Ol’ Blue

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of Climbing Magazine. To fit the space allotted in the magazine – and to make it far more digestible too – it was edited and shortened significantly. This is the full version.

all photos by Forest Woodward

 

My alarm fills the silence in my van, but I’m already awake. It’s 4:30 in the morning, dawn’s light just beginning it’s journey through the forest on the rim of the Black Canyon. I’m not sure if I slept at all last night, but I don’t want to get out of bed. My heart already feels like it’s racing, and a feeling of doom permeates my movement. I sit up and peer out my window, looking to see if my partner Whitney is awake in her car beside me. I don’t see any movement, but force myself out of bed anyways, knowing that we need all the daylight we can get today. I turn on my headlamp and will myself to go through the motions of pulling on the clothes I set aside last night, brushing my teeth and pulling my hair back. This is crazy, I think. Why, when I already live with so much anxiety, am I hellbent on creating more for myself? There’s a reason why most people sleep in comfy beds in the shelter of a house, routine waking them into the known, the safe. Why do I call this fun? And yet I continue forward, not trusting fear, speaking truth to myself: everything will be okay. You love this challenge. And everything will be okay.

***

“That’s an interesting set-up you have there,” the police officer says as he leans through the passenger window, past my rotated passenger seat and into my van. My sleeping bag is tossed across my bed, and my coleman stove lies folded up on my shelf. “Yeah, I live in here,” I answer, and quickly add, “I’m a traveling rock climber.” That description hardly makes sense to me, but I figure it somewhat justifies the fact that I live in my car. “You live in here? Where do you go to the bathroom?” he questions, suddenly forgetting about the California stop that I pulled seconds ago.

When people find out that I live in my van, “Where do you go to the bathroom?” is usually the first question they ask. It’s something I have never thought about, and every time I’m faced with the question, I’m caught off guard. What’s the correct answer? The bushes? The Chevron gas station with the large CLEAN RESTROOMS sign? The outhouse at Beef Basin in Indian Creek? Belay ledges? Where do you go to the bathroom, officer? I think. Probably in as many places as I do throughout the day, I’d assume.

I have lived in houses of many sizes, in closets, makeshift basement rooms, in attics. I’ve lived in floorless tents in the Oregon backcountry, college dorms and college apartments, Swiss chalets, and a renovated garage. For a few months I’ve lived in a Subaru, and now, I live in my van: Ol’ Blue.

***

Ol’ Blue is a 1995 GMC Safari that I bought for $1500 from an ex-boyfriend, the first ever boyfriend of my adult life. I was 28, and completely broken. I wasn’t so much broken over the failed relationship, but moreso over the “cracking open” that the relationship initiated. Deep in my late 20’s I felt as though I was learning lessons I should have learned when I was 13. He didn’t complete me like I thought a man would; he didn’t make life happen for me like I was hoping. My world was small, and fear had ruled for so long. Boxes and checklists, all in black and white, vestiges from my religious upbringing. I was riddled with anxiety.

Yet I was starting to feel an inner strength and independence bubble up within me – I wanted to feel big, powerful even. I wanted to know what freedom felt like, and I wanted to take care of myself. I wanted to not feel so much fear anymore, in climbing and in life. For the first time I was beginning to feel ownership over myself, and was starting to wonder, as Mary Oliver writes, Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?

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And so I moved into a van. And I started climbing. Not just tiptoeing around the edges of climbing like before, but really climbing. Setting goals. Taking initiative. Leading. Thinking of myself as a climber. Trying hard. Falling and getting back up again.

It’s been over three years, the van has gained the name Ol’ Blue, and I’ve taken to calling her “her.” My phone often tries to autocorrect words to Ol’ Blue, I suppose that’s how often she comes up in conversation. Ol’ Blue has watched me drive through teary-eyed and sobbing landscapes one year and sing and dance to the radio the next; she’s been with me through my first 5.12, my first published article, and my first understanding of true love. Ol’ Blue and I have been through the most fantastic and terrifying period of growth together; with her I have learned what strength looks like, what it means to be empowered, independent, and capable. This is our story.

