Last year I was the lucky winner of one of Subaru Adventure Team’s big prizes: a trip to City of Rock in Idaho to attend a climbing clinic put on by Chicks Climbing. In the spring, a friend of mine told me about the essay contest SAT was having. He thought it would be right up my alley, and it was! I have been an aspiring mountaineer for many years and the one piece I was working hard at (but struggling with in Minnesota!) was rock climbing. I wrote my essay and submitted my photos. For days after, I talked about how amazing it would be to have this opportunity. And as more days went by, it sort of fell off my radar. Like contests do. Much to my surprise, months later, I received an email that I had in fact won. And that I had two weeks to figure everything out for travel, because Idaho was calling! And there was no way I would miss out on such a rare and rad event.
In order to get to Idaho from Minnesota, I had to drive by so many beautiful parts of the country. So naturally this turned into a glorious road trip of National Parks and National Forests. Dirtbagging steadily out west. Surviving on quick oats, tuna packets and instant coffee. It was bliss. Every day that I woke up, I was somewhere new and glorious. And so aware that none of this would have been possible without winning the climbing scholarship.
When I got to City of Rock, I was greeted with some special sights that I didn’t expect at all. Prior to this, I had no clue how lovely and rugged Idaho was. I was dazzled and honestly, quite scared for my car; a 10 year old Chevy Aveo that has seen more wilderness than most of the people I know! The color of this landscape was bright gold, with splashes of green and red. The sky a pop of blue with puffs of white cloud. The air was hot and dry and sensational. Getting to the parking lot, I saw a sign that I recognized directing me towards a campsite about a quarter of a mile in.
My things for the next few days were unloaded and I was left for the weekend. I began to set up my tent and organize my gear as some of the other ladies rolled in and began to do the same. I was struck by how windy our private site was. Putting my sleep system together, everything hit me all at once; how lucky I had been to win this opportunity, how wonderful it was that it all worked out- my job agreed, my car agreed, everything was lining up in a lovely way. When I finished setting up and emerged from the tent, I was pretty surprised to see that most everyone was doing the same. We were asked to come around the fire ring in a few to do intros and get the lay of the next few days. I think this is the part I was most nervous for at the time. I had realized while in my tent, that most of these women seemed to know one another. Through hearing them chit chatting and talking about past climbing adventures. I was a little apprehensive about being the only woman to have won my way there. And about very clearly being the least experienced climber.
During intros, my mind was eased by the friendly nature of everyone there. We all chatted some and were given very fun “gift bags” that were actually just wonderful presents- a bag from Patagonia, a hat from OR, a few Petzl items and many little items for skin care and climbing. Totally unexpected and very appreciated. We had some dinner and retired to our tents for the night. We had a big day ahead of us, with a pretty early start!
The next morning I woke up feeling refreshed and emerged from my tent to a pre-sunrise City of Rock. No one else was awake, so I took to opportunity to take a sunrise stroll down the main roads of the area. It was warm with a cool breeze and the sky was slowly turning into a rainbow of painted colors that reflected vividly off of the rock that surrounded everything. I returned to camp and was greeted by Angela and Amy, who were busy starting to get coffee going and arranging the table for breakfast. We had some great conversation and the other ladies began to rise. Breakfast was a lot of coffee and many food choices, served up buffet style. There was something for everyone, including gluten free options. I don’t think anyone ever went hungry during the next few days- between our ample breakfasts and dinners that were provided, most of us brought hearty lunches and many snacks.
Day one of climbing began with some lessons on ropes, knots and basic safety. We went over gear and were able to test out various shoes, helmets and anything else you might need! I enjoyed this part of the day. I have some sports arthritis in my left foot and have difficulty finding climbing shoes that feel okay. I tend to stay loyal to specific brands and being able to try on and use alternative brands was awesome. I particularly liked a pair of Scarpas- not too aggressive and wide enough for my crazy foot. I was most comfortable with gym-climbing at the time and had no idea what slab climbing was. Enter: the slab climbing crash course.
I was so timid about this style of climbing. Quite frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever shown such restraint in a new physical pursuit. Between the new kind of exposure and the uncertainty of almost nothing to hold on to, I had some trouble. I took two attempts at two different routes that morning. I found a lot of peace watching the other women climb, noticing the technique they used and paying close attention to where they were putting hands and feet on this seemingly very smooth but sticky rock. Smearing was everything. Using your hands to balance was everything. I took note and rested my foot a bit. I had one more attempt, using some of what I saw the other women doing, and was stunned by the reaction I had to the exposure as I climbed higher. It was enough to call it a day for me- so many new emotions and observations! Angela could tell I was feeling a little uncomfortable and took me aside to practice smearing on a small boulder nearby. “Trust the gear” was something she said a few times. And I realized that was something that I had never been told before and it was not something I had ever done. I understood using gear, but until that point I didn’t understand that to use it properly, you must trust it. This little lesson boosted my confidence and gave me something to really look forward to for the following day.
