I am Not a Dirtbag

For my twenty-second birthday, friends came for a special dinner celebration in New York City. Between the laughter and the wine, my boyfriend at the time turned to me and said with a little bit of that Colorado charm, “This is what I want life to be. Good friends, good food, and good wine.” And really, what more could we want or need? In that moment, those words struck my heart and I knew that that was all I really wanted out of life, too.

Unfortunately, we had a tumultuous breakup. I was devastated and found myself moving to the big city alone. It took some time to patch things in my life up, but repairs were slowly made. Four years later, and that’s everything I have. Plus rock climbing and a snuggly puppy. Friends, support, unconditional animal love, new plans–they were all such helpful things to have.

I made a lot of new friends, too. Mainly through climbing, and lately,  from spending most of my spring and summer in the southeast.  The T-wall is the most famous traditional climbing area but much too hot to climb in those months, so instead, my friend Zack took me to Leda for the first time. I’m almost hesitant to write anything about Leda because we had the area almost entirely to ourselves all day—it was kind of a dream!

Running gear out on Cracked Actor before the finger crack. Photograph by Andrew Lowers

The percentage of rain for the next day was at about sixty percent when Dirtbag Climbers Nick Lanphier and Erick Barros drove from Atlanta to join us. By the time we pulled into the Craven’s parking lot, it had already begun to sprinkle. We parked underneath the giant roof of the Drain Pipe (5.11a) and it wasn’t long before I began racking slings to cams.

4s are butterflies for me. Butterfly stacks (a form of hand stacks) is a technique using both hands when a crack is too wide for a regular hand jam. I placed my hands together back to back, and cupped my hands to the side of the crack and tucked my thumbs down. Not certain how the roof would go, I wound up bumping a lot of pieces along the crack. The roof was more of a lie back with high feet, which felt strenuous and scary.

The roof shortly opened up from 4s to 5s. There were no feet throughout the entire traverse and I half aided, half groveled my way through it. It was worth struggling through to gain the offwidth. I wedged body parts into sections of the crack for security and tried to use the outside edges of the crack. The offwidth went clean, and I was proud to have accomplished that. That night, I went to dinner tired, sore, thrashed, and bleeding in various places—but I was happy.

The Drain Pipe (5.11a). Butterflies give me butterflies. Photograph by Nick Lanphier

I am not a dirtbag. I have bills, I have an apartment, and I work hard for a paycheck that I can put towards gas and plane tickets and food in my stomach.  People often joke and tell me what a dirtbag I really am. But despite being a little gross from time to time (ok, sometimes really gross) I’ve never considered pursuing the “dirtbag lifestyle”—mostly because I really like my bathtub and coming home to a well-stocked fridge. I like cooking meals at home in my kitchen, my bowls filled with breads and fruits and other treasures from the farmers market, and especially my array of quirky but very adorable coffee mugs.

Recently, a childhood friend of mine moved to Europe and dropped me a line. In a long chain of back-and-forth emails, we talked about everything under the sun. Despite the fact that we live completely different lives (on separate continents nonetheless, and Laura isn’t a climber), we often find ourselves going through similar life situations. Neither of us wants to be single forever, but we both feel as though the lives we envision ourselves having are incompatible with the majority. We both wonder a lot about relationships with substance, having a family someday, gaining financial stability, building a career. All of these things usually lead me to ask: What the hell am I even doing with my life? Wandering around the east coast climbing rocks—what am I trying to get out of this? Is this what I want to do with my life, and if so, what kinds of sacrifices am I willing to make? And if I never find the perfect life partner or have kids of my own or buy a house, am I sacrificing anything if I’m happier where I am now than I was when I started all of this? Is it a sacrifice if you’re doing something that you love? Yes and no. I guess there will always be a trade-off.

Have you ever heard the expression “Go beyond love”? Climbing is so much of who I am. It’s in my bones and it’s my passion and it’s everything (maybe I AM a little obsessed.) But I think that passion and obsession go hand in hand—you need both of those things. They are the fire to make your dreams happen. I personally can’t compromise passion for a nine to five scenario—and it isn’t wrong to want that sort of thing. But I don’t think it’s wrong to not want it, either.