***

The breeze filters through the bright green forest and sun hits the south facing wall from overhead. It’s a busy Saturday at Index, the local crag outside Seattle. Climbers lap Japanese Gardens and Godzilla on top rope, and the usual crowd gathers at the base of Tatoosh and Thin Fingers. These are Index’s moderates, and as far as moderates go, they’re pretty hard. I gear up for Tatoosh, a varied 5.10, and my cousin Jon hands me more finger-sized gear, saying “You’ll need it, trust me.” I start to question what I’m doing. I hate leading, I hate the fear, and yet something in me wants to face it. Something in me wants to learn how to be afraid and not let it control me.

I climb shakily, hanging on every other piece. I feel angry at Jon for thinking I could handle this, annoyed by the sun, frustrated with the moves. I want something to blame, anything, so that I don’t have to handle this fear myself. At the crux, my body refuses to move above my ycam, and I ask Jon to lower me. Words of frustration and hatred fill my head, and I feel like a failure.

I’m on the verge of the summer of 2013. On the last day of the school year and my final day as a teacher’s assistant at a middle school in Seattle, I move all of my belongings into a friend’s basement, putting aside two rubbermaids full of gear, a box of books – including all of my journals from the last five years, – and some clothes. I won’t need anything else.

I’m headed out on the road for the first time, in my new-to-me van. I built a bed in the back that I’m able to sleep on side-to-side, making space for a shelf and a “living area” behind the front seats. The day following my last day of work, I drive north from Seattle and meet my mom in Bellingham: she buys me a cooler and a floral rug at Ross, and it gives Ol’ Blue a real homey feel. In a pullout on Chuckanut Drive, we cut Reflectix for all of the windows, both for insulation and for privacy. That night as my mom and I share my tiny, barely one-person bed, my dad texts me a photo of the van he lived in when he was 23. The next morning Mom heads north and I head south, down I-5 towards California. I am terrified.

It feels like I’m leaving for college, and in some ways, that’s the break I’m about to make. I’m about to grow up. A lot was changing in my life, and it was about time.

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***

I grew up in a very fundamental Christian culture, one that taught me that God had a plan for my life, told me that I was simply an empty vessel, devoid of self. I took all of these ideas to heart, probably more than my parents and teachers intended for me to do. At the age of 27 I was unable to make my own decisions or feel any sense of self worth. I didn’t know what I wanted, and if I did, I certainly didn’t think I was allowed to have it. I had to stay on the right path, and I wasn’t sure where it was or how to follow it. I was absolutely ruled by fear.

I said “I can’t,” a lot, believed that this, that, or the other thing was just too hard, not for me. I wasn’t good enough for that group of people, not charismatic enough for that job, not strong enough for that climb, not free-spirited enough to live in a van and climb all summer. I’d hang from metaphorical and real pieces saying, “This is too hard! I’m too scared! I can’t do this!” So many excuses kept me from living the life I wanted to live.

Fear was a convincing voice that wouldn’t shut up, saying everything is wrong, nothing will be okay, and that most things are scary. People are intimidating, the unknown is terrifying, decisions absolutely paralyzing, and normal human emotions truly crippling. To-do lists, volunteering, excessive business, and school obligations were thrashing arms and legs, frantically treading water to keep my soul afloat. Fragments of myself would shout from all directions, should, not allowed, what if: desires constantly being shot down.

Moving into Ol’ Blue was the first big step I took in the face of fear. I knew what I wanted, and I was tired of letting my desires be trumped by terror. One step, as it turns out, was all it took.

