Welcome to Alaska (aka Crevasse Whip)

I flew from Seattle to Anchorage on a Monday. The weather was mostly clear with a few scattered clouds. The woman sitting beside me in the window seat announced excitedly that she was going on a cruise. After taking in an eyeful of the climbing guidebook propped open in my lap, she asked: are you going hiking? Yeah, kinda.

Normally, I’d be happy to carry on a conversation with whoever wound up in seat 17A or whatever it was beside me. But at approximately the same time that she struck up a conversation, we began passing over the Chugach Range. Looking down, it took me a moment to realize that the seemingly low-hanging cloud beneath us was actually an expansive glacier. Its huge expanse confirmed that I was definitely outside of my home range, which seemed suddenly scaled down by comparison. The terrain beneath us was big and wild and enticing. My jaw dropped and my eyes welled up a little with excited and awestruck tears; a special kind of tear that only powerful natural experiences can conjure. I felt simultaneously small but very much in the right place. The feeling was only slightly reduced when the tiny plane window was overtaken by an iPhone screen, but what little I’d seen struck a deep and resonant chord.

Upon arriving at the Mountain Trip guide house in Anchorage, I was immediately enthralled by stories of big mountain rescues, avalanches and other stuff you might otherwise hear about in Outside magazine. All of the stories were told from a first person perspective. My eyes widened and I could hardly contain my endless questions. I immediately got the sense that I was surrounded by decades of experience.

Not having much to do right off the bat, I tried to busy myself by helping other teams prep gear for the West Buttress of Denali. Tents were thoroughly inspected for tears, zipper snags, adequate rain flies. Unnecessary ounces were shed. “That’s weight,” the lead guide said, plucking something from the kitchen kit. Noted, I thought to myself.

The cast of characters that makes a seasonal migration to Anchorage year after year is a lively bunch. Lots of personality. The backyard keg only served to enhance things, and definitely for the better. While new on the scene myself, I felt like I was among my people. I immediately noticed the bonds forged between folks that had spent weeks together working at altitude, often in the elements and laden with heavy, mandatory gear. There was an evident sense of community and camaraderie. These people were hearty; both physically and in the way they carried themselves. I loved it.

Three days out from our flight onto the Kahiltna Glacier, I began packing with my lead guide Ben for our 12-day climbing course. He’d developed a menu and introduced me to the long list of gear that we would need, most interestingly: seven pickets (we used all of them,) two low-stretch 50 meter ropes and four sleds to help haul our heavy loads. We rigged my backpack with a drop cord so that if I fell into a crevasse while fully weighted, I could get the weight off of my body and onto the rope instead. I sipped a beer and taped more than 50 wands to prepare for low-visibility glacier travel. We made trips to Costco and Carrs and bought what seemed like an obscene amount of meat and cheese (turns out, it was pretty spot on.) And almost suddenly, it was go time.

We met Astrid and Dan at the Lakefront Hotel beside Lake Spenard, which was busy with float planes landing on the lake and departing overhead. In the hotel lobby, the walls were decorated with taxidermy goats, moose, grizzly and polar bears. It felt simultaneously very over the top and very Alaska. Again, I loved it. Dan and Astrid were joining us from New York to gain the skills for glacier travel on their own terms. They struck me as being very prepared and eager to get after it. Things got started on the right foot.

At that time, the forecast we’d been referring to for the last few days looked dubious, at best. I was happy to have a goretex top and bottom shell because it looked like we were going to be subject to near constant rain for the duration of our trip. Ben mentioned that we could begin with a knot review and rope techniques in Talkeetna, since there was a good chance that we would be grounded, possibly for days. Apparently the pilots rely on line of sight only for their glacier landings. No vis means no flight.

We weighed our bags and gear and prepared to settle into Talkeetna for the night when we got a call out of the blue: the plane was ready and departure time is now. It felt like a total curveball, but I threw on my double boots, glacier glasses and a quick layer of sunscreen. I thought I was going to have the night to make minor last minute preparation additions, like downloading additional media to my phone to hold me over for 12 nights, seeking out a few additional interesting facts about Denali, etc. But nope!

