Learning to Fly

“What if I fall? Oh, but my darling what if you fly?” -Erin Hansen

I came to Yosemite without having climbed more than one pitch (one rope length, 60 or 70 meters), without the knowledge of traditional and aid climbing gear, and without the techniques used in crack climbing. What I am doing now, a little over a month later, is breaking into the world of trad lead.

Pebble Wrestling
Pebble Wrestling

This new world is filled with daring excitement but beyond this it comes with much more: mentorship, community, encouragement, and generosity. A question that I was asked a few weeks back was “Why hadn’t I started leading yet?” Physically, I was capable of it. My answer and perhaps excuse was “I’ve only been following for three weeks or so,” or “I still need to become more familiar with the gear.” These responses are valid but I knew my reluctance went deeper. Self-doubt hung over me, the daunting “What if?” questions rang through my body, and I wasn’t sure how to allow people to be patient with me. Learning all the small skills takes time and it creates an extremely SLOW process.

For at least a week now, Jamie, Yuval, and the Australians have returned to their lives back home. I, on the other hand, remain at Camp 4 and exist inside the ever evolving community. I was introduced to, “The Crew,” before Yuval left and since then they have shared climbing experiences and fully welcomed me as one of their own. Now, what is “The Crew?” They are pretty much a group of climbers that all arrived in Yosemite alone and became friends. It is a big crew to say the least. If you are in Yosemite climbing alone and “The Crew” meets you, you are part of “The Crew.”  Simply as that.

Dave teaching me about jumars
Dave teaching me about jumars

Dave is one of the above individuals. He has been mentoring and climbing with me during my preliminary trad lead endeavors and has been incredibly patient. Yesterday, we climbed “The Grack,” a beautiful three pitch, 5.6 finger crack that was thrilling for me to lead. The sun engulfed the wall during the first pitch as I fumbled with gear to test what piece fit into the given spots. I meandered up the wall, trailing a second rope for the rappel, until I reached the belay station. My next task was to build an anchor. I took note of the gear I had on my harness and what would fit into the crack but nothing matched up. With nothing but my remaining gear, my creativity, and Dave’s patience I started to build an anchor solely out of nuts (passive gear but bomber when it successfully gets stuck in the rock). After the anchor was complete, I began hauling up the trail rope and then the rope Dave was attached to. Dave just sat there about 100 feet below me and would yell up, “Everything going okay?” after an extended period of time. I’m sure the underlying thought was actually, “What is taking so long?” but you wouldn’t be able to tell with his demeanor. It was finally time for him to start climbing but instead he walked up most of the first pitch. Yes, the first pitch was very low angle and so incredibly easy for him that he walked up the rock. While he nonchalantly did so, I frantically tried to pull up the rope through the belay device but to no prevail. He met me at the belay station and I just looked at him and said,” We’re never going to get off the rock with me leading.” I had become disheartened by my snail like pace and felt bad for having Dave stand/sit in the sun waiting for me. We agreed he’d lead the second pitch and in a blur we both were at the next belay station. The third and final pitch was my time to shine! The finger crack called my name and I was focused and ready to go. The climbing looked thin (possibly not too many opportunities for gear placement) but it was happening. The finger crack was solid and I knew I had the technique for this type of climbing. The cams that I had available to me were all too large so I whipped out the nuts from my back gear loop and began sizing them in the crack. First one rips out when I yank on it, no good. I try a different size and this time it holds strong. To double check the gear, I pull at it and try to rip it from the rock but it stands firm, solid. Near the top, the crack starts to disappear and a slab is the only way to reach the top. When climbing slab you use friction to stay on the wall, no holds, and this type of climbing is my least favorite. You have to trust the friction of your feet to stay on the wall and I do not trust my feet. Bailing is not an option so I inch my way up the wall and start singing to myself. I sing, “Gotta trust my feet,” over and over again, under my breath, to a catchy beat. After several moves, I grab a solid hold and pull myself from my furnace of adversity. The bolted anchors are now above me and after Dave climbs up to meet me at the belay station we begin rappelling down.

From my experiences learning trad lead and other technical skills I have come to realize that I need to be patient with myself and my learning process as well as allowing others to do so. Thank you to the mentors out there, thank you to the patient, and thank you for your acceptance.

