Tag Archives: fear

Diary of a Trad Leading Newbie: Part 2

I’m home after a week climbing out in Red Rocks, a beautiful park just outside of Las Vegas with climbing galore. It was a great trip, and a week of learning and growth on my part. One of my main goals was to get more pitches of traditional leads under my belt. Prior to this trip, I had only led one pitch on trad gear (traditional leading means that the first climber places pieces of gear for protection as they go. There are no bolts in the rock). Midway through our trip, I found myself struggling quite a bit. Read that post here if you haven’t had a chance.

Here’s how the rest of the week went:


After I took a day off, three of us went back to the Willow Spring area. A few days previous, I had led the first half of Tonto and set up an anchor, turning the climb into a mini multi-pitch. It wasn’t a pretty lead, but it was a lead nonetheless. I went up a few pieces, I came back down to collect myself, I went up and down again, and finally pushed through and made it to my goal.

Bringing Russell up on Tonto

Bringing Russell up on Tonto

We were back at that same climb again after two days. I knew I could climb the route; I had climbed it a few times and led half of it already. So it seemed like a good place to work more on my mental game. It turned out that a day off had done me a lot of good. I racked up, took a deep breath, and led the whole thing. There was no whimpering; I felt calm and confident. I placed a lot of gear in the initial crack and ran things out on the easier stuff up top. I kept breathing, I kept my focus. It felt amazing to get to the top and yell “Off Belay!” because I knew that I had just busted through a big mental barrier.

I brought up my other two partners, set up a rappel, and we all returned safely to the ground.

The next day, the three of us tackled a bigger objective. Solar Slab Gully. This is a five pitch climb (a pitch is the distance between where the first climber starts climbing and when they stop to set up an anchor and bring up the rest of their climbers), 540 feet total. The plan was that Russell would start us off, and we would decide leads as we went. He was prepared to lead the whole thing if necessary; we were just going to wait and see how I was feeling.

Oak Creek Canyon, our approach to Solar Slab Gully

Oak Creek Canyon, our approach to Solar Slab Gully

Zack starts the first pitch to Solar Slab Gully

Zack starts the first pitch to Solar Slab Gully

Russell led the first pitch, and I’m glad he did. It was a bit hairy in spots (spicy, as our guidebook liked to say), and scared me a bit even on toprope. We got to the top and I decided to take on the short second pitch. I geared up, made the crux move (the hardest move of the pitch) right at the start, climbed to the anchors and brought up my climbers. That felt pretty good, so I decided to keep leading. The third pitch was a long one, probably 180 feet. The first half is a really nice little chimney with a big exit move up top. Then it continues with quite a bit of slabby climbing and a short chimney to finish. That pitch felt really good, too. From there, we could see the top. So, after Russell and Zack joined me at the anchor, I led the last two short pitches.

That took us to the top of the climb. I realized then that I had just led all but the first pitch, and that all three of us were safely at the top. Mentally, it had all felt pretty solid. There were a few places that I had to breathe and take a moment to stay focused, but that’s part of the game. I was all smiles.

At the top of Solar Slab Gully

At the top of Solar Slab Gully

High fives were exchanged, smiles all around. It was a fun climb. After a short time at the top of Solar Slab Gully (and the base of the much bigger climb, Solar Slab), the three of us worked our way down to the rappel bolts. We teamed up with a pair from Germany, and three rappels later we found ourselves back at the bottom, packing our bags for the hour-long hike back to the car.

All in all, I led six pitches this trip, after feeling halfway through the week that maybe I wasn’t destined to be a trad leader at all. I learned, once again, that the process of moving through something that’s scary is not a straightforward one. This week was a very clear example of that. I pushed myself through something that felt really tough mentally. And from there, I actually needed a day to back away, process, and recover from that push. Once that happened, I was ready to take a step back and start again.

I emerged from this week as a more confident trad leader, and that was exactly what I was hoping for. I’m at the beginning, and there’s a long way to go, but it’s a solid start.

A big thanks to Seth and Russell and Zack and Paul for cheering me on, supporting me, and respecting my process. What a fantastic week of climbing it was.