We climbed into a Beaver that sounded like a flying muscle car. Our flight took us over deep green and dense Alaskan woods where we saw the occasional cabin with no obvious road to access them by. I watched the service drop off and disappear from my phone, one service bar at a time.

As we approached the Alaska Range, the tears crept back into my eyes like they had for the Chugach Range. I was experiencing full-body “woah dude.” And it only got bigger and better as we flew deeper into the range, impossibly close to house-sized cornices, vast glaciers stretching 40 miles out of sight. I tried to say into my headset: this is one of the best days of my life. But the Beaver’s roar drowned me out and that was ok. I was dazzled. I knew immediately that this was going to be a place that I would return to many times over, for business and for pleasure. That special kind of Alaska heavy-duty dragging pleasure that humbles and forces you to dig deep. That special kind of completely unpredictable weather pleasure that arrests your full attention into the immediate here and now. A special kind of brutal pleasure that I was ready to be smacked down by. Hell yeah. Maybe normal people call it masochism.

The plane eventually touched down on the glacier alongside Annie’s Ridge. I felt the skis dredge wet spring snow beneath us. Momentarily, I imagined the plane catching an edge much like you would on a pair of normal skis and what that would mean for us on the inside. But the thought didn’t last long because we immediately began ripping gear from the belly of the plane so that another team could board and fly out. I recognized another lady guide from back home, Robin, and gave her a hug. As my network grows larger, my world seems more interconnected and smaller and all the richer for it.

I dragged a sled past a party of folks that seemed like they were actually mid-celebration, a true party. Basecamp was a lively and happening place. Again and again, I heard that team after team had summited in 2-week weather windows, while several of our trips are budgeted 22 days to turn a trip around with enough time for acclimatization, weather and come-what-may on the tallest mountain in North America. The load I was pulling didn’t feel particularly heavy, but I was embarrassed to find myself huffing and puffing a bit as I drug it up a short stretch. I wondered how I would fair beneath the weight of my 60 pounds of personal gear with the addition of whatever food and group gear I would need to cary. The glacier was surprisingly hot and I felt myself drench with sweat almost immediately. I mentally prepared myself to grind.

Ben asked me to start digging but didn’t get around to telling me why. He requested a 3 foot by 3 foot dig site. I hopped to it. After digging to roughly knee depth, I asked him how deep he wanted the hole. “About five feet,” he said nonchalantly. I couldn’t remember the exact figure for how much a cubic meter of snow weighs from my avalanche education, but I can tell you that it’s more than you’d think. I dug in and moved as much snow as quickly as I could and felt my heart rate rise with the piles of snow accumulating around me. In my mind, this was an audition for a Denali trip. I wanted to show Ben that I could dig up there alongside the best of ’em.

The days wore on and we covered snow skills like cramponing and self arrest, running belays, crevasse rescue, snow anchors, roped glacier travel and so on. Some days were exceedingly hot and our days began between 2 and 5am to accommodate. Oh, and it was never dark. No headlamp required. Around 3am, you’d get a bit of twilight but never full-on darkness. It wasn’t as weird as you might think, but it made falling asleep hard at times. That, coupled with an ever changing sleep schedule: 2am, 3am and 5am being the choice times, made for a disrupted sense of general time as well as “time on” and “time off.” I discovered roughly four days in that I really needed the occasional solo tent time to relax and unwind. Around camp, there’s always something to straighten, always water to melt, always something to dig, etc. There’s always something. And the methodology and process was all new to me, despite the time I’ve spent in the Cascades. I felt out of rhythm but not necessarily out of control. I was literally out of my element and doing everything I could to embrace the differences.

Eventually, we moseyed up to Kahiltna Pass, establishing camp at 10,000 feet. We were parked beneath Kahiltna Dome, which has a beautiful ridge, zebra-striped with crevasses. After many consecutive days of lots of skills and not a lot of movement, my body was craving exertion beyond shoveling snow (trust me, I’d had plenty of time to practice that. So it goes out there.) Finally, more than a week into our adventure, it was time to climb.