Some of "The Crew"
Some of “The Crew”

Thank you to Mik for providing me with these pictures!

Constrictions of Fear

Up until a few days ago, I began to forget my reasons behind Dancing with the Dirt. It wasn’t until a high school friend reached out to me for advice did I remember the bigger picture of my journey: self-exploration, internal to external, by means of travelling alone (specifically building self-efficacy and learning to accept myself and my shortcomings).

Dedicated to the dreamers, the non-traditional way of living, and to liberating oneself from the constrictions of fear. Feel with your emotions, create human connection, and live life in all of its entirety.

My hope for Dancing with the Dirt is that by sharing my journey with the world it can spark the ambitions that were thought to be too grand for life, to encourage the dreams of the inner child to be heard, and to inspire individuals to grow into the person they strive to be while accepting who they are in the moment.

Courage and El Capitan
Courage and El Capitan

Recently, while climbing, I have been battling fear and anxiety. A 5.8 route named Bishop’s Terrace had me on the verge of an anxiety attack and it wasn’t because the route was hard. The rational part of my mind knew that I was physically capable of doing the climb yet, fear and anxiety were literally crippling my abilities. I was climbing for the first time with a new climbing partner, Junior, and when I was about a third of the way up the route I came across an offwidth, a crack in the rock that is wider than the hands and often requires sticking limbs in to hold yourself up. I was following with a rope filled backpack and began to panic. My heart rate escalated but I tried to calm myself down with deep breaths. I focused on my breathing as I pulled on gear to help inch my way up the crack. My voice trembled as I yelled up to my partner that I wanted to bail. Never before did I think those words would come out of my mouth but there they were. I was not in the head space to be climbing. I fought back tears and did my best to suppress the panic I felt rising in me. Junior was amazingly encouraging and patient but the poor guy just wanted to climb on his day off and instead was dragging me up the wall. Finally I was secured at the first belay station and it was agreed that Junior would climb up to the bolts so that he could set up the rappel. Shame pulsed through my veins, not imposed by others but by myself. I knew I could do the climb but fear had its grips around me. I hung there belaying Junior and from below I hear, “Wooo! Amanda!” The encouraging voice of Yuval. He had no idea I was battling fear and anxiety but his familiar voice gave rise to a small voice inside me that would not allow me to bail. I yelled up to Junior that I’d climb the rest of the route and I did.

I keep asking myself why my own will power wasn’t enough to keep me climbing through the anxiety and my only thought is that my fear of not meeting the expectations of others, Yuval in this case, outweighed disappointing myself. This expectation I felt I had to meet was created in my own mind. Yuval and I both knew I could do the climb but he wasn’t going to judge me for bailing. The question is “How am I going to liberate myself from the constrictions of fear when no one else is around?” or perhaps the better question is “Why am I placing unnecessary pressure on myself to prove my worth to others?”

Floaters

This past week in Yosemite has felt more like home than anything has in a while. The Camp 4 community is supportive, generous, and ever welcoming. The friends and acquaintances I am making are from all around the globe and I am appreciating my time with each new friend. I know that I have a limited amount of time to get to know them but I am doing my best to learn from their life experiences.

The Australians (Hamish, Alex, Jay, and Matt): This group of guys are the fellows Jamie and I met while climbing “The Nutcracker.” They have become climbing mentors to us. Their efficiency while rock climbing is incredible. They came to Yosemite to climb “The Nose” on El Capitan under 24 hours and succeeded. They saw that my hands got ridiculously scraped up after two days of intense climbing and jumped to preparing salt water to soak my hands in. All of a sudden it became a group effort to scrub my hands and then to bandage them. I obviously was the one scrubbing the dirt from my hands but all the needed supplies and knowledge were thrown my way. Each one of them are caring, nurturing souls with the little bit of crazy that is needed to do big wall climbing. I appreciate every bit of life or climbing knowledge they provide. “ALWAYS tie a knot at the end of the rope.”