Moments before moving into the offwidth of The Drain Pipe (5.11a). Photograph by Nick Lanphier

So, ok. There might not be husbands or babies in the near future for me, but that doesn’t mean I won’t have those things someday. I always feel like I’m edging away from the past and stumbling, falling, climbing ahead into unknown future—which to me, will always feel more comfortable than settling for something clearly marked or “safe”. And do I want those things (husbands and babies and safety?) A part of me does. Do I want to get those things by playing it safe? Hell no.

I question the path I’m taking on a regular basis because let’s face it, I have a lot of doubt. But my friend’s words gave me the validation I needed the other day: “If there are takeaways from this, let it be me telling you the thing I constantly try to tell myself: you are doing the right thing by refusing to ignore the possibilities of your life (even if everyone else does). You earned that proud feeling when you wake up in the morning and step outside to the places and things you always wanted.”

Photograph by Nick Lanphier

The truth is that I am not a dirtbag. I am not a dreamer or following a lifestyle. I’m just living a life according to my own happiness. And there is always good food, great and amazing and supportive and loving friends (and wine). And all of the passion you absorb is the passion you release along the way.

Cover photograph courtesy of Nick Lanphier.

Humble Pie

Last weekend, Scott Albright wanted to try Eraserhead, a 5.12a in the Nears so we warmed up on Roseland (5.9), which starts atop a block and climbs a beautiful open book into a slight overhang. The traverse has small ledges that felt good for tiny fingers. Whiskey Mike told us that a hold had been broken off of the 12, making it more difficult to protect. Despite this fact, Scott had little difficulty and sent it with ease. Then I tied in to clean and follow, and I was completely and utterly shut down. I physically could not make it past the big bulge move and despite numerous attempts, I eventually gave up.

I was humbled, and it didn’t feel good. Every time I had fallen off (of toprope, nonetheless) I felt myself becoming angry with myself. Even more frustrating was the fact that I didn’t know why I was feeling so angry. And then Scott told me I had to let go of my ego.

Ego! I scoffed at his words. But he wasn’t wrong.

My ego was in the driver’s seat but admitting it felt hard. Without even being aware of it, it had become a bigger obstacle to overcome than the move. It was just the part of me that always wanted to be in control, and came from a place that was totally self-absorbed. I, like a lot of climbers, thrived on outdoing others and climbing well, and because of it, I always had to be succeeding in some way–losing just wasn’t an option. I liked being congratulated for something I had achieved. Wouldn’t anyone? Compliments are meant to make you feel good. However, I was learning that I’d been spending too much time needing validation from external sources.

And truthfully, I want my ego to be as big as it can be when I’m on a crux pitch and I’m pulling a hard move–that’s when I need it the most. But to find a way to bring it back in check when I return to the ground–that’s probably the real crux.

So, humble pie. I’ll take another slice, please.

Cover photograph courtesy of Mountain Project.

“Grown-ups Don’t Sleep in Their Cars!”

When my car broke down last spring in the Gunks, I was content to sleep in the parking lot of a tire shop in New Paltz until morning but a friend jokingly said, “Grown-ups don’t sleep in their cars!” and convinced me to come have a glass of wine and crash in a bed, instead. (The wine and company were both much appreciated.)

The house that I stayed in was nestled away in the quiet woods, a short jaunt to the Gunks cliffs. I was used to dirty shoebox apartments or the back of my car, though, and it would be a lie if I said that I didn’t feel a small sense of shame—staying in such a beautiful home while my car was on its last breath, the refrigerator back home unstocked, and my bank account severely close to being in the red. I’m pretty much the worst at adulting, I concluded.

Sometimes living in NY feels frustrating because I’m constantly meeting professionals my age, and it emphasizes how far away I am from figuring it all out. I wind up playing the “what if” game a lot: “What if I finished college? What if I picked a career path?” Unfortunately, you can’t live in parallel dimensions—that’s when you’ll get stuck. There are certainly those who get to high places fast, but for others, well, it can be more of an experiential thing. We’re all going to measure our successes differently, that’s for sure. There are lots of people who get their lives on track faster than others, and I’ve always been a little envious. But if at any point in my life I had known exactly what I wanted to get out of it, I don’t know that I would have ever found climbing.