***

The day is calm and sunny, comfortably warm even up high near 14,000 feet. I’m on Mitheral Dihedral on Mt. Russell, deep in the Sierra. We are three women, climbing together up the beautiful, left-facing granite corner that continues pitch after pitch. It’s my lead, and I’m nearing the ledge where I will stop to build an anchor. I’m not there yet though, and I’ve run out of gear that fit into the crack. The hand crack is narrowing, and I’m becoming more and more scared by the second. My right leg starts shaking, and then my left. I can’t control them anymore. I start to down climb to my last piece of gear, hoping to get to it and yell, “Take!” Shaking, I realize down-climbing isn’t feasible. Fall, or to continue climbing: those are my options. I shout down to my friend Polly, yelling, “Watch me!” and feeling absolutely flustered. I want her to save me, to do something for me. I can’t stop shaking, yet I’m paralyzed. I’m so, so scared, frozen in a jitterbug dance of fear.

And then I come to a startling realization: I am the only one that can do anything for myself in this moment. I am the only one that can save myself.

And so I climb, and I made it to the ledge without letting go. I speak truth in the face of fear, and experience success. Power. Freedom.

***

As I begin to develop a voice as a climber, one that is able to talk myself out of irrational fear, one that has faith in my gear and belief in my body, one that speaks with confidence about route finding or weather, I begin to develop a similar voice in my non-climbing life. Once so meek and unsure of myself, needing others to make all my decisions for me, I find confidence, and feel empowered. My relationships are changing, becoming healthier, more life-giving and fun. I’ve become bigger, able to speak my mind. Bolder, and happier. Perhaps I am letting love replace fear: love for myself, others, and the world.

Now I find myself perched on the side of a wall in the Black Canyon, a notoriously intimidating area known for run-out climbing. The worst part of the day – the fearful anticipation – is over. Whitney and I battled poison ivy down the approach gully, arriving at the river and the base of the route, and started back up again. It’s a perfect day, and we’re still in the shade on our south-facing route. But none of that matters to me right now; all that matters is right in front of me.

My last piece is about a body length below my feet, and a 5.10 move looms above me. From a large jug, I look ahead, searching for holds and my next gear placement. I don’t see either. I chalk up, for the fifth time, and climb up from the jug, getting the undercling, moving my left foot up, and reaching high with my right hand. “That hold sucks!” I think, as I cautiously down climb to the safety of the jug. I am terrified. Again and again I climb up and down, wishing for better holds, wishing this was my partner Whitney’s pitch, wishing there was a bolt next to me. I’m terrified, and part of me wants out. But the bigger part of me doesn’t, it wants to face this challenge head on. I’m not swept away by emotion as I used to be, unable to think rationally and flooded with anxiety. I keep my head about me, assessing the risk, understanding the move, and shout to Whitney, “Watch me!” not because I want her to save me, but because I want her to know I’m going for it. And then I go for it, heading into the unknown on 5.10 terrain with no idea where my next hold or piece of protection is, because I trust myself.

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***

Ol’ Blue is getting old now, and I’m not sure how much longer she’ll last. Bumps affect her more than they used to, half of her doors don’t open, and she can’t manage to light up her dash anymore. The windshield wiper pump doesn’t work, and her oil is constantly low.

I’m getting older too. Recently, I’ve begun to feel something shifting, the tides changing – threads of monotony lacing my driving, working their way into my thoughts, into my once fully-contented van sleep, into this climb eat sleep repeat lifestyle. Maybe I’ll never fully “settle down,” but I can’t imagine living in Ol’ Blue forever. These days I find myself wondering how much she has left to teach me, how much more we can learn together on the road. I have learned to own my life, that there are no limits, that fear is not meant to impede, but to show me that I’m alive; for the first time, I’m starting to feel like taking these lessons to a larger world, a world bigger than rocks and myself.

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But for now, I’m still in Ol’ Blue, headed back to the Sierra, excited for a week of climbing with a good friend and partner. My gobies are less prevalent now, and on my fingers now instead of on the backs of my hands, a display of progression on the rock. But my soul’s skin feels stronger too: wiser, more grounded. More capable of fighting off the anxious thoughts that still knock at my door, as they likely always will.

The fading light of the setting sun whispers through my windshield, “all is well,” and for once, I know it’s true.

