with huge bowls carved out of the rock in which the ropes were completely free hanging. To the left were choosy crack systems which led to no mans land. The ground remained about 150 meters below. The only way out would be to prusik up the ropes to our last rappel anchor.

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I was annoyed at myself for ignoring my instinct because I felt certain the knot was stuck on those puny bushes. Ben felt the knot was caught on the lip, but my recollection of the lip was that it was fairly featureless save for a few bumps of rock here and there. I commented again that I had feeling about those bushes and that we would have been better off going to the right or at least stopping short that way it would’t be so far to get back up. But neither of those things mattered anymore and all that need to happen was to ascend the ropes.

Kicking myself for this huge waste of time I proceeded to set up to prusik up the ropes. With two cords – one being Ben’s chalk bag cord and the other being extra tat for hauling our bag I ascended the two ropes back up the 55 meters to the anchor. It started off awkwardly and slow but about 15 meters up I finally fell into a decent rhythm and started making outstanding time of less than a meter a minute! At that rate it was as if I could see the leaves changing color with the fall weather. As I dangled and prusiked and spun around in space I thought about the Yosemite pioneers and their impressive feats on El Cap with their archaic gear. I thought of that iconic picture of Bill Price prusiking his way up El Cap – I couldn’t imagine doing that for numerous pitches over numerous days and while I felt satisfied with our self-rescue capabilities I also felt like a true bumbler as I fumbled with my cords to slide them up our stuck ropes.

I finally reached the anchor we has passed and fixed the lines there so Ben could start to ascend as well. Then I kept going the last 20 meters to where the ropes were caught, as I got closer I saw our simple over hand knot caught beneath a branch of the bush no bigger than an inch in diameter – this partially dead thing was all that stood between us and the ability to pull or lines. Now, though this knot posed a different situation in that I needed to get my prusiks to the other side of it. This was a little complex and spooky but passed without much of a hitch and soon enough I was up at the anchor – tired, relieved, and a bit disappointed because we had lost a fair amount of time and we would be pushing the limit if we decided to continue with our original plan.

Once Ben arrived at the anchor we made the call to climb out on Les Marches du Temps and for the second time around we suffered in the heat of the low, fall, sun on sharp crimps, water pockets and small feet. The misery of the situation sent me further into a grumpy mood and no matter how hard Ben tried to cheer me up I sank deeper into dismay. Luckily the climbing on Les Marches is no harder than 7a and we ascended the pitches quickly. Somewhere around pitch 7 as I followed I heard a whizzing coming by and looked up just in time to see something the size of a softball fall a ways behind me and crash into the wall below before exploding into pieces. I yelled up, “What the *uck was that?” To which Ben responded solemnly, “My power paste.” He had dropped his homemade energy paste – another casualty of the day. It seemed like we would be lucky to get out of there without losing more possessions.

We topped out around 2:30 just as the intensity of the sun was making us a little delirious. It was hard to say what the underlying reason(s) were that thwarted our attempt that day – was it the unseen powers of the universe telling us no in order to save us from some bigger blunder? Had the dropping of the iPhone with the topo been the first warning to abort mission? And once we ignored it the ropes got stuck to further dis-sway us? Or was it just bad luck, and bad judgment and we were due for learning some lessons? Either way we didn’t get to do what we set out to do but we didn’t die trying and I learned (once again) to go with my instinct and in the end we are more curious and psyched to try “El Topo” than ever. So after these many days of downpour we are hoping to get back out there and try our luck again.

Sorry there are no pictures of the mini-epic but the phone got dropped!

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Sierra Sojourn

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Broken wings. photo Ben Ditto

I started to cringe with each step, steeper and more angled than the previous. The weight of my pack and the events of the day were starting to wear on me and my ankle was getting sore. I was walking differently to compensate for the discomfort and then finally, feet hit flat ground and we were in the home stretch back to the truck. As I dropped my heavy, not so heavy burden to the ground and commenced to follow suit I looked up at Patrick with a smile, the words “Thanks for a great day” spilling from my mouth.

