Technical (Non-)Advances (I never wanted to be a secretary!)

What was your dream job when you were young? Did you dream of piloting a huge airliner? Writing a book? Starring in a movie? Discovering a cure for some dread disease? 

Being a secretary?

I have the greatest respect for secretaries. I’ve worked in offices or departments that would never have functioned if not for the secretaries. They knew where everything was, who was responsible for what, the protocols in place for everything that needed to happen. Secretaries make the world go around, for sure. But I never wanted to be one.

But I am. Because of computers.

In the past, when I needed to sign a document, a secretary would mail it to me, I’d sign it, and send it back. Done. Simple. All I needed was a stamp.

Now, someone e-mails it to me. Then I have to supply my own ink and my own paper (both expensive), I have to fight with the combination printer / scanner / copier that follows its own mysterious rules and sometimes works the way the online instructions say it should. 

There is no manual to refer to. I’m on my own. That doesn’t always go well.

This week, I spent an entire morning — 4 hours! — trying to print one insurance policy page. Blinking lights indicated that ink was low — and then that it wasn’t. (No, not that ink; the other one.) Another blinking light told me some other conflicting information I didn’t need and couldn’t do anything about. Somewhere along the procession of alerts, I discovered that something was amiss with the cartridge. But, unable to find a way to open the recessed gateway to said cartridge, there was nothing I could do about it.

Online, after much searching, I found information about similar printers, and then — after more searching — finally about mine…but in a language I couldn’t decipher. English, it said, but most of the words meant nothing to me. And I’m a linguist. I can get by in 8 or 9 languages. But not in this one.

All this so I could sign it, then scan it back into my computer with my signature, then e-mail it back. Instead of simply signing it and mailing it back.

My ink (very costly!..more so each year.). My paper (not cheap). My machine. My time (hours of it!). My new job — secretary. For everyone I have dealings with.

I never wanted to be a secretary. 

Computers have made our lives simpler, they tell us. They save us time. That’s what they tell us. But I’m old enough to remember otherwise. 

I’ve wasted hour after frustrating hour trying to second-guess a computer or a printer or a scanner or a “smart” phone, trying to fool it into doing what I need it to do despite the fact that it’s clearly telling me it doesn’t want to or can’t. 

It’s not a question of competence. I can follow basic instructions in an instruction manual just fine — but there are none anymore. One must go online. Where? Not always clear. To look up…what, exactly? I often call things by a different name than the one that some tech nerd gave it. Often, when I see my issue in some forum or online discussion board (what a waste of time!!), I don’t recognize it because I don’t call it that

It often seems that all of the time I ‘save’ by using computers to do my work is then spent trying to find answers online. 

Life is frustrating enough. 

Yes, computers can diagnose diseases and design a work station or a financial spreadsheet that will, indeed, improve our lives in the long term. But the cost is far, far higher than we recognize. Some of us who remember do recognize it. But we can’t do anything about it. We don’t have time.

The Next Generation — or, What Would I Have Asked?

Cleaning up Christmas is a chore! I love Christmas, love the once-a-year decorations, the colors, the musical scores that sit on the piano for a month or so — the specialness of it. Putting it away seems like slamming a door too hard. 

Putting away the Christmas cards often makes me stop, go make a cup of tea and think — about the ones I sent, the ones I never had time to send, the stamps, the special paper for inserts, the photos I meant to include. The lists. And the address books.

Remember those? Not the digital kind, not a ‘Contacts list’. The kind where we used to actually write stuff. Longhand. In script.

My mother’s address book was a small red leather book with gold lines around the edges, and its pages were edged in gold, so if you held it up in the light, it glittered. And it was a wonder of organization! Family names were written in blue ink, friends in black. Foreign names were in a special section toward the back. Little notes of special information were printed in tiny letters in the margins: (“Rosie’s stepdaughter,” or “house in the Poconos,” other cryptic words to help her remember who they were). And those who were no longer with us were crossed out.

Crossed out. Nullified. X’ed out. Gone. No longer part of the Christmas list.

My own Christmas mailing list has dwindled. I used to have scores of relatives who all wanted to be acknowledged at least once a year. Great-aunts and second or third cousins and children of those. Now, when I pull out my address book (yes, I’ve had one forever), and my printed list (from my computer), I find lines everywhere. Crossing outs. X’es. 