Cliffs of Anxiety

It could be said that I mark my growth on the cliffs of Indian Creek, a line snaking upwards on the vibrant red sandstone. My growth as a climber, sure, but moreso my growth as a person. The walls hold stories – my stories, and probably yours too.

I first visited Indian Creek in the spring of 2012. I was 27, and it was my first ever climbing trip. As I drove into the canyon, packed in a Subaru with three friends from Seattle, I remember passing the first few Cottonwood trees with words of Lord Huron ringing, “I said we’re all gonna die but I’ll never believe it / I love this world and I don’t wanna leave it.” That sounded nice to me, but rather unattainable. The world was mostly scary, full of unknown people, crippling choice, duties and obligations and obligations and duties. A subconscious list of prohibitions steered me – no fun, no joy, no self – and fear was a powerful rudder. Anxiety.

When I talk about anxiety, I don’t mean just that stress we all know, the kind we feel over deadlines or relationship issues. I’m talking about something more akin to a worldview: it’s pervasive, and spinning, entrapping. It’s a convincing voice that won’t shut up, saying everything is wrong, nothing will be okay, and that most things are to be feared. People are scary, the unknown is terrifying, decisions absolutely paralyzing, and normal human emotions truly crippling. I can’t find myself in all of it; in fact, for the first 28 years of my life, I don’t remember having a self. I wished for someone to just tell me how to live, or live my life for me. To-do lists, volunteering, excessive business, and school obligations were thrashing arms and legs, frantically treading water to keep my soul afloat. Fragments of myself would shout from all directions, should, not allowed, what if: desires constantly being shot down. I’m in a race; my heart speeds, my mind spins, and in turn my hands and feet move too fast. I can’t find happiness, the fear is escalating, it’s swirling, I can’t sleep, can’t breathe, what if should can’t so scared oh no no no no NO.

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Stop. The red walls calmly hush me as the fleeing sun casts magic light on us all. Climb, eat, sleep, repeat. Our phones are off, lost somewhere in the van – that life doesn’t matter here. Spirit quests through the desert, lively campfires, new friendships, no job, no responsibilities, the nature of the climbing even takes away the guesswork. Extremes of day and night, warmth and cold, try hard and relax, keeping us on our toes in their own, gentle ways, providing a substitute for the extremity within me. My personal bondage stands out here, in stark contrast to this vast and expansive landscape with its unmitigated yet tame lawlessness.  Indian Creek embodies the wild and free, a direct antithesis to everything I know.

Over the following years, the cliffs of Indian Creek are a sounding board, echoes of my growth resounding off their walls. Each time I visit, the fragmented pieces of my self appear more whole; the minor key that I have written my life in slowly starts to lift, and I notice it acutely against the backdrop of the vibrant wingate walls. My second trip is marked with nerves, a trip with a new boyfriend – my first ever in my adult life – anxiety about who to climb with, fear reigning as I cast off on lead. This relationship would soon end, spiraling me into unchartered depths, showing me my need for help and change: the painful beginning of what I now see as my awakening. On my third visit, a few of us go on a psychedelic trip through Canyonlands, another first for me. I experience joy running through the landscape, possibly for the first time. I remember my braid flapping against my back as I run, heavy breath feeling cleansing and full. I intermittently imagine a bodiless dark tattered cloak chasing me, bellowing, “anxiety, seriousness,” wagging a armless sleeve, scolding me. My joy feels irresponsible, like I’m obligated to suffer. I go home and make art, it was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. My subsequent seasons, I begin to feel more at home. Like I’m allowed to be a part of this scene, this freedom, that once seemed off limits. I forge bonds, friendships I return to each spring and fall. I learn to try hard and not let fear cripple. I learn that it’s okay to feel happy, to not have any nagging worries, and to look at the world as a place that longs to invite and delight.

And yet, each stint in the Creek, I find myself driving to the mesa for cell service, fulfilling my personal commitment to a weekly appointment with my therapist. I know it’s good for me, but I wish I was like all the monkeys down below, free and blissful. And then I wonder if maybe they’re more like me than I think, and that we’re all struggling, at least a little bit.