Six months prior I had fallen at the Buttermilks and landed with one foot squarely on the pads, the other crookedly in the hole between the pads. Upon impact my talus cracked in two places. For a minute there, after popping it back into place, I managed to convince myself it was fine. In reality it would be two months of disuse followed by months of rehab. At the time this seemed exceptionally cruel as we had just returned from spending a fall and winter traveling and climbing in Spain.  I had red pointed my first 5.14 as well as numerous other memorable routes and I was feeling strong and psyched.

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China Crisis, 5.14a; Oliana, SP photo: Manabu Yoneyama

We returned to Bishop in February and I hit the ground running. There were a few problems on my mind at the Buttermilks and I went after them almost immediately. I was rewarded with quick ascents and as exciting as that was I was also starting to feel a little confused. I went out climbing even on days I really didn’t feel like climbing and I questioned what my motivation was. I was starting to not feel present and just at the height of that feeling I broke my ankle. It was as if the universe was telling me I needed to sit down and get grounded again.

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Just another day, just another problem. Buttermilks; Bishop, CA photo: POD

No one ever really told me how badly broken bones hurt, or how they go through a range of pain or how the mental and emotional self also hurt. I can safely say one thing I learned is that healing hurts – almost more than the break itself.  For days I could hardly get out of bed, the discomfort coupled with the amount of energy it took to drag myself around were just too much. I watched movies, I read, I wrote, I cried, and I slept.  Despite the pain I never filled my prescription for Percocet – I just endured and winced with the waves of discomfort. I never filled it because I was afraid of it, because I knew I would fall into a depression as the time wore on and if I had those pills I would probably find myself down a very dark hole.

I’m a very physical person – at times in my life one could equate my happiness with my activity level. I have always been this way. I love nothing more than trying hard, pushing myself, sweating and feeling the deep burn. I enjoy my body and using it to it’s utmost capacity. This being my first broken bone I was afraid of the down time, afraid of not expressing myself physically, afraid, afraid, afraid. Some days were better than others and I grew a lot as an individual during that time.  I reflected on what things are important to me and what I came up with was an array of things but at the top of the list was health. I went on to take this apart and ask myself what about health is important, is achievable, am I working with currently and how could I continue to work with that in the longterm?

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Seasonal foods, fresh foods, whole foods. Tomatoes keep you cool in the summer!

The work I do with Sacred Rok as camp cook has pushed me into a realm of being responsible for not only my own diet but the diet of many youth and mentors/adults. I cook seasonal foods, organic foods, local foods, whole foods – basically real food. Being an athlete I also want to know what is the most nutritious and beneficial way I can eat for performance. These two things coupled together with the down time of recovery pushed me to enroll in graduate school for a masters in Holistic Nutrition. I’m a few months into the program and I’m loving every bit of it. It’s pushed me further to consider each thing we put into our bodies.

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Organic, local and free!

After a few weeks of being broken I started to get creative with my exercise. Unable to walk or put weight on my right leg I resorted to a lot of floor exercise – like one leg push-ups, ice-bucket lifts with one arm, countless ab work outs, I even started to strap weights to my legs to do leg lifts, and then I entered into a serious hangboard program. I eased into it and always followed suit with push-ups, wrist curls and other oppositional training. Having trained on the board for years I quickly arrived at the point were I was ready to start training max strength. This involved a series of different repeater exercises with added weight as well as pull-ups with weight. It also involved one arm hangs and one arm pull-ups – these involved taking weight off until I could do a pull-up unassisted. It helped structure my time and give me direction even though it seemed like I would possibly peak in my fitness at a time when I wouldn’t even really be climbing. I did it anyway.