My maternal grandmother and grandfather both died in their 70s. My father’s father was gone before I was old enough to know him, and Nanny was buried on my third birthday, when she was in her 70s.

I’m 70 now. This year, I summited El Capitan. Several times. 

The only thing I remember my grandmother doing was sitting in her rocking chair in the huge kitchen, shelling peas, cutting beans, peeling potatoes. Watering her plants. Rubbing my back as I watched TV. Making dinner. 

Next year, I’ll have a granddaughter. What will she remember of me? I’m the Next Generation. Many of my relatives are gone. Some of my friends, too. I’m the only connection she’ll have to What Came Before. What will she want to ask me?

So MANY things I wish I’d asked my mother, before it was too late! I couldn’t talk with my grandmothers, since neither of them spoke much English, and after WWII we kids spoke only English. I was too young to care. But my mother could have answered anything. 

But as they say, ‘Education is wasted on the young.’ We don’t know what to ask, when we’re young. Or we don’t care enough to ask it. And then we’re old, they’re gone, and it’s too late. 

But then Christmas will come around again, and I’ll delight in putting up the red, green and gold decorations, and I’ll pull out the cards and address books and my Contacts list. And I’ll wonder, again, what I would have asked, had we had the time….

Fungus & Critters & Birds, Oh My!

On Sauvie Island, north of Portland, lots and lots of critters were out looking for yummy things to eat. As on most fall days in the northwest, the sky was close and heavy, allowing a glimmer of lighter sky now and then. And the wetlands were filled with life!

Oops! Almost stepped on this guy, a banana slug.

And I’m not sure what this nutria eats, but there was lots of it where he was bouncing around, and he seemed pretty content.

As we walked the muddy trails, birds stole the landscape! So many ducks & other water birds of so many species, colors and personalities! So many geese! Their honks would begin so softly, from so far away, or rise from a far-off field, and as the long, erratic V-formations got closer, or turned, or came in for a landing, the noise grew and grew until we couldn’t ignore it or talk over it. 

This enormous flock covered the entire field, but as I approached — ever so softly and quietly! — they raised the alarm and blackened the sky as they all rose at once. 

This snowy egret is intent on whatever lives at the water’s edge…

The stars of our day, though, were the sandhill cranes. Their warbly call is distinct from all the other birds wading, swimming, or foraging in the wetland fields. Tall, stately, they bob and stroll slowly, almost imperceptibly, poking their long, pointed beaks into the reeds and grasses in search of food. Occasionally, they would spread their long wings and burst into a frenzied dance, just for a few seconds. Probably practicing for the mating dances soon to come.  

If you’ve never seen this many birds in the wild, never heard them take over a wetland, never seen them dance their frenzied mating dance, I recommend it heartily. You might find yourself changed in ways you never expected.

The graceful cranes inspired a monument:

But as I said, not only the critters were looking for yummies! My daughter knows her funghi…

She’s off on the hunt…and I’m learning what to look for, too….

I’ve always wished I knew more about my planet, so that if I ever found myself in the middle of nowhere, I’d know what I could eat, what might make good soup or salad. We’ve lost that skill, as a society; nature is a foreign land to many of us — most? — filled with danger and fear and all things unknown. It shouldn’t be. Mother Nature is our home.

Some of Nature’s fungus — mushroom — bounty that day:

It thrills me that my daughter is not one of us, that way. She could feed us from nature’s bounty. In fact, she did; by the end of the day, we had enough fungus — mushrooms — to make a remarkably yummy supper of chanterelles, a mushroom de luxe that’s as delicious as it is beautiful!

Diversity, Revisited

Ascendiing El Capitan for my 70th b’day.

Why is it so hard for people to imagine a 70-year-old (like me) climbing El Capitan? Or any other mountain? Or running a marathon? The reaction to my 70th birthday climb of El Cap has surpassed anything I could have imagined. At last count, the story has played or been published on over 65 news or human interest venues around the world, including CNN, the NY Times, LA Times, London Times, and CBS News, to name a few!

About 15% of Americans are seniors. 15%! If you gave away 15% of your income to charity, you’d be considered outrageously generous. If you worked only 15% of the year, you could have a whole other life. Or your vacations would be incredible!

Mark Cicak climbing in the Sierra Nevada, in his 70s.

A whole lot of seniors are out there doing things that are never seen or acknowledged by most Americans.