This fall I return, now with my boyfriend Forest, a partner who compliments my whole instead of just a few of my fragments. It feels good. We drive the winding road at the last light of day, still listening to Lord Huron three and a half years later, and I reflect on what this place is to me. It showed me a better way, and subsequently has been a basal, a line in the sand, a waypoint in my desert life, reflecting my growth each time I return. I feel well, whole, connected to others and to myself. My gobies are less prevalent now, and on my fingers now instead of on the backs of my hands, a display of progression on the rock. But my soul’s skin feels stronger too, wiser, more grounded. More capable of fighting off the anxious thoughts that still knock at my door, as they likely always will. The hush of the fading light on the cliffs around me whispers “all is well,” and for once, I know it’s true.

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All photos by Forest Woodward

Big Dreams

Dreams. I have a list of goals I keep on the Notes app of my phone, under the title Dream Big. Some of them are far off objectives, some of them I could complete tomorrow. Some are climbing related, and some are completely personal (and admittedly ambiguous), like, “Experience true freedom” [check].

The Enchantments link-up was on my Dream Big list. Acid Baby to Solid Gold to Iconoclast; 18+ pitches and 18+ miles of hiking. It was something for which I had to plan, train, find a partner, make time. In my mind it was big, and it sat on my phone’s list for a whole year before getting the ceremonial emoji check beside it a few weeks ago.

But here’s the thing: that day, those climbs, that Big Dream – it wasn’t all that hard. We kind of just did it: hiked pretty quickly, climbed a lot of 5.10 pitches pretty quickly, and were back at the car, pretty quickly. Though our feet were damn sore at the end of the day, the mutual feeling between us, hiking into the Snow Creek parking lot, was something like, “that was it?” I had the same feeling when I climbed the Regular route of Half Dome a few years ago, the same feeling after a season in Patagonia this past winter. In fact, I’m getting used to that feeling of the impossible becoming strangely and extremely possible.

I’m not saying this to toot my own horn, I hope my words don’t come across that way. I’ve been reflecting on this a lot lately, in my post-accomplishment-and-a-little-lost-without-a-goal state: how I choose my objectives, what working towards goals looks like, what I feel I’m capable of accomplishing. What comes next, and how Big should I Dream?

I can’t forget that Whitney and I worked really hard to accomplish this mission. We had some friends who attempted the same link-up a few days after us, onsight, and didn’t come close to succeeding, not for lack of climbing ability. Whitney and I put in our time in the Enchantments, climbing each route a few times, scouting out our cross-country travel, caching gear, meticulously choosing a rack and paring down our supplies. By the time the morning of our link-up came around, we had no more questions – we just had to execute.

But maybe too, hand in hand our efforts to make the goal happen, is the fact that we’re just damn capable. And again, no tooting horns here, I’m speaking with a universal “we.” WE are just damn capable. And perhaps, WE should dream bigger. 

I gave a slideshow at Vertical World the other week for Mountain Madness’ Beta Night, a presentation entitled “Cragging in the Stuart Range.” My talk was about the climbing that can be done car-to-car in the Leavenworth area, mostly in the Enchantments. I noticed myself saying over and over again, not even knowing my audience well, “You can totally do it,” “If you climb 5.8, you gotta go do this,” or “That route is so amazing, go and climb it,” almost with a feeling of shaking the crowd and saying, “You guys! Dream bigger! Don’t let your fears get in the way! Don’t let this seem too impossible. You can do this too!” 

Afterwards, a good friend of mine cautioned me, saying, “Most of those people probably shouldn’t be encouraged to go out and do those climbs. You don’t know their ability level, Jenny. You don’t know their experience. Just because they climb 5.10 in the gym doesn’t mean they can go climb Acid Baby this weekend. Maybe it’s difficult for you to see these objectives outside of your own experience, but people generally don’t know what they’re doing, and are capable of getting themselves into really bad situations.”

