11: A Woman Knows Her Place

Women are a lot of things. We’re complex, we’re coffee-fueled, we smell good—sometimes we smell bad. Sometimes we’re hangry. But one thing is certain—we’re hustlers, we are strong, and we are gritty. Welcome back to the second season of For the Love of Climbing.

This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Gnarly Nutrition, Allez Outdoors, and Têra Kaia. Music by: “Southside” by Lee Rosevere, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, “Blue Highway”, “60’s Quiz Show”, “Well and Good”, “Knock Knock”, “Threshold”, “Quatrefoil”, “Samara”, “K2”, “A Soldier’s Story”, “Driftwood”, “Three Colors”, “Pives and Flarinet”, and “Good Times” by Podington Bear. Sound effects by Mike Koenig, Daniel Simion, and Isaac Ionescu. A HUGE thank you to Chad Crouch, aka Podington Bear, for the support and to Peter Darmi for all of his help.

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Transcript:

(KATHY KARLO): This podcast is sponsored by Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, but most importantly–your snacks. Deuter has a history of first ascents and alpine roots. Their head of product development even climbed Everest once, in jeans (hashtag not fake news.) Deuter is known for fit, comfort, and ventilation. Founded in 1898, Deuter believes in good fitting backpacks, so you can focus on way cooler things like puppies, pocket bacon, and gettin’ sendy, whether at the crag or in the alpine.

– We’re working with Better Help to connect you to licensed therapists. They’ll match you with the perfect therapist for a fraction of the cost of traditional therapy. You know who goes to therapy? Prince Harry. Emma Stone. Jenny Slate. Kesha. Therapy is beautiful—everyone should go to therapy. Go to betterhelp.com/climbing to sign up and receive one free week. It helps support this show, and it helps support you.

– This podcast gets support from Gnarly Nutrition, one of the leading protein supplements that tastes “whey” better than they need to because they use quality natural ingredients. So, whether you’re a working mom who runs circles around your kids on weekends or an unprofessional climber trying to send that 5.13 in the gym, Gnarly Nutrition has all of your recovery needs. The only question you need to ask yourself is: Are you a sucker for anything that tastes like chocolate ice cream? (Yeah, me neither.) Gnarly Nutrition is designed to enhance your progress—and taste like a milkshake, without all the crap.

(FEMALE VOICE): Today we’re going to talk about “allez”. “Allez” means “come on!” in a way, or to encourage. Ok! We are done with the simple and normal uses of “allez”, now let’s cut to the chase:

(KK): Allez Outdoor Personal Care products are made by climbers for those who love the outdoors. Their rich and repairing ingredients for their skincare collection are inspired by desert landscapes, and their simple and recyclable packaging makes them eco-sustainable. Allez commits to protecting the open spaces that we love by partnering with the Access Fund and 1% for the Planet. You can win a years’ supply of Allez product by following them on Instagram (that’s Allez Outdoor: “A-L-L-E-Z”), posting a story about an upcoming or past adventure and tagging them. Allez will announce one winner per episode. Allez Outdoor—made by climbers, for those who love the outdoors.

Têra Kaia, made by women for women, is redefining the standard with sizing. The TOURA basewear top is their swim-friendly sports bra that’s designed for outdoor adventure—so you can hike, sweat, and climb to the summit in comfort. You can even wear it camping for days on end—it just about never gets gross (trust me, I have tried.)  You can take 10% off with code “fortheloveofclimbing” and show your support for the show. Go ahead and throw out your other sports bras because #basewear is the only top you’ll pack. Feel naked, go anywhere, look great.

(SUDHA PAMIDIMUKKALA): I think I’m just going to introduce myself as just “Sudha”, that’s it.

(KK): Sudha and I sit in her kitchen where she’s making me breakfast. It’s late October and the air is crisp and cool—perfect sending temps. I’m on my way to Philadelphia from the Gunks but I stop in New Jersey to meet Sudha for a few hours, and I’m greeted by her dog at the door.

(doorbell rings)

(dog barks)

I’m a few minutes early and Sudha immediately starts preparing uttapam, which is a type of dosa from South India. Unlike typical dosa, which is more like a crepe, uttapam is a thick, savory pancake.

(sizzling)

It smells soo good as it sizzles on the stovetop. It’s crisp on the bottom but soft and fluffy on top, because of the fermented lentils and rice batter. Sudha serves it with chutney. She then peels the skin of several pomegranates as she tells me how much the seeds remind her of her father.

(SP in background): I don’t want to give up that slot again. Right? I might never get that opportunity again. So, I’m going to go.

(KK): We talk about racism, growing up in India, and her struggle to find climbing partners as a female mountaineer and mother.

(SP): If I don’t summit, I don’t summit. I’m going to go be on Denali. You know? So, again I went off by myself.

“How come you’re gone for so long?” and “What did your daughter do?” It’s mostly women asking me these questions—not as much the men, you know? Just like, women are mostly family-oriented. There’s a lot of times in my own life that I’ve accepted some things as I go because I’m a mother, I can’t do that. Kind of feel like, “Ok. That’s where my place is. Maybe I should just do that.” We all talk about: “Well, how come there are not as many women out there?” I know why. Society puts different expectations on a woman versus a man. Society sets you back from moving forward and, unfortunately, from my experience, it’s mostly women setting women back. We don’t encourage each other as a man would encourage another man.

(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.

(SP): I grew up in southern India and moved here when I was about twenty-one. I had a great upbringing in many ways because my dad was totally open-minded. Single father, raised me: and that’s where I feel my free spirit comes from. Because he’s never told me in my entire life, “You’re a girl—you can’t do that.” Never. And then, what surprised me is I never felt like I can’t do that because I’m a woman ’til I was in a Western society and started doing things that were not common for Western women to be doing that, let alone an Indian woman to be doing that. Why can’t I do anything? And I just wanted to do anything that I felt excited about. I thought I could just do it. I rode a motorcycle because it’s just natural for me. And everybody was like, “I never took you for a—” what’s that?

(motorcycle revving)

“— motorcycle mama.” You know, that’s what my colleagues would even remark. Growing up in India, I wanted to ride a moped and back then, none of the women rode in my town—which is actually a capital city. It’s not like a small village. We just asked my dad, “Dad! I want to get a moped.” and he’s like, “Yeah, sure. Go get a moped.” He never said no to it! And then, I remember actually when my sister and I were riding mopeds—they took a picture saying that, “Now women are riding.” The article in the newspaper! So, we were the first ones to ride in my town at that time.

(KK): Back home, societal norms encouraged Sudha to focus on her studies. More than education though, society put an emphasis on getting married and starting a family. But because her father had such a progressive mindset, Sudha instead moved to the US and she received a double masters degree in computer science and math. It was a different life from where she had grown up and she missed her father, but she enjoyed the new life she had built, despite naysayers from back home.

(SP): The reason I moved was really just because my sister was here. You know, I was missing my sister because I grew up without a mother and looked up to my sister as my mother. And when she moved here, and I wanted to also come follow her. Friends and even my cousins that were intelligent and wanted to study were not encouraged to go to college because their parents thought the best thing to do for a girl is to get them married and otherwise, they’re a burden. So, a woman doesn’t need to study as much. Not my father. My father never looked at us as a burden because we’re girls and then, once my sister left to go to school in the US and I was like, “I’m so lonely! I miss her.” and he said, “Who’s stopping you?” My dad was definitely criticized: “What are you doing? You know, they’re single. How come you’re sending them away?” To the point even, “Why are you getting them educated so much because then you’ll have to find somebody that’s as educated as them.” And my dad was just like, “My daughters want to study, they’ll study. And they want to get married, they’ll get married.” That was his attitude. He just did what felt right for him, and what he thought was right for us.

Asian society expects you to just go get a good education, go get a good job, make a lot of money, and you’re successful. That’s where they drive you towards. We’re talking about bubbles, that was the bubble that I grew up in—is that education is the most important thing. But that’s not really true at all. For me, the most important thing and best thing that ever happened to me by coming here is that I discovered the open spaces.

(KK): Sudha didn’t have the luxury of open spaces growing up in India. It was just so overpopulated that the idea of enjoying the outdoors recreationally didn’t really exist. Even hiking is still kind of a foreign concept there. In 1996, Sudha began working as an IT consultant, which kept her busy—not only during the workweek but during weekends and evenings as well.

(SP): “What are you doing this weekend?” and I’m like, “What else would people do on weekends? I’ll be in the lab working on my project.” So, I never got the concept of doing stuff on weekends either. I was always just like, studies.

(KK): Sudha buried herself in her work until one day, a co-worker invited her to a slideshow about the Appalachian Trail. Sudha had never heard anybody talk about the outdoors like that and was in absolute awe. Friends invited her to go hiking through an outing club at work, and a day hike quickly turned into whole weekends spent climbing, rafting, and more.

(SP): I went with her and she was trying to quit smoking at that time, so she didn’t enjoy it and I had a blast. Now I had plans for the weekend! I would work all week but every weekend I would just go hike. And then, one thing led to the other. They would talk about, “Oh, we’re going canoeing.” I’m like, “What is that? I want to go canoeing! I want to go rafting.” I just fell in love with the outdoors. To me, it brought a different self of me out—in wonder, in excitement, in love.

So, there used to be a motorcycle club that they went for lunch rides. And I was like, “Oh, I always rode mopeds and scooters back home and I love it!” On one of those lunch rides, I mentioned to them that I went rock climbing about a month ago and I just loved it. Lucky me, that one of the guys knew somebody that climbed at the Gunks. So, he said, “Do you want me to introduce you to him?” and I’m like, “Yes, please!” I remember my very first climb was actually Gelsa that he took me up, which had a little traverse. I guess being the “newbie”, I slipped on the traverse and took a little swing. My friend that took me there, he made a remark: “You are fearless!”

(KK): In discovering the outdoors, Sudha found her happy place, which is also conveniently where she found a husband—it was through the outing club at work. And she wasn’t particularly interested at first, but suddenly the pressure to get married and start a family started to feel real.

(SP): Again, being a woman, I guess your biological clock is running. Everybody started saying, “Oh, you should get married.” I was like, “Ah, ok.” The outdoors is very important and I thought he is also into the outdoors, and I told him that that’s the most important thing for me. I just asked him to get married without really even dating. There’s not that much of that concept of dating in India. I also, I think, felt too, is to just give into what the society was expecting of me at that time. I just wanted to show them that I could get married if I wanted. I wasn’t living my life at that time. I was living what was expected of me: getting the education, getting the job, and getting married. Then, I had a daughter.

And by this point, already I have done every peak in Catskills in the winter. I didn’t mind sleeping in the cold or sleeping in the tent and spending time out when it’s a blizzard. And I remember during that time, my friends would say, “Oh, god. I’m so happy! Tonight I’ll be sleeping in my bed.” and I’m like, “I don’t know. I never feel that excitement. I’m sad that we have to now go back to living in between four walls.” I never missed the comforts of home at all. I just was at home in the mountains. Even after I had my daughter, I would backpack. I would put her in the front pack and I would carry a backpack on my back. I think my daughter was about five months old when I first did a backpacking trip with her. Everybody used to make the remark that, “Once you have a kid, that’s going to be the end of it.” But for me, it’s like nothing could stop me. So, I would just take her with me and it’s like the best thing because she had a grand old time and I had a grand old time. You know? It’s just great.

(KK): Having a daughter wasn’t going to stop Sudha from spending time outside. In fact, it only encouraged her to spend more time outdoors with her daughter—taking her on backpacking trips and going hiking and rock climbing in the Gunks with her. I watched Sudha carefully with every word she spoke. I watched as her eyes lit up as she described snow camping in the dead of winter or ice climbing in the Catskills, where I’d first met her about a year ago. Being outdoors filled every corner of Sudha’s life, and began opening doors to new opportunities. In 2008, Sudha decided that she wanted to climb Kilimanjaro.

(SP): I asked my husband, “Let’s go do Kilimanjaro! I want to really go climb Kilimanjaro.” and he was also open to that and my in-laws were also nice enough to say that they would watch my daughter. The best part about climbing Kilimanjaro is meeting all these people from all over the world that are just starting to mountaineer and they were telling me stories: “We do this in Italy” or “I did this where” and I was like, “Wow!” I came back from that trip, I guess I always had the passion, but it lit up in me, right? The light was lit. Every chance I had at my work, I had a little downtime I’d be looking to see what else. At work, someone mentioned the Seven Summits. And then I was like, “What is that?” and I started just looking on the computer. No Indian has done the Seven Summits. I wanted to be the first Indian to climb the Seven Summits.

(KK): The Seven Summits are the highest mountains of each of the seven continents, and summiting them is no small feat. The internet told me that it can take years to complete all seven and it’s considered one of the highest respected accomplishments within the sport of mountaineering. To be honest, I’m mostly into type one climbing—but that’s just me. Sudha, on the other hand, wasn’t afraid of the challenge and she friggin took that summit by storm.

(SP): After I came back from Kilimanjaro, I came all energized like, “There are so many mountains to climb! So many places to go!” and then my husband saying that, “I’m not into climbing big mountains and I don’t want to do that anymore.” I kind of was a little disappointed because even though I wasn’t as aware of what I really wanted to do at that time, I still knew the outdoors was important to me. So, that was all I was focused on. Like, he loves the outdoors, I love the outdoors. That’s the most important. When we came back from Kilimanjaro, his family was just very proud that he’s climbed the highest in Africa: “Look! Bill went to Africa and climbed a big mountain!” and then he didn’t want to do it anymore—but I still wanted to do.

(KK): Kilimanjaro changed everything. Sudha thought about the Seven Summits every waking moment, and she began making plans to become the first Indian woman to summit all seven peaks. But, as it turned out, things had changed for her husband after Kilimanjaro as well.

(SP): And at that time, then my husband said, “Oh, no. Because it will affect my retirement plans.” Right? That’s the first time I felt, I don’t know, let down. Not because I can’t do the Seven Summits. It’s more about: here I am, making way more money than my husband. Never once thought, “Oh, but he doesn’t make as much.”—because the outdoors was important to me. And he didn’t say, “Isn’t that dangerous? What if something happens to you?” The first thing that he said was, “You can do it as long as it doesn’t affect my retirement.” It’s ok, you know, I don’t need to climb Seven Summits. Anyway, for a little bit, I just let it go.

(KK): Disappointment would be an understatement. But, despite putting her dream on hold, Sudha stayed active in the outdoor club at work. She still went hiking, she still climbed ice, and she still went rock climbing in the Gunks. But the more time she spent in the outdoors, the more Sudha saw how being a woman was an actual barrier.

(record scratch)

Wait, what? Some of you might be saying to yourselves: “But climbers are way more woke than that!” or “I’ve never seen that happen in my gym.” Well, you’re wrong. And this was Sudha’s experience:

(SP): There was one time on an occasion that my daughter was on a Girl Scout outing and one of the parents mentioned that he hikes Adirondacks 46ers. And I was so thrilled because it’s just such a commitment to go by myself and I was like, “Wow! I always wanted to do that. So, any time you’re going, could you let me know?” And on that outing and stuff, he said, “Oh yeah, in a couple of weeks we’re planning.” I happened to call his home and his wife picked up the phone and she said, “It’s bad enough that you’re leaving your family and going and he’s leaving his family and going and I don’t appreciate him going with another woman. So, please don’t call.” Here I am, in Western society. I’m married to a Westerner. I thought Western society was open-minded and I’m hearing that I’m a woman so I shouldn’t be going with another man for a hiking trip? I shouldn’t be leaving my daughter for a week and go climb a mountain? And it just…it kind of sets me back in a way. I used to go with the full vigor, like, “It’s me! I can do anything.” Now I’m like, “I’m a mother—so I shouldn’t be doing that. I’m a woman—I don’t know if they would like it if I ask them that I want to join.” And also, from the experience of looking for partners: I’m a woman and I’m an Indian woman. They think I’m going to be a weak link. Even after they get to know me, they would say that, “Yeah, because I’ve never seen another Indian woman climb.” So, sometimes I lose out because they don’t give me the opportunity to get to know me.

(KK): Diversity in climbing is a difficult conversation for a lot of people. Despite growing support, the majority of climbing and other outdoor sports are still overwhelmingly homogenous, which can be a huge barrier of entry for some. Diversity in climbing is an emotionally loaded conversation, one that a lot of people tend to avoid. And if you’re one of them, it’s ok to admit that. But initiatives like Brothers of Climbing, Brown Girls Climb, and Melanin Basecamp aren’t avoiding them because they’re uncomfortable—so be sure to check them out after the episode. Leaders like Bethany Lebewitz, Melise Edwards, and Danielle Sky (*total sidenote, this is not in the actual transcript but her name is Danielle Williams. I just always forget because her Facebook name is “Sky”, whoops!) are prompting both companies and consumers to reconsider what representation in outdoor spaces look like. And, a lot of the work that these women and so many others do is possible because of the power of social media.

(choir singing)

But social media didn’t always exist (at least not the way that it does today). Ok, humor me for one second. Once upon a time, people used to rely on (and I’m totally going to sound like a dinosaur when I say this) a website called meetup.com. Pre-Instagram age, this website was primarily utilized to facilitate meetings of groups of people—and it was the perfect tool for Sudha to find climbing partners.

(SP): Back then, social media wasn’t there. In a way, I feel like if social media was there back then, I would have been somewhere else (laughs). But there were all these big groups of people climbing and I said, “How do you guys know so many climbers? I only know one person.” They’re like, “There’s social media groups. There’s meet-ups. And do you go to the gym? You can meet a lot of climbers.” And I’m like, “Oh, I don’t really go to the gym. I just go with this one person that asked me to go climbing.” So, then I went back to my desk next week

(keyboard clicking)

I’m working and looking for: what’s a meet-up group?

(KK): Sudha relied on the world wide web and found herself a partner for Aconcagua, which is one of the Seven Summits. Even though Aconcagua is considered one of the easier peaks to climb, an average of 3,500 people attempt the summit every year but only less than half will complete it. After she applied for a permit, her partner wound up dropping out because he didn’t feel like he was ready—but Sudha was and her mind was already made up. She wasn’t going to let that, or anything stop her from going.

(SP): When I went to Kilimanjaro with my husband, my family readily offered to watch my daughter. But then when I said I want to go climb Aconcagua, they said “Make your own arrangements.” because now they’re not happy that I’m going without my husband. The thing here is that I worked for an undersea fiber-optic transmission field and we used to have cable stations all over the world and I would travel many times for a couple of weeks on a business trip. That time, they would come and help me with my daughter. But if I went to climb a mountain for a few weeks, then all of a sudden it’s become, “How can you abandon your daughter and do that?”

And I’m like, why is it abandoning? I cook every meal for my daughter and my whole family. My daughter never ate in the cafeteria. Every meal, I would wake up and make her breakfast before she left for school. I would make lunch. I would make dinner. And if I was going away for a few days, I would make sure there was food in the refrigerator, cooked—ready to eat. I did laundry, I did everything—but the minute you try to go do something that you love to do, it was just like, “We’re not going to be encouraging you in that.” But for me, nothing was going to stop me from what I wanted to do. So, I was stubborn. Nothing brings me down. I went through all this and I’m not going to let this stop me now. So, I’m going to go by myself and I’m going to go as far as I go. If I don’t summit, I don’t summit. But I’m just going to go do this trip. So, I took off.

(KK): Some people don’t even like going camping by themselves, let alone go climb a 22,000-ish foot mountain. Aconcagua is the highest peak in South America, as well as in the Western Hemisphere outside of the Himalayas. Oh, and did we mention the blizzards yet? But you could drop Sudha off in the middle of the woods, in winter, and she would never feel out of place. Not even for a second. Sudha has a rule where she never takes the same trail twice. She always tries to find a circular route, and that’s exactly what she had planned for Aconcagua.

