So there I was—about three-quarters of the way up a 100-foot rock formation in California’s Joshua Tree National Park. I was tired. But more than that, I was pissed off that this one section, which I dubbed “the Crack,” was giving me so much trouble. Below, my crew of strong women was cheering me on. Above me, Savannah Cummins, an adventure photographer and expert climber, was balancing on a rope like a ninja. She was offering me tips while capturing my every move, but with fatigue and frustration setting in, it sounded more like Charlie Brown’s teacher—“whaa-whaa-whaa.”
This particular rock face was nothing like the indoor climbing walls I had practiced on back in New York; it was infinitely harder. You see, in the gym, there were defined routes marked by colors, which represent degrees of difficulty, as well as pronounced nubs you use to grab or step on. But in the outdoors, I was unable to map out a clear path. So each chalky-hand move or toe placement felt like trying to fit a piece into a challenging puzzle—and my guess was often wrong.
Knowing that I needed to make a move, I gripped a section of rock, and it peeled away like a pistachio shell. I fell a bit before feeling my rope tighten. It was then I was reminded of my mortality. I closed my eyes and rested my forehead against the rock. “You can do this,” I said to myself. More important, I told myself to trust my belayer (the person on the ground charged with securing me).
Fundamentally, the art of rock climbing is about two things: overcoming physical obstacles and trusting in people. For me, the first part was no big deal. I’m not saying that using every muscle in my body to grip tiny crevices and sliding my frame along rock surfaces is easy, but I’ve run several marathons and even trekked through the Alps. Translation: I’m comfortable with physical discomfort and have taught myself how to persevere. But trusting others is tough for me. So the fact that the rope I am attached to is literally tied to the waist of another person and that is the only thing keeping me from smashing into this mountain, or worse, freefalling 100 feet? Yup, it’s my worst nightmare.
Knowing that, you may wonder what possessed me to try a sport that consists of putting my life in the hands of another person. Well, “sport climbing” is making its Olympic debut in 2020. For the most part, it’s male-dominated, and the North Face wants to change that, so it invited a group of female editors on a trip to explore the activity. Honestly, it seemed like a good idea while sitting at my cushy desk in New York City. I love athletic challenges and was into the whole female-empowerment angle. I didn’t even think about the trust aspect.
So on that rock—torn between giving up and fighting like hell to finish—I gave myself a moment to regroup…