He’s right, I know. But I think I’m right too, and I want to shake you all and tell you so. Climbing demands a progression; Whitney and I needed to climb each route of our link-up individually, know the terrain, plan our attack, and then put it all together. We were physically capable the entire time, just as my duo of friends who unsuccessfully did the link-up, but certainly had to take steps to accomplish our goal. Perhaps in the same way, you might be capable of something (whether you know it or not) but simply need to invest the time to identify the steps to take to get there. And with each of those steps, the Big Dream might start to feel less and less intimidating.

Because here’s what I think. We should all Dream Big. We should all start to Dream Bigger. We should all stop saying, “I wish I could do that…” Our goals will be relative to us, and to our skills and experience, but they’ll all be big, and incredibly worthy, and deservedly intimidating. I’m not sure what it is for me yet, though I’m certainly scheming. I’m not sure what it is for you, but you should find something. It might be really Big, it might seem impossible. But take the right steps, small and slow as they may seem, and you’re as capable as anyone.

You can totally do it.

Der Link-up

Last Tuesday, Whitney and I completed a link-up in the Stuart Range that I’ve dreamed of for awhile now, climbing Acid Baby, Solid Gold, and Iconoclast and hiking the Enchantments loop at the same time.

Shane Wilder from Icicle TV here in Leavenworth loaned us a GoPro to document our day for a film he is interested in producing. Being the absolute camera moron that I am, I filled up the GoPro before we finished our first route, mostly with in-the-dark footage. Way to go, Abegg. Whitney and I busted out our cameras to document the rest of the day, and this video is the result of our amateur shooting and editing skills. Hopefully it at least tells a story!

This was definitely one of our biggest ever days climbing in the mountains, and it’s one we’ll both remember forever. Most of the time, we felt like we were flying, and what I initially assumed would be a sufferfest was just another fun day out. It’s pretty cool what we can accomplish if we just try; now I get the feeling it’s time to start dreaming bigger and trying harder.

Enjoy! And then go live your own dream!

 

New [and Much Improved!] Harnesses from Arc’teryx

In the spirit of full disclosure, this product was given to me by Arc’teryx and I am generally biased towards their products [because they’re the best, duh]. While previous to becoming an ambassador I might not have written a review, I probably would have seen you at the crag and told you about my awesome gear [read: this is genuine]. But when you’re done reading, before going out and buying yourself a brand new harness, first ask yourself, “Do I really need that?” Because even better than making responsible purchases is just plain-ol’ using what you have. 

I have previously owned Arc’teryx harnesses, and quite honestly, have not been a fan. They bunch up and fold over at the waist, especially when loaded down with trad gear, making them extremely uncomfortable to hang or climb in. While their goal was light and fast, Arc’teryx had gone too far and streamlined their harnesses to the point that they were essentially light and useless. If you’ve had one of these harnesses, you probably (definitely) know what I’m talking about.

And Arc’teryx gets it too; by their own admission, they had a lot to learn and much to improve upon (another great thing about this innovative company). With their newest model, Arc’teryx completely revamped the make of their harnesses, addressing the bunching and folding (they call it “roping”) issue head on. They made prototypes, sent them out into the field for testing by their athletes, refined the harnesses based on feedback, and repeated this practice, over and over and over again.

What emerged from this process is without a doubt the best harness I have ever had. Fast and light, yes indeed, but also extremely, undeniably, and ridiculously comfortable. From hangdogging on my sport projects to climbing 2500 foot routes in the mountains, this harness does it all. And it doesn’t just subtract discomfort, it somehow adds comfort, supporting my lower back with zero pressure points and helping my clothes stay in place with its wide waist belt. Arc’teryx calls this Warp Strength Technology, and boy is it good. Additionally, the fabric is so streamlined that I can walk or climb quickly on moderate terrain without the leg loops bothering me one bit. All of this for 385 grams and the most packable harness I’ve ever owned.

Also, Arc’teryx [finally] added adjustable leg loops to their women’s specific harness, making the fit even better. Let all female body types rejoice! They also added attachment points for ice clippers and a wide haul loop in the back.