One from the archives - hangboarding in El Portal. photo Jeff Johnson

One from the archives – hangboarding in El Portal. photo Jeff Johnson

Before I knew it it was time to start using my foot again. I developed a program to recovery that included physical therapy, pilates, bike riding and some strength training for climbing. I went to physical therapy twice a week from April until June at the Bishop Physical Therapy Clinic. I worked with 2 PT’s who really helped push me and get me back on track to an even stronger me. They helped strengthen and stabilize my ankle, my foot, my toes, my calf and both hips. It’s amazing to me how once a person starts to pay more attention to their body they start to realize other imbalances and weaknesses. For sometime now I have been going to see Mary Devore at the Bishop Yoga and Pilates Studio. She has been my primary body worker and through her excruciatingly healing touch has helped show me certain problem areas in my body. Stuff that’s been there probably since infancy and accumulated throughout the dramas of life. During my rehab time she taught me how to use the Pilates Reformer. Originally this contraption was referred to as The Universal Reformer because it “universally reforms the body.” It works the small stabilizing muscles as well as a deep core and it also helps to align the body. This marvelous machine has done more to balance me out than anything else. In wanting to train strength I could think of no better resource than Ian Nielson at Mammoth Strength. He is not only a great friend but also a great coach and very knowledgable about the body and how it works. He helped me understand how to structure a training week as well as establishing exercises on the gymnastic rings, hang board and systems board. I worked some with him through my recovery and once I was climbing again.

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Ian and his “Whip you into Shape” shop

 

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Stretching it out on the systems wall photo: Mammoth Strength

 

During my rehab time I also gave in to a long standing desire to own a road bike. For many years I have wanted one but substituted my mountain bike tires for road wheels – it worked for a while but with rehab as a good excuse I bought myself the sexiest, fastest bike I could afford.

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I took some intro rides around the Owens Valley and became better acquainted with two super fun and super rad Bishop locals who were also in the rehab process: Trish McGuire and Christie McIntire. Together we rode through some beautiful places and reveled in our bodies abilities to heal and strengthen.

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The day we poached the pass! Tioga Rd, CA

 

As I got stronger on the bike I took on longer, harder rides solo. The top two being riding to Glacier Point and riding the whole Tioga Pass from Lee Vining to Tuolumne. They were both hard, both alpine starts and entirely worth it.

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The reward of my effort. Dawn from Glacier Point

 

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Looking down Olmsted Canyon toward the Valley.

 

Sometime in May I was able to start climbing again. I took it incredibly slow, only top roping for about a month and not really climbing anything too hard.  Even though I had been training and was feeling strong it felt weird when I started to move on rock again.I wasn’t breathing and I was guarding my movements; things weren’t flowing freely. Thankfully 18 years of climbing have given me a good foundation and I was back to feeling natural and confident on the rock within a couple of weeks. My psyche was high – I felt more motivated, more positive and more appreciative of climbing than ever. I took the opportunity to tick some classics, revive some long forgotten gems and just enjoy myself.

At the start of July I had been leading for about a month and was eager to get into some long valley routes. In scouring the guidebook for things I hadn’t done I came across some lines that had been forgotten to the lichen. I ventured out trying some of these and found a bag of mixed results. Certain unnamed routes should be left in the past and certain other unnamed routes are “c’est incroyable” and will be getting some more attention from me in the future.  I also came upon the fact that I had never climbed the Chouinard-Herbert.

On a hot July 4th Christina Freschl and I left El Portal in the dark, the crickets still owned the air time as the birds hadn’t quite come out of their slumber. We arrived at the Four Mile trail parking just as the cool blue light of morning greeted the Valley. Marching up the Sentinel approach I felt lucky to be able to walk up there, much less climb the route. My ankle had been healing perfectly and this day would be a great test.

The route was amazing and was quite the trip into the past. The climbing went quickly and we beat the sun to the summit. Partnering with Christina was perfect for this endeavor – she is efficient, tough as nails and really good energy to be around. We had a marvelous day out on this old-school classic.

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Psyched as ever on the Chouinard-Herbert! photo Christina Freschl.

As the summer heat rose I migrated to the High Country. For the last 8 or so summers I have been fortunate to do a lot of climbing in Tuolumne. Some might say I have climbed it out, but that just isn’t true. There are some newer, obscure routes that beckon me – one of which was Mikey Schafer’s Night Shift. In mid July Christina and I made an ascent of  this test piece and wow what a route! Anyone intrigued by this line better bring their A-game in the tech-ten department – mentally and physically.