Ben lead the way gaining the ridge and over a spicy looking bergschrund. He kicked again and again into soft Alaska corn snow that wouldn’t quite consolidate. The couple-inch surface layer felt firm beneath crampons, but once you punched through, there was a relatively uniform layer of mushy, wet, soft snow, unlike anything I’d experienced previously in Washington.

Just beyond the ‘schrund, we paused to discuss our plan for the day and any hazards we might want to consider. When asked to weigh in, I saw no ‘red light’ reason to stop climbing and recommend that we continue on. We were well ahead of our turnaround time and on a broad ridge. If anything, we had every reason to continue on. We did. I got to lead and picked my way through textured terrain atop the ridge. The snow was wind-affected and funky; I could tell that we were traveling alongside some pretty sizable cornices and was keenly aware of our exposure off the backside of the ridge away from camp. Occasionally, I placed a picket to guard against a fall, equally for psychological and physical security.

Eventually I came up on a snow bridge; the epitome of a snow bridge, almost like something out of a Japanese garden. I could see a dark space on the left side of the ridge beneath where the route meandered. As I assessed the surface snow, I felt assured by the firm snow crunching beneath my crampons. I gave the dark hollow space several feet of distance and probed first with my basketed ski pole and then with my ice axe. The feedback I got from my initial probe strikes was confidence inspiring. I stepped exactly where I’d probed and began to probe further. Not wanting my basket to interfere with the depth of my probe, I leaned forward to plunge my ice axe into the snow. To my great surprise, the world fell away beneath me and my world went white. The fall stopped just as quickly as it had started and I found myself slumped over, hanging in my harness deep inside a crevasse. My hands had locked themselves down around my ice axe and ski pole.

A nervous laughter gurgled out of me. My system had been rebooted by a wave of adrenaline. Ha… Haha… Ha… “I’m OK!” I yelled to my team. I heard nothing back, so I yelled again louder, “Guys, I’m OK!”

Besides finding my self sharply arrested by the end of the rope, there had been no impact and no consequence to my fall. While I’d had the wherewithal to process the potential for a serious accident in the plane landing on the glacier, hanging in the bottom of a crevasse, I felt surprisingly unafraid. This thing that I’d been teaching about and preparing for, for years had gone as well as it possibly could have. I was fine. I was grateful. I was actually really stoked that things had turned out as well as they did.

As I looked around, I noticed that I’d fallen through several feet of what looked like cob webs beneath a 7 or so inch layer of firm snow on top. I remember looking at the firm layer and thinking that it was trustworthy because of the surface texture. Obviously, since I was actively probing when I fell, I didn’t inherently trust the surface appearance, but this seems like a free lesson that I can pass on: don’t trust what you see at the surface! Probe earlier than you think you might need to – it’s better to find the edge and solid ground instead of spooky hollow cob webs, you know, before it’s too late and all.

Almost immediately, I began stemming in a full straddle-stance to climb more than 15 feet from the depth of the crevasse (15 feet per Ben’s assessment; my wigged out brain registered 20 feet, but who knows.) The rope had caught me inches above what appeared to be solid ground. Not sure what to trust with bodyweight and not wanting to know what was lurking beneath apparently stable snow, I trusted my crampons to the walls of the crevasse and used my ice axe to climb higher. I captured progress with the prussic that was pre-rigged to the rope. After clambering up what I estimated to be a body length, I tied a knot in the rope beneath my prussic. And then again. And again. I had no desire to trust my full bodyweight to a single prussic alone, even if it absolutely would have held. When I was just a few short feet from the lip, Ben poked his head over and asked me how I was doing.

“I’m fine!” I was happy to report. He padded the lip, anchoring his backpack to his ice axe and vector/plucked me out over the edge. Our size difference is comical; he may as well have used a pinky to lift me out.

I took a moment to sit on a pad on firm snow and collect myself. I held my hand out to see if it was shaking with adrenaline. Surprisingly, it wasn’t quaking that bad. I guess I felt some nervous laughter, but my nerves quickly subsided when I realized that I was going to be OK. Best worst case scenario.