While they send some of their production abroad, Arc’teryx has a Vancouver factory that they reserve for their highest quality, highest innovation products. Thus, their harnesses are made right across the border in the politest land on earth (aka Canada), and only 50 miles from where I grew up. Now that’s cool!

So people, do yourselves a favor and check out Arc’teryx new line of harnesses. As is the case with all Arc products, you will more than make up for the expensive purchase with quality, comfort, longevity, and an awesome warranty. And just a warning: if you’ve had Arc’teryx harnesses before, be sure to check the size chart before you buy another of your previous size – with all their improvements, they’ve revamped their sizing as well to be more congruent with other Arc’teryx products.

Photo credit: Ramon Dompor

 

 

A River of Consciousness

Recently I’ve had blog-writers block. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say – I probably have more to say at this point in my life than most. It’s not that I haven’t had time – injury has kept me close to home, where I’m waiting on a job at a restaurant that still hasn’t opened. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about writing, because I have. Mostly, it’s that I’m afraid of being…cliché.

Just a few minutes on the internet and I get the sense that in all of our online ramblings, we’re all saying the same things. Humans like to write about their own experiences, and I think we like to feel unique and playful and skillful while doing so. Even the recipe blog I just read to learn how to make nutella-banana ice cream (mix the bananas and nutella together and freeze, duh) – 90% of it was about the writer’s anxiety and how chocolate and ice cream make her feel better. We’re all the same, our blogs with clever names derived from quotes, carefully crafted “about me” sections, and links to our instagrams on the side. Carbon copies and cookie cutters, all trying to be so unique in the same way.

So not wanting to be painfully cliché, I start thinking about writing trip reports, but that just begins to feel like spray, or needless internet fodder. My sister does a better job than I (or anyone else) could ever do, and do I need to reinvent the wheel with my own descriptions? I didn’t take any photos on Rampage the other day, and does anyone really need to hear about another ascent of Der Sportsman? Besides, I didn’t even lead the crux pitch – or most of the climb for that matter – so am I justified in telling the world about it?

On that note, Blake told me yesterday that he thinks I was the first woman to free the entirety of Der Sportsman, or climb it at all. Whitney and I joked about it later that night, listing off the climbs in the area that we think haven’t seen an all-female ascent. What if we went on a girls-only rampage in the Cascades (the fruit is hanging low)…what if we started a website and called it fffa.com (first female free ascent) so we could keep a record of these things?  But…why? And…who cares?

To take myself out of the clouds of FFFAing, all I have to do is drive 5 minutes and play around on silly boulder problems. Bouldering, that’s the real challenge. My body’s conditioned to spend 18 hours in continuous movement, hiking and climbing moderate grades. But put a V3 in front of me and it’s an all out mental-physical-emotional battle. I know others feel the same way, and I know even more feel exactly the opposite. That’s probably one of the coolest parts of climbing: all of the many disciplines.

And that’s probably one of the coolest parts of life: all of its variety and diverse curiosities and challenges. I’m loving living in Leavenworth, picking buckets of cherries from my neighbor’s trees, going swimming in the river after climbing with new friends, lingering in my garden hoping to catch growth in action. Matt’s no longer with me…I certainly miss his affection, and his companionship, and I desperately hope he is well. But it’s a new season: my books are on a shelf again, arranged by color, and the cherries are dehydrating in the garage. Road life was good, and now home life is good.

It’s all good, and it’s all hard, and it’s all the same, for you and me and all of us humans. There’s a lot of rivers in this town – the the Tumwater, the Wenatchee, the Icicle – they’re all unique in the same way too. Headed to similar places, but finding their own path and flow. On a macro level they’re carbon copies; take a closer look, sit at their banks after a sweaty climbing session, and you’ll know their differences. And somehow amidst their rush and hurry, they’re peaceful and directed, and oddly still. I guess I hope to be the same.

