What does ‘exposure’ mean to you? 

Before I became a climber, it meant all the dictionary usuals — exposed film, exposure to the weather, notoriety for an actor or politician, etc.

Now, though, the word makes me worry, just a little. 

A climb can be steep or low-angled, over-hanging or vertical,  blocky (lots to hold on to or step on) or slabby (nothing to hold on to). But the ones that took me the longest to get comfortable with were the exposed climbs. 

Just what it sounds like:

Exposed to the air —

Exposed to gravity —

Just so…exposed —

Rappelling off El Capitan

This one, though, was the first, and the scariest: 

On the third pitch of Snake Dike, on Half Dome

Hanging on the shoulder of Half Dome is like being in a helicopter. . . without the helicopter! The walls of the dome all curve away from you, so if your back is against the wall, you don’t see anything next to you, above you, below you… nothing but air. 

This is where climbing gets cerebral.

When I started climbing, 10 years ago, I was constantly amazed at how completely I shut out the world when I climbed, in the gym or outdoors. You really can’t think about anything else while climbing. It’s not exactly a sport; it’s a problem-solving lifestyle. And you can’t solve a problem if your mind is elsewhere.

The exposure can be distracting, for sure. But dealing with it forces you to focus completely. Puts you in the ‘zone’. A totally zen experience. 

So much richer than simple meditation!

My ‘meditation room’: 

At the Heart Ledge, about 1,000ft up El Capitan

4 thoughts on “Exposure

  1. Dear Dierdre,
    It’s been interesting (including a bit of déjà vu) to read recently about your climbing adventures and stories about you and Alex. I’m the mother of a 39-year old climber/alpinist, Graham Johnson, who lives in Salt Lake City. He’s a full time veterinarian but just about every available non-working hour is spent on climbing, travelling, gear research or setting up trips. He’s not at Alex’s level, but some of the experiences you describe such as not finding out till later what he’s been climbing, are familiar.

    My husband Jeff and I are still learning how not to panic when we haven’t heard from Graham as often as we’d like—and hope to not have any more calls or emails from hospitals about accidents, of which there have been several.

    I’m also an amateur classical pianist, in a few chamber ensembles, and a runner/backpacker/cross country skier “citizen athlete.” And an adjunct professor in CCNY’s graduate School of Architecture.

    I just wonder if you might like to talk sometime via Zoom about raising a rock climbing kid, transitioned to adulthood, and dealing with some of the still-present anxiety about these exhilarating activities that put them on the edges of safety?

    All the best to you,
    Marcha Johnson,
    Brooklyn, NY

    • Hi, Marsha — I hope it’s not too late to reply to this! (Sorry — my life has been quite…hectic this year!) Yes, I’d be delighted to talk with you one of these days. Check out my Instagram page (@dierdrewolownick), and message me. I’ll send you my e-address. (One can’t be too careful, these days.) When you do, remind me about this page (I get lots of weird mail!). Sounds like we have lots to talk about!…and I bet it would be a fascinating conversation. 🙂

  2. You’re always coming up with interesting perspectives, the main reason I read all you send. Oh, yes, and because I love the photos!

    • I hope to get back to it, soon. I’ve been completely taken for months, training for my ascent of El Cap for my birthday! And, of course, life has gotten in the way, too. But I hope to get back to this, soon. Thanks for reading, and for letting me know how my words affect you. 🙂

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