(SP): So, same thing on the mountain: I wanted to circumnavigate the mountain. So, I wanted to go from one end and come back on the other. Anyway, I wanted to do the more technical side which is the Polish Glacier side and then come back from the Normal Route. Climbing with a guide was never an option for me because that’s me. My thing of climbing mountains is always that mountains should be climbed on your own terms. So, I can’t get mules because that would be like cheating! I was going to carry my entire weight on my back and do this expedition by myself. And one good thing about it actually: I’m moving so slow. It’s not physically possible for me to move any faster than I was because I have all this weight on me—which helped me acclimate. I didn’t even have a headache one day on that entire expedition. That’s one advantage of carrying my own load. So, I was happy that at least there was one good thing about it.

(footsteps crunching in snow)

So, the rangers on the Polish Glacier side—they were really friendly. We were cooking together, we were doing yoga together, we were doing day hikes together and really had a good time. Then I started moving up and I was just still doing really well—acclimating myself, drinking enough water. I just did really well. And I started moving up. I moved up to 20,000 feet camp. There was nobody. It was just me. Just me. I thought, “Oh, tomorrow I’ll summit.” Summit is about 23,800 or something like that. “I’ll summit tomorrow and then I’ll go back down to the Normal Route.” That was my plan. But, right after I moved to the 20,000 feet camp, it started blizzarding outside and trapped me in my tent for a couple of days.

(wind howling)

So, what happened during that time is that because it’s so cold and stormy outside, I stopped melting snow for drinking water. So, I wasn’t drinking as much. I would put some snow in my water bottle and put it in my sleeping bag and that would barely melt and I would just drink a little bit—but I wasn’t drinking as much as I should so, my body’s, at this point, getting dehydrated and I didn’t really realize that. I guess if I had some sense, I would have probably packed up and just given up and gone down—but I felt like I can do this.

(KK): Assuming that I could even get that far—which would be a pretty bold assumption—I probably would have packed up, too! But Sudha waited her time out on the mountain for two days. Do you know what you could get done in two whole days when you’re not stuck in a tent in the middle of a blizzard? I don’t know, probably a lot if you’re, like, a motivated person. Online trip reports talk extensively about the section before the summit called the canaleta, which is a steep, talus field-like section. Sudha had read that most people leave their backpack before making the summit. She decided that she could move faster if she didn’t have the weight on her back.

(SP): It’s only another five hundred feet to the summit at this point. So, I left my backpack down and I really couldn’t spend much time at the summit because it was bitter cold. And I started coming down. Getting through the canaleta was treacherous travel—exposed travel. And I made the summit and I turned back…my headlamp dies.

(KK): Well, shit. The good news is: we already know she makes it. The less good news is that Sudha was stuck up there all night, pacing back and forth to keep herself warm. It wasn’t until the next day that she finally made it back down to camp. Ready for the descent, things quickly went from bad to worse.

(SP): And I was exhausted because now I’m out on the mountain for about thirty-six hours almost. And I made it to my tent and I just was laying down. At the summit, it was so cold and I took my glove off to take one picture but that exposed my bare skin and right away gave me frostbite on my fingertips. And then I spent the night in that bitter cold, so my toes also had a bit of frostbite. Then the rangers showed up.

(KK): From what she could understand, there had actually been an earthquake and a helicopter was coming to evacuate her. Because she had frostbite, they told her that she needed to evacuate for her safety.

(SP): I was trying to tell them that I’m really exhausted—I want to come down tomorrow, but they’re insistent. And I said, “Ok, then. Let me pack up my stuff.” and they said, “No, it’s fine. There’s other rangers coming. They’ll bring your stuff. Just come down.” So, I took my backpack and that’s it. We come to the 17,000 feet camp and they said, “It’s too windy. A helicopter can’t come here. So, just keep walking down.”

(footsteps slowly crunching in snow)

(wind howling)

11,000 feet. My camp is at 20,000 feet—I am at 11,000 feet now. I had such a great time with the rangers on the Polish Glacier side, I had no reason to think that anything but they’re being helpful. But as soon as I came to the basecamp, the rangers just disappeared. And I didn’t know what to do now. I had none of my stuff with me and I didn’t know. I happened to see another mountaineer that just made it to the basecamp on the Normal Route and I just started telling him that I summited last night and I have a bit of frostbite and I’m not sure, I can’t find the rangers. So he said, “Let me see if I can go find and I’ll talk to them,”—because he spoke Spanish. He’ll talk to them and he’ll let me know. He comes back and he says, “Sudha. They’re not going to help you.” They told him, “Don’t worry about that black woman. She’s just running away from somebody on the other side of the mountain. I was like, what? And he said, “You have three things going against you. You’re a woman, you’re dark-skinned, you’re by yourself. They’re not going to help you. Did you not know that about Argentina? That it’s not a place for a woman to travel alone.” I said, “No!” I’ve always traveled everywhere and I would tell my boss that he can send me to Timbuktu, and I’ll go. I thought that the world was so nice that you could go anywhere and I never had any reason to think otherwise. So, then he said, “No. They’re not going to evacuate you. They’re not going to do anything. And if you want, you can just share my tent for the night.”

I had nothing: no sleeping bag, nothing. I just laid on the floor that night. Because I was doing the trip on my own, I also made a decision to just only take one pair of boots, which were my plastic boots. And the next morning, my toes were blistered. Like, both my big toes were blistered. Right? Now I had to put those heavy boots on my blistered toes in the morning and the basecamp doctor, who spoke English actually, she showed up for the first time. She hasn’t provided me any help when I came down the previous night and she was saying, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I’m hiking out.” And she said, “Oh, no—because the helicopter will be here.” And I was like, “I really need to go and catch my flight.” And then, other rangers show up. And they said, “We are rangers here, that means we’re the police. If we tell you you can’t leave, you can’t leave.” And I‘m like, “I’m really sorry. I really need to go.” And I started taking stuff and then they said, “Let us have your passport because we have to check you out.” That’s the first time fear came in me. I was like, “Oh my god. If I give them the passport, would they give it back to me? I don’t know.” So, I lied to them. I said I left it up in the tent.

They were just so ruthless. The doctor said, “You don’t need that backpack to go out.” So, they wanted to steal my backpack off my back. I had a pair of gloves on my hands—they wanted the gloves. They’re like, “You don’t need the gloves. You don’t need those things.” And I said, “But how am I going to hike thirty kilometers?” and she says, “I can give you a shopping bag to put your water and food in .” And I said, “No, I can’t.” And I just started walking. And the rangers literally followed me for a few kilometers, just to intimate me. So, pretty much on that mountain, I lost everything that I took for my expedition. It’s not humanly possible for me to go back up 10,000 feet to get my stuff—and they knew that. That was the reason why they took me away from my stuff. They had no intention of bringing it down to me—nothing.

(KK): Dalai Lama was once asked what troubles him the most about humanity and he said that people are created to be loved and things are meant to be used, but we live in a society where things are being loved and people are being used. The rangers on the Normal Route only cared about what they could take from Sudha and showed not even an ounce of compassion. The entire experience left such a bad taste in Sudha’s mouth that she started to question whether or not she needed to climb anymore. She was happy hiking back home in the Catskills, and she was happy to put her passion to climb big mountains on the back burner for a little while.

(SP): I am just happy being outside. I just want to enjoy the outdoors and it’s more about the people. Right? Frostbite didn’t really deter me from wanting to do it. It’s fine, I’m fine. I’m lucky enough that I didn’t lose any of my digits (laughs).

(KK): I don’t know that anything could have deterred you, at that point. You had a birthday party to go to!

(SP): (laughs) Yeah, yeah.

(KK): Even though Sudha made it back down the mountain in time to catch her flight, because of the earthquake, it was canceled. Sudha had summited on the tenth and came back down on the eleventh, but the delay caused her to miss her daughter’s birthday on the fourteenth. This was another reason why Sudha asked herself if these big objectives were worth it.

(SP): When I called to wish her a happy birthday, she was crying. She was crying, saying: “Mommy, why aren’t you here?” And she had plenty of family here, right? Her dad and her grandparents and rather than them all saying that, “We’ll have another birthday party when your mom comes here,”—rather than that: “See, your mom didn’t even come back for your birthday.” So, that’s what made her sad. And I said, “No, honey. You knew—I told you I was going to come back. It just so happened that I couldn’t come back.” So, once again, you kind of feel like—what is so important that I had to climb Aconcagua? What is so important, why do I have to make my little girl cry? That’s what I feel like. So many men out there are doing so much and I bet you they’re never told that, “How come you abandon your family? How could you leave your daughter and do this? So selfish.” Another thing, also, if a man does climb a mountain and they’ll talk like: “Wow. Your father is so brave. So courageous. He does amazing stuff.” When a woman does that: “Your mom is so crazy.” Why?

(KK): There’s still a huge controversy surrounding the subject of women high altitude climbers. And when I say controversy, I mean double standard. Ask anybody and they’ll tell you that women are judged more harshly than men for engaging in the same behavior. As a woman mountaineer, Sudha was subject to that same double standard. When she wasn’t fighting the mountain, she was dealing with constant pushback. In 2012, Sudha had one more phone call that made her question her passion again. This time, it was as she was preparing to summit Denali.

(SP): And on that trip, when I called home, my daughter was crying because my husband was drunk. She didn’t know what to do. And I didn’t know till that point that he even drank, really. I didn’t know that. So, I didn’t know what to do so I said, “Can you please call Grandma? Tell her to come home.” And then I also called his mother, saying that, “Could you please go home because I don’t know what’s happening there.” And then she said, “You shouldn’t be leaving your family and going climbing mountains. One more mountain you climb—I’m going to file for the custody of your daughter.” It’s not that her son was drinking while there was an eleven-year-old daughter in the house, but it’s my fault that I left the family to go climb. I’m all the way in Washington—helpless. What am I going to do? Maybe somebody can say, “That’s so selfish of you. Why did you still go climb Denali?” But I had a plan. It was happening one way or the other. You know, I’m going to make that happen. There was nobody stopping me from going to that mountain at this point. I still went and climbed Denali. But, when I go to climb a mountain, really summiting is not important. I know in my head I want to summit but the thought is, “I want to go experience Denali.” That was the thought: “I want to go experience Aconcagua. How does it look like? I want to be on it.”

Luckily for me, that the weather was just perfect. Denali was a much better experience then Aconcagua too, because…

(KK): People weren’t trying to steal your stuff?

(SP): Exactly. They’re really nice. There’s ranger support everywhere. The whole trip was very enjoyable. You know, I summited. Not one mention of like, “That’s amazing that you climbed something.” Nobody mentions anything about what I just did. It’s not like I did it for them but it’s just the fact that how it was celebrated when I climbed Kilimanjaro versus how it was totally ignored when I climbed Aconcagua because it was just by myself—other than the fact that they would mention to my daughter how crazy I am: “Your mom’s just crazy. She’s taking off again on one of her crazy things.”

You know what my sister said?: “Why do you have to talk about negative stuff?” Because it’s always shame. If you don’t portray yourself as this perfect person with the perfect life, you’re putting the family to shame. Even just my Aconcagua story—I feel like I want to say it somewhere public because you want other women to know what actually happens there. Do you want another woman to end up in a situation that you did? Tell your story. So, that maybe there’s another woman that wants to go and they’ll read your story and at least be aware what can happen so they can guard themselves. I wasn’t aware. I was seeing the world as rosy at that time and I was like, why would I not trust somebody? Just for that. Just to make people aware. Not that I want any sympathy—nothing like that. But it’s more about like, be aware. These things do happen even though you may not come across it in your daily life.

(KK): In addition to being threatened for her husband’s decisions, Sudha also receives harsh criticism from her side of the family, too. Most of the criticism comes from other women. Hearing this made me want to explore the gender double-edged sword a little bit more and I asked myself how many other women have to navigate these kinds of conversations in their daily lives. The answer is too many. It only emphasizes the importance of hearing stories like Sudha’s.

(SP): Coming from, again, Indian culture, I think if you’re not making money or moving up in your career, you’re basically a loser. This is the thing again: a woman is supporting her family. A man can turn around and say, “No, you can’t do it because it’s going to affect my retirement plan.” (pause) Would a woman ever dare to say that to a man if a man was the one supporting the family? And even in the climbing community, people make the comment: “You’re too crazy!” but I don’t see them saying the same thing to another man. And I question myself. Many times, I’ve questioned myself. Why am I so different from others? Why can’t I be just happy just to be a mother? I try. I try to give up but my soul dies, I feel like. And I heard someplace, something about: “Don’t die while you’re alive.” So, I tell myself that I am dead without the outdoors.

To my daughter, we always say that: “Realize your ability. Realize your true potential.” And why am I not doing that? I know my potential—that I can climb these mountains. I’m capable and I want to and that’s what I love. And why am I not doing what I’m preaching to my own daughter? When I get outside, it’s not a positive experience. I go through that phase and then I say, “If your daughter were to say this to you, what would you tell her? Would you tell her, ’Yeah, it’s ok honey. It’s not important.” I would not, right? So, then why would you do that to yourself and what are you teaching her? For my daughter, even though people think it’s the other way: that for your daughter, you shouldn’t climb. I feel like it’s just the opposite. For my daughter, I should climb. For my daughter to realize that it’s ok as a girl, as a woman, or as any human being, should follow their passion. Just do whatever makes you happy, whatever makes you feel alive. For me, the outdoors makes me feel alive. I don’t have to climb hard but that’s what my heart always craves—adventure. So, I think I won’t ever give it up but there are definitely times now that I keep questioning myself.

(KK): This is Sudha’s story, but it’s also a story for women everywhere. It’s a story about discovering the breadth of what it means to be a woman, and a little reminder that we can all strive harder to celebrate the adventurous women, and those who identify as women, in our lives with the respect and support that all humans deserve. Women are a lot of things. We’re complex, we’re coffee-fueled, we smell good—sometimes we smell bad. Sometimes we’re hangry. But one thing is certain—we’re fucking hustlers. We are strong, we are gritty, and we’re determined. Sudha found her place in the mountains, and this is her story. Sharing stories like these is meant to inspire, to heal, and to empower us—and to act as a reminder that a woman’s place is exactly where she wants it to be.

(SP): And that’s the reason why I feel like sometimes it’s so hard for a woman to follow her passion. I’ve realized my passion late in my life. I’m a mother, I already am a wife. I just tell other women that, please, encourage each other. And if you have a passion, follow that. Don’t let the society lead your life. Make your own. I have lost a lot of time trying to make others happy and there’s no point in crying over spilled beans or whatever but now I want to live every minute doing what makes me alive. You know, what makes me, me. It’s time for me to live my life. Better late than never. So, I’m going to live my life. Because I’ve gone through it, that’s what I like to tell all the women out there, to young women especially: don’t let your life pass you by like I did. Just realize your passion and follow that. Go after it. Just because we’re women doesn’t mean that we can’t. Yes, we can.

(KK): Even though I still have no idea what I’m doing—things are happening. And if you’d like to help out and support this podcast, please check out patreon.com (that’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N) where you can sponsor us for as little as $1 per episode. It really helps keep this podcast going, and I’m so grateful for all of your help. Special shout out to Cameron MacAlpine because he makes this thing sound good.

– You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. A huge thank you to Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort. And a big thank you to Gnarly Nutrition for supporting this podcast and the messages that we share. Gnarly Nutrition supports a community of vulnerability and equality—and tastes like a milkshake, without all the crap. A big shout out to Allez Outdoor for supporting the Access Fund and 1% for the Planet. Allez Outdoor Personal Care products are made by climbers for those who love the outdoors. And thanks to Têra Kaia. Go ahead and throw out your other sports bras because #basewear is the only top you’ll pack. Feel naked, go anywhere, look great.

Support companies who support this podcast—we couldn’t do it without them. If you liked what you heard, you can leave a review on iTunes or give us a like—like all good things, you can find us on the internet. Until next time.

(SP): I just want to tell Alex Honnold: can I just be your cook? Because I was listening and he said he’s a vegetarian. And I was thinking, can I just make your meals and if you ever need a belay, I’ll belay you. And, just keep me outside.

10: I’ll Spare You the Platitudes

Corey’s dad introduced him to climbing and the outdoors. In 2010, Corey’s dad died by suicide.

We don’t actually have a complete count of suicide attempt data because the stigma surrounding it leads to a lot of underreporting. But having an open dialogue and sharing stories like Corey’s is helping to break down the barrier of this stigma, and lead to more conversations and understanding of depression and mental illness. This is Corey’s story, and this episode is in loving memory of Don Mowery Jr.

This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Gnarly Nutrition, Allez Outdoors, and Dirtbag Climbers. Music by: “Jazzy Frenchy”, “Cute”, “Funny Song”, and “Enigmatic” by bensound.com, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, “Pives and Flarinet”, “Ruby”, and “Tweedlebugs” by Podington Bear, “Sense of Music” by Borrtex, and “Thinking it Over” by Lee Rosevere.

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Transcript:

(FEMALE VOICE): Today we’re going to talk about “allez”. “Allez” means “come on!” in a way, or to encourage. Ok! We are done with the simple and normal uses of “allez”, now let’s cut to the chase:

(KATHY KARLO): Allez Outdoor Personal Care products are made by climbers for those who love the outdoors. Their rich and repairing ingredients for their skincare collection are inspired by desert landscapes, and their simple and recyclable packaging makes them eco-sustainable. Allez commits to protecting the open spaces that we love by partnering with the Access Fund and 1% for the Planet. You can win a year’s supply of Allez product by following them on Instagram (that’s Allez Outdoor: “A-L-L-E-Z”), posting a story about an upcoming or past adventure and tagging them. Allez will announce one winner per episode. Allez Outdoor—made by climbers, for those who love the outdoors.

– This podcast is sponsored by Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, but most importantly–your snacks. Deuter has a history of first ascents and alpine roots. Their head of product development even climbed Everest once, in jeans (hashtag not fake news.) Deuter is known for fit, comfort, and ventilation.  Founded in 1898, Deuter believes in good fitting backpacks, so you can focus on way cooler things like puppies, pocket bacon, and gettin’ sendy, whether at the crag or in the alpine.

– We’re working with Better Help to connect you to licensed therapists because even though my advice and opinions are free, I am improvising the whole thing. Better Help lets you message a licensed therapist, day or night. They’ll match you with the perfect therapist for a fraction of the cost of traditional therapy. You know who goes to therapy? Prince Harry. Emma Stone. Jenny Slate. Kesha. Therapy is beautiful—everyone should go to therapy. Go to betterhelp.com/climbing to sign up and receive one free week. It helps support this show, and it helps support you.

– This podcast gets support from Gnarly Nutrition, one of the leading protein supplements that tastes “whey” better than they need to because they use quality natural ingredients. So, whether you’re a working mom who runs circles around your kids on weekends or an unprofessional climber trying to send that 5.13 in the gym, Gnarly Nutrition has all of your recovery needs. The only question you need to ask yourself is: Are you a sucker for anything that tastes like chocolate ice cream? (Yeah, me neither.) Gnarly Nutrition is designed to enhance your progress—and taste like a milkshake, without all the crap.

– Have you ever cut an exterior hole in your van? Me neither. Building out a van can be hard work, not to mention that table saws have a funny way of leaving you with fewer fingers than you started with. (We’ll ask Tommy Caldwell all about it when he returns my emails.) I really can’t be trusted with power tools since a drywall incident in 2005—but Mark and Anthony can. Roaming Ingenuity is a team of outdoor enthusiasts and tinkerers based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Whether you are looking for a custom van build, or just need a little help with installing a roof vent, they can help. PS—I never actually emailed Tommy Caldwell.

(footsteps on gravel trail)

(KK): Hi. Hey, you guys— if you have a minute, I was wondering if I could ask you for a favor?

(FEMALE VOICE): Sure.

(KK): So, I run a podcast and I’m taking audio clips from people on the trail today and I’m just asking them one question.

(FEMALE VOICE): Sure!

(KK): How are you doing?

(FEMALE VOICE): I’m great.

(KK): (laughs) How are you today?

(MALE VOICE): I’m great! (laughs)

(KK): How are you?