And older women outnumber older men by about 7 million — which means there are lots of older women, like me, out doing things that younger people consider impossible.

Jannette Pazer on El Capitan, Yosemite NP.
Lori Milas, 68, climbing at Joshua Tree NP.

And yet, nary a photo of a gray-haired climber or runner in a magazine, or on a cover, or online. That strikes me as odd. Offensive, even.

Is it because we fear that when we’re old, we won’t be able to measure up to older role models who do extraordinary things? (But then, that should be true for young people, too…) Or because our parents or grandparents weren’t like that? All of my grandparents and all their relatives died in their 70s. To which I say, So what? They had a much harder life, all from ‘the old country’ where they had little food, no freedoms, no education. Especially, little nourishing food. Surely that has a lot to do with how long and in what condition we get to linger on this planet. 

Whatever the reason, we need to acknowledge, as a society, that getting old does not necessarily mean getting feeble. (Some people are feeble when they’re young.) Getting old is a privilege, to be cherished. I know many who did not get to enjoy that privilege. 

Certainly, health plays a determining role. If you suffer from a debilitating disease, obviously you’re not going to enjoy climbing mountains. But all things being equal, I’m no more able to climb El Capitan than you are; I just trained for it. A lot. You can do anything you want, if you break it down to baby-steps and work on each step until you master it. Success, in anything, is as simple as that.

…or a pleasant walk around the park…
A short bike ride with friends…

So start simple. A walk around the block. A short bike ride with a friend. No one begins running by planning to do a marathon. Baby steps are the way to get out there and start enjoying Nature!

Hulda Crooks scaled Mount Whitney (14,505 ft) 23 times between the ages of 65 and 91. During that same time period, she also climbed 97 other peaks. 

Kris Machnick started rock climbing at 64, and ice climbing at 65. At 80, she climbed 8 ice and rock routes to raise $100,000 to combat Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

Age is a number. And as any statistician knows, numbers can be tweaked to prove anything at all. You’re as old, or as young, as you believe yourself to be. 

So, go start believing!

Giving Thanks

This week, all over the media, there are posts, stories, and other little exhortations for you to give thanks…and buy their merchandise! So here’s a quiet little corner to retreat to, that’s not about money at all. Not about buying anything, or taking an expensive trip, or anything at all related to our economy.

It’s been several very weird years. Covid is still with us. Many of us have been forced to learn things we never would have chosen to learn — like how to cope with loss. How to handle finances when the money just isn’t there. How to survive….

The trick to life, though, isn’t just to survive. It’s about learning to thrive, at least a little, even as we work on survival. And gratitude can help.

Gratitude can reduce all those negative emotions that drag us down and make life seem more like a burden than a gift. Nurturing an attitude of thankfulness can clear away the miasma of regret, resentfulness, whatever negative feelings that creep in to taint your view of life. 

Like any other habit, gratefulness can be learned. Like learning anything, though, it requires practice. So let’s practice a little….

I’m grateful for __. What would you put in that blank? 

My turn….

First of all, I’m grateful for these guys:

I could write a book about how they’ve made my life richer! Maybe someday I will….

Color always makes me happy! I’m grateful for flowers of every hue,

glad to have healthy eyes that can see them (some people don’t) and a brain that can process their beauty. And for the fall colors:

Every time I venture out into the outdoors, to climb… 

to hike… to walk…to enjoy a mountain lake…

 

just to be outdoors…I’m grateful that my body allows me to enjoy those things. For many people, that’s not the case. My mother had had polio as a child; she would have loved to do any of those things! She used to say things it took me a lifetime to understand, like, “In my whole life, I’ve never run.” Never run?! As a kid, I found that thought so horrible that my young brain couldn’t process it. Now, with a ruined foot (from a botched surgery), a complaining knee, some battered other parts that object strenuously to being pushed, now I can understand some of that regret. And that comprehension makes me even more grateful that even at 70, I can enjoy those activities. 

And so grateful for friends, who make all those activities so much more fun!

My list is quite long. This week, make your own list, and think about those things on Thanksgiving, and every other day of the year. You’ll probably find it makes your whole year just a little better. 🙂 

70 on El Cap, cont’d

My head is still working hard on El Cap (see last blog of 10/27). People always ask me how much work it is to climb a monster wall like El Cap. “Climb”, of course, is sometimes a contested word. Elite climbers don’t acknowledge what we did as ‘climbing’. The dictionary does, however, and as a linguist, that’s good enough for me. 

