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 —
This one, though, was the first, and the scariest:
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.
The last time I was in the unique high desert of Joshua Tree, in southern California, I was 40 years younger. I was still a New Yorker who couldn’t quite grasp the realities of a desert, especially one as unusual as this one.
Joshua trees defy description. If you stretch your imagination, they do resemble a man standing in the desert, arms up-stretched in prayer — like Joshua, the man they were named after by the first Europeans to come this way.
They’re not trees, though. For many decades, botanists and scientists thought them to be most closely related to the lily. Maybe harder to imagine than their eponymous namesake. But more recently, they’ve changed their minds, according to my botanist-to-be daughter, and now believe that Joshua trees share even more similarities with the asparagus.
Even harder to imagine.
So many differences in 40 years! Joshua Tree was a relatively unknown National Monument, then; now it’s a National Park, an international destination. I was a newlywed, a city girl from New York transplanted to southern California. I still thought of ‘desert’ as sand dunes, Sahara-style. I had never heard of climbing as a sport.
My husband and I camped there often, nestled among the jumbo rocks, hiked, listened to the coyotes. At night we lay, amazed, under billions of stars we never saw elsewhere.
Last week was a climbing trip as well as a trip back in time. Jumbo Rocks campground is still as impossible and as impressive as it was to that 40-years-younger, ignorant me. I hope you all get to see it, and camp there, someday!
Now I know about climbing, thanks to my son, and there are signs everywhere telling you how to access the climbing areas. We never saw a climber, or a sign, 40 years ago.
I was one of them, this time. The rock is different from my ‘home’ rocks of slick, pure granite in the Sierra Nevada. Here, in J-Tree, when you plant your rubber-clad foot on a vertical wall, it stays planted. Rough, jagged, sometimes just crystalline enough to pinch or grab or step up on. Encouraging.
As encouraging as traveling through time. Unlike my husband, whose time-travel ended in 2004, I’ve been privileged to grow old. At 66, I was the oldest woman to scale El Capitan. Last week, at 69, I climbed many formations in J-Tree that I’d never heard of 40 years ago.
And if life allows, this September on the day I turn 70 I’ll lift my glass on the summit of El Cap again.
Learning is the greatest pleasure. Ask any kid. Little kids want to learn how to do everything. A passing toddler who sees you slopping mortar onto a brick step in front of your house instantly wants to push his finger into the ooze, to see what you’re doing, and learn how, and why…. Kids instinctively want to learn. They know that’s where the fun is.
The best vacations are the ones where you learned to…. Ski. Paddle-board. Dig for anthropological ruins. Rock climb. Dance a hula. Speak a new language. Navigate on your own in a foreign country. From the learning experiences come the most visceral memories.
It’s not all roses; learning can be positive or negative. You can learn what to do, or what not to do. How to do it, or how not to do it.
What have we learned from Covid?
Everyone’s journey through this pandemic has been different. Being forced apart, we learned how much we long for the human touch. To hug our kids! To smooth a beloved brow as they take their last breath.
Many of us have learned that we’re stronger than we thought. That we can teach our class from a computer. Buy our food without setting foot in a store. Work from our kitchen instead of our cubicle or office. That we can do all that while keeping our families safe and sane and trying not to think about what might come next.
Some of us have learned how much we can tolerate without breaking. Without giving up. Or without letting on that we’re close to giving up. My friend, a nurse, cried tears of relief when she learned she’d no longer be working in the Covid ward of the hospital. We embrace relief, kindness, help wherever we can, in a pandemic.
For over 500,000 of us, the learning curve has come to a cruelly sudden halt. For their families and friends it goes on, but different. For those who survive, learning never really stops; the content changes, but the process goes on. If we’re lucky.
And if we remain among the lucky ones, someday soon we’ll get to learn what the aftermath of a pandemic is like.
I’ve made a discovery this pandemic year: I love virtual runs!
I’ve been a runner since about 2005. Marathons, half-marathons and every other distance below that. But once I started rock climbing, in 2010, the running took second place. I can’t always make it to the runs because I’m out at a crag somewhere, or on a mountainside, or recovering from the previous day’s climb.
But this Covid year, everything is different. No climbing outdoors, no getting together with friends, no organized runs. But you can’t keep runners from running, any more than you can keep climbers from climbing….
So with trepidation, I signed up for my first ‘virtual run.’ I wasn’t sure what that meant. Did one just ‘run’ online? Did it involve fingers rather than feet?
Surprise! You sign up, run the distance anywhere, any time, and send them your results. Simple! Easy to cheat, if that’s your thing. Virtual runs depend on honesty. The only one you would cheat is yourself.