And the cool part is that all of that contrast is what defines us (well, I guess that and experience.) We all need the dark and light. The sweet and the bitter. And may our lives be all the richer for it.

Photograph by Nick Lanphier

Life is never going to stop being scary, but lately, I’m finding that I don’t really need much beyond whimsy and peace, laughter and love, friends and family. I thought I was in a huge rush to grow up and hurry past all of my mistakes, but I’m not anymore and instead, embracing the lessons if I can find them. My success in life is measured by things like campfire dinners, swims in rivers, pitches climbed, miles driven—in takes and falls and sends. I’m successful because I am happy doing all of these things.

Maybe I am growing up.

But please don’t tell anybody.

Thanks For the Belay

The best part about having an extended period of time to climb is that you’re not in this huge rush to get everything done. I took some time off to head back down to the New River Gorge and meet some Philly friends.  Zac Mutter was excited to climb at Butcher’s Branch at Kaymoor, and I was happy to explore a new crag. He had his eye on a sport climb called Lost Souls (5.12a), which had a tricky little start sequence. It has great movement, a fun traverse before you pump out, and is just really fun to project. Zac hung the draws to figure out the moves and quickly went to work on his redpoint attempt.

Zac cruising past the starting moves on Lost Souls (5.12a)

I met Zac and his girlfriend, Kristen Branin, in the Red River Gorge one year ago while their pup, Roman, and Shooter chased each other around at Miguel’s one morning. As I watched Kristen belay Zac on Lost Souls, I noticed how incredibly patient and supportive she was. It’s kind of incredible to see how much of a difference in confidence having a good belayer versus just a good belay can actually give you.

I tied in and Zac held the rope. His tone of voice immediately calmed me, even when the moves were hard and I felt myself feeling a slight panic before I could reach the next bolt or hold. I didn’t send, but it’s a pretty good day when you have a solid, competent belay. And you’re one of the lucky ones if you have someone like Kristen or Zac holding the other end of the rope.

Zac, Kristen, and Roman. Photograph courtesy of Anthony Italiano

When I was lowered, Zac’s words reminded me that so much of climbing is actually about sharing others’ psych as much as your own. He said, “I get just as stoked watching someone else climb as if I were to climb it myself.

Those are powerful words to me.

Cover photograph courtesy of Anthony Italiano.

Try Hard, Then Eat a Burrito

New River Gorge is kind of my happy place. It’s only eight and a half hours away from the city and worth the drive every time. The New boasts some of the best single-pitch lines, both bolted and on gear. And did I mention the lake?


Two summers ago, I watched my friend Andrew Erwin project B52 which is a 5.13a in the Meadows. For some reason, he thought I was strong enough to keep up with him on that trip and invited me along. Climbing with Andrew and watching him project hard routes was hugely inspiring to me, and climbing with him made me feel like maybe I could try hard, too. I think about our summer in the New often, and how that trip made me realize that the only thing stopping me from trying was myself.

Since then, I’ve been inspired to try my first 5.13. Something in my bones told me that one day, I could at least get to the top of Apollo Reed, a classic jug haul in the Coliseum at Summersville Lake. Maybe it’s because I’d heard that it’s everybody’s first 5.13, or maybe it’s because I happened to be with Mike Farnsworth that day (and you feel like you can pretty much climb anything when Farnsworth is around.) Farnsworth, who is the most ridiculously humble guy you will ever meet, will lay waste to all of your projects.

Playing on Apollo Reed (5.13a) for the first time. Photograph by Abe Carte

I also gave Genocide (5.12a) a try, which was the hardest thing I’d ever attempted on gear. I whipped all over that route like it was my full-time job. Finger cracks aren’t necessarily my “thing”, but I guess that’s how you get better at anything. The first half climbed like a powerful sport route, except that you have to place all of your own gear (minus one bolt in an alcove). The second half is a finger and thin hands crack. As hard as I tried, I got too pumped and couldn’t clip my quickdraw in time. I missed the move twice, and twice I took twenty-foot falls.