Josh and Steven: These two guys are cousins from Maryland that Jamie and I shared a campsite with in Camp 4. Josh is one of the most charismatic people I have met. The first day I met him we went bouldering  and practiced cam (active gear used in traditional climbing) placements on a beautiful boulder with a problem called “Back Breaker.” Steven, although quieter, is filled with good humor and patience. This was my perception of Steven but I feel like he’d disagree to an extent. He witnessed me laughing hysterically at my own joke and then choke on spaghetti. He was laughing at me the entire time yet still spoke to me after all of that ridiculousness. So, I think it is safe to say he is patient and good humored.

Yuval: I met him by the messenger board at Camp 4 looking for a climbing partner. I gave him my contact information but honestly didn’t expect him to be willing to climb with me because he climbs at such a higher grade than I do and his goal for being in the Yosemite Valley was to climb “The Nose.” A few days later, I ended up climbing a 5.9 route called “Absolutely Free,” with him. I’m about to finish the end of the first pitch of the climb  and I can’t see Yuval but I hear, “Woo! Yea! This is such an awesome route!” After each pitch it was the same thing. No matter how many noises I made trying to get myself up the route, I could still hear the support and positivity of my climbing partner. I was sure that after seeing my skill level on cracks he’d find another person to climb with the next day.  To my surprise, next day we were off to climb “Commitment” a 5.9 and “Selaginella” a 5.8. We combined these two routes to total 7 pitches, a full day of climbing. My body was tired and bruised from the climb the day before but I made my way up the routes, pitch by pitch. On the last pitch I was unable to clean a cam from the crack and the tone from my frustrated and exhausted voice yelled above to Yuval more harsh than I’d like to admit. I made it to just below the ledge where Yuval was and where solid ground awaited me yet my climb was not yet over. I still had a couple more moves to the top and I was on the verge of tears. Exhaustion and fear was eating at me almost uncontrollably and I asked the constant question of, “Why am I doing this?” I beach whaled on top of the ledge (this “move” was exactly what it sounds like) but my backpack was stuck on the tree and I had no footing. My face was face down in the dirt and I was stuck. Yuval can’t help but laugh but he remained calm and encouraging as I inch wormed my way off the tree and further onto the ledge. My remnants of energy were expended in these last movements and I was mentally and emotionally hanging on by a thread yet there Yuval was patient as ever helping me gather myself.

Karol: He is a boulderer from Slovakia that is constantly smiling and has a light gleaming in his eyes. When people say that the eyes are the windows to the soul I think back to this guy. I officially met him while I was bouldering with Josh (see above) and he needed a crash pad. I was happy to share the crash pad and add another boulderer, much stronger and experienced than myself, to our little group for the day. That night at the campfire we tried to split wood with a forearm size hatchet and Karol came out of nowhere and wanted to give it a shot. Everyone stood back and obliged. He got in a squatting position, aimed the hatchet, swung back and got the hatchet stuck in the wood. He wasn’t finished though, he then swung the hatchet, still stuck in the wood, around to where the back of the hatchet hit the stump and the hatchet blade drove up into the wood. Never in my life had I seen that technique before. The wood was much too hard to be split but this process continued several more times and each time a smile rode on Karol’s face.

Friends on Foot

In Camp 4 you meet tons of new people and the majority of them are extremely friendly. This is how Jamie and I met our friend Ofek. We ran into him at the market and water filling station and then decided to have a real conversation with him when we saw him at his campsite. He had gotten into Camp 4 the same time we had and was soon to embark on one last adventure before he headed back to his home in Israel. What was this adventure? I’m glad you asked. He was planning a five day backpacking trip from Yosemite Valley to Sunrise Lakes to May Lake, to Tuolumne Meadows and then back to the Valley. To our surprise he invited us on this backpacking trip. I immediately knew I wanted to partake however I needed to make sure Jamie was on board. Fifteen minutes later, and the day before the adventure started, we decided to join!

