The Oldest Little Engine that Could

Last year I had the privilege of becoming the oldest woman to climb El Capitan. It was a privilege to attempt it with the only person on the planet capable of climbing it with no rope or protection — my son.* If anyone could keep me safe (with ropes!) on such a wild, dangerous, challenging adventure, I knew it was him.

The learning curve, though, was extreme.

To get ready, each week for 17 weeks I drove from Sacramento to Yosemite (about 3 & 1/2 hours), and for several days I worked on my body and my mind.

The body — even at 66 — turned out to be the easy part.

Not that it was easy trudging up the most spectacular, steepest, miles-long hikes each week — or pushing the mechanical ascenders up thousands of feet of rope — then doing it again. Over and over. But training a body, even an old one, is largely just a question of repetition. Anything you do every day, or every week, is going to get easier. Better. More efficient.

The mind, though, can be far more resistant to change.

If you stand on the ground in Yosemite Valley and look up at El Cap, a sheer granite wall of 3,200 feet, the obvious first reaction that comes to mind is, “That’s impossible!”

But a challenge is a challenge. I’d dreamed of this for years, and my son was willing. It was time.

The first time I went there, alone, to practice ascending the thousand feet of fixed ropes, my mind flashed back to my last lead climb in the gym. I’d been working hard on an overhung 5.10c climb — very hard, for me. On its roof section, you hang like a sloth from the ceiling for a few moves.

I’ve never been able to do a pull-up. My chicken-arms are skin and bone. I got a third of the way up when I realized I was talking myself out of finishing. I was afraid. Of falling. Of failing, I ‘knew’ it was too hard for me.

Not surprisingly, I fell off. (On a rope, so I just fell a few feet and dangled.) My belayer lowered me to the floor. We did this over and over.

It was decision time: try it again, or admit defeat?

That was when I first had the talk with myself.

If you tell yourself “I can’t”, you’ll be right. If you tell yourself “I can,” you’ll be right. Your choice. I’d simply been making the wrong choices. That darned Little Engine had it nailed, right from my childhood; I just hadn’t paid attention.

I got back on the route, turned off the “I can’t’s” – and chugged right up the wall.

On El Cap, I talked to myself the whole 13 hours that I chugged, or limped, upward. At times, that voice faded out as fatigue and fear took over. But mostly I managed to remember, and use, that key. Because I’d rather be the little engine that could. I want to grow up to be just like my son – doing what I love, and convinced that I can.

Do you have a favorite strategy for talking yourself into success? Please share it here, or at my Facebook page:

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You can read more about that historic day in my book, due out from Mountaineers Books on Mother’s Day 2019. Check it out here:




* On June 3, 2017, Alex Honnold climbed El Capitan free-solo, wth no rope or protection. Learn about him in National Geographic’s feature-length movie, “Free Solo,” in theaters now:



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