(FEMALE VOICE): I’m wonderful.

(MALE VOICE): I’m doing great today! (laughs)

(KK): So the question is, how are you?

(MALE VOICE): I’m spent. We climbed all day, it was awesome.

(MALE VOICE): I’m great. How are you?

(KK): How are you?

(FEMALE VOICE): I’m good, thanks.

(FEMALE VOICE): Very well, thank you.

(MALE VOICE): I am good enough.

(KK): How are you?

(MALE CHILD VOICE): Good.

(KK): I just want to know: how are you?

(MALE VOICE): I’m good. I’m good. I’m probably, yeah! I’m pretty good!

(KK): When someone asks, “How are you?” do you answer honestly? For most Americans (and yes, it is a US thing), the question gets thrown around as a casual greeting. Most people don’t expect you to respond with anything other than, “I’m good!” or “Fine, how are you?” Nobody actually expects someone to say, “It’s going pretty badly!”—because how do you respond to that? Awkward. And—there are probably a million reasons why this happens: we’re too busy, the honest answer is kinda depressing, and wouldn’t the world just be a better place if we didn’t talk to anyone at all? (Just kidding.)

Yeah, we can’t always be a hundred percent honest. It’s just not the reality of things. But the thing is, when you’re feeling kinda blue or in the middle of a shit storm, it can be a really difficult question, and it takes a lot of patience to answer it when you kinda feel like crap. But it can also be a nice reminder that we’re all human, and you never really know what someone is going through at any given time.

In 2010, Corey’s dad died by suicide. This is Corey’s story, and this episode is in loving memory of Don Mowery Jr. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that on average, there are one hundred and twenty-nine suicides per day. We don’t actually have a complete count of suicide attempt data because the stigma surrounding it leads to a lot of underreporting. But having an open dialogue and sharing stories like Corey’s is helping to break down the barrier of this stigma, and lead to more conversations and understanding of things like depression and mental illness.

After meeting up with Corey in Red Rocks, I couldn’t help but wonder: what would the world look like if we all had to answer that question honestly? Please note that there is discussion about child sexual abuse, depression and suicide in this episode. Visit http://www.fortheloveofclimbing.com for resources available at the end of the transcript.

(COREY MOWRY): Every year, we’d go up to Big Sur for Mother’s Day. And so, this one year my dad told my mom, “Oh, I’m going to take Corey and Casey down this river,” We had a little raft and it was like this tiny little thing. And it was supposed to be this calm, like, “Oh, we’re just going to cruise down the river. She’s going to drive down and pick us up at the end of the river.” But it ended up being the most crazy, disastrous little mini-trip ever. And me and Casey were, I don’t know, like, eleven years old or something. But the first few minutes, we run into the side of these bushes over in the water and the spiders are just crawling all over us. And then, we’re freaking out and my dad keeps his calm and then we lost the paddle and then he had to jump in and grab the paddle. And we’re like, “Ok. We got through the spider phase.” And then went further down the river and all of a sudden, these kids started throwing rocks at us and we started hitting the rocks with the paddle and my dad, again, is maneuvering us out of the way. And then, we get towards the end and had to pull the raft from the water, walk around this log, and then my brother Casey was about to step down and my dad grabbed his shoulder and lifted him up—and he was basically about to step on a rattlesnake that was curled up, shaking its rattle.

And this little casual river trip ended up being the most epic adventure ever that I’ll never forget! And it was like, that’s kind of his spirit, just kind of leading these things and he’s just like, “Eh!” You know? “Fun time. Right, guys?” And, you know, I got that from him, and that joy and that kind of, “you don’t know until you try” mentality in life. And just rolling with the punches—especially outdoors, especially climbing and especially when you’re river rafting these sketchy little Big Sur rivers (laughs).

(KK): Don was the person who introduced Corey to the great outdoors because he loved being outside and he loved sharing it with his boys. Corey and his brothers grew up in southern California, but they went everywhere. When the boys were little, Don bought a trailer and took them road tripping, all the way up to Yosemite and Big Sur every year. A common sight was Don, leading his boys into the wild. He was warm and loving, and there was a comfort in talking to him. At work, a lot of his staff members would lean on him for support—he was just that kind of guy.

(CM): Very soft spoken, he was very kinda methodical. He didn’t share his emotions, but he was just kinda someone you entrusted everything with. You know what I mean? When he left us, we did a ceremony at camp and hundreds and hundreds of people came. And it was like, the most magical thing ever: everyone speaking, saying amazing things. Everyone in shock, not really knowing why or how, because he affected so many people. I didn’t even realize it until I saw everyone there and was like, “Wow—this is a big network of people that have all had a positive relationship with him.” So, I was just like, “Holy shit.” Like, I kinda knew it but, you know, it wasn’t real until I saw everyone there. Seeing police officers and staff members and campers and family. You know, you kinda just see how important one life could be.

Right now, we’re recording this. Like, I know I have good friends and family but it’s hard to tell the effect if I wasn’t here, like, what it’d be. But I bet it’s bigger than I envision and same for you and same for everyone. We all have so much to offer and life sucks sometimes, but being able to persevere through life’s ups and downs—that alone is an accomplishment and you reap the benefits. And the people around you reap the benefits as well.

(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.

(CM): I’m Corey. Born and raised in Southern California, Los Angeles area. Once I was nine years old, my whole family packed up and moved towards the mountains—the Santa Monica range. My parents got a job at a summer camp out there, so ran this big property. I went from this Glendale inner city kid to this kid living in the woods with my twin brother and just having this whole access to the mountains. That’s kinda my childhood, in a nutshell.

I’ve been in the music industry for the past, you know, ten years. I was managing artists and now I’m a financial manager at this CPA firm, managing, you know, musicians, tours, and finances and contracts and all that fun stuff. I definitely like the entertainment industry aspect of it and I love being around people and being in the city but, I do have a part of my heart in the woods and in the mountains where I grew up.

(KK): Corey was born in Southern California, where his dad worked on a narcotics unit and later, became a homicide detective before they moved to the camp where Corey and his brothers grew up.

(CM): Yeah, so my dad was actually a police officer for fifteen years. So, it was just kind of weird that he ended up directing a summer camp. But for him, it made a lot of sense because he’s always loved the outdoors. Growing up in the camp, we actually had an outdoor climbing wall. So, I was doing that when I was nine and my dad actually got me my first climbing shoes and a harness. And then, from there, our property backed up to Malibu Creek State Park which is kind of this pretty famous state park. In old movie days, they would shoot Planet of the Apes out there and a bunch of old TV shows. But there’s cool sporty crags out there. You know, all single pitch but that’s kind of where I got my start. I guess high school’s when I started climbing outdoors and then, I was kinda doing music at the same time. I was playing in a band, and then college happened, and then my band broke up and then my climbing partner—we broke up. He moved away! And then I started working full-time, going on tour and working with bands. And then, you know, the past few years, getting back into it. And then I’m like, “Alright! I’m going to go to the gym every day and start working out again and getting in shape!” So now, hopefully, grow from here and start pushing it for some bigger stuff. I’m not too old yet, right?

(KK): No (laughs).

(CM): I’m good. So! But yeah, so I’ve always been attracted to the mountains. Like a big hiker, big snowboarder, big runner-hiker-jogger-walker, and then climbing just upped it all. I just kind of fell in love going up vertical rock.

(KK): Corey spent seventeen years running around summer camp, playing on rocks and going swimming and climbing. He described himself as a “brat camp kid”, and had the kind of childhood that most kids only dream of. Not only did he have a storybook childhood, but it was normal…or so he thought.

(CM): You hear all these “Me Too” stories and you kinda put it in the back somewhere where you just don’t really address it. Yeah, I didn’t talk about it for like ten years. I didn’t even know it was there, to be honest until I was in my twenties. When me and my twin brother turned ten years old, we were taken advantage of by this adult male counselor. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a summer camp: there’s counselors and there’s staff. That’s what kind of makes the whole experience, but it’s cool because you have people come around from the entire world for the summer and they’re here to work and help kids grow and discover themselves. But when I was ten years old, I was sexually abused multiple times by this camp counselor who we entrusted, you know what I mean? And I look back on my camp days and it was so positive and there was so much good. But it was like, “Oh wait. Well, this happened.” And I didn’t really talk about it until my early twenties.

(KK): Can a memory really be forgotten completely? And do we forget our worst memories? There’s arguments for both. Some psychotherapists believe that children understand and respond to trauma differently from adults, and when they’re hurt (especially if they are sexually abused), they may “dissociate,” and block out the memory in order to protect themselves. Dissociation just means that a memory is not actually lost, but is unavailable for an unknown amount of time. It kind of gets put into a memory storage, like on a hard drive somewhere, but can’t be recalled until it’s accessed again. There is currently a lot of research that will argue this theory.

The person who abused Corey passed away in a car accident, which Corey found out when he was in high school.

(CM): It took that to bring up all these memories of what actually happened. I buried it so much. I ended up talking to my parents about it. My dad not managed just me and my brothers, but all of the staff members and all the campers. And he would pay for staff members coming from Europe and he would pay them some extra money if they don’t have gas money or whatever. And he just always took care of everyone else, and I think when that happened, he felt like he let me down.

I was twenty-three back in 2010 and full-blown in the music industry. I was working with bands and I was actually on tour across the country with this band. I was in Maryland when I got a call from my mom and found out that my dad had committed suicide. And it’s funny ‘cause my first reaction was: he fell off a cliff, right? Or he fell hiking—because he was the one who introduced me to the mountains and introduced me to climbing. She just told he was gone. I pressed her and she was like, “Oh, no. He died of suicide.” and I was just like, “What?”. I was in Maryland at the time and across the country and it was just the last thing I would ever expect.

(KK): Corey had, and has no way of knowing, but he often wondered if one of the reasons why his father died was partially because of the guilt he carried with him after what had happened to his sons.

(CM): I was in Jersey City and I remember specifically my flip my phone. My dad actually texted me and my brothers that morning and just said, “Love you guys. I’m proud of you.” And I looked at my phone—didn’t think twice of it. You know what I mean? I was just like, “Oh, cool.” I didn’t even respond to it. I just closed it. It was my day off—you know what I mean? I guess it was kinda odd looking back because he’s always struggled opening up and he didn’t share much. But yeah, so, I closed my phone and then I ran back into the water and did my thing, and that’s when I got the call the next night.

I crippled, you know. I didn’t know what to do. Luckily, I had some people on tour with me and they helped me out. They shoved me on a plane back to California and I had some family pick me up and we went over to camp. So, it was just—it was a blur because it was at the peak of the summer. So, we had hundreds of people up. And, you know, he was Mr. Accommodating—like, he never wanted to hurt anyone. So, he drove off the property. He drove and went to a hotel to stay away from everyone and not intrude anyone. He even went in the bathroom and closed the curtain. He didn’t want to burden anybody with anything—which is kind of weird and totally him, looking back on it.

(KK): Don was such a thoughtful man his entire life, and he was even thoughtful in death. He left letters to Corey and his brothers, his mom, his best friend, and a few beloved staff members. What he didn’t include were his reasons why.

(CM): It’s weird, a lot of it’s kind of jumbled and you kinda see the hard time he was in, in the moment. Luckily, I have a great family and support system and that’s kinda how we got through it. We, as a family, made a pact: me and my mom and my two brothers. Like, we’re going to talk about everything—there’s no secrets. That’s the reason I’m on this podcast! He loved the outdoors, but he went to kind of escape. Like, he would love going on solo adventures and hiking around and kind of getting lost. And he loved that beauty side of nature and kind of used that to, you know, fill him up.

At the end of the day, it’s hopelessness. You know what I mean? And we’re all in this crazy world together and we all get the best of it and we get the worst of it together. And when you feel hopeless and there’s nothing else to live for—it’s just the mind is so fragile and it’s so powerful. And if there’s anything that we can do, it’s just listen to one another and support each other and just be there for each other. And it doesn’t even have to be in a deep conversation. Be like, “I’m here this week and I’m around,” if you feel like someone’s going through something. Or, if you’re really close to them: call ‘em out, you know, and see what’s up and be like, “Have you talked to somebody?” That shouldn’t be something we’re scared of doing anymore because I know for a fact that my dad, he never talked once about being depressed. The stigma around talking about your feelings—he could never overcome that. And that went all the way to the last day.

(KK): Fashion designer Kate Spade, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, and countless other publicized suicides have left people talking more about how we can help those with behavioral health conditions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. Suicide rates have increased thirty percent in the last twenty years, and they account for nearly one million deaths globally. And yet, despite the harsh reality of these numbers, we live in a society that still struggles to openly and honestly talk about mental health.

(CM): You don’t have to run around like, “Everyone—tell me about your mental health!”

(KK): But wouldn’t that be kind of amazing?

(CM): It would be, I know! Let’s just make sure to be like, “Talk to me about your mental health!” No, but yeah—that’s kind of what I do now, actually (laughs). I host this 5k run every year and try and get family and friends together and just open up. Some people that I think would benefit from it are the ones that don’t come and the people that don’t necessarily need it, they come and they love it, you know what I mean? And you kind of see it after doing it year by year. But, you know, who knows? Maybe if I chip away, it might affect them in some way positively. We’re all just normal people, but we can all step up our game a little bit, I think, overall. And especially as a climbing community and an outdoor community. We’re just surrounded by beauty and challenges and we all just are stoked all the time on accomplishing goals. Our mental health comes with us through all those challenges, you know what I mean? So, why are we pretending that it’s not there or it doesn’t exist?

Obviously, it’s draining to talk about sometimes, but it’s real and I’ve had people—they don’t want to talk to me about my dad’s suicide. They think it’s going to spark something in me. I see that fear. But also, they don’t want to address it themselves. Death is already hard to talk about it. You know what I mean? You know, it’s like—I tell somebody, “Oh, my dad passed away,” and that’s how I usually frame it and then: “Oh, I’m sorry. How did he die?” I’ll say, “He died by suicide,” but if I said he died by cancer or he died in a car accident—there are different reactions to every one of those. You know what I mean? And suicide is just, I feel like…I almost find myself hesitant to even say the word.

(KK): Corey hosts a team every year and participates in Alive & Running, a 5k race held annually in Los Angeles, California. This race is meant to spread education and awareness surrounding the stigma of suicide and uplift those remembering lost ones. The first of its kind, the Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center is a national leader in training services for people who have thought about, attempted or lost someone to suicide. Not only are there are support groups, but they also train more than 20,000 people each year how to recognize and respond to warning signs.

Suicide is an earthquake—sudden, jolting, and devastating—the aftershocks ripple long after. In an effort to make sense of things, it’s easy to throw labels around like: “He was selfish.” or “She took the easy way out.” When we hear things like this, it contributes to the fear and judgment surrounding the stigma of suicide, and really prevents people who might need help from reaching out and sharing. The stigma behind suicide is pervasive and creates a continuing cycle for many—but wellness and recovery are possible when we choose to talk openly, intelligently, and sensitively to raise awareness and prevention.

(CM): I guess after the suicide, I felt a lot of rage, a lot of anger, the first three years, I would say. It lingered for a long time. And it was real rage. I tried to step up and be the leader of the family, but it’s hard because I’m going through my own life and trying to grow at that moment.

(KK): And you’re twenty-three.

(CM): And I’m twenty-three, and I have my twin brother and he was struggling. He just couldn’t shake it and I don’t blame him. But, the more I talked about it and the more I opened up—I got to a better place with it. And I recognized how deep—because I was never depressed. I was never a depressed person. I didn’t know how hopeless and how lost and deep their feelings got. So I think a lot of my anger came from my perspective like, “What the hell? Things aren’t that bad.” But I was never suicidal. I was never depressed like that. I think seeing good people like my dad and others—people who you and I know, people that you go climbing with, people in your outdoor community that love the outdoors and love community and love people. You’re like: if they see the beauty in the world, why would they go that far? I think understanding definitely helped—talking to people, kinda seeing how widespread this is. Not just people who actually go through it, but the families and…it’s just such a spiderweb of peoples lives affected.

It’s like politics: you don’t want to get involved sometimes because it’s just a mess, you know? And everyone’s so divided on it. So, I think—I think people are divided on seeing cases of people dying by suicide, compared to cancer or other forms, which goes back to the whole unique nature of the death.

(KK): Mental health is a struggle for people to discuss openly, mostly due to a lack of education. As we learn more about suicide, mental illness and other factors that can lead to suicide, our language has also started to evolve. We’re so conditioned to hearing the phrase “committed suicide” that we kinda just use it without a second thought. But the problem with this is that it puts the responsibility on the person. We now use appropriate, non-stigmatising terminology when referring to suicide. The more that we can wield language to accurately and sensitively describe suicide, the more we can encourage a healthy and respectful way to talk about it. Using the word “committed” is considered inaccurate, insensitive, and it strongly contributes to the stigma that is still associated with suicide. A much better term is: “died by suicide.”

(CM): That’s how I was raised hearing about it. So, even when my dad died, I was like, “He committed suicide.” And then, the more I researched, the more I’ve talked about it with people, it’s like kind of the trend has been more towards: “He or she died by suicide.” And yeah, you can look at it and be like, “Oh, it’s just one word. It’s just one little thing.” But it does change the perspective on it and mental health—it’s a real disease and it’s a real problem. Yeah. It’s complex.

(KK): It’s real complex. Thank you. Thank you for sharing this.

(CM): I’ve never gotten to the point where I would consider taking my own life or anything, but I got closer to seeing where that could be a possibility, which was scary. Survivors of suicide—it is a red flag for someone who might, in the future, die of suicide. It’s definitely a reality and that’s what goes back to me and my family and kinda being open and making the pact of, we aren’t hiding anything anymore. We’re being open, we’re leaning on each other. But I also understand not everybody has that kind of community after the fact. That’s why it’s important to be cognizant of everyone and every situation they’re going through—because you don’t know. You don’t know how deep it can be and, I don’t know, there’s so many suicide attempts too that could easily have gone either way. It makes it that much more scary.

I think transparency and being open is the perfect place to start, you know what I mean? Not being scared to talk about how you’re feeling or how your friends are feeling or how you’re family’s feeling. You don’t have to save everyone. You aren’t expected to do that, but there are little things like, “Hey. I’m around if you need anything this weekend,” or “How are you feeling?” Just little stuff like that will go a long way. And, you know, there’s professional help now that we didn’t even have ten years ago. You can see a therapist online now and you don’t even have to go into an office. You know, with all of these options, this rate shouldn’t be going up. If anything, the least we can do is be transparent and talk about it and not be scared to open up and be like, “I’m a guy. I’ve never been great about talking about my feelings, but here I am. This is who I am, this is what I’ve been through. I know you all are struggling with different things as well. Let’s recognize that in each other and tell each other, “Hey. I got you.” Let’s start there and see what happens.

(FEMALE VOICE): If someone tells you something tough they are dealing with and your first instinct is to let a platitude fly: please don’t. I know it makes you uncomfortable, but I’m refusing to say, “I’m fine” when I’m really not. When I was in high school, I lost my virginity to a sexual assault. This sent me into a downward spiral of self-harm and disordered eating, but I was able to climb my way out the hole I dug—literally. So, I stopped saying, “I’m fine.” Who does that help? The person who is asking? No! You need to see this, too. You need to see what it takes to come back from this because one day, you might have to as well. Maybe someone can draw strength from my willingness to talk about this. I’m here to listen, and I’ll spare you the platitudes.

(MALE VOICE): So, I’ve been thinking about this a lot actually and have tried to get away from just saying, “Good! How are you?”—to which somebody usually replies, “Good! How are you?” And maybe neither of us even slows down to listen to even listen for a response. But, I think just noting that we get stuck in this pattern can lead to a more meaningful conversation. Actually had a conversation with a coworker about this recently and we talked about what would it look like and what it would require if we gave people the time and space to truly answer the question.

