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

Desert Time-Travel

Is 40 years a long time? Or the blink of an eye?

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! 

Me, sticking my feet to the wall.

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.

Time-travel rocks! 

CoVid 19 (Pt 11) — Learning Curve, Pandemic-Style

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. 

Can’t be soon enough. 

Happy Valentines Day!

Happy Valentines Day…Run!

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….

Sweet Harvest

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.

The Last Gasp of Christmas

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. 

And then it’s over. 

In my house, it goes grudgingly.