Introducing Crag Mom: “Don’t Forget to Wear a Helmet!”

I make Justin explain how to set up a rappel almost every weekend. I know how to do it, but I just want to make sure that I know how to do it. You know? One weekend, we were at the base of a climb with some friends and I asked Justin (as usual) to give me the quick run through. His buddy Zach overheard and muttered, “Learning how to rappel again, huh?” Um. Yes.

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Rappeling from The Grak (5.6, 3-pitches, Yosemite)

One of the dudes in our tribe (Chad Butler) is a professional photographer. When he’s around, people like to look their coolest and climb their best. (Okay, my friends always look pretty cool and climb pretty hard.) But I know they don’t want an unsightly helmet ruining the epic, beautiful photos of their first 13a. Doesn’t matter! I make sure they don’t leave the ground without one anyway. It’s just what I do. You’re welcome, guys!

I always make sure people leave camp with headlamps and extra food. I say, “Be careful!” about twenty times before anyone takes off to climb. I kiss Justin, fist bump, and tell him I love him before every pitch. You know, just in case.

When I was younger and I would get irritated with my parents’ paranoid antics, they would always shrug and say, “I worry because I love you”. I get it now.

Our Narratives and the Fear of Falling

We’ve all been afraid of falling at some point or another. We’ve all heard stories of fatal climbing accidents. We know about the risks and we all take the time to assess them. But our brains assess things differently, and our narratives are varied. We come from all over and we each have our individual reasons for showing up and climbing a wall. We each have the weight of our own memories, goals, and anxieties to carry with us.

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Early in my climbing “career” on Sound of One Shoe Tapping (5.8)

In their announcement of the Climbing Grief Fund, the American Alpine Club begins:

“As climbers, we know climbing is an inherently dangerous undertaking. We feel the risk is outweighed by the strong expression of selfhood that comes from moving up rock, snow, and ice. People have tried to define more precisely why people climb as if climbers were all cut from the same cloth. However, there are probably as many reasons to climb, as there are climbers.”

Every climber has a story and a background. The experiences that have shaped who we are have also shaped who we are as climbers. So, what makes me such a crag mom? Why am I always so quick to tell someone how uncomfortable I am about their plans to free solo (even if it’s only a 5.7)? Why do I think it’s a bad idea to ice climb alone in the Sierras? What makes me such a fanatic about helmets and re-learning how to rappel? I’m glad you asked!

“Is This Normal?” and Other Questions I Ask Myself

We climb in Red Rock, Nevada fairly often. It’s my all-time favorite place to climb, and those acres of iron-rich sandstone in the Mojave Desert are home to some of my most cherished climbing memories: My first multi-pitch (Cat in the Hat, 5.6, 6 pitches). The first time I led a 10b (Burroughs Might Fly, PG13). The first time I realized that “I may or may not have a thing for Justin”. It’s even the first place my mom and I went for a hike together.

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Red Rock by Two Ten Productions

My parents live just a few miles from the park, which makes it pretty convenient to stop by for a visit before and after our trips. I always seem to reminisce about certain parts of my story while we’re climbing in Red Rock, probably because my parents are so nearby. When I think of keeping my tribe safe while we climb, I know that it has a lot to do with my family’s narrative and the losses we’ve endured together. The people I’ve lost and my grieving process have had a great impact on my love for climbing walls, and why I hate falling off of them.

I always wonder if the thoughts I’m having are “normal” when I pack my bag full of climbing gear for a trip. While I pack, I think about the close calls I’ve seen. I think about watching friends take whippers on gear and coming so close to decking. I think about my friends’ parents (most of whom I’ve never even met), and how wretched it would be if they lost a child to climbing. I think about the stories I’ve heard of failed safety checks and mishaps. I think about mother nature and her unpredictability. I think about my own mother and father. (Now that I’ve made sure your stoke is high, I’m sure you’re ready for a solid weekend of try-hard climbing, right?!)

Climbing Routes and Making Lemonade

I have diagnosed anxiety (shocking, I know). I also have a story that involves traumatic loss and a family left to pick up the pieces. We lost my brother five years ago when he took his own life. Now that some years have passed and the shock has worn off, I’m able to live my life (mostly) uninterrupted by crippling grief. Getting to this point took a lot of hard work that still isn’t finished and never will be. I’ll always be a work in progress.

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My favorite photo of my brother, Nick

But I guess you can say that I’ve finally been able to mine the experience for life lessons and silver linings. You know, the whole “when life gives you lemons…” thing. Except the lemons weren’t ripe and the lemonade is still way too bitter, but I’ll take what I can get because it’s really hot out here, and sometimes even bitter juice can seem refreshing under the right circumstances.

In the past five years, I’ve seen death up very close. Twice. Three years after my brother’s death, I lost a good friend to the same fate. While their deaths were in no way related to climbing, in their wake I learned to channel my pain and hurt into something more solid and tangible. Climbing became one of my many outlets.

When I started climbing, I remember thinking that the routes were like puzzles. All of them were solvable with the right movements, techniques, and skill set. Looking back with hindsight, one of the reasons I gravitated toward climbing was because it seemed so logical, methodical, and intelligible. The losses in my life made no sense and left more questions than answers. But climbing a route was just the opposite. Each route asked one question, and there was always an answer. All I needed to do was figure out which moves worked best (or get stronger). Climbing seemed like the antithesis to the unintelligible shit I had been through. And I liked it.

Story of My Life

I’m not sure if these parts of my story make me any more afraid of falling or accidents, or if they make me perceive danger any differently than the next person. But my story undoubtedly informs the way I approach many aspects of my climbing. I fear the small things like falling when I’m past a bolt. And I fear the really big things because I’m not a stranger to them. But how much of that is an excuse to stay on TR forever because I don’t want to run any risks? That’s no way to live, and it’s not a very fun way to climb.

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On top of Intersection Rock in Joshua Tree

I think as climbers (and as humans in general) we can all benefit from telling each other our stories. A little bit of background and getting to know how we’ve all arrived at our definitions of “safe” will help us understand the decisions our partners make on the wall. It will shed some light on why they are (or are not) willing to take certain risks. Now go talk amongst yourselves and make some friends. Hopefully, you’ll learn more about your climbing partners than their current grade limits, because we’re all so much more than that, and we all have stories to tell. Ask more questions.

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