Not surprisingly, we decided to call that our high point and turned around for camp. I lead the way back and felt myself grow nervous as temperatures rose. At that point, it was just after 8:30am. Not necessarily late, but given the less than confidence inspiring snow, high time to head out of there.

After all of that, I thought to myself: that’s quite the welcome to Alaska.

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Awakening

In my mind, I stand at a stony precipice looking down into inky blackness. Above me, the stars shine brightly, beautifully. All is quiet and well up there. I feel a gurgling inertia in my chest. I wish to slip into the darkness, sound into sleep, but the untamed faucet of my thoughts pounds my mind. Pressure builds against the dam of my own making.

And then suddenly, a single drop leaks through. A crack forms. Then there’s a burst: the thoughts rush through and comfortably settle, like a river no longer resisted. There’s calm, clarity and a certain natural order. Truth. A literal breakthrough.

I, like any person native to anywhere, am the product of my surroundings.

I am the first born daughter of two small parents. I too am small, but able. I was nurtured to believe in myself. I am naturally wild. I find affinity in animals, flora and fauna; confidence in my quiet. Like a puppy, I can be riled. Like a horse, I long to run free. Like a girl, I love to love. Love finds me and I find love, though it comes with ample searching.

I found climbing when I was looking for myself. I was lost at the time, searching for purpose in school work. I applied my passionate heart to my studies, but never found the thing that gave me wings. I went to school to write, but couldn’t seem to find my voice. I felt stifled by the style I was being trained in.

In time off from school, I worked as often as I could. I climbed sporadically at my local gym but was never truly moved by the colorful plastic holds, challenging as they were. I knew it was possible to climb outside, but I didn’t know how to do it. So I asked for help.

When help came, I discovered something that I would do for the rest of my life. I knew it immediately. Nothing had ever rung so true and so right. I have fought ever since to be with my love of climbing.

To those who have never fallen in love with a passion, I probably make no sense. To those who limit their passion to a joyous corner of their life, a small shrine of what it means to be alive; I probably come off as cavalier. Trust me: I am. A mountain does not fit in the tidy closet of an hard-earned apartment space, I’m afraid. And one certainly isn’t enough.

To return to my opening thought, the enormous dam of my self-imposed insecurities burst tonight when I realized that I wasn’t meant to be a rock climber alone. Oh no, my calling comes from deep within the mountains that have lent shape to the last 25 years of my life. I was born into the rugged Cascade Mountain Range for a reason.

Now if only I could fall asleep…

Skiing with Girls is Funner

Sometimes opportunity knocks and it rings so loud and so clear in your ears that there’s no escaping it, no denying it. The what ifs, the risks and the costs pop up like variability in untracked backcountry snow, but you chose the line – or it chose you – and you’re gonna ride it out.

I’d caught wind of a SheJumps freeride ski clinic happening at Alpental on Facebook. A few friends had indicated that they were interested and a good friend of mine even encouraged me to go. When I read the description of the clinic, I froze up at, “Advanced and Expert Level Skiers Only.” I am a climber turned skier. I do not see myself as being an advanced or expert level skier. I see myself more in the “go average, go often,” category. I told my friend that I couldn’t go because I didn’t fit the criteria.

He pushed back. And I’m glad he did. That’s when the knocking began to ring in my ears.

I noticed that there was a $60 fee associated with the clinic that didn’t include the lift ticket and certainly didn’t include the gas it would take to drive more than 4 hours to ski for 3 hours. But it didn’t stop the knocking.

The week before the clinic, I had a few work projects to wrap up and the thought of asking my boss for the flexibility to leave early on a work day to go skiing made me nervous. But my nerves didn’t stop the knocking. I bit the bullet, drafted the email, reread it twice and before I could bail, quickly clicked: “Send.”

My boss said it was ok for me to cash in some personal time and go. And that’s when I got genuinely excited.

