The gift

“I don’t believe in accidents, I believe in synchronicity.”

Chris Stewart told me this while I spent most of last Friday in tears after having broken down on the side of the road, three hundred and fifty miles away from home and several more from my next destination. I was on my way south to Chatt, with plans to stop for the September cragging classing in the New River Gorge. I was terribly excited about plans to climb with Chris Kalous, who I’d been emailing back and forth with for a few months now (and goddamnit, I am a woman of my word. By hook or by crook, I was getting to the gorge).

If you plan on getting stranded anywhere in Maryland, Friendsville is the place to do it. Chris took Shooter and me in almost immediately and fed and caffeinated me throughout the day until I found a ride with three amazing rafters down to Gauley. Three hours, one roadside steakhouse and another car transmission breakdown later, I made it to town. Fayetteville is kind of a paradise for not only kayakers and climbers, but also both dogs and children. I was happy to be back home, although still reeling from the past twenty-four hours.

Working the initial roof of Let’s Get Physical (5.12a). Photograph by Mikaela Wegerhoff

Working the initial roof of Let’s Get Physical (5.12a). Photograph by Mikaela Wegerhoff

Getting fists and a butterfly stack to push into the pod.  Photograph by Mikaela Wegerhoff

Getting fists and a butterfly stack to push into the pod. Photograph by Mikaela Wegerhoff

Sometimes, it’s not really an adventure until everything goes wrong. I tried to stay positive before a ride came along, but the stress of suddenly not having a car was demolishing any hope I had for the rest of my birthday trip. My car is kind of my second home. And then my mom and I were on the phone when she said to me: “We think we can get you back home by public transportation from Baltimore.” and through blurry tears, I replied: “Mom, I still have two weeks to go rock climbing!”. Things always look better when you start to look at things from different angles. Or, try and look at it from all of the angles, and pick the one you like the best.

I had text messaged Chris about the unfortunate series of events the night before, only to be followed with a message that said: “Well, I’ve friended some ruffian rafters and I am going rock climbing TOMORROW. WITH YOU.” And that’s all there was to it. Life happens. Obstacles happen. And sometimes, it’s good for plans to get completely derailed because we never know exactly how we’re going to respond to certain situations until they occur. One of the greatest things that anyone has ever told me was from my car mechanic in Bed-Stuy, Errol: "When you jump, you're not going to drown. You're going to swim!". (Ironically, Errol cannot swim.)

The best auto mechanic in the entire Brooklyn area

The best auto mechanic in the entire Brooklyn area

But Errol isn’t wrong. Life isn’t meant to be lived in one place. We aren’t meant to live the same routine, day to day. It’s true when they say that life begins where your comfort level ends. And I’m uncomfortable all of the time, these days.

At least I’m comfortable with that now (or learning to be).

Sam Latone took me out to Laurel Falls for the first time, which I absolutely loved. I’m told that it’s an amazing crag during the winter season, and the sport routes there are graded mainly 12 and up. I think that the general opinion is that the hike in is, while not brutal, fairly long (roughly less than an hour) and can be a bit off putting. Most of the approach is hiking on flat ground with some slight uphill. It’s quiet, beautiful and remote – and exactly what I needed after a seventy-two hour whirlwind of weekend chaos. We hiked through beautiful terrain until we came to an absolutely breathtaking falls area, completely hidden in the shadows of light that danced through the trees. The majority of climbing is bolted and on beautiful, smooth white rock that is supposed to be absolutely primo, but Sam and I were interested in some of the classic cracks, two in particular.

Webs We Weave (left) and Tooth, Fang and Claw (right).  Photograph by Sam Latone

Webs We Weave (left) and Tooth, Fang and Claw (right). Photograph by Sam Latone

Sam had sent me a picture of two side by side cracks a few weeks earlier. He had actually hiked through the area previously, came across the routes and thought of me to come back and project with. The thing about hard routes on gear, I’m starting to realize, is that they take a bit of projecting (for me, at least). Sam agrees, and we both spent the day thrutching up the wide Tooth, Fang and Claw (5.11) and Webs We Weave (5.12b). Neither one had been done in a long time, and there were bits of rock that flaked off of Webs every couple of feet. Thanks to Sam for putting that up (it’s not often I get to try 5.12 moves on gear lines) and for patiently belaying and working with me on the huge off-width to roof crack next door.

The roof was incredible: I placed Dan Yagmin’s big old Metolius and then my number 5 from the ledge. Taking a moment to feel everything out, I found the right hand jams and lifted my legs above my head and entered the crack. After taking, sussing out gear and jams, and trying various ways to get into and out of the crack, I finally decided to get an AMAZING cam with both feet. I leaned my body backwards and walked my hands to the ledge behind me and continued walking until I could finagle another piece in and figure out how to work my hands back into the crack to pull the roof (I am certain that this is NOT how the FA went). Complete joy…..except for the golf ball-sized spider that I irritated and eventually bit Sam.

I have never inhaled so much dust from the side of a rock in my entire life. I tasted it in my lungs for days, and afterwards, Sam said he didn’t think it was “that bad”. I think that may just be dirty Tennessee gear lines that don’t see much traffic, or else I really am just that big of a baby. Sam looked up as I was wedged into the lower section, thrashed and trying to refocus on my breathing and worming my up, and asked if I was having fun. “Hell YES.” was my response. Did I love it? I LOVED it. He wasn’t sure if I’d even enjoy the long hike in, to which I responded with: “Things worth having require some hard work. It’s what makes the end goal so, so much sweeter.”