(FEMALE VOICE): When I hear the question, “How are you doing?”, I think, “Wow! What an overloaded question.” And it’s just become so common for us to use this question as small talk. But when people ask me, “How are you doing?” I genuinely just tell them exactly how I’m doing. Because it’s not a light question and I usually don’t ask people that question lightheartedly. And I really want to know how they’re actually doing. So, I’m completely honest about it and it’s pretty funny to see how people react.

(FEMALE VOICE): When people ask me, “How are you doing?” I usually just respond with, “I’m ok.” because I’m not doing great usually—and I’m not doing terribly, usually. And it’s satisfactory when people don’t really want to know how you’re doing; it’s just a cordial greeting.

(FEMALE VOICE): So, today I’m definitely a little stressed out about the ever-growing mountain of things I need to get done. But I’m feeling confident that I can—I can do it!

(FEMALE VOICE): I’m feeling desperate to find a new job. I keep thinking it will get better, and it doesn’t and it’s been eighteen years now.

(MALE VOICE): Hey, Kathy. Thanks for asking. I’m doing really well after having the flu twice in 2019, being weak as a kitten, and losing all my climbing fitness and having to postpone all my climbing goals for the year. But I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and I’m slowly starting to climb again. So, if anybody out there listening is dealing with their own illness and they’re trying to claw their way back to fitness: I encourage you to be patient, allow yourself to rest and heal, don’t worry if you have to come back and climb 5.4—because climbing is rad whether it’s 5.14 or 5.4. So, eventually, you’re going to get back out there and climb again.

(FEMALE VOICE): I’m moving in with my boyfriend today, so I’m at my old house and there’s just a few more boxes to take over and I’m here by myself and I—I actually feel a little bit sad, even though it’s a really exciting time. It’s sort of sad to feel like you might be losing your independence a little bit, and it’s a little bit scary and there’s a lot on my mind. But we’ll just see what happens from here on out.

(FEMALE VOICE): How am I doing? I’m doing ok. But also, I have a lot of responsibility that’s stressing me out and making me anxious. And I’ve been doing some work to be more honest with myself, and as a result, feel exhausted and vulnerable and like I’m about to cry more often than I’d like.

(MALE VOICE): How am I is a hard question to answer for most people, but for me, it’s pretty simple: I’m pissed. I’m pissed at the state of our government. Pissed at my body. Pissed at the fact that I can’t get back into climbing the way I wanna get back into climbing. But I’m also very grateful. So, when I get past those moments, I look at my gratitude for the people that I have around me, for the love that I have in my life, for sunrises, sunsets, moonrises, moonsets, and dogs. And I’m ok.

(FEMALE VOICE): “How am I?” That’s the toughest question for me to answer because it changes on a daily, hourly, minute timeframe. It’s easy to lie about it because there are good things going on in my life, but sometimes when you have time to think, you realize you’re missing out on the things you want most. And that is terrifying, and sometimes you have no fucking clue how to balance that.

(FEMALE VOICE): I’m grateful, and I’m happy to be here sitting on a boat in a beautiful harbor. But I’ve been very depressed, and menopause has been a huge struggle for me and I have a lot of body pain. And it’s hard to see my way out of the heaviness of it all sometimes. I’m naturally a positive person, but this has really kicked me in the ass—and I’m struggling. It’s been a very, very hard time in my life.

(FEMALE VOICE): I’m tired. Tired of feeling alone—of feeling like I have to protect myself all the time. I meet new people and there’s just always something that makes me put up those walls. And I just wish I could let them down.

(MALE VOICE): How am I? (laughs) I guess it depends on the day. Some days, the Paxil works a little better than others. My life, objectively, is pretty amazing. I’m a white male in America and I’m fairly healthy. Sometimes I’m nervous and I’m anxious. I don’t know. How am I?

(FEMALE VOICE): It took me over fifty years, but I think I can actually say I’m happy and content now. I have a new job that I like and recently got remarried to a wonderful man who shares my passions and takes wonderful care of me. Sure, I have bad days and I often worry about my kids up in college—but I can’t complain. I’m still not used to seeing my body aging so quickly, but growing old is better than the alternative. A few years ago, I had a brief brush with cancer that I survived, but my sister didn’t survive hers. Life has been good to me, and I appreciate how fortunate I am.

(MALE VOICE): I’m great, but my body is not so great. I’ve got a raging infection of valley fever in my lungs that has eaten a few large cavities into them. So, sometimes it hurts to breathe and my energy is way down from normal. I’m still getting out to do a lot of the things that I love outside, just a lot less of that.

(MALE VOICE): I feel slightly uncomfortable admitting this since I know not everyone’s in the same place that I am, but I’m actually great! I’ve hit all my climbing bucket list items, you know, like: big walls, big mountains, hard trad leads, good sport flashes, et cetera. I have a successful career doing something I love. I’m happily married. I live in a fantastic area. You know, in short, I’ve lived exactly the kind of life I dreamed of as a young adult. All the great dreams of my life have come true—and for that, I’m incredibly grateful.

(FEMALE VOICE): I’m not doing super great. I’m really angry and jaded right now. I’ve had two incidents this month, back-to-back. One of which was an unexpected pregnancy that ended in abortion, and the other being a climbing accident that ended up either dislocating or breaking my tailbone. So, I don’t know which one yet. And these happened because I trusted people I shouldn’t have. And I’m hoping that the lesson here isn’t that I can’t trust people anymore.

(FEMALE VOICE): Hey, Kathy. I wanted to answer your question, “How are you?” And right now, I’m really frustrated because I’m naive. I just got semi-taken advantage of by an Uber driver on the street who just tried to, like, force me to kiss him which was really strange. And now I’m finding solitude in this cemetery. I think I’m…I think I’m fine. So, this is the third time in a month that a guy has made a sexual advance towards me. And the fact that this has happened so consecutively really makes me question how other people perceive me. Am I naive? Do I have to filter myself, which is so incredibly difficult to do—I don’t want to filter myself. I want to be nice and friendly and open to people and offer some form of vulnerability, but when things like this happen, it makes me want to close myself off. It makes me feel gross, like I’ve given too much to someone because they think that they can act that way towards me. Yeah, so. That’s how I’m feeling right now.

(FEMALE VOICE): How’m I doing? Hm. Thanks for asking, but I really don’t know. A couple of weeks ago, I was in an avalanche after ice climbing. Standing at the base of the climb and there were six of us. I’m lucky to be alive. Two of the women were carried and buried, and we couldn’t get one out in time to save her. I’m going to the memorial service on Saturday in Canada. So, I don’t know how I’m doing. I’m pushing it all down I think and will have to deal with it later.

(MALE VOICE): How am I. How am I, really? Ugh. Exhausted. Tired. Scared. It’s just—being a solo artist doing your own thing—and I know that you know exactly what I’m talking about. Not having something behind you, just doing it all on your own, is just like free soloing all the time. Like, every day you wake up and you look at your email and it’s like starting another pitch. You know? I don’t know. Things go really well and you get super excited, but things don’t go great like a month later, and you don’t have any work and nobody’s buying what you’re selling. And you’re just like, “Ok. It’s that time of the year again when I think about, ‘What should I do instead? Should I go back to school and maybe be a nurse?’” or I don’t know what. Well, anyway. You probably can’t use this, but I’m just saying hi. Hope you’re doing well.

(FEMALE VOICE): Great now!

(MALE VOICE): But you’re shaking and it’s not because you’re cold. It’s because you’re still terrified.

(FEMALE VOICE): I was terrified! I don’t know! I’m terrified of heights. And I was so close to the rock. And every time I looked down, I wanted to throw up.

(FEMALE VOICE): Today, everything feels like a struggle! I had therapy today and I went to a waterfall, but everything feels kind of conflicted. I’m going through a recent breakup and I just don’t really know how to feel. I’m going, looking at the memories and not really knowing how to feel about them. I have a lot of support, but I still feel really alone. And I just feel like I’m too much and not enough at the same time. And I’m trying to be ok with not being ok. That’s me today.

(MALE VOICE): How is one doing? That’s a question easy to dread. Brooding, disappointed and upset about so many things, both within myself and outside in the world that I see going on. How do I feel about it, and what I could change about it? Well, I guess it would matter that first, I could change myself and maybe, by that example that some way, I could change them.

(KK): It can be difficult to pick up the phone and ask for help, but calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always free and confidential. If you experience suicidal thoughts and don’t know who to talk to, call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. That’s 1-800-273-8255 to be connected to a trained counselor at a suicide crisis center nearest you.

Sexual abuse affects children and adults across ethnic, educational, and religious lines. If you or someone you know has been sexually abused, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE.

– Even though I still have no idea what I’m doing—things are happening. And if you’d like to help out and support this podcast, please check out patreon.com (that’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N) where you can sponsor us for as little as $1 per episode. It really helps keep this podcast going, and I’m so grateful for all of your help. Special shout out to Cameron MacAlpine because he makes this thing sound good.

– You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. A huge thank you to Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, and a big thank you to Gnarly Nutrition for supporting this podcast and the messages that we share. Gnarly Nutrition supports a community of vulnerability and equality—and tastes like a milkshake, without all the crap. And a big shout out to Roaming Ingenuity, a team of outdoor enthusiasts and tinkerers based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Support companies who support this podcast—we couldn’t do it without them. If you liked what you heard, you can leave a review on iTunes or give us a like—like all good things, you can find us on the internet. Until next time.


Resources for you and/or loved ones:

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online or by calling 1-800-273-8255. If you are hard of hearing, you can chat with a Lifeline counselor or contact the Lifeline via TTY by dialing 800-799-4889. To speak to a crisis counselor in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454.

The Trevor Project, is an LGBT crisis intervention and suicide prevention hotline and is open 24/7, 365 days a year. The Trevor Project can be reached at 866-4-U-TREVOR. There’s even a list of international resources at http://www.thetrevorproject.org.

The Hopeline Network brings together the knowledge and critical services of existing Crisis Centers all under the net of a toll-free number.

To find local resources in your area, visit To Write Love On Her Arms.

For additional resources, see the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education).

Check out the following stories from people who have been there:

The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline is dedicated to the prevention of child abuse. Serving the United States, its territories, and Canada, the Hotline is staffed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week with professional crisis counselors who, through interpreters, can provide assistance in 170 languages. The hotline offers crisis intervention, information, literature, and referrals to thousands of emergency, social service, and support resources. All calls are anonymous and confidential.

Stop It Now provides a national helpline for adults living in the United States who are concerned for the safety of a child and don’t know what to do. All calls are confidential and will be answered by knowledgeable professionals in the field of child sexual abuse prevention.

RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline, which is free, confidential, and available 24/7/365 in English and Spanish. RAINN works in partnership with more than 1,000 local sexual assault service providers across the country and operates the DoD Safe Helpline for the Department of Defense. You can call RAINN for guidance and resources in crisis (though call 911 if it’s an emergency), by calling 800.656.HOPE (4673).

Safe Horizon has a free, 24/7/365, confidential national hotline in English and Spanish for domestic violence survivors; rape, incest, abuse, and sexual assault survivors; and victims of other violent crimes. Counselors are available to talk about your situation (whether it’s recent or not), as well as help you figure out the next steps, whether that’s in the form of counseling, legal aid, safety planning, or finding a shelter. They can also help you find in-person counseling, group therapy, legal aid, and other resources. Contact them at 1-800-621-HOPE (4673).

You can report an incident and make available to law enforcement for possible investigation. You can contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children 24 hours a day at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).

Laws vary by state–it may be child protective services, a department of family and child services of your county, or law enforcement. Learn more at Darkness to Light, a non-profit committed to empowering adults to prevent child sexual abuse. Their work is guided by the vision of a world free from child sexual abuse, where children can grow up happy, healthy and safe. Darkness to Light exists to empower and educate people to prevent child sex abuse.

Alive & Running is an uplifting, life-affirming event that remembers loved ones lost to suicide while raising funds and awareness for the Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center. The first in the nation, the Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center is a national and world leader in training, research, and services for people who have thought about, attempted or lost someone to suicide. Their center has a 24/7 English/Spanish Crisis Line (1-800-273-TALK) that takes calls from around the United States and is the back-up for crisis centers throughout California. It is also one of only three in the U.S. that answers calls on the National Disaster Distress Helpline.

9: Shit in the Woods

The thing you should know about eating disorders is that they don’t really discriminate. Eating disorders affect all races and ethnic groups (not excluding men). They also have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness—of around ten percent. This episode is about eating disorders, body positivity, and just owning your shit, specifically through the lens of climbing and one woman’s experience.

This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Gnarly Nutrition, and Dirtbag Climbers. Music by: “Jazzy Frenchy”, “Cute”, “Funny Song”, and “Enigmatic” by bensound.com, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, and “Pives and Flarinet” by Podington Bear, “End of Winter” by Rest You Sleeping Giant, “March of the Mind” by Kevin MacLeod, “You and Me” by Borrtex, and “Twinkle Twinkle” by David Mumford.

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Transcript:

(KATHY KARLO): This podcast is sponsored by Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, but most importantly–your snacks. Deuter has a history of first ascents and alpine roots. Their head of product development even climbed Everest once, in jeans (hashtag not fake news.) Deuter is known for fit, comfort, and ventilation.  Founded in 1898, Deuter believes in good fitting backpacks, so you can focus on way cooler things like puppies, pocket bacon, and gettin’ sendy, whether at the crag or in the alpine.

– We’re working with Better Help to connect you to licensed therapists because even though my advice and opinions are free, I am improvising the whole thing. Better Help lets you message a licensed therapist, day or night. They’ll match you with the perfect therapist for a fraction of the cost of traditional therapy. You know who goes to therapy? Prince Harry. Emma Stone. Jenny Slate. Kesha. Therapy is beautiful—everyone should go to therapy. Go to betterhelp.com/climbing to sign up and receive one free week. It helps support this show, and it helps support you.

– This podcast gets support from Gnarly Nutrition, one of the leading protein supplements that tastes “whey” better than they need to because they use quality natural ingredients. So, whether you’re a working mom who runs circles around your kids on weekends or an unprofessional climber trying to send that 5.13 in the gym, Gnarly Nutrition has all of your recovery needs. The only question you need to ask yourself is: Are you a sucker for anything that tastes like chocolate ice cream? (Yeah, me neither.) Gnarly Nutrition is designed to enhance your progress—and taste like a milkshake, without all the crap.

– Have you ever cut an exterior hole in your van? Me neither. Building out a van can be hard work, not to mention that table saws have a funny way of leaving you with fewer fingers than you started with. (We’ll ask Tommy Caldwell all about it when he returns my emails.) I really can’t be trusted with power tools since a drywall incident in 2005—but Mark and Anthony can. Roaming Ingenuity is a team of outdoor enthusiasts and tinkerers based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Whether you are looking for a custom van build, or just need a little help with installing a roof vent, they can help. PS—I never actually emailed Tommy Caldwell.

(SABINE CONNORS): I used to struggle with bulimia. It was hard because, I mean, have you ever taken laxatives—in the woods? You literally can’t predict that shit. But in the end, I learned that people care in all the right ways and that wiping your butt with leaves is never the right answer.

(KK): You might remember this clip that we used for the trailer in 2018. You might even relate to it. This is Sabine, climber and doctorate student based out of the southeast. I don’t know many humans who thrive purely on coffee and sunshine quite the way that Sabine does, but I gotta say: however she does it, it’s working. This girl can hustle as hard as she climbs—and she does it with grit, moxie, and grace.

It’s been estimated that in America, thirty million people of all gender and ages suffer from an eating disorder, as stated by the National Eating Disorders Association. Eating disorders, or EDs, affect all races and ethnic groups, not excluding men. They also have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness—of around ten percent. The thing to remember is that having an ED isn’t actually a choice, like choosing to skip lunch. It isn’t a fad, or a diet phase, or a lifestyle choice. They are real, complex medical illnesses that really feed off of shame and stigma.

The episode that you are about to hear is about eating disorders, body positivity, and just owning your shit—specifically through the lens of climbing and one woman’s experience. Thank you to the people who contributed to this episode. You can go to http://www.fortheloveofclimbing.com and check out the resources available at the end of the transcript. This is episode nine.

(SC): For me, it’s a lack of control. So, I was a very competitive swimmer in high school—like pretty damn good. And I was supposed to swim in college and the university I went to, they actually cut their women’s team. You know, every eighteen-year-old who swam twenty hours a week—you all of a sudden take them out of that environment and like, what eighteen-year-old isn’t going to get a little chubby? Or whatever, shit happens. There’s no one moment where I realized, “When I didn’t have a period, I could run fast.” For me, it was just the perfect storm of a lot of different things: I had a roommate in college who’d struggled with anorexia her whole life. This is the first time in my life I’d ever dieted or I’d ever been even remotely close to needing to lose any weight.

And it was this perfect storm where I’d just discovered running, and I was really surprisingly good at running, just off the bat. And my roommate just taught me all these terrible tricks for losing weight and it just turned into this number game and I just lost control for five years, just binging and purging. And I ended up purging all sorts of different ways—anywhere from laxatives to running a hundred miles a week.

(KK): Sabine described this “perfect storm” in her life where everything inescapably led her to bulimia, but EDs literally can and do affect anyone. They don’t always originate from a past history of abuse or trauma or daddy issues or a million other potential “whys” and “hows”. And they’re really not selective based on your race, gender, ethnicity, or sexuality; they are pretty much as diverse as the people who have them.

(SC): I’m a twenty-five-year-old climber from—kind of from Atlanta. I guess my permanent address is in Atlanta right now? And I am finishing up my last year of PT school, which is a three-year doctorate program. So, I’ll be kind of on the road for the last year doing my clinic rotations. I started climbing when I was about eighteen, yeah, about eighteen. Right around that time, I finished high school. I started climbing ‘cause I really liked a boy and then I liked climbing way better than I liked the boy. So, I kept climbing. And then, climbing has been kind of the one constant throughout kind of a nasty couple bouts with bulimia.

(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.

– Most of you are probably familiar with some of the more common types of EDs: such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. There is a more comprehensive list of disorders at the end of the transcript on the blog.

(SC): There are a lot of people out on social media I feel like, like, it’s their thing. They get on social media, it’s very cathartic for them to talk to a lot of people about it—especially people who are pretty far out from it. And I try not to talk about it too much because it’s kind of all-consuming. It is your life. There is literally not an action during your day that isn’t calculated or factored into it. I feel like the more I would research, the more bad ideas I would get. Especially now where, you know, recovery is a lifelong process. So, even now I kind of don’t like to look at statistics, I don’t like to look at definitions or any of that stuff.

(KK): Question: does anybody ever tell you to “put on a happy face” or “just be positive” when you’re in a funk? Yeah, annoying! And, ok—sometimes they’re right and it works, and it’s just a matter of shifting gears and attitude. But having an ED is similar to having depression, and it is all-consuming. So, it totally makes sense that Sabine would want to create some space between her social media and personal life. Those obsessive and negative thought patterns really complicated Sabine’s life. Signs of having an ED can vary, but for most people—everything becomes heavily calculated. For Sabine, sometimes it was losing control and just binge eating entire jars of peanut butter—and then cranking it out at spin class the next morning at five a.m.

(SC): It’s always complicated. There’s always so many more factors. Like, I can’t even explain how much my day was ruled by, “Oh, the walk to my building is .47 miles away. That’s only forty calories instead of a whole half mile, which is fifty calories.” I used to be that person in the dining hall who would put peanut butter and jelly on a slice of bread and like, scrape the peanut butter off of the bread with my teeth and not eat the whole slice. It just rules your world. Literally, everything you do is a numbers game. It’s awful.

(KK): Secrets have a way of forming really bad habits, and EDs thrive on secrecy. Not only had Sabine devolved into calorie counting and food limiting, but there was so much silence surrounding her ED that, while she started to form habits that supported it, she also created habits to protect it.