Later that day, I was given the opportunity to belay a few times. It was a great rest for my tired foot and a fun way to get to know some of the ladies more. We were out on the rock for many hours and when we wrapped it up for the evening, hunger set in. There was a big healthy feast and we all gathered together to discuss our day and our plans for the next day. We decided to go to Castle Rocks State Park, which was very nearby and would hopefully provide much more shade.
When we went to bed that evening, everything from the day caught up with me and I slumbered. Hard. I woke up around sunrise and again, had some great conversation with Angela and Amy. We had breakfast and hit the road- it was a short drive to the state park and a beautiful walk to the area we would be climbing at. I was shocked to see so many flowers and so many lizards. I also noted the couple rogue cows grazing the field and hanging out near the trail. It all felt a little surreal. We set up our ropes and began climbing. I belayed a bit and learned a lot in doing so. Any time I had a question it was answered and many tips were given to make the task easier and more comfortable. When it was time for me to attempt climbing for the day, the exposure got me good. Only this time I was encouraged from below by everyone and I went a little further than before. I knew what I had to do and how to do it, but my muscles and brain were fighting with one another. My calves gave out before my brain allowed me to get much higher. The sun was hot. I felt overstimulated. It was time for me to sit back, investigate gear, take some photos and have a bite to eat.
Later in the day I sent my first wall. It is still something I am very proud of. I was scared and unsure, but I was determined to complete a route on this trip. Even if it was one route. Going from never slab climbing to jumping right on in; I counted it as a major victory. The wind was so strong, my rope was whipping all over. I couldn’t decide if it was best to look up, down or to either side. Eventually I decided to just keep it simple, with eyes pointing only to where I needed to go. When I topped out, I could just barely hear some friends cheering below. Seemingly just as happy I was for this overcoming of fear and powering through.
It is immensely difficult to be vulnerable and not your best in front of new people. But there was no judgement, only kindness. Praise over and over again. Reminders from everyone that we all start somewhere and usually it’s from a place of complete unknowing. I took all of these encouraging and gentle words and to this day, remember them often.
After climbing, most of the ladies went to the local hot springs. I didn’t come prepared for that and stayed behind at camp. The plan was to read, write and reflect on the past couple days. But that is not how it worked out. In The City, cellphone service is quite hard to come by. As it turned out, friends and family had been trying to get a hold of me for a while. There was a family emergency back in Minnesota and before I was able to comprehend any of it, my boyfriend arrived at our camp to break this news, help me pack up quickly and make the long drive home. An imperfect ending to a life changing few days. I had made connections, achieved goals and learned so much. It felt like a haze to leave in such a rapid and surprising manner.
It’s been a handful of months since my scholarship to City of Rocks. So much has changed in my life. Profound changes that have been difficult, scary and often times like groping around in the dark. And I have thought about my time in Idaho constantly. I learned more in those days about climbing than I could possibly imagine. From technique, to language, to gear. I was able to learn about the outdoor industry in a deeper way. And I was encouraged to chase my dreams; live my life wildly and fully. I felt supported in a group of women. It was a beautiful and inspiring thing. I daydream about how excited I was when I topped out. How shocked and proud I was. It is empowering beyond words to defeat fears so big. I carry that feeling with me whenever I face sticky situations in daily life. Normal struggle seems a hell of a lot easier to handle when you’ve battled your own mind in a dangerous situation. And being supported by these strong and athletic women is empowering in a different way. I find that these days I am a bit more encouraging of others. I trust a little easier and open up a little quicker. I feel a safety with women that I never had before.
I grew leaps and bounds in The City. In many ways, my life began there. Or rather, I evolved into someone else there. Someone I care for and appreciate more. A grown woman who is braver and calmer and unafraid of the unknown. Climbing will always be a large part of my life and through this clinic, I have knowledge, confidence and a higher skill level to propel me further. Prior to this, I didn’t know slab climbing. Since that time, I have used this skill countless times. It is a technique I am proud of. My time spent in Idaho was raw and magical. It is an experience that is constantly teaching me lessons and that I will remember for the rest of my life. I am excited to return some day to conquer more fears, develop further and reminisce on the crazy few days I spent with Chicks Climbing.