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We got a late start the first day because Jamie and I were scrambling to gather our things. It was 11:00 am by the time we began the trail and about a mile in before we thought to ask each other who had the tent. The answer, no one. There had been a miscommunication and we thought that Ofek had it and he thought we had it. After careful deliberation we all decided that a tent was a luxury item. Rain was not in the forecast and I had a tarp we could make a makeshift shelter with if we needed to. The first day was scheduled to be the hardest, uphill the entire way. All of us were finding the right pace to match each other and no matter what we would all wait for one another. As the miles went by and the uphill battle continued I felt my spirit breaking. I was lagging behind my two friends and sadness overcame me. I had entered a negative head space and my answers to their cheerful games weren’t so cheerful. I informed them of my negative state and they sat down on a rock and asked me what I was thinking. My thoughts were not the culprit instead I was having physical and emotional reactions to the need to cry. Jamie asked me again what was going on but no words left my lips. Instead, tears rolled down my eyes as I expressed that I felt like I needed to cry. Jamie moved to sit on my right and Ofek to my left. They used this time to empathize with me. The conclusion was that I needed to find a way to recharge my energy. That is my struggle, over the course of the past year I go until I break down and then keep going. I still am searching for the routine that recharges my being.  As the day reached into the late afternoon we came across two individuals that warned us of horrendous switchbacks up ahead. Our legs were worn from the many miles of uphill already and now we were being told that it would be at least another three hours of vicious uphill. They warned us to camp just below the switchbacks near a stream for the night so we decided that that was the right call and went to set up camp. 

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Day 2 and we all awoke with stiff limbs. Jamie fixed breakfast, Ofek packed up his stuff, and I went down to the river to purify water. The water purification took the most amount of time. Five minutes for the contents to mix and then another twenty or so minutes before you could drink the water. Today we would have to make up the mileage we left unfinished from the day before. May Lake was the destination. To pass the time while hiking we all asked each other questions like what the “big rock holding up the broken tree” stood for in each of our lives. We learned each other’s stories and learned of the hardships in each others lives. The lakes we encountered called to us to swim in them, one being Tenaya Lake. The water was crystal clear, shallow, and warm with a little island we could walk out to. We needed to reach our destination be we also needed to embrace the journey. We rested and kept going. We reached May Lake where there were flushie toilets and water spickets. The lake was breathtaking and the wind blew through our hair and clothes causing a windchill, worth it. Jamie was famished and started creating a concoction of rice, soup, and other food things that we had in our bear canisters. Her eyes were wild as she poured more and more food into the cooking pot. Tonight we would be finishing a brimmer. As we all got comfy in out sleeping bags I began to read aloud the stories from “The Wild Muir.” This book has a collection of John Muir’s greatest adventures, quite fitting for us seeing how we were hiking on parts of the John Muir Trail. 

Today’s mileage would be a little over 13 miles to Tuolumne Meadows. This was to be the last night Jamie and I would spend camping and backpacking with Ofek. Jamie needed to meet a friend back in Yosemite Valley and in order to make it back in time we’d need to catch a ride. The miles went by slow and fast all at the same time. The majority of the trail was flat or downhill and our pace was impeccable. We passed more lakes that were just as breath taking as the previous. We made it to Tuolumne Meadows at about 5:30 pm and were excited to eat burgers for dinner. To our dismay, the burger joint had closed at 5 pm. Instead, we settled for chocolate milk, half price avocados, and beer at the local market. Our campsite wasn’t far beyond the market so we arrived and picked out a nice, flat site with a fire pit. We saw other backpackers searching for a site so we offered to share the area around ours. As the evening approached, our campfire attracted new friends and with them came vodka. The camp creative thing to do was to mix the vodka with gatorade powder and water which resulted in a rather decent tasting beverage. Ofek ended the night slurring his words around the campfire and found a deer wondering in the woods. Jamie kept the fire going and bear proofed the campsite. I was battling stomach cramps and obnoxious bubbling in my stomach that resulted from what I suspect to have been the chocolate milk. All in all the night was interesting and fun. I of course ended it with a bed time story from “The Wild Muir.” 