So, you’re still doing the climbing thing?

This is a question that’s come up a few times recently. And it always takes me back a little. “Oh, so you’re still doing the climbing thing?”

I started climbing 5 years ago. I wandered into a climbing gym to get a gift certificate for someone else, but as soon as I saw those walls I knew I had to come back and climb for myself. And I did. The next week I went back on my own and climbed the auto-belays until I got hooked up with a group of folks to climb with. In the five years I’ve been climbing, I’ve spent a lot of time in the gym, but I’ve moved as much of my climbing outdoors as possible, climbing in Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, California, Nevada, and Colorado. I’ve done big multi-pitch climbs, climbed a mountain, and have ventured into the world of trad leading. I’m still doing the climbing thing. And I have no intentions of stopping any time soon.

This question makes me think, though. What *is* this climbing thing that I’m doing? Why do I love it so much? And why don’t I share that more with non-climbers?

Nearing the summit of the Grand Teton

Nearing the summit of the Grand Teton

In my calendar, climbing takes up one to two nights a week at the gym. When the weather’s right, I’ll be out a few times a month on the rocks nearby (or ice in the winter). And then there are usually a few big trips a year out to places with bigger and better rocks.

For me, climbing is so much more than a fun activity. It also makes me a better person. That probably sounds a bit cheesy, but there it is. Dealing with the risks and the fear involved in climbing makes most of the stuff in my daily life seem pretty small and manageable. It puts things in perspective. A challenging lead climb in the gym makes the rest of my week feel calmer. When I’m doing the bigger stuff, a nice multi-pitch climb perhaps, a lot of the unimportant stuff melts away. My goals are to stay alive, to stay as safe as possible, and to hopefully have a successful climb. That’s it. No room for worrying about anything else.

That simplicity bleeds into the rest of my life. I find myself more and more wanting to keep things simple in all aspects of my life. When climbing, simple is better. A simple anchor system is easy to check. Simplicity is often the most efficient, and efficiency is key when moving up big rocks. My life works better that way, too. The simpler the better. I want to spend time with the people that I love. I want to fill my life with things that I enjoy. I want to do good work and contribute to the world in a positive way. Anything that gets in the way of those things just complicates everything.

Looking for the next move

Out at Taylors Falls, MN

So, yes, climbing is a big part of my life. And it’s about more than just the climbing. But, I’m not very good at sharing that with my friends and family who don’t climb. I know that to some it seems really scary. “That’s crazy” is a response that I’ve gotten very used to hearing. I tell my mother that I’m going on trips, but I don’t give her the details. I know that it makes her worry, and I don’t want to do that to her.

The risks that we take climbing are hard to explain to non-climbers. In a society where risks are seen as something to be avoided, I’m sure it’s baffling to see people who deliberately choose to do something that’s seen as risky. Yes, climbing is statistically pretty safe, but the consequences of things going wrong are big. It’s a calculated risk, and it’s one that I’ve decided is worth it. I’d rather take that calculated risk than to sit in my home feeling afraid of the world. I’ve been there before, afraid of the world, and it was no fun. Climbing is a big reason that I’m not there anymore.

Calculated risk. That’s where I think we, as climbers, can connect with others about what we do. There’s a saying that goes “do something that scares you every day.” That scary thing is different for each person, but it exists for everyone, and I think that’s where we can find some common ground. What is that thing for them? Why do they do it, or maybe dream about doing it?

I’m interested in hearing how you connect with non-climbers about your climbing. Is it important to you that your friends and loved ones understand what climbing is to you? Or do you generally avoid talking about it? If you share, where do you find common ground?

My First Trad Lead: Spire Two

Spire Two. A few years ago, this climb had been my first multi-pitch attempt. I had followed our guide up the first pitch, and after some time at the first belay station found myself spiraling into a panic. I lowered off the climb (full story here). Now, three years later, I was back to not only climb the route, but to lead it. Seth and I had chosen it as our first trad leads.

Hiking in to the Cathedral Spires

Hiking in to Spire Two

The Cathedral Spires are a line of tall, pointy rocks perched high in the Black Hills in South Dakota. There are five main spires in the group, and many ways to climb them. Spire Two is a three-pitch climb with decent placements and bolted anchors. Seemed like a good choice for us.