(SC): I think the most detrimental one is you learn to lie really well. And it impacts a lot of relationships. People get really worried about you! They see you at the gym, they’re like, “Why are you here? Weren’t you already here earlier?” And you’re like, “Oh, I was looking for you.” It would get to this point where if I sat still for too long, I would panic and I would make up reasons why I needed to go. The university I went to had this huge lake: if I was out at the lake with my friends, swimming around wasn’t enough. I would be like, “Guys, I forgot I had some homework to do! Somebody needs to drive me back right now. I need to do an hour at the gym.” Being outside wasn’t enough. To this day, I refuse to play card games because it got in my mind: I was sitting, and sitting isn’t good. Like, you can’t sit. Sitting is not active. You’re not burning any calories. It just destroyed a lot of relationships.

(KK): At this point, Sabine is pretty dang active. There are a lot of active people who consider shedding weight in order to gain a more competitive edge. We mentioned it in the last episode: endurance climbing is a sport that demands an extremely high strength-to-weight ratio, and what winds up happening is a lot of climbers choose to lose weight instead of building muscle strength. In a lot of ways, climbing is considered an active and very healthy sport, but at the risk of sacrificing your muscles and overall mental and physical health, some climbers work really hard to lose weight in order to perform better. But what’s the real cost?

(SC): You’re in such a bad mood when all you’re consumed by is, “I haven’t done enough pitches,” or “I haven’t climbed hard enough,” or “I haven’t moved enough today. I haven’t burned enough calories.” And you’re out at fricken’ Horse Pens, which people would kill to climb at. Yeah, and I’m absolutely flabbergasted by some of the people that stuck with me through all of that because that must have been fucking annoying. And, I mean, you do stupid shit. I remember being like, “Ooh, if I’m cold, I’ll burn more calories. No, it’s ok—I don’t need two pairs of pants. I’m fine.” And you just shiver your way through the day and then you’re miserable and you don’t climb and then if you don’t climb, it’s this self-loathing cycle you get into.

(KK): Sabine was dating somebody, who, at the time, was probably the best person for her to be with. He was really stable and, most importantly, he normalized food for her.

(SC): God bless that guy. He just normalized food as best be could, which is the best thing, I think, you can do for any person. It’s not like a, “Oh, hooray! What can I make you? It’s so good you’re hungry!” Like, fuck that shit. I already feel weird enough about it. Like, I know what I’m doing is wrong—everybody knows what they’re doing is wrong and you just can’t stop it. You just spiral.

(KK): Well, it’s an addiction.

(SC): Yeah, you lose control. Yeah, it’s an addiction to a number. It’s an addiction to the scale. It’s an addiction to, “I ran six miles yesterday; I have to run six today or else I don’t do as well.” Like, “If I eat seven hundred calories worth of chips today, I have to run seven miles tomorrow morning.” Yeah, it was just all-consuming—I feel like I missed out on five years of my life. I felt like I missed out on college. I missed out on eating Zaxby’s when I was hungover, or dollar slice-dollar beer night after climbing. I never enjoyed it while I was there—all I could think about was, “Oh my god.” You know, “I haven’t eaten all day because I want this one slice of pizza after climbing.” And then you eat it and you feel like a total piece of shit.

(KK): Relationships with food, like any other, are…complicated. As are the side effects. Specific to Sabine’s ED, which is characterized by intake of large amounts of food accompanied by a sense of loss of control, some of the side effects of bulimia can include: inflamed and sore throat, worn tooth enamel, esophagus rupture, acid reflux, dehydration, and hormonal disturbance. And if it gets really bad, it will create an imbalance of electrolyte levels, which can actually cause a stroke or cardiac arrest. Other long-term side effects can include high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, heart disease, and type II diabetes.

(SC): Oh—the other part of being bulimic and having no body fat and running a hundred miles a week and climbing, all this stuff, is—you’re tired all the time. I used to fall asleep standing up—like, not kidding. I fell asleep at this boulder called “Bursts of Joy” at Rocktown—standing up. Leaning against a rock. I used to fall asleep in the most ridiculous positions. I mean, any time my body got the chance to stop—I was out. It was bad. Like, I was falling asleep driving. I was falling asleep in class. I was falling asleep taking exams—like, I used to put my head down in the middle of an exam and take a nap.

(KK): Not only are you tired all of the time, but your risk of osteoporosis is also a lot higher. The medical complications that result from bulimia can cause severe dehydration, damage to endocrine glands, and ultimately, will lower your bone density. This was something that Sabine had to find out the hard way.

(SC): So yeah, you have the brittle bones of a sixty-five-year-old woman and I remember running on the treadmill. I was twenty, and I got this hip pain one day and it wouldn’t go away. And, you know, I’d been popping Advil for all of these insane overuse injuries over the past years. Like, I ran through a broken ankle, I ran through a torn something in my knee—I never even got diagnosed. And then, I ran through this hip pain for two or three weeks in my left hip and it was bad—I was dragging my leg. And, of course, I wasn’t going to drive to campus because I only lived half a mile away. Why would I waste burning fifty calories driving to campus when I could just walk there? And I remember, just dragging my leg to campus and back and getting on the treadmill and trying to run. And one day, the hip pain was too bad and I hadn’t taken any Advil so I couldn’t really run through it. So, I got in my car and I was like, “God. I’m going to go home and take some Advil and then I’m going to come back and run.” But I got in my car and I was like, “Oh my god. I can’t push my clutch in. Like, I literally can’t move my leg.” So, I called my dad, and my dad was like, “Ok. You just need to go to the doctor. You probably hurt something. You run a lot. You know, you’re hard on your body.” Like, very gentle dad-like. He knew I was just screwing my body up.

Within five seconds, my MD weighed me, asked me how much I ran, did one test on my leg and was like, “You broke your hip. You need an MRI.” I fell asleep in the MRI—immediately! No earplugs needed. And they called me and they were like, “Crutches. Don’t do anything. If you actually fracture this hip all the way through—this is a bone in your body that can and will die.” The hip bone and a bone in your hand are the two bones in your body, if you break them—they die. So, I was twenty and I turned twenty-one with a broken hip at the Red, because, of course, I climbed through it—like an idiot. I went to Hueco with a broken hip. And to this day, I have really bad left leg issues. My left leg is an inch smaller around than my right leg. I don’t know, it’s just depressing—like, you’re twenty and you have a broken hip. And then, your metabolism takes an awful hit from it, too. It’s taken years for my metabolism to bounce back. Your body essentially goes into survival mode. Laxatives were a huge problem for me for a long time—it was a thing I tried to hide. And I had to get colonoscopies every six months as a twenty-five-year-old because I wrecked my colon so much. Just laxatives, laxatives, laxatives. I have done things like, shit the bed and pooped myself out climbing because, you know, laxatives—you don’t effing know when it’s going to hit you. It’s just frustrating to know that everything that I was doing to myself has impacted me just so much more down the line.

Climbing is the one constant through all of this. I think I put a lot of pressure on, eventually. I was like, “Oh, you know, you should send. If you’re lighter, you send harder. You can crimp harder. And then, it turned into this thing that was routine. It wasn’t necessarily because I loved climbing, but it was a routine. That’s what we did: we went outside, we climbed on the weekends. And it’s only been in the past year or two that I feel like I have really come out of the throes of everything. Like, I still struggle. You know, I had a really good day of climbing the day before and was like, “Oh my god. You’re not going to climb that hard again if you eat an entire box of pasta.” That’s the kind of stuff that runs through your mind—who knows why!

But, the climbing was the one thing that was always there for me. You know, when I broke my hip—you can’t run, you can’t get on the elliptical, you can’t do anything. But I could hangboard and I could do pull-ups and I could do that kind of stuff. And climbing has become one of those things where you are so rewarded for being healthy. You’re just so rewarded for being good to your body that it was one of those things that I definitely grew to love the whole process behind climbing. And when you fail at climbing, you succeed at something else. If you fail at one thing, then you kind of succeed at another. Like, if you fail at this long route because you’re pumped and you’re tired or you didn’t pull hard enough or you can’t pull hard enough, you’ve succeeded in that you’ve learned more about yourself and what you need to do in order to do it. There’s a process with every sport. Like, there are just as many variables when it comes to running or when it comes to anything else, but climbing is one of the ones where I’ve come to love the process.

(KK): I think that, in a lot of ways, we’re still pretty surprised when we hear about eating disorders among climbers. And maybe it’s just sort of assumed that, aside from the occasional injury, climbers are all young and healthy and gunning for it. Rock climbing as a whole is considered one of the healthiest, most active sports—both mentally and physically. And that isn’t an untrue statement, but it also isn’t completely accurate, either. Even if you haven’t been climbing for long, chances are that you know someone who has struggled with an eating disorder. (In fact, I am willing to bet money on it—and I don’t have a lot of money to be making bets on!)

Confronting an eating disorder, whether it’s you or somebody you love, means being brave enough to recognize that there is a life-threatening problem. And, yeah—it’s a process: climbing, recovery, all of it. Having an eating disorder isn’t a choice, but challenging it and the monsters that it manifests is.

(SC): One day, I was like, “You know what? I’m a fucking adult and I am good enough in my own skin now that I see what I need out of the world.” The day that it all just kind of kicked off was when I just kind of nutted up enough to kick myself in the ass and be like: “You are going to be fine if you don’t run today and you’re going to be fine if you’re single. It’s fine. It’s going to be fine. Just eat the cookie.” I started climbing for myself and through that, I started doing everything else for myself. And it all just kicked off with leaping off into the unknown and just nutting up enough to kind of discovering the world without a crutch.

(FEMALE VOICE): I have struggled with eating disorders since I was fifteen. I’m thirty-three now. It comes and it goes, you know? I know bodies don’t matter. What you look like does not matter. But for some reason, gaining those five to ten pounds spins me around a million thousand times. So, I’m here and I’m still dealing with it—but this time it’s more me wanting to maintain things so that I continue to climb how I have been and it’s definitely a fight.

(FEMALE VOICE): Climbing helped me realize just how out of control my eating disorder had gotten. Put on my shoes one day and got on a V0 I used to run laps on. Halfway up, I started seeing black spots. By the time I got to the top, my head was spinning and my total intake for that day after working a twelve hour ICU shift: four hundred and eighty calories. My climbing partner hatched me out of that hole. Even now, he still checks almost every day to make sure that I’ve eaten enough, that I’m not filing back into the same patterns because they’re easy to go back to. My biggest triumph so far? My weight hasn’t changed in two months. I have reasons to fight, and that’s all thanks to climbing.

(FEMALE VOICE): So, I still struggle with body dysmorphia. It’s difficult to remember what I look like or am in my head, or believe what people say in regards to how small or fit or beautiful I am. Especially when I’m surrounded by and admire really fit, athletic people. I guess, basically, it’s difficult to maintain a sense of self when I’m surrounded by people in general. I think it’s because I tend to place others before me, even to the point of making myself disappear in my own head. But instead of finding an answer or a single point of perspective, I just let it flow. As in: it’s ok to feel what I feel as long as it doesn’t become detrimental to what I need or want to get done.

(FEMALE VOICE): I just wanted to share that I struggled with an eating disorder starting in high school and while I am way more compassionate to myself now than ever before, I still struggle with these things. Especially when life gets rough, which of course, it does. I think growing to appreciate my body for what it’s able to do and where it’s able to take me has empowered me on levels that I never thought were possible.

(FEMALE VOICE): The biggest issue I have dealt with in climbing is the feeling of imposter syndrome. And this often has to do with how I and how I perceive others to view my body. I’m curvy and athletic, which is not often the lith, spidery and tiny look I often see of other female climbing sensations. This has made me feel self-conscious when I’m not strong enough to pull certain moves and then I feel self-critical of how I’m built. This isn’t something I’ve entirely gotten over, but I believe that recognizing that I feel this way and talking about it with others helps open the dialogue. By surrounding myself with partners that don’t define my success by my body or my feats in climbing have made me feel more comfortable and successful, on and off the wall.

(FEMALE VOICE): I’m not naturally athletic and it’s taken a lot of work to get to where I’m at. And then I see all these amazing athletes on social media and in my gym, and they’re in the best shape ever. And there’s even weekend warriors that are just like, sculpted. And here I am, trying to hang with the big guys, and just runnin’ around with my jiggly little legs and a big ol’ butt. It just sticks out, it’s not muscular, it makes leggings really hard to find—and it’s just there. You know, and you move down a little bit and you get to my hips and then there’s these things. And they’re just like—saddlebags?! Saddlebags! What? How do you get these? Where do they come from? Why don’t they go away? They never go away—no matter what I do. They’re just these pockets of jelly and I don’t know what to do with them. But they’re just there to annoy me and frustrate me that I don’t look like or climb as hard as the people without big butts and saddlebags. But maybe, it’s my big butt that’s pulling me off the wall when I try to climb hard things?

(FEMALE VOICE): I looked over and there was this typical gym crusher girl in her racerback tank top and she could do stuff like, upside down and dyno to things—and I didn’t even know what a dyno was—I just knew that this girl could fly. And instead of being awed by her climbing ability, I remember just staring at her back muscles and her biceps and her forearms and being like, “Oh, I will never be a climber. If that’s what happens if you get these muscles, I don’t want it.” And I remember being really bummed because my body dysmorphia was going to ruin all this fun I was having at the gym. But then, moving from that and now that I climb all the time and it’s such a huge part of my life and my body has changed so much and I’m proud of my muscles—it’s so helpful dealing with body dysmorphia and body image issues—to learn to just love that your body does this rad thing for you.

But I did have the experience where I went and visited some friends who I hadn’t seen since I started climbing. And one of my friends was like, “Oh my god! You got so buff! Like, not like gross buff. Not gross. But, super buff! Holy shit.” And I was really taken aback, because, what do you mean, “gross buff”? Like, how could my muscles be gross? They do all this cool stuff for me. And then I caught myself looking in the mirror and wondering like, “Am I that girl now from the gym that people are looking at and are like, ‘Oh my god. I do not want to climb ‘cause I don’t want man arms, or I don’t want crazy big blood veins,” or something, ‘cause my own friends were telling me that I was “so buff” but not “gross buff”. I was like, “Well, you know, shit. I don’t want to be ‘gross buff’. I do want to climb hard.” And then it became this battle in my mind of, “Ok. I want to climb hard and the tradeoff might be getting ‘gross buff’ and, you know, having big back muscles or big shoulder muscles or whatever.”

And just trying to come to terms with, my body isn’t going to look the way our society thinks that women’s bodies are supposed to look. And my body’s going to be able to do really cool things and take me places with really cool people. And I’ll get to experience all these amazing views—like sunsets off of Tahquitz and really fun campfire conversations and I’ll get to feel this dopamine dump in my brain if I am able to push past my body dysmorphia. Just feeling that rush of projecting a route and then finally sending it and you’re just like, “My body did that! That’s so cool!” That’s so much more exciting and validating and worth it to me than when I would meet my calorie goal or be the skinny one at the party or something. And now I’m like, I want to be the one who can put up topropes and the one who’s strong and encouraging and sends my projects and gets to feel that celebratory rush where I’m just like, “Oh my god. That was amazing and so worth all the work I put into it—even if my muscles are scary now, or like, I’m the buffest girl at the party.” (laughs) It’s so much better and so much more fun.

(FEMALE VOICE): Body positivity can be a really hard concept to really understand and accept. I mean, I’ve struggled with this idea of being happy with my body for a really long time and, honestly, I still do struggle—especially when I’m climbing. I don’t envision wanting to have this model body. Like, I envision wanting to be these badass women who can send these amazing routes and have strong and lean bodies. And in the outdoor community, there are so many of those women and that’s kind of what I aspire to be: a badass strong woman. And then, there’s this image that I have of what that looks like and sometimes I see these women in the climbing community who are just lean, toned, and so damn strong. And I’m constantly comparing myself to them and thinking, “Should I even be here at the same crag that they are, trying to climb the same routes? Like, am I even strong enough?” So, I’m just always struggling with how my body is and where I want it to be. I mean, I want it to be strong and lean and what I envision what an “outdoor body” should look like.

So, I’ve had this idea in my head for a really long time. And then, a wonderful woman came into my life who is a dear friend of mine now and the idea of body positivity changed completely for me. I mean, she’s this badass, strong, skilled woman that I’ve always looked up to but she doesn’t necessarily fit the stereotype that I had in my head. And she taught me that it’s not about who was the strongest, who was the best—and instead, it’s about having fun and trying hard and being with people that you love and can support you and encourage you, and most importantly, she taught me that it’s about feeling good in your body. If you feel strong and love what your body can do for you—like, get you to the crag, up the rock, across rivers—whatever it may be. I mean, our bodies do so much for us! And now, I tell myself every day that my body is a temple. And sometimes, I still do struggle with body image. But, I love my body and all the places that it can take me and I’m so fortunate to have a capable body and to love what it does for me.

(MALE VOICE): I went through an eating disorder that took me about four years to recover from. It’s something that we don’t talk about as much, but we should ‘cause it’s a sport very prone to inducing people towards this kind of behavior.

(FEMALE VOICE): So, I took a little while to finally sit down and record this, I guess because, talking about eating disorders is not really easy—which is silly, because it should be something that we can talk about. Like, I don’t think that it should be a taboo subject anymore. The thing about eating disorders is it’s not just physical; it’s a mental struggle. I would look in the mirror and I was just never really happy with myself, and so I would choose not to eat thinking I would feel better and that maybe, I would be more lovable. But, you know, the thing about it is that it wasn’t even just that I wanted to lose weight or wanted to be skinny; it was the one thing that I could control. And I got really bad. You know, it got to the point where I would almost pass out while doing silks or rock climbing. It was making me not as strong as I should have been. So, luckily I got out of that relationship. I was finally learning to love myself for me and got a hold of my life. I had told myself that when I finally was able to kind of overcome that and be happy with who I was and where I was, no matter what, that I would get a tattoo. So, I did—I got the NEDA symbol. So, the National Eating Disorders Association with a blue lotus. Lotuses bloom out of the mud, so for me, it kind of symbolizes overcoming obstacles and blooming through them. So, I have this tattoo now on my side and, I think for me, it’s just a really good reminder of what I’ve been through and what I’ve overcome. And so, anytime I look in the mirror and I want to think negative thoughts about myself, I see that and I’m reminded of everything that I’ve been through. It helps me open up more about my past struggles and I think that it helps other people. ‘Cause you never know who else is struggling with it, and if you’re open with them to talk to them about your past and be like, “Yeah, if you’re still struggling with it—it’s ok. You’re not actually alone.”

(FEMALE VOICE): I remember one time, I had only had Triscuits and an apple all day. And I collapsed with stomach pains. But I became a rock climber and when you’re climbing, you’re burning so many calories. You’re needing more food, and I didn’t recognize that because I was thin. I continued to feed my eating disorder through climbing, and I think it really affected my performance, my relationships with my climbing partners—especially living on the road with someone who expects you to perform at a high level and you just can’t because all you had was potatoes that day. And they don’t understand; they don’t see that. It’s another reason to hate yourself and another reason to keep the eating disorder going. I’m really working hard to force myself to eat more, especially when I’m climbing. To eat a lot of healthy foods, but not really care about if it’s healthy or not—just to eat. And that’s my main goal. And I think when I can get to a place where I can go climbing and have enough energy to do what I want to do and have fun with my friends without feeling left behind because I’m so low in energy—I think that’s when I’ll know when I’ve truly made it. Anyway, love you, Kathy. You’re such a bright light and I’m so glad you’re doing this podcast. It’s so cool.

(FEMALE VOICE): I am proud to say now that I sought professional help for my mental health issues. I am in remission from anorexia. I kind of hate the word “survivor”, but I am an eating disorder, I don’t know, kick-asser? (laughs). And I love my job in the climbing community and I climb again, and I get up on the wall and I make friends—and I don’t panic. And—that’s pretty amazing.