Nearing the top of the first section, leaving the forest behind us.

Any way you do it, going up El Cap is a lot of work! Here’s how we did it.

2nd section — working hard on the ropes.

First section, from the ground — a couple hours of gnarly scrambling through woods for the lower 800 or so feet of four-point hiking, using hands and feet to progress through forest trails, over streams strewn with boulders, up rocks.

Next section — an hour or so (for me; I’m slow) of jumaring, or ascending ropes using mechanical ascenders — which is remarkably strenuous! — on the four vertical sections of granite, covering about 1,000 feet. 

Last section — For the last couple thousand feet before the summit, you push your way through prickly manzanita ‘forests’, over boulders, some of which are so demanding there are hand-ropes (especially welcome on the descent!), and across and up many, many long, sloping, steep, slippery, scree-strewn slabs of rock. These slabs are unprotectable, that is, there are no features, cracks, etc. where one might place protection, attach a rope, or do anything that might help someone ascend. You just have to walk it, yourself. And try not to think too much…. 

Jake Myhre giving me beta — info — on how to navigate the slabs.

Because the hardest part of the unending slabs at the top is not walking up them. The real test is not allowing your mind to acknowledge what will happen if you stumble. If you catch your toe, or trip. Down you’d roll, no doubt breaking bones against all the bumps and lumps of rock, until you sail out over the edge, into the air 3,000-foot above the valley floor. That’s the hard part. For me.

As a new climber, just a few years ago, that was always my hardest struggle when my new group of climbing friends took me outdoors to climb. Climbing isn’t really dangerous unless you do something stupid. Something careless. That’s when bad things happen, up there. And I knew that I didn’t know enough yet to be as thorough as I needed to be. I was painfully aware of what I didn’t know. As Mom, the oldest climber out there (usually), I knew enough to hold back, to wait and let the others do it first and show me how. That’s how I learned.

But even at my most careful, my mind still conjured up images of what could happen if…. That vivid writer’s imagination would take hold, and I’d spend much too much time talking myself out of listening to it. As I had to do up on the slabs of El Cap.

But I did. We all made it, all 10 of my friends and me.

I never could have had that adventure without them —

The whole gang

to train with, to encourage me, to carry the heavy things we all needed in order to camp on the summit.

I’ll always be grateful to them for that.

So the Champagne glass I lifted on the summit — I still can’t believe Garet carried bottles of Champagne in his haul bag!! — was partly for my 70th, but mostly for you, all of you. Thank you! I look forward to our next adventure together!

I’ll never ‘top’ that as a camping experience or a birthday party!

Happy Halloween…or, the Anniversary That Wasn’t

Jugging on the west side of El Cap

Halloween Day. The day I summited El Capitan with Alex, in 2017. I usually celebrate that day by jugging up the Heart lines (the 6 ropes permanently affixed to El Cap’s west side), sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. Just to remind myself that I can still do it. 

Today, I sit home, letting my body recover from being slammed into the rock in Solar Slab Gully, in the Red Rock Canyon, Nevada. (Top photo) It happened 2 weeks ago, and I was sure I was fine afterward (aside from a cut and some spectacular bruising). But my body now says otherwise. 

Looking toward Las Vegas from Solar Slab

Last week, I did some gym climbing for the LA Times. The writer of the article, Jim Rainey, was surprised to hear about my fall, after the article appeared. I’d never mentioned it. 

When I described it to him, he said I’d been injured. I never thought of it that way. To me, “injured” means someone had to intervene in some way — to stop serious bleeding, to bandage a wound, to set a bone. Anything else is just bumps and bruises. 

He disagreed. 

On Solar Slab

So this Halloween Day, I’ll raise a glass with dinner to the (sometimes painful) adventure of climbing with my kids and my friends, and of running and climbing into what the French call “the third age” of life. It’s a privilege to live long enough — I know many who were not granted that privilege — and to have a body willing and able to do so.

So, even though this holiday commemorates the day of the dead, my toast today is to life: 

L’chaim! To life, and to living it fully — on our own terms!

What goes up must come down. Rappelling off Solar Slab
(before the fall).
Looking down from the 4rth or 5th pitch of Solar Slab.