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Night Shift, 5.12; Tuolumne Meadows, CA photo: Christina Freschl

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High up on the Venturi Effect, 5.12d; The Incredible Hulk, CA. photo Ben Ditto

For the past few summers I have been making ventures into the Hulk. Last year after climbing the Venturi Effect I got psyched on the other hard lines, one in particular called Solar Flare. If anyone is familiar with this wall, then you will know the bright orange sun spot on the left side of the formation. The Sunspot Dihedral climbs the right side of this “sun spot” while Solar Flare climbs the left arete of it.  In late July Ian Nielson and I went in for a couple of days to try our hands at Solar Flare. It is a stunning route. I believe actually at one point while digging deep on the 12d crux pitch slab arete I yelled, “Holy shit, this is like Eat your heart out Mikey Schafer.” Needless to say it was hard, techy, physical and at times cryptic. I fucking loved it! Ian was a great partner and while neither of us made a full free ascent we had a great time, did some stellar climbing and got inspired to go back.

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The Incredible Hulk

 

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The 12b pitch on Solar Flare, 5.12d; The Incredible Hulk, CA photo Ian Nielson

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Last year my friend and frequent partner Patrick O’Donnell and I discussed doing the Hading Route on Conness.  By August of this summer it had been in the works for a year. I had made it a goal to be feeling as fit as ever for this endeavor since it consists of a 4 mile hike in and back out, a 1200ft climb and an elevation of 12,600ft. My training, my bike riding, all of my climbing as well as the trip to the Hulk had me feeling pretty fit and the mission was a great success. The route was amazing, the location sublime and I never felt stronger at elevation than then.

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This route, although easier, felt similar in character to the Chouinard-Herbert. Much of that sentiment stems from how historical both routes are as well as the ancient fixed gear that gives a glimpse into a bygone era. The old YC stamped pins in the CH with the some of the original bongs made such an enjoyable trip down a historical path. As I led my way up the notorious 5th pitch of The Harding Route on Conness I felt similar appreciation for the old bolts. They are old Star Drives and the hangers are original Harding chopped piton, hole punched, ring hangers. They are amazing little pieces of art. My appreciation stemmed not from desperately wanting to clip them but from an admiration of the story that played itself out on this Alpine rock. To think of Harding out there, drilling those bolts, groveling through the squeeze chimneys with his hammer dangling made me smile. We are lucky to have such beauty so close!

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While there are no pictures of us climbing Conness there is this: Sunrise view from the tent

In between Alpine endeavors and long routes I worked with Sacred Rok, enjoyed the vibe in Tuolumne, did a lot of school work, and spent a lot of time on the East Side. I sport climbed a lot, returning to crags like the Tioga Wall, Bear Crag and Pine Creek and checked out other spots like Column of the Giants. I found myself to be in good shape, having power and endurance and maybe even annoying my friends a little by doing their projects first go. I made some first female ascents at Bear Crag, Tuolumne, and Pine Creek and the second overall ascent of a new route at Pine Creek called Planet X ((13b), its the extension to Planetarium and its really worthy.)Not to brag too much but it’s been great fun!

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Hey Ladies, 13a; Column of the Giants, CA photo Lisa B

 

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Techy slab, crack edging Pine Creek fun. photo POD

I was fortunate that my ankle break was so textbook and didn’t require surgery. I was lucky it healed so well. As of now there are days when I don’t even remember I broke it, which is interesting because in the beginning I couldn’t imagine how it would ever feel normal again. I owe a lot to my dear husband, Ben Ditto, for all of his patience, help and support. It would have been a long, hard and miserable journey without him. I also owe a lot to all the people who helped me through rehab and training – without this core group of knowledgable and kind people I would still be a gimpy mess.

There are a few little projects to tie up and one more week of work before this Sierra sojourn comes to an end. I will meet Ben in France and we will spend the fall and winter in Europe again. The Verdon Gorge will be the first stop, a place that has been a dream of mine for many years. I am looking forward to spending some time there, pratiquer mon francais et bien manger.

