Back in July, Justin and I made our way out to Lander, Wyoming for the 25th annual International Climbers Festival. I have a serious case of imposter syndrome and I know that I’m not exactly what you would call a “crusher”. I mean, I just started climbing a little more than a year ago and leading still scares the shit out of me (“Justin, am I back stepped??!?!”) So the thought of spending the weekend with a bunch of super experienced, pro and pro-ish climbers was kind of intimidating and made me feel a little out of place.

Justin and me with a great group of crusher friends

To make matters worse (or better, as it later turned out), I also decided to sign up for a clinic (because, uh, everyone else was doing it). The only clinic with open spots by the time I checked them out was “Women’s Specific Movement and Headspace with Chelsea Rude and Lauren Callaway.

Climbing with women? Hell yes.

Discussing movement and headspace? Yes, please.

Chelsea Rude and Lauren Callaway? I don’t know them, but they sound great.

Must be a competent 5.10 leader? Ah, shit. “Competent” is very a subjective term. And does 5.10 mean 5.10a or 5.10d? Because those are two VERY different grades.

But, what the hell? I clicked submit anyway and signed up.

Unexpected Insights

Most of what I know about climbing, I learned from my boyfriend, Justin Wallace. Most of the people I climb with outdoors are dudes. That’s just how climbing happened for me. Needless to say, the women’s specific clinic was a unique experience for me and it was pretty eye-opening in a lot of ways. (And if you are asking yourself why climbing needs “women’s specific” anything, here you go.)

Lauren on a top rope

I learned a lot in the few hours I spent with Chelsea, Lauren, and the other “competent 5.10 climbers” (still not sure what that means). We got to know each other throughout the day, and when we sat down for lunch we discussed our biggest fears. It was a vulnerable, honest, illuminating experience, and it was by far my favorite part of the weekend.

Most of the things I gleaned from the clinic are obviously related to climbing technique (you know, movement and headspace).

I learned how to focus on breathing.

I learned how to assess the risk of falling.

I learned to break the route down into smaller parts so it isn’t so overwhelming.

I learned to focus on climbing to the next bolt instead of getting fixated on making it to the top.

But the unexpected insights I gained were more related to my initial experiences with climbing, and how formative they have been for my headspace.

Headspace and Your First Climbing Partner

One of the things I remember most about the clinic was the woman I buddied up with for a majority of the climbs. She was a total badass, welcoming, and easy to talk to (which was really nice because I was about to spend the whole day with a bunch of strangers). As I belayed her, it became more and more clear that she was accustomed to being rushed and talked down to while she climbed. After talking with her for a bit, I learned that, like a lot of us who took this particular clinic, a boyfriend had initially taught her the ropes.

lauren on belay

“I’m so sorry, I know I’m going really slow.” “You’re probably so annoyed!” “My old boyfriend would always tell me that I take too long to climb a route.” “He’d get really frustrated and yell at me.” At best, this guy was a shitty belayer. At worst, he was a total douche. I hiked out from the crag with another woman from the group and along the way she turned to me and said, “I really hope that girl finds some nicer people to climb with when she gets home.”

That clinic in Lander taught me that your first climbing partner has a major impact on your headspace, for better or worse.

“I’m New Here”: Rental Shoes and Bad Belays

Justin initially taught me how to belay in the parking lot of our climbing gym. He opened up the back of Frieda, pulled out a rope, and taught me how to tie a figure-8 follow through. He made sure I understood safety checks and showed me how to use an ATC. We went over proper communication.

True to form, I was so nervous when we got inside the gym that I immediately forgot the commands and the instructor gave me a “yellow card”. I guess that basically means the staff keeps a really close eye on you for the day, and you get to awkwardly retest the next time you visit. As much as I wanted to be “cool” and impress Justin (which seems really silly now), I had to wear a yellow card on my harness and I probably didn’t even make it to the top of a 5.8. But all I heard was encouragement. And a lot of talk about using my legs rather than just my arms.

Lauren on Nut Cracker

Almost a year later, when I made it to the top of my first 10d clean (I still consider that my first climbing milestone), Justin was even much more stoked about it than me. He was so supportive it was almost embarrassing. Kind of like someone running to the front of the stage with a camcorder to make sure they get you on video during your tiny part of the program. (Okay, I’m old.)

I remember climbing outside for the first time and almost giving up after the first few moves. I said, “I can’t do it.” Justin replied by telling me that, “If you can run 26 miles, you can make it to the top of this route.” (I’m a marathon runner. And I made it to the top of the route.) Justin has been there for a lot of my victories, climbing-related or otherwise, and as my first climbing partner, I’ve learned a lot from him.

“I Forgot My Nut Tool and the Water”, & Other Arguments

It’s not all sunshine and roses, though. By the time I started lead climbing, we were much more comfortable with each other. People are imperfect and we all fuck up sometimes. The people who teach us how to climb are going to fuck up, and we’ll fuck up while we learn. I’ve said some really mean things while I was scared and falling seemed imminent. (Yes, I’m still afraid of falling). I’ve made dumb decisions under stress. I’ve short-roped plenty of people plenty of times. And yes, I forgot water on a multi-pitch once.

Lauren on lead

Justin and I have learned a lot about how to deal with stress together and keep calm when things go wrong (or when we perceive that things are going wrong). We’ve learned to deal with each other’s weird climbing quirks. I literally make Justin teach me how to rappel once a month because “I just want to be really sure that I’m doing this right.” And he patiently re-teaches me every time. We’ve learned to apologize and decompress after a day of bad climbing when we’ve said and done stupid shit (it happens).

Climbing can be high-risk and stressful, and headspace is a huge part of it. So I’m grateful that my first climbing partner was (and still is) communicative, safe, encouraging, stoked, willing to teach and be taught, and honest. Bonus! He’s super dreamy and has a really cute dog.

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