The moment when everything clicks and I trust my body to take over, the boundary between what I can and cannot do becomes blurred.
During fall and spring breaks from Columbia University, I went to the Red River Gorge to work on a route “Thanatopsis.” This climb is located at the “Motherlode,” which, as you probably know, contains the highest concentration of steep, hard climbs at the Red.
I have been going to the Red since I was nine years old, and I distinctly remember my first day at this crag. When I first hiked up through the forest path to the area I knew that I had never seen anything quite so steep, nor quite so tall before. There are virtually no easy climbs at the Motherlode—the area is dense, with climbs fit for elite climbers to work on. The climbs on the far right side and far left side of the cliff are less steep than the ones in the dead center of the cave. I tiptoed around the inner perimeter of the cave, acclimating to the steep climbing terrain and genuinely intimidated by how the climbs were almost horizontal.
Each year I have gone to the Red at some point. Fall is the season when the temperatures are best due to the crisp, forty- to sixty-degree temperatures and moderate rain. Spring is a good season to go as well, but there can be more humidity in the air and splitter days are generally more rare. During the winter months it is usually too cold to climb there unless you have really great circulation, unlike me. And forget about the summer months for sending anything hard unless you’re a good swimmer or don’t sweat.
My first trip to the Red River Gorge was in June. When you’re a 9-year-old climber, as I was then, you usually have no clue what “good conditions” are, and you don’t care. You’re just young and psyched, and back then there were just so many potential lines to try that less-than-perfect temperatures did not bother me in the least.
Each year I have visited the Motherlode. In a way, it’s where I grew up as a climber. When I hike up to the Motherlode I can relate a distinctive memory to each of the climbs. The lines resemble different periods of my progression. The first time I ever went to the Red was a Memorial Day weekend. I drove there from Virginia with my mom and my dad in a 40-foot RV that my dad had acquired, despite it being the very manifestation of my mom’s worst nightmare.
After dealing with a fiasco involving the RV being stuck in the Nada Tunnel, my parents dropped me off at Miguel’s and I went to the Motherlode with Dario Ventura, Grady Bagwell, and Ana Hayes. That day, onsighting “Tuna Town” was my first little trophy. At the Motherlode I also onsighted my first 5.13. Years later, it is where I also onsighted my first 5.14: Omaha Beach.
These achievements, separated by years, feel like close, interrelated moments. Now, when I hike in to the Motherlode, the cliff doesn’t look as big as it once did, yet I feel a strong sense of nostalgia for those earlier days. With each climb that I’ve done there, I always recall a distinct, positive memory. The struggles that I may have had, the frustration from falling, and the joy of reaching the top. Somehow, each send contains those three elements, yet each time, it’s a totally unique experience.
In the Spring of 2014 I set my sights on Thanatopsis (5.14b), first climbed by Dave Hume in 1996, when I was 4 years old.
This climb had a reputation that frightened me—and I hadn’t even tried it! I had never seen anyone on it, and without any chalk, it just looks like a steep, blank rock face devoid of any perceptible handholds. It seemed as though it would be easier to climb a sheet of glass. Instead of checking out the moves, each trip I chose a different climb to try to complete. Finally in March, I decided that I needed to just put on my climbing gear and try it.
After graduating from high school in 2011 I chose to defer my acceptance to Columbia University and to focus on professional climbing. During the span of fourteen months in between graduation and returning to school I lived and breathed climbing. I traveled to 28 different countries competing in World Cups and climbing outside. During this phase of my career I felt a significant progression in my ability as a climber. When there is nothing else on your plate but climbing, surprise, surprise, your climbing will almost certainly improve!
This was a motivating experience for me – approaching peaks in my climbing level and having the time and energy to dedicate to what I consider my greatest passion. Though, towards the end of this year I knew that school was pending. I did entertain the idea of continuing to just climb and to defer school longer. Though, academics have always been a significant part of my upbringing. While I recognize that college is certainly not for everyone, my heart was set on continuing my education.
While I have a professional career and was making a living from climbing already before returning to school I have never wanted to be limited. To me, not building my foundation of knowledge beyond traveling and climbing was limiting myself from a unique opportunity that I had worked hard growing up to achieve: going to an Ivy League University and learning about other facets of the world beyond what I was familiar with.
Now, outdoor climbing trips are limited by a rigorous school schedule. Shifting back into academic gears while maintaining my career as a professional climber was not easy for me. Admittedly, my inability to go on climbing trips whenever I wanted to is something that just about every person except for professional climbers may have to deal with, though, nonetheless the transition was a wake up call for me.
Columbia’s academics are rigorous and time consuming and so climbing trips take the backseat during the school year. Except for during school breaks – that’s when I make up for being locked down in the city during the semester. So for Spring Break 2014, I chose to return to the Red River Gorge.
Though I just had one week at the Red and, it being March, the weather was inconsistent. While I managed to have some days with good weather, I consistently fell on Thanatopsis. I felt like I had found my beta (solution) to the different moves, but I could not piece them together from the bottom to the top without falling. Climbing and failure happen to go together quite seamlessly: I fall way more often than I succeed. This trip, I had to leave without having succeeded.
Now, fast forward to Fall Semester 2014 … Having Thursday through the following Tuesday off from school, I chose to spend this time trying Thanatopsis again. I drove from New York with my mom to Kentucky. Growing up, my mom was always my number-one belayer. She likes to refer to herself as “mombelay.” Truly, without her dedication to belaying me during climbing practice and driving me anywhere that I needed to go, I do not think that I would have become a professional climber.
While driving to Kentucky, I was a little pessimistic about the weather forecast because a cold front was coming through and there was an 80% rain prediction for Friday and Saturday. According to my weather app, Friday was really cold and raining. However, with my mom being an optimistic trooper, we still hiked up to the Motherlode with our down jackets and hats on, through the mud, and to the cave.
Due to the rock’s steep angle over the ground, the climbs were actually protected from the pouring sky. I warmed up and then went straight on to Thanatopsis to refresh the moves in my mind.
At first, the climbing felt unfamiliar and strenuous on my tendons. The holds were all so much smaller than I remembered and I couldn’t recall on which little pebbles I had placed my feet in order to be in the right body positioning to do each individual move. Thanatopsis is challenging because the “holds” for your finger tips and feet are barely bigger than the protrusion of two credit cards against a flat wall. For some of the harder moves, only with precise body positioning could I stay on the wall. Having to do powerful sections on the climb consecutively wears me down and my precision for the latter moves lessens. As I worked out the sections of the climb, though, I started reconnecting with the movement.
I tried the route again and again afterwards, falling at different points on the wall, and lowering down to the ground to rest and recuperate my muscles and tendons to try again.
By the end of the day, I was substantially more tired but convincingly more determined. I did some jumping jacks to warm up from the near freezing temperature and put back on my harness, chalk bag, and shoes, tied in to my rope, and, feeling quite secure with a trusty MomBelay, I started the climb.
I feel the connection with the natural elements. I feel the texture of the rock. The rock face is my opponent, yet I am working with it at the same time. I am just moving. I am just moving through the sequences and visualizing myself succeeding. My mind is free from everything else. My thoughts are in a zone of their own. This zone is full of thought yet simultaneously blank. My motions execute the thoughts that I have. I think about the piece of rock that I am on, I fixate on the feel of it underneath my chalked hands.
Soon, all the struggles I have felt are beneath me. The frustration from falling is in the past. And now, there is only joy at the top of the route.