Title photo: Austin Siadak

#defineFEMININE

For better or for worse, I’m not usually someone who thinks too big picture. Societal issues overwhelm me; befriending a Burmese refugee family and helping them with life appeals far more than marching in the street for immigrant rights. Learning about climate change paralyzes me, but I’ll choose my bike over my car any day. I can’t tell you the last time I watched the news, the word “feminist” has never meant much to me, and when conversations get intangible and impractical, I check out. So when Arc’teryx began their #defineFEMININE campaign, clearly, my first response was, “uhhhhh…” Barbie and Seventeen magazine and climbing and women’s business suits and inner beauty and athlete models and tears and strength and Katniss and plus-size models ran into my brain in high heels and out barefoot, first dressed in pink and then in pants ripped and patched and ripped again.

And that’s why I usually stray from thinking too philosophically about things.

So I thought I’d make it easier on myself, and think about what I do know. I can speak pretty competently from my own experience, and usually that yields the clearest line of thinking. So this is what I know about the word “feminine:”

1. These pictures by photographer Kate Parker from her series entitled Strong is the New Pretty evoke something huge in me. I want to run around with these girls and roll in the mud and get as dirty as possible and kick soccer balls as far as we can and be opinionated and joyful and free and fully ourselves, and then I want to look them all in the eyes and say, “YOU ARE SO RAD.” I’ve never seen photos of girls quite like these before; the contrast between this and how we’re used to seeing girls portrayed is really startling. The amount of spirit and power and strength these young women show honestly brings tears to my eyes.

 

2. Without getting too TMI on the blogosphere, I’ve struggled hard with feeling feminine my whole life. In those rapidly-changing pre-high school years, I missed the boat completely: my body changed but nothing else did. There’s this clear delineation in our old family photos from where things went from cute to awkward. And honestly, they stayed awkward for over a decade. I didn’t know where to shop, the ins-and-outs of make-up were a mystery to me, I had one hairstyle (ponytail, duh), and just feeling girly felt shameful. More than anything though, in those years I defined feminine as something that I was not, and in so doing lost my spirit and my confidence. So yes, femininity has been a hot topic throughout my life, whether I’ve known it or not.

 

3. When I was in my mid-twenties I worked for three summers at an off-the-grid camp on an inlet in British Columbia, living half-time with the community at sea level and spending the other half guiding groups of high schoolers on week-long mountaineering trips in the BC Coast Range. I don’t know what it is about Beyond Malibu – I’m not sure that any of us do – but the women that it attracts are some of the world’s most beautiful, soulful, confident, strong women. I learned to read Wendell Berry at Beyond, to listen to the Wailin’ Jennys, to write and speak and share life honestly. I learned to love my strong body, I learned that there is power in confidence and self-love, I learned that a week without a mirror or shower spent moving through the mountains can leave a woman feeling more beautiful than anything. In short, throughout those three formative summers, the community and mountains of Beyond unearthed the shameless femininity in myself.

 

4. As climbing has become a huge part of my life throughout the last three years, it has completely changed the femininity ballgame for me. Climbing demands that I recognize and harness my power and self-sufficiency. It demands that I use my body to its fullest potential. It demands that I am aware and honest with myself. Responding to those demands and realizing all that is within me has boosted my self-confidence and self-love by innumerable amounts. Climbing makes me feel beautiful and agile, courageous and powerful, thoughtful and aware. It roots me in myself and in my body in a way that feels very right.

 

I’m not sure that I’m much closer to an answer to the #defineFEMININE question than when I began. But maybe I am a little closer to knowing what it is that makes me love being a female, what makes me cherish my body and mind, what it is that makes me the kind of woman I want to be. And that’s something I believe everyone should be able to define for themselves; ultimately there should be no set prototype for what “feminine” is or how “femininity” looks. If we could all #defineFEMININE for ourselves, maybe we’d all be on the right track towards accepting exactly who we are, shamelessly and confidently. High heels or barefoot or anything in between.

Oh, and be sure to check the link on the top right of the page ^ regarding the Arc’teryx Women’s Night coming up at the end of May. If you’re a woman in the Seattle area, you should come!