I had been practicing gear placements at our local crag, placing gear on top rope, having them checked by another climber, asking questions. I had plenty of sport leading under my belt, and following of trad pitches. I had been pouring through “Freedom of the Hills,” making sure I wasn’t missing anything. Books can only get you so far, though, and at some point, it was time to just go for it.

Starting up the first pitch.

Starting up the first pitch. I really should have worn a red shirt!

A relatively short hike in got us to the base of Spire Two, both excited and nervous to do our first trad leads on this rock. It was a gorgeous, sunny morning, not another human in sight. We knew we would be slow at the belay stations, and weather was expected to move in later, so we set a turn-around time for ourselves and stuck to it.

Seth flaked the rope, I racked up, we exchanged high fives, and off I went, up the first pitch.

And…. I loved it.

I felt focused. Hyper aware of what I was doing, where I was. No other thoughts were swimming around in my brain. I was out in this beautiful place, climbing this spire, and that was all that was happening. There were no other people around, no commotion of any sort. Just me, the rock, a gentle breeze, and the sound of my gear clinking together as I climbed. It was amazing.

I knew that I didn’t want to fall. There are good gear placements on the route, but there really aren’t any clean falls. The climbing was not difficult, I just needed to be thoughtful. I didn’t feel overwhelmingly scared, I didn’t feel anxious. I just felt focused. Again, an amazing feeling.

Happy after my first trad lead

Happy after my first trad lead

Top of 2nd pitch. Seth's first trad lead!

Top of 2nd pitch. Seth’s first trad lead!

I reached the top of the first pitch, anchored myself in, and set up the belay for Seth. This was the place where I had panicked three years earlier. Now I felt calm and collected. It’s really fun to see that mental progress! Seth climbed up to join me, more high fives were exchanged, and we continued on. Time for Seth’s first trad lead now, on the second pitch of the climb. He rocked it.

On Rappel!

On Rappel!

We decided to rappel back down from the top of the second pitch. It was nearing our turn around time, we had felt the wind shift, and we knew we were going to be slow. By the time we reached our car, it was raining.

Seth and I learned a LOT on this climb. We picked a route we knew we could do, and we allowed ourselves ample time to figure it out and triple-check everything. We didn’t make it to the top, but I still considered the day a success.

We both fell in love with trad climbing that day, and as we continue to learn more, a whole new world of climbing is opening up for us! Seth has gone on to do a lot more trad since, and I’m not far behind. As for Spire Two, I still haven’t finished the entire route, but it’ll get ticked off next season.



Strengthening My Lead Head

Marianna a.k.a. "Rope Gun"

Marianna a.k.a. “Rope Gun”

“Do you want to take some jumps today?” That’s my friend and climbing partner, Marianna. We also lovingly refer to her as our rope gun. She’s a super strong climber, and she seemingly has a lead head of steel. Her idea of practicing lead falls at the gym is getting to the very top, not clipping, and having her belayer let out a little *more* slack before she jumps off the wall. Once she’s dangling comfortably from the rope, you can usually hear her laughing.

I’ve been working to build my lead head again lately. It was at a decent level, but a few months ago it tanked. I was back to the beginning, afraid to even fall from a clip. I knew I had to actively work on getting it back, and Marianna’s style of practicing falls just wasn’t right for me.

So, what have I been doing?

I started, not by taking huge falls, but by taking small ones. The first day, I would climb, clip my rope, and fall (and that was even hard for me mentally). On lead, this is usually still a bit of a fall, and has a different feel to it than falling on toprope. Every clip I would do the same. Climb, clip, take a fall. Climb, clip, fall, etc.

Once that felt ok, I took it one step further. I’d clip, make one move above the clip, and fall. Then two moves, and fall. You get the idea. I find that I’m surprised when the falls are just fine. Before I let go, my brain tells me it’s going to be scary and horrible and I just might die. And then I let go anyway and find that I’m very comfortably caught by my belayer and a stretchy rope. I like it when my brain is wrong about things like that.

