So there I was—about three-quarters of the way up a 100-foot rock formation in California’s Joshua Tree National Park. I was tired. But more than that, I was pissed off that this one section, which I dubbed “the Crack,” was giving me so much distress. Below, my crew of strong women was cheering me on. Above me, Savannah Cummins, an adventure photographer and expert climber, was balancing on a rope like a ninja. She was offering me tips while capturing my every go, but with fatigue and frustration setting in, it sounded more like Charlie Brown’s teacher—“whaa-whaa-whaa.”
This particular rock face was nothing like the indoor climbing walls I had practiced on back in New York; it was infinitely harder. You see, in the gym, there were defined routes marked by colors, which represent degrees of difficulty, as well as pronounced nubs you use to grab or step on. But in the outdoors, I was unable to map out a clear path. So each chalky-hand go or toe placement felt like trying to fit a piece into a challenging puzzle—and my guess was often incorrect.
Knowing that I needed to make a go, I gripped a section of rock, and it peeled away like a pistachio shell. I fell a bit before feeling my rope tighten. It was then I was reminded of my mortality. I closed my eyes and rested my forehead against the rock. “You can do this,” I said to myself. More vital, I told myself to trust my belayer (the person on the ground charged with securing me).
Fundamentally, the art of rock climbing is about two things: overcoming physical obstacles and trusting in people. For me, the first part was no huge deal. I’m not saying that using every muscle in my body to grip tiny crevices and sliding my frame along rock surfaces is simple, but I’ve run several marathons and even trekked through the Alps. Translation: I’m comfortable with physical discomfort and have taught myself how to persevere. But trusting others is tough for me. So the fact that the rope I am attached to is literally tied to the waist of another person and that is the only thing keeping me from smashing into this mountain, or worse, freefalling 100 feet? Yup, it’s my worst nightmare.
Knowing that, you may wonder what possessed me to try a sport that consists of putting my life in the hands of another person. Well, “sport climbing” is making its Olympic debut in 2020. For the most part, it’s male-dominated, and the North Face wants to change that, so it invited a group of female editors on a trip to explore the activity. Honestly, it seemed like a excellent thought while sitting at my cushy desk in New York City. I like athletic challenges and was into the whole female-empowerment angle. I didn’t even reckon about the trust aspect.
So on that rock—torn between giving up and fighting like hell to end—I gave myself a moment to regroup. I allowed myself to shed a few tears, because it was hard AF, but also because I was grieving the loss of my Uncle Russ, who had died the day before I set out on my adventure. I looked down at my belayer and thought, “Let’s do this.” In that moment it became clear that, yes, I needed to draw on my own strength, but that I could also use the strength of those around me—in this case, the person holding my rope and my editor friends cheering me on from below.
With renewed determination and a greater sense of support, I inched my way farther and farther up until I reached the top. I was proud of myself for conquering the mountain, but even prouder that I had allowed myself to relinquish control and trust other people. Those moments on the rock taught me that even though I am capable of facing obstacles alone, it doesn’t mean I have to.
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