While there is one part of me that doesn’t think I’ll ever send climbs at that sort of level, there is the other side of me that is a little bit curious and a little bit determined to keep attempting. I don’t think falling is necessarily the same thing as failing, even though it can be hard not to. To this day, I find myself inspired by Andrew’s attitude, telling me that the reason walls exist is to teach us not to give up. You have to want it and you have to do the work and know that every single accomplishment in life starts with the simple decision to try. When I tie in, I take that first deep breath and tell myself that.

Cover photograph courtesy of Mikaela Wegerhoff.

Summer Solstice Magic

Even though I’d grown up on the east coast, I wasn’t aware of the existence of the Gunks until a few years ago. Driving up and seeing the cliffs for the very first time was like a dream. What makes the Gunks so special is that the rock is littered with horizontal cracks (rather than vertical ones). After climbing in a few other areas, I truly began to appreciate on a whole new level how extraordinary the climbing style here is. We’ve got it all—overhanging roofs, big airy traverses, and exposure!

The view from the Grand Traverse Ledge

I drove up from the city on a Thursday evening with great anticipation to meet my dear friend, Day Acheson. Friday morning, we started down the carriage road and had the entire place to ourselves, it felt like, so we began hitting all of the classics. When I first began leading, 5.8 in the Gunks terrified me My experience up until that point had been that 9s in the Gunks are generally more straightforward and thuggish, whereas 8s have a tendency of being much more delicate, thin, and balance-y and I would often opt for a 5.9 over an 8 any day. Then I climbed Son of Easy O.

You can link both pitches together with a seventy-meter rope, which is exactly what we did. Day and I cruised through and embraced the afternoon air from atop. While the start of the first pitch always feels a bit spicy, the second one offers a jug haul through overhanging rock. We quickly made our way down the cliff and Day offered to take the first pitch of Airy Aria (5.8). I led the second and third as a link-up. Upon rapping down, Day took a look at the crux on Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a). “Why not?” we said, so we racked up for the second pitch.

The first pitch of Carbs followed a thin crack that diagonals up and left. Then came pitch two, where I worked my way through overhangs and to two bolts stacked atop each other. The second bolt was so mank that I let out a pathetic laugh as I tried to continue climbing past. There were several big moves to smaller than small crimp-like holds. I loved stepping up into the hand traverse, or the “crab crawl”. With my left foot comfortably resting on a hold, I made my way out to the traverse ledge. There was a belay/rap station waiting for me with two locking carabiners. I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to grab those biners! But I continued and was belaying Day up to the anchor shortly after.

The first pitch of Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a)

The following day, Gunks local and friend Scott Albright suggested that I try the Stand (5.11a). Feeling pretty good at that moment, we took a walk over to the Slime Wall. There was no anticipation or nervous first-time jitters—I just felt ready.

“You’re gonna send this.” Scott’s words hummed in my ear.

Scott and I have known each other for a little over a year now, and within that year, it has been a decade of friendship. We met in Red River Gorge and have been inspiring, supporting, and belaying one another on our projects since then. So I was feeling pretty confident as I tied in. He laughed at my bowline, saying he had no idea how to check that so it was probably fine. I went up, traversing left and standing high to take a look at the next move. A crack opened up, I reached with my left hand at first but only half a pad on my middle finger made it.

“You need higher feet,” Scott told me. I know, I know, I thought silently, and slightly annoyed. Out loud, I asked, “Do you put a piece of gear in before making this move? It’s kinda scary to commit with no gear yet.” Scott nodded his head and told me he that he didn’t.

“Kathy,” he said. “It’s YOUR climb. You do whatever you need to do.”

The move felt really mellow, just like Scott said it would be, all the way to the left-facing corner. I crimped hard on the thin horizontal which was my last good hold and poked my head around the corner to see what came next: NOTHING. I panicked for a second and then collected myself as I prepared to try it again. High step. Watch your feet. Breathe. I balanced myself by touching tiny little crystals in the rock with the tips of my fingers. The thin horizontal was enough for the tips of my toes to stand on. It was never scary. It was never pumpy. I just felt like I’d sailed through the moves and moments later, I came down from the anchors atop Frustration Syndrome (5.10c) and Scott gave me a high five. Smiling from ear to ear, I had sent my first two Gunks 11s that weekend.