I wish all of you a great end to summer and happy fall climbing season – and may the snow gods please deliver an abundance of moisture to the Sierra!

 

also…in case you all are wondering where Ben is in all of this:

In June he made a free ascent of the Freerider – like a bowse! In early July he departed the US and met up with the Belgians and Cpt Bob for another sailing expedition. As of now they have been to Greenland where they established some new routes and boulder problems and have been in Baffin Island doing the same. Stay tuned for more on their adventures. _DSC28614J5A9739_DSC2846


			

Seas of Change

The larger half of the moon glows with orange hues
against a black sky dotted with the lights of stars
across a landscape of space and time.
You are out there in the
far reaches of my mind.
Where the depths of cool, dark waters lap against the rock
Worn away by the tides-
coming and going.
Gritty particles of you are left in the crevices
of being one with the land in the most intimate way.
And when I see the moon, I see you
 Sailing through the seas of change.

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A Meditation on life as a pro climber

 

 

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Getting to know the locals

I have a hazy memory of standing in front of the TV flipping the channels and stopping on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. This was In the back living room of the mid-century house I grew up in, during the heat of the southern Louisiana summer. Two men were on the very tip of some skinny spire, the ground dropped below them hundreds of feet away. I stood there in awe at what I later came to learn was Ron Kauk and Jerry Moffat making a rare free-climbing ascent of Lost Arrow Tip in Yosemite. I recall wondering what they were doing and imagining if I could do that, too.
Photo by Ben Ditto

2

On my home turf: Peace, 5.13d, Tuolumne Meadows

I think that’s where it all started. A tiny seed of an idea was planted and no matter how far fetched it seemed and how far away I lived from the rocks, I was destined to follow that seed. In my mid-30s, when I arrived at the threshold of being a professional climber, my first instinct was to run into that world without looking back. However, after spending years around some of the first professional climbers in the industry, I had gained some insight into the game and one question kept coming to mind: “Could I maintain my integrity, my soul, my story, but also be a good rep for the business?” I said yes to some opportunities that seemed in line with my ideals and no to the ones that felt like they would pull me in the wrong direction.
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The world within worlds

Something I have learned from climbing is that by spending time in nature one becomes more aware of other life—the worlds within worlds. We are all connected by at least one common thing—striving to survive but enjoying the time in between. It’s interesting that as humans we have the capacity to create how we will survive. The mind is a powerful thing. The imagination creates and the body enacts and between the two is the self and the spirit. Being a pro climber means that I get to practice my craft, perfect my movement, refine my technique. It allows me the opportunity to fine-tune my body and my movement as well as my mind.
Photo by Ben Ditto

4

#Vanlife

I’ve been fortunate in my climbing to experience faraway places, world-class destinations, dream climbs, amazing partners, and a lot of inspiration from both people and place. We travel much of the year and so it feels like life is in flux. Constantly on the move—to the next adventure, the next objective. So, there is no real solid definition of a home to settle into—save our camper van. Our sense of belonging to a place is fleeting despite spending large amounts of time in the Sierra Nevada. Every place we travel becomes our home. We have become 21st-century nomads on a landscape perpetuated not by the need to survive but by the desire to rock climb.
Photo by Ben Ditto

5

So tired

There have been so many places, so many moments—it’s only in looking at photographs that I can bring back the memories. Otherwise it’s as if it were another life. The idea of returning to place comes back time and time again. Through all of my years of flux I realize that the connections to place are deeper than a home to rest one’s head. The connection to place runs deep in our psyche—the relationships we have with the rocks, the landscapes, the people we meet along the way, and the experiences that build in us—these return us to “place” and help guide and center our lives. These are intimate and give us a connection to something concrete and tangible despite being ephemeral.
Photo by Ben Ditto

 reposted from: http://matadornetwork.com/sports/meditation-life-pro-climber/

My Soul Searches

Europe, my soul searches for you the cobblestone streets that wind through villages leading to glass windows of baguettes and old women whose men in work boots on tractors of plowed fields under endless skies filled with limestone undulations of time.