(FEMALE VOICE): I think while climbing can be so positive like, learning to view your body as this amazing tool who does this cool shit for you and pulls you up these really beautiful climbs. Climbing can be so positive—and all of that positivity can so easily be undone with social media. It seems like the trend lately is just climbing pictures are just another advertising model. And so, it’s less about what grade that climber might be able to climb or how much work he or she has put into it. And for me, climbing was this cool escape where I could go climbing and not think about the way I look and not think about how I’ve been pressured since I was a little girl to be beautiful. Disney movies and our whole society and basically everything we’re told from the time we’re little is that our value comes from our “beauty”. And the main character, the main woman, is always beautiful—and that’s her defining characteristic. And I know that was part of my eating disorder and my body image issues is, I don’t look like a supermodel. I look like a person! And I thought that that was wrong ‘cause all I’ve ever seen in media was these beautiful women and I thought I was a supposed to be them.

And then, climbing happened and all of a sudden, I could just exist out in the woods with no reception and just drink beer and goof off and go climbing and my body felt so cool because it could take me to these beautiful places. And I’ve watched sunsets off of multi-pitches and slept on crash pads with my friends, and climbing was the one thing where I didn’t have to worry about being beautiful. What mattered was: was I safe belayer? Was I good friend? Was I fun to be around? And I didn’t have to worry about being beautiful. That was not the requirement.

And now, when I look at social media it’s like, “Oh—it’s not enough that you climb hard. You also have to be hot.” Like, you’ve also gotta be a babe. I don’t know. I was talking to someone and she was talking about how when someone’s taking pictures of her, she’ll have to make sure the way she’s climbing doesn’t obscure her face and she doesn’t put her arm up above her face and block the camera view. Whatever. And I was just like, “Fuck that!” I just want to rock climb. All I care about when I’m climbing is the movement and the flow and sending, hopefully. And there’s all this pressure to prove on social media that we’re cool and it just sucks because I want climbing to be about how much effort I’ve put into it and the community I have in climbing. And it’s, lately, becoming just another tool for beauty brands and we all want our sports bras to match our cute pants and our harness has to be clean. And, I don’t know, I look at those pictures of those models climbing and I don’t see fat rolls hanging over their harness which I see when I look down if I’m hanging on a route, and I’m like, “Ah, fuck. There’s my fat hanging over my harness.” And I used to not worry about it too much. Now there’s just more pressure, I feel like, to be beautiful while I’m climbing when I used to just climb.

(FEMALE VOICE): I suffer with anorexia and bulimia and have since the beginning of high school. I ran track at the time but was actually removed from the track team for being so anorexic. What I think about is, I’ve had an important discovery that my eating disorders are emotional manifestations of my anxiety and depression. Essentially, when I feel out of control, I can control my food intake and size. So, fast forward: rock climbing now changed my perspective on my body. I have found strong beautiful, rather than small. And to be strong, I have to be nourished. And to be nourished, I have to digest good food. While I’m definitely not cured and I’m not really sure if I ever will be—I am healthy. And I am getting stronger. Thank you for letting me share my story.

(FEMALE VOICE): I chose to take a gap year

and fill it with

everything but me

But when I started the tale

the spaces

were all I wanted to see

The letters were all wrong

I hated

how I write

But the spaces between my words

were a stunning

intriguing white

And so I figured out

that my talent

lies in between

So why bother about the letters

when there’s such

blanks to be seen

I eagerly developed

this wonderful talent

I saw

The fulfilling in-betweennesses

absorbing

any flaw

If I tell you about my gap year

or describe who

I am

It’s three times, long and hard

the space key that

I slam

The story of what was happening

Under my hands started gappening

The font of my writing

once strong

and bold

Blurred to pencil strokes

ghostly intruders in the Holy Gap’s

Wide Stronghold

On my every train of thought

a singular announcement

echoes on

…mind the gap, mind the gap, mindthegap…

Subconciousness’ Subway Headquarters’

monotonous jargon

My legs racing to

keep up with the

train’s carts

Keeping my feet drumming along

until my knees blow

to shards

I chose to take a gap year

to open up

my view

But into the gap I  t

                               u

                                 m

                                    b

                                       l

                                         e

                                            d        

now my perspectives

are few

The gap’s sides, sharp

and cold

at contact

But I shall recover them all

cushioning the hurtful

impact

Thus I’ll close off my gap year

close it off

in style

I’ll start out by

(don’t get this wrong)

making my legs cross that extra mile

This is something I wrote a couple of years ago about how I got obsessed with the thinness of my own body. The “gap” I’m talking about is the well-known “thigh gap”. It wasn’t about body image. It was about challenging myself and willpower and pushing through obvious cries from your body that you’re in need. So, I decided to just stop eating and I pushed it further and further. And to this day, the decision I made as a stupid, bored teenager who thought she could make herself more interesting by becoming complicated and by having issues (sigh) have really affected the course of her own life ever since. Climbing was this new challenge. It was this new thing that I could challenge myself with and it could take up the space of this eating behavior…addiction. Climbing was going to save me.

(KK): Even though I still have no idea what I’m doing—things are happening. And if you’d like to help out and support this podcast, please check out patreon.com (that’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N) where you can sponsor us for as little as $1 per episode. It really helps keep this podcast going, and I’m so grateful for all of your help. Special shout out to Cameron MacAlpine because he makes this thing sound good.

– You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. A huge thank you to Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, and a big thank you to Gnarly Nutrition for supporting this podcast and the messages that we share. Gnarly Nutrition supports a community of vulnerability and equality—and tastes like a milkshake, without all the crap. And a big shout out to Roaming Ingenuity, a team of outdoor enthusiasts and tinkerers based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Support companies who support this podcast—we couldn’t do it without them. If you liked what you heard, you can leave a review on iTunes or give us a like—like all good things, you can find us on the internet. Until next time.


Resources for you and/or loved ones:

National Eating Disorders Association: 1-800-931-2237

This helpline offers support Monday–Thursday from 9 a.m.–9 p.m. EST, and Friday from 9 a.m.–5 p.m. EST. You can expect to receive support, information, referrals, and guidance about treatment options for either you or your loved one. You can also contact this helpline through its online chat function, available on its website. Additionally, there is an option to send a text message if you are in crisis by texting NEDA to 741741; a trained volunteer from the Crisis Text Line will get in touch with you.

Something Fishy: 1-866-418-1207

This eating disorders helpline offers treatment referrals nationwide. Its website also provides a wealth of information and resources about eating disorders and eating disorder treatment. Through its website, you can join an online chat group where you can speak to others in your shoes to gain support, advice, and hope.

Hopeline Network: 1-800-442-4673

This is a hotline dedicated to serving anyone in crisis. Sometimes, people with eating disorders might feel so full of shame or self-hatred that they contemplate hurting themselves. If this is true for you, this hotline offers nationwide assistance and support from volunteers specifically trained in crisis intervention. You can talk to someone day or night about anything that’s troubling you, even if it’s not related to an eating disorder. You can also call if you need referrals to eating disorder treatment centers.

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders: 1-630-577-1330

Currently serving people in the United States, the hotline operates Monday–Friday from 9 a.m.–5 p.m. CST, with plans for a 24/7 hotline coming soon. Trained hotline volunteers offer encouragement to those having problems around eating or binging, support for those who “need help getting through a meal,” and assistance to family members who have concerns that their loved one might have an eating disorder.

Overeaters Anonymous: 1-505-891-2664

This hotline is available to people worldwide who need a referral to an Overeaters Anonymous support meeting in their area. Contrary to popular belief, Overeaters Anonymous is not just for people who are concerned about eating too much; it is also intended for those who have anorexia, bulimia, food addiction, or any other type of eating disorder. If you are reluctant to attend an in-person meeting or are not geographically near one, its website offers you the option to participate in an online- or telephone-based support group.

Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association (formerly the Massachusetts Eating Disorder Association): 1-617-558-1881

This organization offers education, information, referrals to clinicians who specialize in eating disorders, support groups, and additional services for people with eating disorders in the New England area. It also offers information about nationwide treatment centers and is available between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. EST, Monday–Friday.

The United Way’s 211.org: Call 2-1-1

The hotline is intended for anyone living in North America who has any type of crisis or who needs help locating specific resources, including information and referrals for eating disorder treatment. Available 24/7, it can offer information and referrals to treatment organizations in your area.

Crisis Textline: Text CONNECT to 741741

Available 24/7, 365 days a year, this organization helps people with eating disorders and other mental health issues by connecting callers with trained crisis volunteers who will provide confidential advice, support, and referrals if needed.

More information on eating disorders

8: The Heart of the Matter

Matt is the editor-in-chief of Climbing Magazine, a published author, a husband, a father, and a pretty well-seasoned climber. And even though most of his life has not been easy, Matt has found his answers—beyond benzodiazepine addiction, beyond mental distress, beyond chasing dragons of treating it—to get down to the heart of the matter.

This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Gnarly Nutrition, Roaming Ingenuity, and Dirtbag Climbers. Music by: “Jazzy Frenchy”, “Cute”, and “Funny Song” by bensound.com, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, and “Pives and Flarinet” by Podington Bear, “Curiosity” by Lee Rosevere, “Collective Decision”, “You Are Not Alone”, and “Calm” by Borrtex, “Drift” by Daniel Birch, and “Play Pelagic” by Little Glass Men.

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Transcript:

(KATHY KARLO): This podcast is sponsored by Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, but most importantly–your snacks. Deuter has a history of first ascents and alpine roots. Their head of product development even climbed Everest once, in jeans (hashtag not fake news.) Deuter is known for fit, comfort, and ventilation.  Founded in 1898, Deuter believes in good fitting backpacks, so you can focus on way cooler things like puppies, pocket bacon, and gettin’ sendy, whether at the crag or in the alpine.

– We’re working with Better Help to connect you to licensed therapists because even though my advice and opinions are free, I am improvising the whole thing. Better Help lets you message a licensed therapist, day or night. They’ll match you with the perfect therapist for a fraction of the cost of traditional therapy. You know who goes to therapy? Prince Harry. Emma Stone. Jenny Slate. Kesha. Therapy is beautiful—everyone should go to therapy. Go to betterhelp.com/climbing to sign up and receive one free week. It helps support this show, and it helps support you.

– This podcast gets support from Gnarly Nutrition, one of the leading protein supplements that tastes “whey” better than they need to because they use quality natural ingredients. So, whether you’re a working mom who runs circles around your kids on weekends or an unprofessional climber trying to send that 5.13 in the gym, Gnarly Nutrition has all of your recovery needs. The only question you need to ask yourself is: Are you a sucker for anything that tastes like chocolate ice cream? (Yeah, me neither.) Gnarly Nutrition is designed to enhance your progress—and taste like a milkshake, without all the crap.

– Have you ever cut an exterior hole in your van? Me neither. Building out a van can be hard work, not to mention that table saws have a funny way of leaving you with fewer fingers than you started with. (We’ll ask Tommy Caldwell all about it when he returns my emails.) I really can’t be trusted with power tools since a drywall incident in 2005—but Mark and Anthony can. Roaming Ingenuity is a team of outdoor enthusiasts and tinkerers based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Whether you are looking for a custom van build, or just need a little help with installing a roof vent, they can help. PS—I never actually emailed Tommy Caldwell.

– Hey. Before we start, I wanted to say a few things. First, I wanted to say thank you to Peter Darmi for his help with this episode (I seriously could not have done it without him), and to Matt, as well as everybody who has been brave enough to come on this podcast and tell their story. I also felt like it was an appropriate time to say thank you to all of the people who have really been looking out for me these past few months. I’ve had my own personal sadness to carry and process this winter, and I just want you all to know how much every message, every email, every phone call—even just good thoughts—mean to me.

The last few months have only emphasized the importance of sharing these kinds of stories—unscripted, painful, and painfully honest. Nine months ago, I acknowledged that the difficult things can be hard to talk about, but when we talk openly about our pain and weave it into a story—something really powerful happens. I really do believe that there’s value in struggle—that’s not just something I say. Nine months have gone by and I am blown away by how well-received this project has been, and I’m grateful that so many of you share the same vision.

A quick heads up: nobody dies in this episode, but there is a lot of heavy discussion about drug use and addiction. We will talk a lot about mental health and eating disorders, and there is also brief discussion about suicide. Go to http://www.fortheloveofclimbing.com to see the resources available at the end of the transcript. Here is episode eight:

(MATT SAMET): Boulder has definitely grown a lot. But I mean, the climbing is eternal. It’s one of the few places in the country where you can live as a climber and also have decent economic opportunity, I think. You know, if you come to Boulder and take it for what it is and take what you want out of it—I think it’s a wonderful place. If you come here and you’re like, “I’m the best climber at my gym and wherever, and I’m going to go to Boulder and crush and get sponsored, and this and that—you’d see a lot of people come here and they’re like, “Oh fuck this,” you know? They’re kind of in and then they’re out. Because it is a huge climbing scene and there’s a ton of talent.

(KK): If you stay in any place too long, you know, you start to feel like a big fish in a little pond. But yeah, you come here and you’re just like, “Oh my god, I’m, like—

(MS): I’m nobody.

(KK): —kelp.”

(MS): Yeah, I’m kelp! At the bottom (laughs) swaying in the sea breeze while the fish come by to nibble atcha.

(KK): Matt is far from kelp, though. He’s been climbing for thirty years and is the editor-in-chief of a small publication called Climbing Magazine—maybe you’ve heard of it? When you have things like “editor-in-chief” on a resume and you’re living in Boulder—one of the most well-known climbing meccas in the US—it’s sorta easy to just assume that you probably have your shit together. But we tend to forget to look past surface level things, like status and job titles. It’s pretty easy to get caught up on the every day things that are in plain sight. You know, normal life stuff.

(MS): I have two young boys now and, you know, I need to earn money. The days of living in a Toyota and eating ramen are over.

(KK): Kids love ramen.

(MS): Yeah, that’s true! Well, you know, maybe I don’t need to be working, then. Although, there’s trans fats. So, really, if I wanna actually look after my kids, I probably shouldn’t be feeding them trans-fat-filled ramen.

(KK): Does your wife climb?

(MS): Oh, we used to climb together a lot but then we, you know, had two kids. Sometimes we meet at the gym, like, maybe once a month if we’re lucky (laughs). I assume that we’ll climb together again someday, but I don’t know when. But it would be lovely.

(KK): Beyond a full-time job, raising a family and having endless climbing at his disposal—Matt doesn’t live the quintessential Boulder-dweller’s life. And he’s pretty candid about it.

(MS): You wanna hear about suffering.

(KK): I do! I want you to emotionally gut me, and also all the people who will be listening to this. I…yeah (laughs)

(MS): Just say: Tell me about your suffering (laughs)

(KK): Like I said, I came here to be emotionally gutted.

(MS): Just gotta get right to the heart of the matter.

(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.

– A recent study found that one in six adults in the United States take psychiatric drugs for the treatment of mental health conditions. Among the most commonly used medications are benzodiazepines. When these sedative drugs were first introduced, it was widely claimed that they were non-addictive. This claim has since been proven false. Prescriptions for benzodiazepines increased by sixty-seven percent between 1996 and 2013. Benzodiazepines, which are typically used for the treatment of clinical anxiety and other conditions such as panic disorders and seizures, have become one of the most commonly prescribed and misused classes of drugs. They operate widely in the brain, affecting things like emotional reactions, memory, thinking, muscle tone and coordination. So, a question: what are the real dangers of benzodiazepines? Because it sounds like they treat a lot of things that need to be treated. And, are they dangerous? Matt, like so many others, knows firsthand the true impact that benzodiazepines have. Here’s his story.

(MS): You know, I deal with basically long-term neurological issues that were caused by being on benzodiazepine tranquilizers for years. You know, these are sedatives that are used to tamp down the nervous system. They go by common brand names: Valium, of course, is the one most people know. But these days, people definitely know about Klonopin and Xanax. You know, you hear about klonnies and xans, because people abuse the shit out of these drugs. They really have a nervous system muting effect. So, if you have trouble with anxiety or seizures or sleep—these drugs will lower you down. And in that sense, they’re effective, right? But in the other sense, like any drug, they’re highly addictive and over time, your body becomes habituated to their effects and your nervous system stops being able to regulate itself.

And then, when you do go to get off the drugs, your nervous system rebounds in a huge way. And that damage is really long lasting. I haven’t taken any of those drugs since 2005. So, we’re talking thirteen years now and I still deal with symptoms. I was also on a lot of other psychiatric medicines that complicated and damaged my nervous system and sort of during all that, I had issues with substance abuse, too—with pain pills and alcohol, to some degree. You know, marijuana, too. So, I was definitely a toxic sewer. See, the thing is, this was so long ago that you would think I would be better. And I think that that is the struggle that I deal with—is that I probably look ok to you—but I actually am in a lot of pain, almost all the time. I just have learned not to—what’s the word I’m looking for? Manifest it, really. You know, I just kind of stuff it down and get on with my day.

(KK): You just don’t react to it.

(MS): I don’t react to it. There’s not much I can do about it. Some days are good and some days are bad.

(KK): We’re talking physical?

(MS): Physical pain and often a lot of emotional pain, too. Because, I mean, these tranquilizers—what I’m saying is, you go off of them and you need to go really really slowly. But the medical community doesn’t support that and that was certainly my experience, too. I was yanked off them really abruptly. And when that happens, your body doesn’t have time to sort of re-regulate itself and it gets into this mode where it can just kind of stay there for years and years and years until you heal. So, you know, I’ve been slowly getting better again and actually, had gotten a lot better. I’d stopped the pills in 2006 and up until 2013, I was probably like ninety percent of my old self. And then, in 2013 I had a big setback and so, I’m five-plus years into that now and still dealing with it. The main thing that I think I deal with is disbelief.

(KK): I mean, if you take a really bad climbing fall and you’re on the ground all fucked up and broken—it’s pretty clear what happened. And people will rally and there will be hospital visits and fundraisers—that sort of thing. But if you have something that’s internal, and essentially, invisible—that’s a whole different story.

(MS): You know, it’s an entirely subjective experience. I’m the only one who can feel it. People are just sorta like, “Huh.” So, I’m very selective about who I climb with. Like, you know, just make sure they’re people who are supportive no matter what. Because there’s days at the cliff where I’m just fucked. Like, I might be physically fucked or mentally fucked because of this. You know, like I said—it’s nervous system hyperexcitability. It feels like I’ve been plugged into a wall. So, I’ll wake up on a bad day and I’ll feel like electricity is coursing through me. Anxiety is off the charts—vibrating—like I have an internal tremor that’s basically my central nervous system just firing, firing, firing, which in turn makes my muscles fire, which in turn makes them feel like they’re on fire, and I’m all locked up. You know—horrible anxiety, can’t think. And it’s like, shit I gotta get through the day somehow.

And then, if you go climbing in that state—like sometimes climbing makes it better. It kind of can break me out of the pattern. Sometimes, it makes it worse and I just don’t know. So, I think the big thing, as a climber, is just people who I climb with know about it so that they know I have this limitation.

(KK): So, no Mountain Project partners?

(MS): (laughs) Partner finder? I think you’re rollin’ the dice on that one, no matter who you are. Yeah, yeah. And I think, I mean, maybe you’ve encountered it, too. I mean, I think you’ve sort of talked about it some on your podcast: there’s just this sort of this machismo in the climbing community where people—it’s just sort of assumed that we’re all young, healthy and fucking going for it all of the time. And that’s sort of the default. You know? And that’s sort of a portrayal in the media and that’s sort of the lore of the sport—sticking your neck out there and manning up and sacking up. And it’s like, it’s not that black and white. Life is never that simple. So, I think, you know, that’s the one thing that’s been challenging for me—is finding how to live within my story, within kind of a culture that’s a little bit macho.

(KK): Being hard and soft at the same time—that’s so much of who I am, but I would say that that is not the norm in climbing culture, and just society in general.

(MS): Right.

(KK): You know? People can’t comprehend how you can do that—how you can have those two things coincide.

(MS): Yeah, like how can you be a rock climber and be scared? It’s like, well how can you not be scared? And then, if you have a nervous system on top of that that won’t let you not be scared—yeah, what do you do with that?

(KK): Thirty years a climber, Matt grew up in Albuquerque and he later moved to Boulder for college.