I was intimidated to show up for a freeride clinic when I had only a vague understanding of what freeride skiing was. But more than that, I was intimidated to show up and be weak. I can ski with the usual guy gang and embrace the fact that I’ve logged the least days on my skis. I can watch them air off of things, throw tricks or ski steep, intimidating terrain and recognize that I’m just not there yet. But I want to be. And that’s exactly why I had to go.

I came into the clinic hot. Not sweaty hot, but talking-too-loud, smiling huge at any girl that looked like she might possibly be attending, vigorously nodding at anything said in my general direction; that kind of hot. I certainly didn’t mellow out once we got onto the snow; oh no, I was full-body, full-on stoked. And for good reason.

Skiing with women is different. Energetically, we vibe on a different level. I’m used to having to stick up for myself with the guys. I’m used to acting tough when I really want to cry. I work hard to conceal my weakness whenever I possibly can. All of those feelings evaporated. I was just there with a bunch of similarly stoked women. Instead of feeling like I had to fight to keep up, I felt like I was part of something.

There was no condescension, no expert halo. There were just women helping women gain the confidence and skills to ski more aggressively, to inspire onlookers from chairlifts, to be better partners to uplift other women. It was awesome.

I’m glad I went not just because I got to dip out of work early to ski on a Tuesday night; not because I made a bunch of new ski partner connections; not even because I finally learned how to get out of the backseat (finally!) I’m stoked because I learned that I can ski with women. I’m stoked because that experience taught me that I love to ski for me – not to just keep up with my boyfriend, not because it’s the cool thing to do in the winter.

Plain and simple: skiing is fun and skiing with girls is funner.

 

Basically Amelia Earhart

I am a pilot’s daughter. I grew up in the back of planes, in cargo boxes and in hangars. I remember looking forward to when my dad would come home from work; I would hug him and deeply breathe in the smell of oil, engines and aircraft. I still love those smells.

I am the grown daughter of a pilot now. I’m 23. I’m alone. I’m trying (unsuccessfully) to sleep in a twin size bed. My mind is racing. Metaphorically speaking, I’m the pilot now. I’ve lifted off from the runway of childhood and now I’m monitoring a number of gauges, knobs and meters while charting my path through life.

To take that metaphor a step further, it seems to me like there are people and experiences in life that provide feedback much like a gauge or a meter would to a pilot. I feel as though I should grab at the mic and announce on the intercom, “Hold on to your hats, folks, we’re in for a bumpy ride!” But it’s just me on this plane.

I’ve gotten some harsh feedback lately. And you know what? That’s okay. But it kind of sucks. Makes you feel kinda crappy. But the things you feel shitty about are learning opportunities. So let me share with you some of the shit I’ve learned the hard way recently:

Not everybody wants to be your friend. Like this guy I work with right now. Sometimes I get the feeling that he hates my guts. Like, a lot. But you know what? That’s okay. We’re both grown ass adults and this isn’t kindergarten anymore. Do I feel shitty about it? Only every time I see him. But the second that I realize that I don’t need his approval, I feel better. I do my thing. And that’s good enough.

Sometimes past relationships will go up in flames. It’s kind of fun to watch fireworks until you realize that it’s your personal life that’s on fire. Okay, maybe that was a little dramatic. But — deep breath — I recently tried to remedy the situation that inspired a previous post about being the type of girl that sucks at being friends with other girls. And it absolutely did not work. And part of me wants to believe that I’m just “that type of girl that can never be friends with girls” but then I realize how stupid that is and that I have to learn from my mistakes. What I learned? Sometimes being spontaneous and open to life experiences involves saying yes and sometimes it involves saying no. Sometimes when you say no, you upset people you care about. Sometimes, they don’t forgive you. Again — deep breath — you accept that you did your best and move on with your life.

And just like that, a couple hundred words later, I feel as though I’ve gotten through some turbulence and can get on to trying hard not to make the same mistakes. I’m a pilot’s daughter. I’m brave but sometimes I lose my way. But it’s all gonna be okay.