The next step for me has been doing this kind of practice with different belayers. I’m very careful about who I’ll let belay me on lead, but the folks that I regularly climb with are all good, attentive belayers. The first few falls with a different person on the brake are always a bit unknown, but learning how their catches feel gives me a boost in confidence when I’m climbing.

I have a long way to go. I start from the beginning each session, but I feel myself moving through the falls more quickly every time, and my general confidence with leading is returning as a result. I’m not yet to the point where I can just go for a big move well above my last clip, knowing that it’s going to be ok if I fail. But, that’s where I’m headed. And my friend, Marianna, who likes to leap from the top of the wall, is happy to catch my comparatively tiny falls in the meantime, while I work my way up.

I Did That! A Reverse Bucket List

Last week, Katie of Adventure Inspired wrote up her reverse bucket list, a list that looks back at things she *has* accomplished, instead of only looking forward. I loved the idea so much that I decided to write up one of my own. What a great way to reflect on the awesome things that I’ve done, and create a nice springboard from which to do even *more* awesome stuff! Here’s mine:

  • Climb: When I was a kid I could always be found up in the sycamore tree in our backyard. There was a perfect spot to hang out and read a book, or look out around the neighborhood. Now I’m climbing rock (and plastic) instead. Climbing is fun, it’s challenging, and it keeps me growing as a person. It takes me to beautiful places, both locally and around the country, and I’ve met some great people. Climbing has changed me for the better.

  • Play in a professional orchestra: I studied bassoon seriously for a good portion of my life. I’ve performed with full orchestras, chamber groups, and in solo recitals, and worked freelance on a semi-professional level for several years. One of the high points was playing a few concerts with the Akron Symphony Orchestra in Akron, OH. I got to play some of my favorite repertoire with a fantastic group of musicians. It was magical.
  • Get paid to travel: While playing bassoon, I got paid to play in orchestras in the Cayman Islands and Monterrey, Mexico. All travel expenses included.
  • Move across the country on my own: I moved to Minnesota, leaving friends and family behind, and not knowing a soul in my new home. It was scary, but I did it, and now I feel that I could move anywhere and be ok (although Minnesota is pretty rad, so no immediate plans).
  • IMG_1292Build my own bicycle: With some help, I took my dad’s old steel ten-speed, stripped it down to the frame, repainted it, and rebuilt it as a single speed. I love this bike, and I love it even more knowing that I built it myself. I now can do most repairs on my own when I need to. Fun fact: my bike was recently used in a Columbia Sportswear photo shoot.
  • Take a trapeze lesson: I had a day on my own in L.A. a few years back, and decided to take a flying trapeze lesson on the Santa Monica Pier. Lots of fun.

She flies through the air….

  • Learn to garden: My mom has a green thumb, which I did not inherit. But, the past few years I’ve been experimenting with growing my own vegetables. There have been successes and miserable failures, but each year I learn a little bit more. Last year I started some seeds indoors and grew my own seedlings to plant outside! It’s great fun, and I have big plans, already, for the upcoming season.
  • Climb a mountain: Actually climb, with ropes and equipment. I climbed the Grand Teton with my husband this past summer and it was so very, very cool. Definitely one of my life’s highlights to date.
Nearing the summit of the Grand Teton. Photo: Greg Duncan

Nearing the summit of the Grand Teton. Photo: Greg Duncan

  • _MG_0392

    My hand-knit hiking sweater

    Knit a sweater: I learned to knit about five years ago from a good friend, and before I knew it I was beyond hats and on to knitting socks that I actually wear on my feet. I’ve knit myself a hiking sweater and a vest that I wear constantly, and right now I’m in the midst of knitting a kick-ass sweater for my husband. I’m ridiculously proud to be able to say that I knit things like sweaters.

  • Drive a Tractor: I was on a farm, there was a tractor, and I ended up driving it. True story
  • Be physically strong: After four years of climbing and two years of consistent kettlebell training, I can say that I am strong. I can snatch a 16kg kettlebell and climbed across the ceiling again last night at the gym. I’ve learned to do pull-ups this year, and am working up to 3000 pull-ups with my husband.  Ladies, if you’ve never done any strength training, I highly recommend it. The feeling of strength is empowering (and you don’t have the testosterone in your body to get bulky).
  • Bike through Yellowstone: Seth and I rented bikes and rode 34 miles round trip to Old Faithful and back to our car. We cautiously passed a herd of buffalo standing at the side of the road, complete with frolicking baby buffalo.