My ‘thing’, I’ve discovered, is goals. I’m a goal-setter, and goals keep me focused and accomplishing things. The goals here are the same, virtual or real. But for virtual runs, I don’t have to get up early. I don’t have to drive to the run or stand in line for the Porta-Potties. If it’s raining one day, I can run the next instead. I can run from my front door. All I have to do is send them a screen shot of my results.
One downside makes it a bit harder to reach those goals: energy. Enthusiasm. Camaraderie. In a real road race, the energy you feel from all those other runners pounding the pavement or dirt all around you can help your performance immensely. It insinuates itself into your headspace and makes you better. Makes you run faster, or longer, or helps you do whatever it is that your body is saying you can’t do. There’s no substitute for that kind of shared energy.
Virtual runs, though, are the next best thing. And I love them!
Now if only there were such a thing as virtual rock climbing….
One beet (sweet, delicious!) and 5 carrots (so sweet & crunchy!).
At the beginning of the pandemic, 10 months ago, I planted my little victory garden. I used any pots that sat empty on my patio. I even sacrificed a few green potted plants. They were just for looks; these new ones were going to nourish me. I was going to survive this weird time, intact, at home. I was going to feed myself, be independent. Be resilient, like Nature.
Turns out, Nature is resilient, but she needs our help now and then. Like people.
At first, I tended my tidy little garden carefully, picked off the snails, hornworms and other nasty critters (who were also just out there to survive). I watered regularly. My garden and I, we bonded, and hoped.
10 months later, almost 500,000 deaths later, the pots are still there, almost empty. Hope has been stretched thin. I water them when I think of it. Snails have their way; only the hardiest plants have survived.
Last week, after the insurrection in D.C., after the killings two blocks from my house, I decided to go make order out of the chaos the garden had become. There was enough chaos all around, in our country, in the world. My little yard would have order, tranquility. I needed it — we all did — even if the plants didn’t.
I yanked out all the random green shoots that had sprung up — weeds of surprising varieties, trees the birds had planted — and removed the thick piles of autumn leaves that now protected the soil. I picked off all the bugs. I recognized a few droopy, dwarfed beet greens, but had little hope for any produce below the soil. I recognized small, frilly carrot tops, but knew that after all this time, there was little hope of anything edible. Lack of water and care would have certainly taken their toll.
I pulled them anyway.
They were so good! Full of natural sugars, from all the time they’d spent undisturbed. Small, like the pots they’d spent their lives in.
Sweet and inspiring!
In every sweet, comforting bite, I tasted hope.
Yesterday I planted 3 pots of spinach and lettuce. Later this week I’ll plant some more carrots and beets. I hope they — and I, and all of us — will fare better than we did last year.
Every year, it hits me. Putting away all the Christmas decorations always makes me unbearably sad.
For a short, small part of the year — a cold, dark part, not even a month — my home has been a haven of color and light. Candles cut the wintry gloom with their warmth. Colored lights glowed softly instead of normal white glare. The fragile, colored glass ornaments that fascinated and dazzled me as a child still hang on my tree, still sparkle and remind me of so much innocence and tenderness.
Colors are such an intimate, integral part of the season. The red and green plaid tablecloth transforms the small dining room into a different landscape, where one doesn’t just eat, one gathers and feasts. Celebrates.
From the CD player, carols in soothing piano versions or Nativity music from Bach, Adolphe Adam and others, soft, melodic, tranquil. Especially, tranquil. Peace is the language of the season.
Mystery is the source of the peace. And there’s plenty of mystery to go around, however you celebrate this season. Whether it’s a baby in a village in Bethlehem, or the shortest day of the year and its darkest season, or just the wonder of a tree brought indoors and adorned with love. Mystery is the currency of Christmas.
Although Christians claim this season for Christ’s birthday, the celebration of winter goes back thousands of years, long before the time of the ancient Romans. It’s an amalgam of traditions from all over the European world.
From many of the early northern European tribes, we inherited the tradition of a decorated tree to mark the passing of the shortest day of the year, and the hope that it brings for spring. Some regions used bare branches, to represent the barren season and the hope for the rebirth of a fertile, productive future. In more mountainous areas, we see artwork representing decorated evergreens.
From early Germanic peoples we inherit the tradition of exchanging presents. Many tribes and regions had their own mysterious night-time gift-bringer, like Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas and others.
Children had to behave to earn their gifts; these all-knowing mysterious visitors were privy to the whole year’s antics of every child in the region! And no one wanted to find only lumps of coal in their stocking on Christmas morning.
In Middle Europe, mistletoe grows in abundance even in winter, which gives us our present-day tradition — a kiss, the first step in the all-important human process of fertility.
Music often conveys the emotion of the season best. Christmas carols speak of stars, of Christmas trees, of ships and travelers, and of course, of the baby whose birth Christmas celebrates. And the most oft-played, oft-sung carol of all is Silent Night.