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Cities of young and beautiful,(cigarettes and cameras) buildings of histories and oldlike the dirt on the soles of the shoes of those who left the pastoral fields for the sunrises on rooftops.

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Continue reading

Winter Meditation on Climbing

Bouldering close to home on This is How we do it at the Russian Space Station (V8); Bishop, CA pic by Michael Pang

Bouldering close to home on This is How we do it at the Russian Space Station (V8); Bishop, CA
pic by Michael Pang

Well into our flight to New York, my head hit the tray table as I jarred awake, startled from my dream. I had just fallen for the 30th+ time on the last crux move of Picos Pardos, a route I had been climbing on for the previous three weeks. As my vision came into focus, I could make out the stewardess passing a customs form to the man sitting next to me. Our five-month trip to Spain to explore its limestone in places like Picos de Europa, La Hermida, Rodellar, and Oliana had finally ended, and we were heading back to California.

As I adjusted to my reality, I was a little relieved to be on the plane heading home rather than coming to rest at the end of my rope again. And yet even though I felt relief, I also felt empty, like I had a hole in my heart or like I’d just been dumped.

Picos Pardos; Oliana, Spain (8b/8b+). pic Tara Reynvaan

Picos Pardos; Oliana, Spain (8b/8b+). pic Tara Reynvaan

My husband was asleep in his seat. Two days before we boarded our plane, he had achieved a personal best in his climbing by making a successful ascent of the 55-meter overhanging route called Fish Eye — an aesthetic line of incut

Climbing the mountains of Spain. pic by Ben Ditto

Climbing the mountains of Spain. pic by Ben Ditto

crimps that ascends the very center of the crag on gold and blue limestone at Oliana. And while this was a big deal for him, no one on this plane knew or would even care.

I was excited for him and thankful for the time we had just spent together and the experiences we’d had, but I was downright depressed. Why had I spent so much time and effort trying something only to leave not having completed it, having fallen time and time again in the same spot? What was I doing with my life? I could see the doors of an existential crisis opening before me.

I am getting older. The sun and the wind define the lines on my face more with each passing day. What was a hobby in my teenage years has turned into a whole life, a passion I cannot ignore. Endless days have been spent amongst the rocks in places both near and far — from the alpine terrain of the Northwest Territories, to the granite monoliths of Yosemite, the sandstone towers in Utah, the sketchy crags in Mexico, the impeccable rock found throughout Europe.

Holidays have been missed, birthdays come and gone. I missed home — my grandmother’s hands, my mom’s voice, our traditional Lebanese foods, and the slow Southern accents. I missed my dad and his jokes and his sense of style.

My best friend was in California, a man who has devoted his whole life to climbing. His climbing resume is impressive to say the least. He is respected by many, has many acquaintances, and is involved in some great youth work. But he is single and lives alone, and I wondered if he hadn’t indirectly isolated himself from others by having chosen a life of climbing. Even though I was with my husband, I felt very lonely.

I knew it would be possible for me to climb Picos Pardos successfully — I had done all the moves, I had linked through the hard part but had fallen higher. I just needed another chance or two or five or who knows how many. I also knew I might not make it before we left, and I’d been telling myself it didn’t matter, that it was all just practice anyway.

Yosemite Granite. pic by Ben Ditto

Yosemite Granite. pic by Ben Ditto

But when I fell on my last try on our last day, it was hard to decipher the wave of emotions spreading over me. I wondered if it had all been in vain — if I had been fooling myself the whole time — and as I sat on the plane feeling sad, I wondered what was the point if in the end and in between we feel lost and lonely and empty?

By the time we were landing at JFK, the hole was filling with sad relief. I could move on, try something else, be released from my self-imposed prison. We tell ourselves, “We can do it,” because we have to convince ourselves it could be possible despite all odds — despite gravity, despite reach, despite conditions, despite any other external factor in the world — because we want to see what’s possible and what it takes to make the dream a reality. And many times we succeed. But more often than not, it’s these times that we don’t where we really learn about ourselves.


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