    A cold ride through the plains of Yellowstone.

  • Overcome my fear of flying: I once got to a flight gate, turned around, and went back home, because I couldn’t will myself to get on the airplane. While I still have to use some tricks, I can fly when I need to and not have it completely ruin my day. I love to travel, so it’s something I’m glad I’ve been able to deal with!
  • IMG_1039Learn to Cross-Country Ski: Minnesota has taught me that when the winters are long and cold, it’s best not to stay locked indoors. When I get out and enjoy the snow, my sanity remains intact.
  • Write on the interwebs: This blog is small, and it has a only a modest amount of readers, but I know that some of my posts have had positive effects on people. Whether it’s inspiration, or just creating stoke for their own adventures, I love to be able to connect with people, even if in a small way. Here are some of my favorite posts.
  • 2012_11_06_02324Find a fairy tale relationship: A little sap to throw in here…. I got married in my 30s, so I went through enough relationships that didn’t quite work to realize what a gem I have now (turns out love is *not* all you need. Sorry, Beatles). My husband is the kind of man I’ve always dreamed of having in my life, and I am thankful for him every day. Not only do I have a great man in my life, but together we make a great team. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
  • Learn to play in the outdoors: I have *always* wanted to go camping and hiking and frolic in the great outdoors. But, for some reason, it just never quite happened. I blame the many hours a day chained to a practice room in my former life, but the truth is I just never made it happen. In the past few years, I’ve camped and hiked more than I had probably in my entire life before that, and I love it. Love it, love it, love it.

That was a fun exercise! Thanks to Katie for the idea. What’s on *your* reverse bucket list?


Managing Fear: Where to Start

This is the first of a few posts I’ll be writing on the topic of fear and anxiety. Something that I, and many of us, have had a lot of dealings with. I am not an expert or professionally trained in any way, I’m just relating my experiences and the processes I’ve found that have helped me.

Managing fear in the Black Hills. With a crooked helmet.

Anxiety is something I’ve dealt with for a long time. I am very familiar with it and its tricky little games; always trying to take the fun out of everything and make me feel like a lunatic. One of the most tactile manifestations of anxiety is fear. Fear of everything from animals to flying to climbing.

I’ve learned a few ways to manage my fears, rather than have them rule my life. It wasn’t until I started climbing, though, that the process really made sense to me. Surprisingly, the climbing wall has turned out to be the greatest teacher of all. Continue reading

Life Lessons in Climbing: Fear

One of the things I love about this sport is that it is a teacher. When I least expect it, climbing is teaching me about life. Sometimes the lessons are subtle, but usually they are in my face, and there is no avoiding them. There are lessons about commitment, perseverance, and accepting limitations, to name a few.

Climbing has taught me about fear. There are many lessons here, and they come when I least expect them.

I was climbing a route at Devils Lake and had worked my way up to a really beautiful little alcove tucked in to the rock. Below me was a big ledge to stand on, above was a roof. I could have taken a nap in there. From there, I wasn’t sure if the route went left or right. I worked my way up left, but it didn’t feel right. At this point I had moved pretty far off from the line of the rope, so was looking at a pretty good swing if I were to fall. I calmed my nerves and slowly worked my way back down the ledge to rethink.

Continue reading

First Multi-Pitch: Eliz Goes to Washington

It was a cool, sunny day.  The wind was howling around the Cathedral Spires and I was perched alongside our guide, Russell, at the top of the first pitch of Spire 2.  The first of three pitches, it had been easy and fun.  I sat and looked out over the valley while the other climbers followed. The view was amazing.

View from Spire 2

This was my first multi-pitch climb.  I had been nervous and excited about it, not quite knowing what to expect.  And as I sat at that belay station, looking out at the trees and the valley below, a slow panic welled up inside of me. Continue reading