(MS): I landed myself in this mess. You know, I don’t blame anyone else, but this, I think, all started with an eating disorder. So, when I was in my teens, I really got heavily into rock climbing. There were no gyms at that point, but I’d always kind of wanted to climb and I’d done some climbing with my dad’s college roommate. Like, starting from age twelve, I’d go out to Olympia, Washington in the summers and climb with him. And I’d come back to Albuquerque and there was nowhere to climb. And then when I was fifteen, I was enrolled in one of those things in the eighties. It was called the “challenge program”—like, I stopped going to school. It was basically through a psych hospital. It was like an outpatient thing. Because I’d transferred from a private school to a public school, and I got to the public school and I was just like, “Holy shit. This is overwhelming.” Like, I felt like I was going to get beat up all the time. I was kind of like a punk rock kid with a mohawk and stuff.

(KK): I could see that.

(MS): Yeah, it sucks. Right? Yeah, you’re a target if you’re walking around as a punk rock kid. And I just got really gripped and I wouldn’t leave the house and I got terrible agoraphobia. So, they enrolled me in this program. And the program sorta helped me and I just really, was like, “Oh this is it.” Like, I’d climbed some before that, but as soon as I was able to go climbing regularly, it was clear that that’s what I wanted to do. So, I got heavily into it and probably around the time I was sixteen or seventeen—I mean, this was the eighties. People were emaciated. You know? You’d pick up the magazines—it was definitely even worse than it is now. And I think it’s still a thing now. No one talks about it, but obviously, it’s still a thing.

(KK): What Matt is referring to is the relationship between body image, weight and performance climbing. There was, and still is, this misconception that people have to be skinny or a specific weight in order to climb well. And I am neither confirming nor denying that doughnuts probably don’t actually help you send, and things like strength-to-weight ratios can be critical physical benchmarks for climbers with bigger goals. But there are good ways and bad ways to get there, which Matt had to learn. And—he did.

(MS): I think Christian Griffith came to Albuquerque and he was one of the first Americans to go over to Buoux, France and climb. And he did a slide show and he had all of these photos of him and he wanted to do this route, Chouca. And he talked about dealing with his own eating disorder and having to get really skinny for this route. And I think it was Jean Tribout, who was the leading sport climber at the time, at one point told Christian that he was too heavy to do Chouca. So, Christian goes on these crazy diets at the crag eating these little ziplock baggies full of dried oats and milk powder or something. They were choosing starvation rations in order to do these routes. And they did—they came back having done all these 13d’s and c’s and 14a’s—like, stuff that was really cutting edge at the time. And I remember seeing this slideshow and I don’t think Christian was necessarily espousing having an eating disorder, but it certainly was on the table. And same with that article—if you can go back and find that article of Climbing, you know, it’s a pretty seminal article, because it was one of the first ones that sort of introduced the whole concept of European sport climbing to American readers.

But I remember I just sorta was like, “Oh. Ok.” And I really, around age sixteen or seventeen, started eating in a fucked up way. Like, starved myself for four or five days, then binge and overeat. You know, food limiting. Just kinda the standard stuff. And yeah, I kept it pretty well hidden—I think my parents suspected to a degree because my mother had had an eating disorder. But I kind of hid it. And I did that for a long time. And then I moved up here to Boulder in the early nineties. And, you know, it’s like we were talking about—Boulder’s a pretty overwhelming, concentrated climbing culture with lots of very good climbers. And I remember my freshman year in college, I think I dropped down to a hundred and twenty-five pounds. I was the wrong weight for a male who’s five foot seven and, you know, I’m kind of a stocky Russian guy. I don’t think I knew how fucked up I was. I would look in the mirror and I was like, “Yeah, I still gotta lose a little weight.” I don’t know what I woulda lost, you know? But I think just years of the bad eating and my weight bouncing around, by that following fall, I started getting really bad anxiety and I started to have panic attacks.

(KK): If you’ve never had a panic attack before, it is really hard to know what it’s like. I definitely remember my first and only one:

(heart beating rapidly)

my heart was racing, I was flushed and lightheaded. I thought I was having a stroke or a heart attack and I remember being on the phone with a friend at the time, who assured me in a very calm voice: “You are ok. You aren’t having a heart attack.” (Later, only to tell me that he totally thought I was having a heart attack.) But the important thing to know is: you’re not going to die, even though you might feel like you will. The hard thing to know is that it can take years of therapy, education, and understanding the cause before you can really grasp what’s going on.

(MS): It’s horrible. Yeah, it’s a horrible thing and then you kind of quake in fear at the specter of it. Yeah, I think the first one I had, I was on the Stairmaster at the health club where I was living and I just kind of went too hard. And I came home and I was kind of dizzy and sweating and I just started sort of hyperventilating without realizing it, freaking out. I’d almost kind of died of dehydration a couple of months before that, so I was like, “Oh! I’m really dehydrated again.” I called the ambulance

(ambulance siren)

and they took me in and I was completely fine. And the nurse was like, you know, they’re ER nurses—they’re annoyed when you come in for a panic attack. ‘Cause I’m sure they see a lot of drug-seeking behavior malingering, and she just kind of kicked me out on my ass. She was like, “You had a panic attack. Get out of here.” And I was like, “What the fuck is a panic attack? I don’t know what that is.” You know, but I was really freaked out and I went home—I think it happened right before Christmas break. I went home over Christmas break and I didn’t leave my room. I didn’t want to exercise ‘cause I didn’t want to get my heart rate up, like, I was just terrified of stimulation. And I had to work through that. I stayed in college and I went back, started therapy. And at that same time, I also started to see a psychiatrist, which I think was the, you know, the biggest mistake I made.

This was the nineties and this was the whole listening to Prozac, all these SSRI’s are new—like, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, you know? There’s all these quote, unquote new cleaner anti-depressants and drugs like that. And I sort of bought into that whole myth—that you need those, you know, because of these quote, unquote chemical imbalances or you need these in addition to talk therapy. If I could go back now, you know, twenty-six years ago, I would say: go to therapy—but clean up your diet, do yoga, stay the fuck away from those quote, unquote medications because they’re gonna unravel you down the road. But that was sort of my entry point into psychiatry.

At that same time, you know, I think I started to take Paxil, which is an anti-depressant. But the doctor also gave me Ativan, and he was good and thoughtful about it and he said, “Only take these as needed. You don’t want to take them every day. If you’re having a really high anxiety day or you can’t sleep—take these.” And I kind of kept that relationship with them, but I also noticed I had an affinity for these drugs. But I don’t think that that’s unique. You know? I don’t believe necessarily that there’s an addictive personality or that if you’ve abused other substances you’re going to latch onto it. I mean, so much of it is biochemical. Like, take a Mormon grandmother who’s never had a drink in her life and you can give her these drugs for two weeks and she will be physically addicted. And they sink their hooks in you—they work on you on a neurochemical level, and sort of no matter how strong a proclivity you have towards substance abuse, at a certain point, your body will need them in order to not go to into withdrawal.

I definitely noticed an affinity for them—I liked that they knocked out anxiety because—who wants to feel anxiety, you know? Nobody. It’s horrible. You know, I didn’t always just use them—I definitely sometimes would stockpile them and take more than I needed, or I would kind of ask the doctor for more. You know, I’d get into that kinda behavior. And then, my senior year in college, someone I know was getting Valium and I just don’t think I really knew the dangers, but I started really abusing Valium. Like, going to raves and, I don’t know, it was just this nihilistic period, you know. A bunch of us were in on it and became really addicted and then stopped, cold turkey.

(KK): Going cold turkey means quitting abruptly, with no weaning period and no professional help. Most people assume that they can stop using a drug just as easily as they started taking it, but that’s not the case with benzodiazepines. Going cold turkey is a shock to the system. It puts your body into overdrive while your brain tries to reset its normal neurotransmitter production levels. And what we’re trying to say is: when it comes to tapering, you cannot stop cold turkey. It’s really risky. People can have seizures, convulsions, paranoia. They’ve had heart attacks. It can even trigger psychosis. Benzo withdrawal has even been linked to death, as reported by the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology.

(MS): And that’s what it did to me. I stopped taking them and three or four days later, I stopped sleeping and I was like, “I’m losing my fuckin’ mind.” I didn’t know what was going on; I didn’t know that I was taking so much of these drugs—I think I was sometimes taking eight or ten a night—that I needed to taper. And because I was young and physically strong—my body could withstand it. Fortunately, I didn’t die. But, yeah, I really lost my mind for three, four, five days—something like that. I was hearing my voice kind of being called out from random places in the sky, seeing things, not sleeping, felt like the ground was kind of made out of tar—like when you walk on a really hot street in the summer? And ended up going to my therapist. I finally admitted what had happened and he’s like, “Oh. You can’t do that.” And I ended up in Boulder Community Hospital. I got free of all that, but I should have known then. It took me months to feel better again. And that time, I was only twenty-two or twenty-three.

(KK): That’s scary when you’re that young.

(MS): Yeah, it was not a good experience. Because you just wonder, “Am I gonna sorta be out of mind for the rest of my life?” or “What’s going to happen?” But yeah, it took a really long time to heal. I moved to Europe and my sleep was all fucked up and then I had jet lag and then I wasn’t sleeping. That initial experience, I remember some nights I wouldn’t fall asleep til, three, four, five a.m., you know, just—it totally messes up your biorhythms. So, I dealt with that then, and then I stayed away from those drugs, for the most part, for a while. But then, I moved back to Boulder in ’97 or ’98. And I’d been clear of all psych meds and I was feeling anxious again, I think, probably because I was really skinny ‘cause I’d been climbing at Rifle. Got back on Paxil and then back on benzos, and then I started taking them daily and, you know, I just don’t know how complicit I am. I mean, a part of me was probably like, “Hey, cool. I don’t have to deal with this anxiety problem anymore.” There was no long term thinking. But, at the same time, the doctor, you would hope, would be aware enough to think that, “Here’s this guy in his mid-twenties. He can’t be on these things all his life. We have to figure something else out.” And we never really did.

But, over time on those, you know, I was taking two milligrams of Ativan—so it was one milligram twice a day. Over time, my anxiety started to get worse and worse. And what happens with these drugs is you go into something called “tolerance withdrawal”, which is where you basically have built a tolerance to your dose, which means your body is kind of in an acute state of need of a higher dose. So, you have withdrawal-like symptoms, but you mistake those for a worsening of the condition that you’re trying to treat. So, I would have much worse anxiety, horrible panic attacks, sleep issues. But, you just sort of accept it and, I mean, the mainstream narrative is that some of us are born with chemical imbalances and that we need to treat them all our life with drugs—which I don’t believe to be true. But, I didn’t know at that point to really do any sort of deeper research. You go to doctors—you trust doctors—and then, after they damage you, that’s usually when you find out they actually don’t know what they’re doing. And a lot of them are taking big pharma-money or they’re not really researching the drugs they’re giving out and, you know, that these pharmaceutical studies are totally skewed. It’s a for-profit industry and the best way to make money off of you is to keep you perpetually sick and to keep you perpetually yolked to their chemicals.

You know, it certainly could have been on me to get in more of the bullshit—you know, but a lot of the bullshit was me. So, I wasn’t mature enough to face it. I was like, “I’m a climber.”—I was doing a lot of risky stuff, I didn’t want that to change, you know, I was smoking a lot of pot. I was taking these pills. It was comfortable. It was warm. It was cozy. You don’t want to get yanked out of that. You don’t want to be told, “Hey—you’re going to have to go through years of horrible fucking withdrawal and you’re going to have to suffer.” And—no. You’re like, “I’ll just stay here. I’m good!” You know? I mean, and I’m sure there’s a lot of denial about having a problem, anyway. But, you know, there’s this whole kind of oleo of different things. It was like, prescribed drugs, psych meds, my own drug abuse, the risks I was taking out climbing—at that point, I was doing a lot of high ball problems and free soloing and long things alone in the mountains. So, I think if anyone could have extricated from that, it would have been me.

You know, over the years I’ve built a tolerance to those pills, and then you start to get something called “interdose withdrawal”, which is withdrawal symptoms between each pill. And I was just sorta living on this roller coaster of like, I’d take the pill—I’d feel pretty good, and then it would wear off and I’d have horrible anxiety and I just couldn’t…I never, I don’t know why I never put two and two together. I’d be like, “Every day around two, I have horrible anxiety.” and it didn’t occur to me—I’d take the pill at like, nine when I wake up, or eight. It wears off by one and at two, I need another pill. I was just like, “I don’t know. At two, I get really anxious.”

You know, so it just kept worsening and worsening and worsening, and then eventually working with this doctor, my dose of these benzos climbed until it was four times what it had originally been. Until I was taking four Klonopin a day, and then there was like two of the big Xanax, which was the equivalent of the amount of Valium I’d been abusing. And then I began to take a bunch of Vikatin, too. I mean, it all just kind of came to a head. I was like,  “Ok. No more.” Like, I was fat and moody and not really anchored in reality and angry a lot of the time and couldn’t climb and I’d sort of lost everything. So, I was like, “I gotta get off these drugs.” So, I got off the opiates myself—and the benzos, I was like, “I’ll work with this doctor to taper.” And I was like, “It shouldn’t be too bad. Maybe these aren’t as bad as the opiates.” And I just had no idea. So, in 2005 I began to taper—going pretty rapidly, but at that point, you know, I’d been on them every day for seven years. There wasn’t much information. There’s a lot of information on the internet now.

(KK): The “Ashton Manual”, which is available online, gives an overview of what benzodiazepines do to your body, how to withdraw from them, and offers tapering schedules. It also describes the problems with the cold turkey/withdrawal method and gives acute and protracted symptoms. In addition, there are Facebook groups that can help you figure out how to titrate your drugs and how to taper slowly and safely.

(MS): People now, when they find the support, they go really slowly and a lot of them do ok. But I didn’t, and I went really quickly and it just turned into this absolute nightmare because as I tapered, again—I had that nervous system hyperarousal and all of these horrible symptoms, and I’m going to this psychiatrist and he’s saying: “It sounds like you’re bipolar. It sounds like you’re having mixed states,” which is a cross between depression and mania. We were trying these other different antidepressants and mood stabilizers, and you know, the thing is, all I was was chemically sick. And more chemicals were being poured on and this led to these sham diagnoses. Ended up in, you know, it was three different psych wards that fall and at certain points, I was on five or six different medications that I didn’t need. And by the time I left the last hospital, they’d gotten me off of benzos, but I left there on Lithium which is a horrible, terrible drug—and really dangerous if you’re a climber because it gets in your bloodstream and if you get dehydrated, you can get lithium toxicity. So, I mean, completely risky for the kind of life we like to lead.

I was on Neurontin, which there’s been a huge lawsuit over the company. I forget who made it, but they were just pushing it on dementia patients and they were pushing it on everyone for anything. So, it was just sorta this catch-all drug. It was like, “Oh you don’t feel good? Take Neurontin.” So, I ended up on that and a really dirty old antidepressant—a tricyclic antidepressant. They’re the ones that cause heart problems and heart palpitations and dry mouth and dizziness—like, these old, dirty drugs from the fifties and sixties. I’d finally started to do my own research to read a lot of these anti-psychiatry books and things like that. And I was like, “I’m pretty fucked. Like, if what these books say is true, I’ve dug a really deep hole here. Or, a really deep hole has been dug.”

And I came out of that hospital and I flew back here to Boulder and I was alone over Christmas and I tapered the Lithium, I tapered the Neurontin, and then nine months later, I tapered the antidepressant. And meanwhile, I was in the throes of acute benzodiazepine withdrawal. I mean, it’s just, it’s really hard to describe, but it was way worse and has been way more terrifying than anything I’ve ever encountered out climbing. I mean, one of the worst things I’ve encountered. I mean, I’ve spoken to other people who’ve been through it: people who’ve lost their children, people who’ve survived cancer—this was worse (big sigh). For a year and a half, I probably only slept for two or three hours a night: auditory hallucinations, hyperacusis, which is just your senses are too sort of finely attuned—so bright light really hurt, strong smells are really overwhelming, obsessive thoughts, sweats, shaking, tremor, muscle weakness, heart palpitations, tinnitus—you know, that ringing in your ears. There’s lists of hundreds of symptoms and when you’re in acute withdrawal, you’ll have dozens of them at once.

(KK): It must have felt endless to you.

(MS): Oh, it did, and it still does—because I still deal with it. But yeah, there’s nowhere to hide. I think that’s the big problem. Imagine that you’ve just topped out a really long alpine route and you’re on a summit with no trees and you’re in the middle of a lightning storm? It’s that sort of feeling—except constantly. Especially when you can’t sleep, because sleep, at least, is some sort of psychic relief. You’re like, “I can have dreams and I’m not going to be in pain when I’m asleep.” But sometimes I didn’t even get to sleep. It’s a lot better now. A lot of people who go through this, what I’ve seen and talking to people and what you read about—is there are a lot of suicides. And there’s also a lot of people who don’t escape because they continue to believe the conventional narrative—that this is the return of your original problem. You know, they’re in this state that is indescribably bad—way beyond anything they’ve ever experienced and they’re still going to their doctor whom they trust, and the doctor’s like, “Oh. This is just who you are.” and people lose hope and they end up believing the doctor’s rhetoric and they end up poly-drugged.

I mean, we’re so complex—all of us. There’s so much been written about this, almost all of it is trauma—childhood trauma. Like, people disassociate, they get lost in their own thoughts. And all these fucking imaging studies where they’re: this is the brain of a schizophrenic, this is the brain of a depressed person. It’s all horse shit. They don’t know. They don’t know the barest thing about the human brain, much less the soul. I mean, the psyche and the soul. Psychiatry is so rigorous in this sort of chemical approach to things. It just doesn’t account for anything else. A lot of people find their way to these drugs through general practitioners—people who don’t even have any experience with helping someone who’s in emotional distress. You know, things like that. And I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault in particular, but I think there is also a lot of greed and evil. There’s definitely a lot of complicity, too. You know, it’s like if you do a lot of research the way these drugs are marketed and tested—and the way that they present the fact that we all quote, unquote need these drugs. I mean, everyone makes their own decision, but you know, you watch the nightly news and they’re pushing psychotropic medications on people. You know, us and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world with direct consumer advertising for pharmaceuticals. I mean, a lot of the motivation is profit—it’s not helping people. And you know, maybe this drug helps one person—maybe it gives twenty other people awful side effects—like, kills their liver.

(KK): Or ruins their lives.

(MS): It ruins their life, like mine, yeah. It’s completely changed the trajectory of my life. And you know, I think a lot of these doctors, these psychiatrists, maybe believe they’re helping—but their toolbox sucks. You know? Their toolbox is full of poison.

Until I started to really have acute tolerance problems and things like that, I was pretty functional. Like, I was somehow functional, you know. But when they really stopped working and when I was totally strung out—my anxiety was crippling. I had to leave a job—I was working at Rock and Ice at the time—and I had to leave. I was like, “Maybe this job’s giving me this anxiety.” And then I left and the anxiety was still there. Like, 2006, when I was incredibly sick one month out of the hospital, I took a job back at Climbing. Jonathan Thesenga came back on as editor and he hired me and I was like, “Well. I’m really sick.” And I told him and he’s like, “Yeah, I want you there.” And I was like, “Well, maybe the structure will help.” And it has. You know, for a while there, it took me a while, like, you really have to bring your brain back online, too. Like, you know, when I was acutely sick, which was over Christmas 2005 into the new year, 2006, I couldn’t do much more than watch television. And even that, I had trouble comprehending it. It was often too disturbing for me. Like, you’re really, really sensitive. I was just reading stupid little articles in dumb magazines, like Parade Magazine. And then, over the months I was able to start to read stuff in the New Yorker again, and then I was able to read books again. But your attention span is just shattered because you’re in so much pain and so much information’s coming at you. So, you know, in the face of all that, it was certainly hard to work, and still can be, but I find it also gives me at least some structure, something that’s sort of outside of the suffering that lets me reorder my mind.