Second pitch of Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a). Photograph by Day Acheson

On our last day, Day and I rallied and woke at 3:30 a.m. to climb the first pitch of High Exposure (5.6) by headlamp. We arrived at the Grand Traverse (GT) ledge just as the sun began to greet us. I’ve seen a few sunrises in my life and each one is always a different kind of beautiful, but this one seemed to be in a league of its own. Maybe it was because it was the solstice day, or because I hadn’t climbed High E in quite some time, or maybe because we were finally approaching summer (and this past winter had felt especially long.) Day and I shared coffee and croissants at the top as we watched the cedar waxwings start to wake up before we continued on to rappel back to the base.

Perched on the High E ledge at 5:21 a.m. Photograph by Day Acheson

Being in the Gunks at any time of the day is a magical moment, but the thrill of watching new daybreak on that June solstice day was something I will never know how to put into words. I think that those are the moments in my life that don’t always immediately scream out, “Wait! Pay attention to this. This could be important.” It’s those little moments that, if you’re not careful, will pass you by. They don’t always come with special tags or knock on your door saying, “Special delivery!” And I guess that that’s just life…something we create out of many, many moments. We make each one special by giving each one its own meaning. I have no words for that feeling, either.

Cover photograph courtesy of Day Acheson.

The Day I Quit Rock Climbing

I often feel guilty when I have a lot of time off of work and I don’t spend it climbing, but the truth is that Brooklyn isn’t a bad place to hang your hat. I roughly calculated one hundred and seventy days of rock climbing a year at this point in my life, which is nothing to sneeze at! (And then there’s that little nagging voice in my brain that keeps telling me I could get out more if I REALLY tried.)

I live on this really pretty, quiet block in Crown Heights. I fell in love with my neighborhood pretty quickly. The diversity is refreshing. The energy of the city is unparalleled to any other city I’ve visited. And don’t even get me started on the food. I enjoy taking the subway but I bike to work every day, something I never thought I’d do. I now cherish every second of wind in my hair and people watching as I pump tunes the short nine blocks to my job.

This past weekend I quit rock climbing, which I thought was going to be weird. Because I work so much during the week in order to have as many days off as possible to take trips, I thought it would be hard to not leave the city—and it oddly wasn’t.

After returning home from four days of climbing sandstone in beautiful New River Gorge, I found myself with a three-day weekend ahead of me and I consciously made the decision to stay in Brooklyn. I think that sometimes I need that balance between city life and nature. Instead of waking up in the back of my car in the middle of the woods, I woke up with the wind blowing through my large bedroom windows accompanied by city traffic. A full French press of coffee later, I walked to Grand Army Plaza farmer’s market with my compost scraps that I’d been freezing. It was a normal, boring weekend. I really love passing through the plaza on my way to work. There’s something about The Soldiers and Sailors Arch that reminds me of The Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France.

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The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch at Grand Army Plaza

Later in the week, I was riding my bike to work and as I pedaled, I thought about how you can miss too much when you put your head down. Being a city-dweller, I’m often guilty of this. When you’re in a rush to get somewhere, your eyes travel to your feet shuffling on the sidewalk, one foot following another. I’m sure you can get where you’re going much faster this way, but what’s the point if you don’t enjoy all of the small, subtle in-between moments?

Stepping away from climbing for a week or so doesn’t bother me anymore. In fact, what I am able to walk away with is profoundly more important. I used to think that living in New York City defined too much of me, or I’d worry about taking too much time off in between climbing trips or not getting to the gym every weeknight, and that maybe I wouldn’t climb as strong as I could. What I’d realized was that it doesn’t matter that you’re a 5.14 climber if you don’t know how to enjoy cruising up a fun 5.8. What’s the point of training to death for something if it breaks your heart if your goals aren’t met? I’m not saying that I don’t have goals myself because I do, but in twenty years, I won’t remember my proud onsights as much as I will remember the people I spent that day with and how they made me feel.

Someone once told me, “You can’t hold climbing too close to you—it becomes like anything else in this life. If you hold it too close, you can’t see it for what it really is and truly love and appreciate it for the same.”

From the moment I put on my first harness, I now understand that climbing, just like living in a city, doesn’t actually define my life. I don’t love climbing because it’s what I’ve chosen to do with my life. I love what my life has become because climbing is a part of it.