Franz Xaver Gruber, a choir director at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria, wrote the music in 1818. Joseph Mohr, a priest, wrote the lyrics, and once it was first performed at the church, it was picked up and spread around Europe by traveling singers. Today it’s become one of the most beloved hymns of peace that mark the traditions of this season.
Whether your winter season celebrates a birth that occurred 2,000 years ago — and changed the world — or simply the hope of the renewal to come after these short, dark days of winter, you’re no doubt familiar with the melody, and maybe the words, of Silent Night. We can all use a little peace, this season and all to come.
Merry Christmas! Happy Chanukah. Happy Kwanzaa. Happy solstice. However you welcome it, I hope this silent night of Christmas brings you the joy of peace, and most of all this year, health to enjoy it.
What a strange, challenging holiday season this one will be! We can’t be with our families, can’t hug our parents, grandparents, friends, even as they lie alone and ill… What’s to be jolly about?
But is’t that exactly what Christmas is for?
This year we should embrace this holiday more than ever before! This bleakest time of year, when days are shortest and growing things appear dead, when so many thousands of us will never see another Christmas season — when could we need a glimmer of hope more?
Christmas is hope, the gift of expectation. Of waiting. We wait for the re-birth of what happened so long ago. We hope we’ll get presents, and that our loved one will come home from the hospital. We hope the days will get longer, and that the relentless virus will weaken and disappear. We hope people will realize how much we need to love each other instead of coveting and destroying. We hope love will prevail.
We’re all suffering through this pandemic. Everyone is affected by it, directly or indirectly. Where can we go to rescue our health — mental and physical — and our sanity?
Spoiler alert: it’s not in your house or on your screen!
Take a moment and think back to the years before Covid. When was the last time you couldn’t wait for something, because you were excited like a little kid? You couldn’t focus or sleep because your mind was racing in anticipation? Your feelings bounced between elation, fear and curiosity as you waited for the big day to come?
Last week, I ascended the six fixed ropes that go 1,000 vertical feet up El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park. At the top of these lines is Heart Ledge, named for the huge heart-shaped formation above it. This ledge is about 1/3 of the way up, and I work my way up there every year to celebrate the day I climbed El Cap with my son — all 3,000+ feet of it — in 2017.
All year it taunts me: Will I be able to reach The Heart this year? Do I still have sufficient arm/shoulder strength? (I’m almost 70.) Can I still jam my toes against the rock all the way up, or has the surgery made them too stiff, too tender? Will fear take root in my mind, or will I be able to block that out just long enough?
While anticipation makes my mind race and my stomach butterflies flutter, it also offers an important reminder: I’m alive and doing things that excite me and take me outside my comfort zone. My outdoor challenges may keep me up at night, but they also keep my body strong, my mind clear and my spirit light.
Society loves to tell us what we can and can’t do. And when it comes to outdoor recreation, the qualifying list feels endless. We’re either too big, too small, too uninformed, too uncoordinated…the list goes on. And for those of us above the age of 60, the doubt in our ability to explore nature feels even more profound. Instead, we’re pushed toward drugs as a means to feel better and sleep better, and screens as a way to distract and entertain ourselves.
Growing old is the only process that’s inevitable for all of us — if we’re lucky. And the only say we have in that process (again, if we’re lucky) is how we’ll age.
When I was 5, I followed the big boys up the trees and onto garage rooves in a quest for adventure. A lifetime later, despite piles of articles that tell me I can’t develop muscle at my age, I remind myself of what I’ve always known to be true: age doesn’t matter. I started rock climbing when I was almost 60. Now, 70 is around the corner.
Nature is the best healer. She doesn’t demand anything extreme; just a walk in a green park can have immense beneficial effects on our health, both physical and emotional.
If we turn off the screen, we’re more likely to hear nature beckon. If we leave the drugs in the bottle and go outside to enjoy nature’s peace, colors and calm, we might just forget why we were reaching for that bottle in the first place.
Obviously, genetics plays a role and pharmaceuticals have their place; if a debilitating disease requires drugs, clearly that’s needed. But if all the drug advertisements on TV have convinced you that you need something to feel okay, I encourage you to consider that what you need might instead just be waiting for you outside.
I climbed El Capitan at 66. I take no drugs at all, at almost 70. While that’s unusual these days, I believe it doesn’t have to be. Nature knows how to heal you, she knows what you need. A walk or an easy jog can lift your spirits like no drug can. Sunshine can warm and soothe like no drink or supplement can. It’s all there. And it’s all free.
Now, while our whole planet is being tested by a pandemic, is the best time for us to return to our mother, Nature. She knows what we need — and she offers it freely.