Feb 27 2015

Climbing With Kids: The Dawn Wall, Yosemite’s Only Winter Storm

Once Theo was able to sit up by himself and commando crawl through the dirt and pine needles of Camp 4, it became a lot easier for me to take him bouldering and do my little slab circuit. He’d end each session covered in dirt, but pretty happy as well. I’ve been trying to heed Jim Herson’s sage wisdom that, “You can’t make kids like climbing. You can only make them NOT like climbing.”


Indeed. Climbing and Contentment. Two of our most basic, natural states as human beings. To not be experiencing these simple states, then, is maybe to not be in sync with who we really are. That really does feel true to me a lot of the time.


I look at all the ways that I am pushed away from these natural states of being—whether that’s through injury, or through just getting overwhelmed by all the stresses of adulthood and growing older. I wonder if my greatest struggle as an adults is really just as simple as struggling to return to having the mindset of a child, where even just staring up at the tall Yosemite pines is a sheer pleasure and fills you with wonder.


As the Valley emptied out in November and December, I wondered what my winter would be like with Theo. I had fallen into a nice, if exhausting, routine with going solo with Theo during the workweek. It felt totally empowering and awesome to be able to have Theo with me all fall, combining the mountain lifestyle with a small social circle of friends. Toward the holidays, as the Valley grew dark and empty, we decided to take a break and head home to indulge and socialize with the family.


As the New Year approached, like most people, I started wondering if I could actually begin to set some type of physical goal for myself. It has been a long time since I’ve achieved a physical goal that was not to get to sick, not get injured and not split my abs open any more than they already are. After all these years of injury, then focusing on my pregnancy and extended postpartum recover, I truly miss the process of setting an athletic goal and working hard to achieve it. It has been not only discouraging, but depressing.


My friend Kathryn pointed me to an online exercise program for moms called MuTu. “It was nice to workout a little each day,” she said, “even if the amount is small.”


That was exactly what I needed to hear. It’s hard to not want to shoot for the moon and jump right back on El Cap again, but I heeded her advice that, when it comes to physical goals, I need to begin with baby steps. The MuTu program is nice because you can do it anywhere. At the start of the program, I had about a three-finger gap between my abs, but after a month of doing the Phase 1 Core, I think I am down to a two-finger gap!


As of January, I realized that it had been 18 months since I was last climbing regularly—the longest break I’ve ever taken in my 20 years of climbing. My postpartum recovery was something that I could have never expected or planned for, but I think, if anything, it has been a constant reminder to take my time.


If Yosemite felt too quiet and empty in December, then I had no idea what was about to come next. Be careful what you wish for …


Right before Christmas, I got a text from Tommy and a call from Josh Lowell that Tommy and Kevin were going to go for a push on their long-term project, the Dawn Wall. The troops were going to descend on Yosemite—more specifically, they were going to descend on our house. I was excited to see all my friends from around the country in one place, and so the decision was made that Theo and I would remain in Yosemite.


At first, it was just Brett Lowell and Kyle Berkompas on the project. I’d say hi to Kyle each morning, and send him off with some cookies to take to the team up on the wall. Then, Theo and I would head down to the Valley to climb and watch the action from El Cap meadow.


By the first week of January, it was clear that Tommy and Kevin were making great progress, and that meant that Corey Rich, Josh Lowell, Dane Henry, Sean Haverstock and Bligh Gillies were also going to arrive in the Valley and base-camp out of our home as well. This was an amazing time. I continued my routine of heading down to the Valley mid-morning, going climbing or hiking with Theo, then swinging by El Cap meadow in the afternoon to see Josh and watch the boys up on the wall for a bit.


Of course, as everyone knows, Tommy and Kevin finally succeeded in their goal of free climbing the Dawn Wall. It was really interesting to see how this ascent blew up. I’ve never seen anything like it, really, and it was just absolutely nuts. News trucks were stationed in El Cap meadow. Every publication around the world was calling, looking for information, clips, videos, etc.


The media storm stirred a lot of deep emotions within me—stuff that I’m still processing, to be honest. The Dawn Wall began over a decade ago, in November 2004, when Tommy and I first rapped the wall to check out the line as a potential project. He had climbed almost every other free climb on El Cap at that point. He’d just freed the Dihedral Wall a year earlier, his hardest El Cap route to date. Justen Sjong had suggested the Dawn Wall as a project the year prior. Then, over the next few years, we went back to it off and on. During that time, we free climbed the Nose. Then Tommy freed the Nose and Freerider in a day. He did Magic Mushroom with Justen, the did it in a day. He was keeping busy, clearly, but he always kept returning to the Dawn Wall, the blankest part of El Cap.

When the Dawn Wall blew up in the media this January, it was honestly just a little too crazy for me to be around. It was reminiscent of the prying media in the wake of our Kyrgyzstan nightmare. Once again, I saw both sides of the media: those who were genuinely interested in telling a story, and those who just wanted a scoop at whatever cost.

Fortunately, Tommy and Kevin seemed to do a great job of deflecting all the craziness, and just focus on climbing and enjoying their monumental feat. Meanwhile, I started to avoid the Meadow on our drive home, opting to spare myself and Theo from all the reporters and cameras.


Again, it comes back to Jim Herson’s observation: “You can’t make kids like climbing. You can only make them NOT like climbing.” All this fanfare was making me not like climbing—it was making me not be who I am.


We got to see Becca and Fitz again, which was awesome as it seemed like both Theo and Fitz remembered each other. Marina and Leila Rich came as well, giving more kiddos for Theo to hang out with. It was so great to see something get accomplished after so many years. It’s like a fairy tell ending, start something more than a decade prior, and finish it with so much hard work. It was incredible to see Tommy and Kevin receive so much attention for such an amazing feat. And on the same front, it was awesome to see Josh, Brett and Corey get the same recognition. They are all amazing artists that work incredibly hard and deserve so much recognition for what they do. So rad to think how it has all come from bivying in cars and tents, to what the Dawn Wall became, an international sensation.


However, I have to say, after they topped out, and the crowds and media emptied the Valley, I felt so much more relaxed and at ease. It was great to see all these people celebrate an amazing accomplishment, and enjoy the magic of Yosemite. But, I know that as I drove in that next day to Camp 4, did my slab circuit with Theo, then drove by the meadow, I was able to return to that natural childlike state where it’s just climbing and contentment.


We walked to the back of the Meadow and stared up at El Cap. There were no climbers on the walls. No telescopes to look through. No media trucks asking for interviews. No crowds of tourists. Just me, Theo, the matted down grass from the masses of people, and El Cap shining in the sun. I didn’t need anything to occupy my attention, just the grandness of El Cap. Theo didn’t need anything either, he just dug in the dirt with his hands. I was so psyched for Tommy and Kevin, but equally as psyched to have the stillness of Yosemite in winter back. For me, that is what it’s all about. I couldn’t be happier, sitting in my favorite place in the world with my little man, his hands covered in dirt.

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