Hard as Tuff

Recently, it dawned on me that it has almost been two years since I finished college. Here’s a quick recap of things I’ve done, jobs I’ve had and places I’ve lived:

  • June 2015. Diploma in hand. Bought myself a couple more cams, sights set on Squamish.
  • Ended up spending most of my summer in Washington Pass.
  • Got a job coaching my high school girls’ dive team. (I dove competitively in high school.)
  • Moved back to Bellingham. Started working at the climbing gym.
  • Opportunity popped up for me to work full time, 4-10s and use my degree. Hopped right on that… Until I realized that I wasn’t climbing enough, despite being out every weekend in the Cascades.
  • Climbed lots of rocks and a couple peaks with my partner in-and-out of the alpine: Tim Black.
  • Hello, Smith Rock! Fell in love with sport climbing. Hard.
  • Sent it down south to Mexico with megababe and lady crusher friend Carey. Climbed my first 12a (still pretty hyped on that.)
  • The plan was to return to Oregon, return to Smith and return to cold rocks. But my housing arrangement fell through (long story) and I found myself with a job and a place to live at Crystal Mountain.

And that brings us to the present: January 2017. I guess I still have 5 months until it’s been two years since I graduated college… But my brain isn’t always the best at time.

Today, I was inspired to write because I got to thinking about where I’m at in my career, given that it’s been almost two years. I put in my four years’ time, got my piece of paper that suggests I know how to read good (joking) and now look at me: I’m a part-time ski bum, part-time climbing bum and grappling with what to do with my personal process as time flows all around me.

I haven’t been working for material wealth; I haven’t been building the career that Western Washington University envisioned for me; however, I have been working. Hard.

Instead of doing professional networking, polishing my LinkedIn profile and collecting business casual blazers, I forced myself to move to a new place where I had to make new friends, new climbing partners and admit that I was a weak sport climber in a word-class sport crag. I got rid of most of my nice work clothes (most of my everything else, too.) I swallowed my ego, pushed aside my pride and suffered up a lot of spooky 5.10s.

When I could have easily stayed local (Bellingham) and climbed my way through the grades at Squamish — which I did, to be fair, but still have quite a ways to go — I chose instead to drive to Index, drive to Leavenworth, drive to Washington Pass where I knew that the climbing would be unfamiliar. I knew that the skills I’d collected from my previous experiences would come in handy, but I also knew that continuing my progression was more important than settling into a comfortable rhythm.

That’s also one of the main reasons why I quit my cushy desk job in Bellingham (I only lasted about 6 months.) I could have continued climbing on the weekends and pulling plastic during weekdays, but I knew it wasn’t enough for me. I knew that my climbing wouldn’t improve as rapidly as I wanted it to if I had just stuck around and been patient. That’s not how I operate. So I put in my two weeks, packed my life into my car and drove 7 hours by myself to a climbing area I’d never been to before.

If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, you know that there are times when I doubt myself. And if this is the first time you’re reading my work, welcome to the mindful madness that is Mallorie. I think a lot, so I write sometimes. I have boundless energy so I climb mountains. I climb mountains because things are much simpler up there. Out there. I belong there.

And that, in a long and roundabout way, brings me to who and where I am today. By no means do I climb the hardest; by no means do I shred the hardest on the ski hill; by no means do I even work the hardest; but by all means, I’ve worked damn hard to get where I am. I don’t waste my time doing what I think I “should” or worrying too much about what lies ahead. Instead, I work hard to carve my own path, to climb the rocks, to reach the peaks, to make meaningful connections and to make my limited time on this planet count.

I have the utmost respect for people who work hard at whatever they do. If your chosen career, hobby or activity brings you joy, passion and purpose, you know you’re on the right track. And while there may be moments of indecision, disjunctive plot twists and bumps along the way, ultimately, I think we’re all here to serve a purpose.

My calling is in the mountains and I fully intend to answer that call.

 

Process (Smith Update No. 3)

My hands have gotten tougher.

My heart has gotten softer.

My words mean less.

My relationships mean more.

If there’s any small amount of wisdom that I can impart, it’s that you don’t need to live out of a car to climb a lot and be happy. You don’t need to dirtbag. You don’t need to crush 5.13. You don’t even need to quit your desk job (though you may need to relocate to a desk job where climbing is fairly accessible.)