70 on El Cap

Sometimes words fail, even for a writer. Or the right ones just don’t exist, or can’t measure up. 

It’s impossible to measure up to an ocean of granite like El Capitan, Yosemite’s 3,200-ft vertical wall. When I decided to celebrate my 70th birthday on its summit, many months ago, I was ignorant — as I had been, 4 years ago, when I decided to follow my son, Alex Honnold, up a route called Lurking Fear, on El Capitan’s west face. Ignorance can be bliss. Or it can be murder.

Alex didn’t think I could do it… But that night, at 2am, after 13 hours up and 6 down, I became the oldest woman to climb El Capitan. 

This year, on September 23, 10 friends and I set out in the dark, at 6am, to climb it again. This time, we went up the Descent Route, the way all El Cap climbers come down from the summit. The first 1/3 requires gnarly hiking through woods — about 2 hrs, for me — which for some of us (oldsters) meant 4-point travel, grabbing small trees and edges of boulders or whatever else helped. Over talus, and scree, over a riverbed filled with boulders.  

On the next 1/3 of the wall, you travel up 4 fixed lines, ropes that are anchored top and bottom to bolts in the wall. Jumars, or ascenders, are metal handles with teeth that grip the rope, sliding upwards only. They attach to your harness and your feet, and you push them up, stand up, right side, then left side, laddering your way up the rope. Then you do it again. And again. Only your core strength keeps you vertical as you ascend. (That wore out fast!)

The last 1/3 of the wall gave me pause, both in 2017 with Alex, and this time, for my 70th. That first time, I had never seen the summit. Nightmares of the descent woke me for weeks — months — and when we finally did it, it was after midnight on a moonless night. I saw only a tiny cone of light from my headlamp. This time, it would be daylight. 

The granite slabs that lead you up that last third stretch for what seems like miles. Impossible to protect with rope or any other way. Just walk steeply uphill, endlessly, grabbing whatever tiny edges you can find. But my foot no longer works the way it should (from a botched surgery), and the toes can’t grip. My head, though, was the worst offender. My writer’s imagination could see exactly what would happen if I stumbled…I’d roll down slab after slab, breaking parts of me at every bump of rock, until I reached the edge. Then I’d sail out over the Valley to plummet down 3,200 feet to the Valley floor.

Impossible to erase that image, once the imagination takes hold.

Such a powerful image needs time to settle into the brain…just as I need time to wrestle with the remainder of my story. Climbing El Cap at 70 takes its toll, physically, mentally, emotionally. I’m not ‘down’ yet. Not sure I ever will be, completely. 

So, to be continued…. Stay tuned. . . . 

And be sure to send me whatever questions you have about the whole vertical trip. I’ll answer them if I can. 

Diversity?

“Diversity in climbing.” Alex Honnold tosses out the buzz-phrase in an interview during the Olympics. Alex is the world-famous voice & face of climbing (and my son). 

But diversity is only a thing if you’re young, apparently. 

“There’s been a huge effort in the climbing world to make it more inclusive,” says his wife, Sanni McCandless, but she’s talking mainly about the male/female divide. 

Diversity, or inclusiveness, in the media seems to refer to one’s gender, skin color, or ethnicity. But…

All my mentors in climbing had gray hair and were retired.

Next month I’ll celebrate

my 70th birthday

on the summit of El Capitan.

Why are there no photos in the media of our demographic? No articles focused on us?

About 15.2% of Americans are seniors. People who reach 65 these days have an average of about 20 more years to remain active. And older women outnumber older men by about 7 million or so.

And yet, browse through any climbing magazine…running magazine….  Any magazine (except, maybe, AARP). Yep, you guessed it: we’re just … absent. MIA… as if we weren’t out there doing amazing things!

But we are! And many of us started as seniors! Often, magazine articles celebrate the ‘old-timers’ in their sport, the ones who climbed or ran or swam their whole life, well into their senior years. Like Fred Beckey, who climbed well into his 80s.

But what about all of us out there who are just getting started? Many seniors were completely busy all their adults lives taking care of other people, earning money, working on careers, caring for old or young. 

And then, that changes. We’re free to do what we want, when we want. We have the money to spend on gear, the time to go where the activities and our dreams take us. 

t’s more than time to let those young ‘uns know we’re out there — and to celebrate us! 

Exposure

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