Sam following the roof crack of Tooth, Fang and Claw with grace

Sam following the roof crack of Tooth, Fang and Claw with grace

Chris Kalous told me that the reason he wasn’t particularly fond of off-widths was the part where you continuously have to mess with the gear: “Counterintuitively, it’s usually a subtlety that you are missing versus just grunting harder.”

(That being said, Chris was the one who eventually made it to the top of my ongoing project and at the end of the day, said: “Wait. I want to do that one more time.”)

Karen, Mikaela and Dylan checking out some of the routes at Bridge Buttress for the first time

Karen, Mikaela and Dylan checking out some of the routes at Bridge Buttress for the first time

Sam and I spent the next day bouldering at LRC. We were happy to take it easy exploring the enchanting boulder field at Little Rock City, where Sam witnessed me scared to jump off of some V3/4 (which is funny if you’ve route climbed with me and watched me run gear out). We played around on Crack of Doom (V3), which is as beautiful as it is hard (my fingers found this perfect lock in the crack up high, and as soon as I moved my feet up, I lost it) before moving around the corner to Celestial Mechanics (V7). Celestial begins with a high left gaston and a high right undercling – and basically looked impossible to me! Friends joined and I watched Sam, Casey, Zack, and Brant give burns and Paul send, while Emily and I rotated turns on Tristar (V4).

The most fun boulder problems of the day were Fame and Fortune (both V6) behind the Deception boulder. Fortune, to the right, goes up to tiny pockets followed by a very high foot. The trick to this one is trusting your foot enough to reach high to slap to nothing and then a stellar crimp. Fame is another slab climb that begins with a horizontal up high to a left flake, followed by more feet and hands you absolutely cannot see. I really forgot how much I love slab climbing until these two problems! Casey and Zack promised they’d take me to check out and work on Space this weekend.

Yesterday was my birthday and Zack and Erick took the day off to climb birthday pitches with me at Sunset on Lookout Mountain. Tennessee does this funny thing every couple of months where they close Twall for wild turkey hunting (I’m thinking about writing a strongly worded letter…to the turkeys).

Who knows what number pitch this is, but I did it in a damn tiara.  Photograph by Zack Slade

Who knows what number pitch this is, but I did it in a damn tiara. Photograph by Zack Slade

Multi pitches in that capacity are kind of what you need to practice and focus on if you want to get into big wall climbing, specifically for something like NIAD (which is a long term goal of mine). I’m happy to report that this trip to Sunset was free of hornets. Zack and I met Erick (later to be joined by Lauren and Antoinette) and started climbing at 10:15. Twenty-seven pitches later, after pounding a Red Bull and starting to feel a little ragged, we wrapped up the day at roughly 7:45 – just in time for me to top out, turn around and soak in the sunset. I don’t know how I celebrated my birthday before I became a climber, but let me tell you that I wouldn’t have it any other way. Life is too short to do anything other than what you love.

End of the day, post-climb and pre-burrito. I love these men more than words can say

End of the day, post-climb and pre-burrito. I love these men more than words can say

I’m a big believer in celebrating your birthday, and I think it’s really important to blow out candles, make wishes (on everything!) and eat too much cake. If you can’t celebrate your own birthday, how can you expect anyone else to? This year’s gift to myself was the knowledge that you can do and be anything. It isn’t about being the best at something or achieving everything you set out to do, or how many likes something gets on a website or any other material thing you can name or hold in your hand. Driving back down from Lookout, Zack slowed the car down and time stopped for me, just for a moment. It was a brief one – but I didn’t let it slip by. Time always seems to stop when you sit above the rest of the world, from a lookout point or a cliffside or an airplane window, watching lights flicker through trees like tiny horizontal fires.

Zack said to me, “You already know what the important things are in life. The goal is not to have more, but be more.”

What is life? Every year that passes by (every birthday, every Christmas, every old year shedding its skin for a new one to emerge), the definition changes. We change the definition because we are changing with it, and we base our lives on our own truths, our own realities, and our own judgements. You just have to keep on doing what’s right for you. Following your heart is actually step two; you have to listen to it first.

The more time goes on, the more freedom I have. Every day, I ask myself how I’ll choose to spend it. After last night, I couldn’t sleep. I thought I’d be more tired after ten back to back hours of climbing but I lay awake for hours. I spent a decent portion of time plying those hours with the quiet promise of new ideas for future months ahead. I have to continue believing that doing what feels right and not what I or the rest of the world thinks is right is the best way to live my life. It sounds pretty simple, right? We as people can dwell on what we may or may not have done or are doing right in our lives, but regardless, we have to keep moving and are going to have to live with our mistakes. I guess the point is making sure that the few things we were able to get right along the way count for way more.

So here’s to the next year: don’t look back and limit the things you regret, because nothing we do is in vain as long as we can look back and say we were in it for the right reasons at the right time. Travel as much as you can and as often as you can. Make friends along the way. Care for those friendships and keep those connections. Stay tough (with a touch of vulnerability and honesty). Even if you don’t know what you want…knowing what you don’t want will put you in the direction of knowing what you do want. When I think about how I want to live my life these days, it’s FREE.

El Cap lie back/I spy the climber. My birthday in the Valley last year, dreaming of future climbs to come. Photograph by Tony Puyol

El Cap lie back/I spy the climber. My birthday in the Valley last year, dreaming of future climbs to come. Photograph by Tony Puyol