All you need to do is make climbing (or whatever it is you want to do) your priority, go out and do it. Be brave. Be bold. Just do it.

The Great American Dirtbag Dream

First question: what do you love more than anything else in this world?

Hang on to the first thought that pops into your mind. I’m not you, so I have no way of knowing what that thing might be. Maybe you’re hyper-social and can’t spend a minute without your friends. Maybe you’ve found the love of your life and their name comes to mind. Maybe you’re a huge nerd for Star Wars or some other creative enterprise with a freaky cult following.

Second question: how do you demonstrate your love for your thing?

Think about your day-to-day. How are you spending your downtime? What about your uptime, if there is such a thing? I think that there are two parts to this answer. First, how often do you truly engage with your thing? And second, what are you willing to forgo to pursue your thing? More on this later.

Third question: when you think about your thing, do you feel happy?

I think most people have something that they hold near and dear to their heart. It seems to me that the happiest people take their thing and make it a priority in their life. I’ve encountered several people who are willing to procrastinate on their happiness by putting their thing aside for a more convenient time, like retirement 60 years down the line. While I’m not advocating for hedonism, I do mean to raise the point that your happiness should be a priority in your life. It’s too short not to.

Enough of this rhetorical nonsense.

Enter Mal: crack fanatic, pebble wrestler and camera-wielding crazy woman.

I recently took a long hard look at my life and the decisions I’ve been making, and you know what? I certainly don’t have it all figured out, but goddamn, am I lucky to know that my passion for climbing is my priority. It shows.

I like when people ask me what I do. It’s a great opportunity to gauge someone’s understanding of the pursuit of happiness. Depending on the person, I’ll either say, “I work my dream job at a climbing gym,” or I’ll say something about how my parents are gracious about my decision to work at a climbing gym despite finishing a four-year degree.

I don’t think it’s completely accurate to call my job at the gym my “dream job,” but it sounds nice, so I continue to use the phrase.

And don’t get me wrong, I love my job at the gym. I love showing people around my church of technicolor polyurethane. I love the way kids’ eyes light up when they run up to the walls. I know that feeling well.

Previously, I said that my passion-as-priority shows. What doesn’t show quite as readily are the sacrifices I’m making for my love. I’m constantly seeking small gigs and extra shifts to make ends meet. My type-A personality has toughened up – albeit only slightly – in response to peoples’ condescension about my career decisions.

First world problems, sure.

My dream job would have me climbing outside often, shooting photos and writing about life lessons harvested from numerous climbing partners and experiences. I’d be living out of a van with a nice man and a dog. (#relationshipgoals) The dirtbag dream!

Basically, I’m seeking the revised version of the American dream, which I’m going to call the great American dirtbag dream: do what you love and love what you do. Deal with the consequences.

Head Games

I drive my right foot into the ice as hard as I can. The teeth of my crampons gnash into the ice like the cold breeze that bites at my exposed face. My left foot feels secure; two front points exert enough downward force on seemingly brittle ice to support my bodyweight.

I exhale, stand and pull my upper body into the icy curtain. My hands are wet and paradoxically burning with white hot pain in the -6 degree weather (Celsius, since it’s Canada.)

As I raise my right hand above my head to slam the pick ever upward, I gasp as my right foot suddenly slips from the ice. Instinctively, all of my muscles tense. I pull hard on my left tool, my forearm burning with the exertion. Without a point of contact, my right wrist is weak from the fear of falling and my ice axe dangles limply above my head.

I retrain my focus and find my footing and place the pick. The adrenaline tingles throughout my body as my mind reels just a moment longer. Then, my attention shifts to find my next placements.

Everything about ice climbing feels fierce and defiant. With good technique, you feel more in control of the situation at hand. But even then, you’re scaling a frozen waterfall. Yeah, it’s kinda crazy.

I love that moment of clarity: the swift transition from dangling from an ice tool, panicked, asking myself “What the hell am I doing?” to a composed, pragmatic and methodical, “I can do this.”

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Crampons.
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Jason on Icy BC, WI5.
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Belay.
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Ice tools.