The morning was full of20160830_120835 bittersweet air. Ofek would part ways with us and Jamie and I would make our way back to Yosemite Valley. We all ate breakfast together at the local grill and prepared for the journey of the day. Jamie and I decided that we would hitch hike to the Valley. We stood on the side of the road with our thumbs out, smiling. We decided to make a sign that said, “Valley,” on it and hoped that it would increase our chances of finding a ride. Cars kept driving by and people were making hand gestures that we interpreted as “What do you think you are doing with your life?” There was a certain amount of shame that we were starting to feel while standing on the side of the road but I was determined to keep high spirits. Each time we saw a car approaching we started singing, “Take us to the Valley,” and doing a little jig. Other cars kept passing while signing the number two to tell us that they would stop but didn’t have enough room for the two of us. As we were standing there we noticed another female hitch hiker ahead of us and she was aggressively stopping cars and had people stopping for her almost instantly. She then disappeared down the street in her ride. We were dumbfounded. What were we doing wrong?? An older gentleman that we had made friends with over breakfast had offered to drive us 18 miles down the road and then we would only have to hike 7 miles to the Valley. Jamie and I decided to give it twenty minutes or so more and then we would accept our friend’s ride. Not even five minutes later, a car pulls off the road and motions for us to jump in! We were in disbelief! We struggled to shove our two huge packs in the back with traffic zooming past. I jumped in the back seat and Jamie jumped in the front. Our driver and savior for the day was from South Africa. He had been spending the past several months touring the national parks and hiking the nearby trails. We learned about his family, life story, and his values. The drive to the Valley was about an hour and a half long so there was plenty of time for everyone to get to know everyone. Before Jamie and I left our new friend we directed him to some possible campsites and must do hikes in Yosemite. Thank you again kind sir for your generosity!

The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker, a beautiful 5.8 classic route. Jamie and I were told that this climb was a must do so we indulged. Last Sunday, we arrived at the route at around 10:30am and were met by a group of three climbers already making strides on the first pitch. We decided we would wait it out until the group ahead of us reached the second pitch. We waited at the bottom of the climb and socialized with our two new Australian friends who were waiting behind us to climb. They told us many climbing stories from their past and we soon offered for them to go ahead of us. As experienced climbers they would take far less time to climb the route than us.

Jamie and I started the climb at about noon and anchored ourselves at the bottom of the next pitch. We were now waiting for the group of three to climb up this pitch. Our speedy Australian friends had bypassed them and escaped the traffic jam. We sat on the rock ledge, waiting, and melting under the sun when another climber’s head popped up from behind a rock, finishing the first pitch. We soon had two new friends that happened to be part of the same group as our previous Australian friends. We chatted and asked them about climbing strategies and skills, the next few days they would be climbing The Nose of El Captain. Several hours later now and these friends decided to bail on the route to head back to the ground. They rappelled off our anchors so they wouldn’t have to leave gear on the wall but that left Jamie and I with the only option of finishing the climb.

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The next pitches were finally available to climb and the race to finish three pitches before it got dark began. We made it to the bottom of the last pitch as the remnants of light were disappearing.We had only one headlamp and it was decided that the lead, Jamie, would need it most. To exasperate the situation more the crux, the hardest part of the climb, was still to be faced. The crux was a committing, exposed move that required a sort of pull up with no feet. Our Australian friends had given us the beta, info on the climb, for this move and we knew we had to find the jug, easy to grip hold. Jamie climbed on with the head lamp lighting her way as she approached the crux. I sat anchored into the wall with by body dangling in my harness. I was losing circulation in my legs as I witnessed Jamie searching for the jug and foot holds on the slick granite. If she didn’t commit to the move, she’d fall and hit the ledge below. I sat there helpless and started to pray for her safe passage up the wall. Her bubble of light disappeared over the rock and I knew she’d made it! A few minutes pass and she yells down to me in a nervous voice, “Be ready for a fucking huge fall if this piece doesn’t hold!” She disappeared into the darkness as I fed her rope. She’d make it to the top soon and then it’d be my turn to climb.. in pitch darkness. As a follower, the danger of the climb is significantly reduced because I am on top rope. Our communication had to be on point in this situation because I was flying blind. I felt the rope tighten on me and I removed the anchor system. I started to climb up, feeling the cracks in the rock. I had only my vision to see the shade changes of the surface I was climbing on. I made it to the crux and yelled up to Jamie. I struggled to find the few protruding features on the rock as Jamie tugged at the rope taking any little bit of slack there was. How was I going to make it over the crux? I needed to take some weight off the rope so Jamie could pull in the slack. I flung my right heel up and over the crux making me horizontal on the rock. It worked. I was now almost over the crux. It wasn’t as graceful as I would have liked but it would do for the current circumstances. The time was now 9:30pm and we were both at the top of The Nutcracker grateful to have our feet on solid ground.