(KK): Professionally, it was hugely disruptive. It affected Matt’s jobs and relationships ended over it. In 2007, Matt met Kristin, his wife, and told her what he was going through. By then, he had begun to heal. But then, he got sick again in 2013.

(MS): I was freelance at that point, and luckily most of my work was at home and I was able to just, like, “Ok. You’ve been through this before.” and just get the work done. You know, but how does it affect me now, on a day-to-day basis? There’s days, sometimes when I still have to go home early, mid-afternoon ’cause I feel too sick. You know, and I’ll go home and I’ll lie there and maybe take a twenty-minute nap which I’m really lucky to be able to do. That’s the other fucking torture, too, is when you can’t sleep, you also can’t nap. So, at one point, I remember—I think some of the worst periods—I would go a week without sleeping. I couldn’t even nap during the day. But now, at least, I can go home and take a nap and then feel a little bit better afterwards. It really was hugely disruptive and when I had the setback, it was really disruptive too, because our son was only a year and a half at that point. And then, a year and a half later, our second son came along.

(KK): He’s not sleeping, you’re not sleeping!

(MS): Yeah! Exactly. You know, you have the logistics of having two kids, the stress it puts on a marriage. I also got very, very sick then. My immune system kind of went south on me, probably because of the stress of going into a setback again and, you know, the kids bring home viruses and stuff. And I got so sick. You know, definitely, during various points of this, I’ve had to quit climbing. And not just for a like week: “Oh, my fingers are kinda sore.” It’s like, a year, a year and a half. And at the worst, I think in 2015, I didn’t climb for about a year and a half. I couldn’t. I mean, at one point, I was too weak to even walk around the block. So, this stuff—it lays you out, and until you get better, you have to sort of restructure your life around it. And it’s very variable, too. You don’t know how you’re going to feel on any given day, so it’s hard to sort of like, lock into plans. I mean, I don’t really ask people for support. All I ask at this point is that they believe me. That’s all I care about. That’s the one thing I can’t fucking deal with. It’s like, when people don’t believe me, again—I don’t need to be validated. I just need to not have to defend myself.

(KK): Not that it’s necessarily important to Matt that people empathize with what he goes through, but it does provide a context in which he has to operate—and when he comes up against people who don’t believe him or worse, use it against him, it not only impedes his healing, but it can also be infuriating.

(MS): There’s nothing wrong with mental distress. It’s there for a reason. I mean, that’s the thing I’ve learned through all this—through trying to chase these dragons of treating it. There’s a reason we feel these things, right? I mean, there’s a reason that people have psychotic breaks. It’s trauma or some sort of dissonance in their life. Or maybe someone put LSD in their orange—you know, I mean, things can go south. And there’s a reason people get incredibly depressed or anxious. I mean, look at how we live—it’s out of whack with nature. And, I mean, I think, as climbers, in particular, we understand that. As a climber, you can go outside and you feel really good simply because of where you are and what you’re doing. And we’re incredibly lucky to have that, right? And I think that is mostly what people felt until the Industrial Revolution. You were outside, you were moving your body, you were connected to the earth. I mean, we’re animals and we have this sort of non-animalistic way of living and all these rules that we’re supposed to follow. And then, there’s countries and places in the world where people are a lot happier, but America is completely fucked up. I mean, I just don’t know how you could live here and not be depressed or anxious—unless your head is up your ass and you’re not paying attention to what’s going on and you’re not informed. I mean, it’s a travesty, right? I mean, modern life is kind of a travesty. Like, the things that I have to think about are whether my children are going to be shot at a playground or going to a mall. That’s not right. And how could you be aware of these things in the world and not feel anxious?

So, what I’ve learned is it’s a very natural and almost a healthy thing, you know. There’s a reason we feel what we feel, and if you try to medicate that away—the feelings won’t go away, but the manifestation of them in your body will go away—while the drugs are working. And then, when the drugs stop working or when the drugs make you really sick, you’ll be dealing with chemical withdrawal and unresolved emotional issues. You know? It’s just, it’s really hard. And I mean, you know, I don’t think that the climbing community is necessarily any better or worse than other communities. I mean, obviously, there’s a lot of darkness in it and a lot of people I think sort of use climbing as a catharsis, but, you know, might as well—could be shuffleboard (laughs). I don’t know. I mean, I think it’s just one more tool that people use to escape, and it’s just sort of hard to blame people for wanting to escape.

So, you know, I think, yeah, I mean, some of what I did—I triggered these panic responses in my body by starving myself. But I think a lot of it, too, is just at least for me, is having an outlook in which, you know, I’m trying to pay attention to the world around me. And the more you pay attention, sometimes the harder it is to not feel darkness.

(KK): It can be difficult to pick up the phone and ask for help, but calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always free and confidential. If you experience suicidal thoughts and don’t know who to talk to, call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. That’s 1-800-273-8255 to be connected to a trained counselor at a suicide crisis center nearest you.

– Even though I still have no idea what I’m doing—things are happening. And if you’d like to help out and support this podcast, please check out patreon.com (that’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N) where you can sponsor us for as little as $1 per episode. It really helps keep this podcast going, and I’m so grateful for all of your help. Special shout out to Cameron MacAlpine because he makes this thing sound good.

– You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. A huge thank you to Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, and a big thank you to Gnarly Nutrition for supporting this podcast and the messages that we share. Gnarly Nutrition supports a community of vulnerability and equality—and tastes like a milkshake, without all the crap. And a big shout out to Roaming Ingenuity, a team of outdoor enthusiasts and tinkerers based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Support companies who support this podcast—we couldn’t do it without them. If you liked what you heard, you can leave a review on iTunes or give us a like—like all good things, you can find us on the internet. Until next time.


Resources for you and/or loved ones:

The Ashton Manual contains information about the effects that benzodiazepines have on the brain and body and how these actions are exerted, as well as detailed suggestions on how to withdraw after long-term use and individual tapering schedules for different benzodiazepines are provided.

World Benzodiazepine Awareness is solely an activism and awareness effort and its mission and objectives focus on public education and awareness alone. Their website contains general information about medical conditions and treatments. The information is not advice, and should not be treated as such. World Benzodiazepine Awareness educates communities on the dangers of prescribed benzodiazepines.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)‘s mission is to advance science on the causes and consequences of drug use and addiction and to apply that knowledge to improve individual and public health.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) is an international non-profit membership organization (with more than 1,800 professional mental health members) and a leader in education, training, and research for anxiety, depression and related disorders.  More than 38 million people from around the world visit the ADAA website annually to find current treatment and research information and to access free resources and support.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online or by calling 1-800-273-8255.

These institutions, many of which study anxiety disorders, can provide information on the nature of these conditions and how to cope with them.

7: Why Not Now

Fact: fear stops so much of what we do. But after one life-altering day in the Gunks, Caitlin stopped putting things on hold and made some big changes because she saw what happens when you lose the chance—when you always think, “I’ll do it later.” and then later doesn’t exist.

This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Gnarly Nutrition, Roaming Ingenuity, and Dirtbag Climbers. Music by: “Jazzy Frenchy”, “Cute”, and “Funny Song” by bensound.com, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, “Trippin at the Party” and “Pives and Flarinet” by Podington Bear, “Brave” by Borrtex, “The Flight of Lulu” by Possimiste, “Southside” by Lee Rosevere, and “Twinkle Twinkle” by David Mumford.

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Transcript:

(KATHY KARLO): This podcast is sponsored by Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, but most importantly–your snacks. Deuter is known for fit, comfort, and ventilation. Stay tuned for a new line of women’s climbing packs, coming out any day. I can’t tell you which one, but stay tuned for more about Gravity SL line–made by women, for women.

Deuter has a history of first ascents and alpine roots. Their head of product development even climbed Everest once, in jeans (hashtag not fake news.) Founded in 1898, Deuter believes in good fitting backpacks, so you can focus on way cooler things like puppies, pocket bacon, and gettin’ sendy, whether at the crag or in the alpine.

– We’re working with Better Help to connect you to licensed therapists because even though my advice and opinions are free, I am improvising the whole thing. Better Help lets you message a licensed therapist, day or night. They’ll match you with the perfect therapist for a fraction of the cost of traditional therapy. You know who goes to therapy? Prince Harry. Emma Stone. Jenny Slate. Kesha. Therapy is beautiful—everyone should go to therapy. Go to betterhelp.com/climbing to sign up and receive one free week. It helps support this show, and it helps support you.

– This podcast gets support from Gnarly Nutrition, one of the leading protein supplements that tastes “whey” better than they need to, because they use quality natural ingredients. So, whether you’re a working mom who runs circles around your kids on weekends or an unprofessional climber trying to send that 5.13 in the gym, Gnarly Nutrition has all of your recovery needs. The only question you need to ask yourself is: Are you a sucker for anything that tastes like chocolate ice cream? (Yeah, me neither.) Gnarly Nutrition is designed to enhance your progress—and taste like a milkshake, without all the crap.

– Have you ever cut an exterior hole in your van? Me neither. Building out a van can be hard work, not to mention that table saws have a funny way of leaving you with fewer fingers than you started with. (We’ll ask Tommy Caldwell all about it when he returns my emails.) I really can’t be trusted with power tools since a drywall incident in 2005—but Mark and Anthony can. Roaming Ingenuity is a team of outdoor enthusiasts and tinkerers based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Whether you are looking for a custom van build, or just need a little help with installing a roof vent, they can help. PS—I never actually emailed Tommy Caldwell.

(CAITLIN MAKARY): Every step of this till now—it’s all new. I mean, working with another facility—that’s new. I’ve never done that before. This is the first time—we’ll figure it out. I was definitely pretty anxious about the break in delivery service from my kitchen shut down because we never missed a delivery since we started—no matter what was going on. Didn’t matter the weather, the staff, someone was sick—we always delivered.

(city traffic in background)

(FEMALE NEWSCASTER): Santizo was one of a hundred and eighty-five small business owners from bakers to chocolatiers who work out of the 200,000 square foot shared commercial kitchen. But now, she and other tenants can’t fill their orders. Many of these startups say they’re still scrambling to find a new workspace and this could put some out of business. Others worry about the ripple effect this closure will have on the entire local food industry. In Bushwick, Brooklyn. Natalie Duddridge, CBS2 News.

(CM): So obviously, that hurt really bad to feel like I was unreliable to people or they were expecting something that they didn’t get. My accounts have been massively understanding. It’s been so nice and really reaffirms to me the type of people that I work with. Because I do know a lot of other small food producers that sell to bigger companies—and not that size is a problem. You know, you look at Newman’s Own—that’s an amazing company that’s a big company. Patagonia: I think their hearts are totally in the right places. So, it’s not about a size thing; it’s about an intent—like, the intention of the company. And so, I’m just always trying to be aware of what our intentions are, how we’re getting bigger, and so, you know, I hope that I can just kind of keep that guideline there. But yeah, I don’t know. We’ll see what happens. It’s kind of crazy that it’s just that—like, it’s just banana bread.

(KK): Ok, so if you’re wondering what banana bread has to do with rock climbing…well, maybe nothing. Maybe everything? Let me back up. Caitlin Makary is a climber and the founder of DANK Brooklyn, a company that she started in 2016 with no prior experience and only eight thousand dollars to her name. But she wasn’t always a climber and she didn’t always own a banana bread empire. For a decade, Caitlin has worked in corporate fashion and clothing design. She has done everything, from factory sewing to selling vintage clothes to designing clothes for puppets. So, how do you go from working in corporate fashion for ten years to…banana bread? And again, what does becoming an entrepreneur have to do with climbing?

(CM): I had all these other business guiding points that I looked at for different reasons. Like, one of them is that company Baggu. Emily Sugihara, the founder, and I actually interned together at Proenza Schouler when we were both in our early twenties. And when I had heard that she started this company, at the time I’m still working in design and I was a little bit like, “Oh. That’s—I mean, that’s cool that she has her own company, but it’s just like a bag.” I thought that, you know, as a designer, you’re like, “I’m going to be making all these different garments and people are going to be wearing my clothes.” But she just did everything about that in the perfect way. It was before everyone and their mom was offering a free tote bag with stuff. It was when people were starting to realize that using plastic bags wasn’t a great idea. She made this single item in a bunch of different colors that she could probably source pretty readily. She understood the manufacturing aspect of clothing design and so, she could get it done. And because it’s dead simple, you don’t need to have things in size buckets. And she’s expanded the company a million times over since then, but just having an idea where it was the right time for the market and it was an accessible price point. I mean, everybody has Baggu stuff. It’s so ubiquitous. You see it walking around the city in New York every single day, and to have that much product that you put out there—that’s huge.

That was one of the companies where I’m like, “You just have to keep it really simple ‘cause you’re not going to be able to afford a lot of stuff at the beginning.” And so, having it be one item was really the only way that it worked for me—and that only worked because I wasn’t a baker. I know other bakers who have businesses that are trying to go after the wholesale market. So, when they have a sales meeting, someone will be like, “Oh—well, could you also do a corn muffin?” or “Could you also give me a croissant or something?” And they’ll say yes ‘cause they wanna make the sale—and I would have said yes, too. But I couldn’t—‘cause I didn’t know how to do any of that shit. So, I was like, “Oh—banana bread’s our specialty! It’s really just the thing that we’re best at.” And then, you know—go from there. But having it be so streamlined for me was the only way to make it work. Because I wouldn’t have been able to juggle the rest of that stuff.

(KK): Yeah. Also, who eats corn muffins?

(CM): (laughs) Well, they’re good with chili.

(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.

– Caitlin and I started climbing around the same time when we were both living in Brooklyn, New York. For Caitlin, it was like flipping a switch. She loved every aspect of climbing—she loved being outside and learning new skills, and climbing taught her that she wasn’t fully happy unless she was trying new things and being challenged. Caitlin learned how to trad climb in the Gunks, which is where she and her partner, Casey, were on November fifteenth—the same day as Heidi.

(CM): I was talking about it with one of my bakers just last week. And so, somehow that story had come up. And we were driving to the train and he asked me about it. He wanted to know more about it—if I hadn’t minded talking about it. And I told him, “Dude, this changed everything for me.” Along with a couple other things that happened: I had an uncle that summer that passed away super suddenly. He’s in his late sixties but he was a pilot, and you know, would have regular checkups every six months. He was always healthy—didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, active, everything. Goes to the hospital for chest pains and he died three days later and no one saw that coming. It was a really horrible, very unexpected situation. So, those two in the same year—it was just like, it just made me look at everything in my life because at that time, I had been a designer at Nautica for seven years and I was in a relationship about the same amount of time. And I honestly just wasn’t happy with any of it. I wasn’t happy at work. I had moved up a lot in the company—I was started out as an assistant designer and by the time I left, I was the senior woven’s designer for the entire international and American divisions.

(KK): So, just kind of a big deal.

(CM): (laughs) I mean, I had a boss there for the first five years that I just loved. And so, that was why it worked for me. She’s the person I look at now whenever I’m trying to be a good boss to my employees ‘cause she was one of a couple that I’ve had that are amazing. And so, that was really worth it for me ‘cause that company’s a lot more conservative than I would normally go to, but with her, it kind of worked. And so, there was that. But I mean, I was even up for the design director position and I went to school for fashion design! Like, I was working in my industry. You know, my grandfather was a steel mill worker in Pittsburgh and had six kids and would still come home after a twelve hour day and be present as a father, and it’s like, I feel like I’m being a little bitch. I’m working in my field. Like what else do I want kind of a thing? You know, it was a very cooperate company, but I’d worked high end before, too—and there’s pros and cons to both. And I just didn’t know if I was being a baby. I’m like, people would kill for this job. It’s safe, I get paid all the benefits, like whatever, it’s great. Technically.

And then, my friends over the years had been getting married. You’re kind of taught to assume that you’ll get married—not even expect it or want it, but it’s just something that happens in life. At one point, you get married. At one point, you have kids. And I was totally on that track. Like, there was one time when I was not not trying to have kids ‘cause I was in my late twenties, I’d been with my partner for five or six years at that point, I love kids—I love being around them—and I’d just think, “Ok. This is kind of the time in life when you do this thing.” And so, I wasn’t not trying and it was just luck that I didn’t get pregnant then because that year my sister got really ill and moved in with me and so I helped get her healthy over the next year and a half. And having that level of responsibility for another person made me realize that I didn’t think that I wanted kids. And I would have just done it otherwise.

So, all these different factors are basically looking at what’s expected of you. I had a great job, I had a good person—it just wasn’t working for me. And I had to decide whether or not I felt like those concerns were valid. The experience with Heidi in the Gunks and my uncle—I just thought, “You know what? They are valid. I’m not happy. It doesn’t matter that it looks good to somebody else or that I should feel happy according to someone else. I’m not.” Climbing was so integrated in the reasons why I decided to change everything in my life. And everything changed.

(KK): Heidi Duartes Wahl was considered one of the strongest female climbers from Chile and she was living in New York at the time. She and her partner were starting up the infamous Yellow Wall, a 5.11 Gunks classic, when she took a fatal ground fall on the 5.7 pitch. Heidi wore a helmet that day and took a twenty-foot fall that any of us could have easily taken, which is maybe one of the hardest parts of her story to reckon with. This tragic accident affected so many people, as tragic deaths will so often do, but it also did something else. It sparked a change in a complete stranger’s life and sent Caitlin on a new path that would change—and continue to change—her life, forever.

(CM): While we’re up on the wall, someone comes running down the trail yelling that there was an accident. And so, we simul-rapped off and Casey ran ahead while I pulled the rope because we didn’t where or what had happened, and so we didn’t know if we were going to have to climb to someone and get them off the wall. Once I pulled the rope and I started running down that trail, I somehow realized that she was on the ground, so I just ditched everything as I was going. And then we get there and she was getting CPR from one of the rangers. And I knew her partner—not well, but I knew him. And so, they told us all to just stay there and wait because the paramedics were gonna come and they were going to need help getting her off the trail ’cause it was up a steep approach trail that was covered in leaves and everything. And so, we waited and it just really looked bad. I’d never seen an accident before like that and her hand was just paper white. They were doing CPR the entire time, but it just didn’t look—I mean, she definitely was unconscious, but I couldn’t really tell other than that what was going on. And weirdly—didn’t really feel anything. And I remember thinking about that—just thinking, “Why am I not freaking out right now? This is kind of crazy.”

And so, the paramedics get there and we put her on a board and then, basically, all the hikers and climbers that had gathered around stood shoulder to shoulder and passed it down the trail and then I helped put her in the truck. I remember seeing her harness laying on the ground and it was in pieces and I was just like, “Did her harness fail? What happened?” And then I realized they’d cut it off of her and the helmet, too. And Casey and I went back and all our stuff was still on the wall. So, we went up Andrew to the ledge ‘cause we had a haul bag—we were practicing hauling and everything. And we hadn’t eaten or drank anything since we’d started super early in the morning. And so, we sat down for a minute on the ledge and then I just totally lost it. That was the minute when I was just like, “This is what she wanted to be doing right now.”

You know, you don’t even think that it’s gonna look like what it does. Like, you think about falling when you climb, especially when you’re learning—it’s scary as fuck. And, you know, even when you’re good at it and you’re doing a hard climb—like, you always think about what the consequences are and you should. It’s dangerous. There’s reasons why people wear helmets and have good partners that they climb with and, you know, all that stuff. But yeah, you just don’t think about what the reality of it is gonna be. And so, that really affected me and it still does daily, I mean, I don’t think about Heidi every day anymore—but I think about it a lot.

(KK): Witnessing a traumatic death would make any human contemplate the flickering nature of life. But, it’s almost a too-easy thing to ignore in day-to-day life, when we’re busy making plans and checking Facebook statuses and thinking about which takeout place to not order from this week so that they don’t start to think you can’t read a cookbook.

“A death is considered traumatic if it occurs without warning.” That’s a pretty broad definition, and we’ve heard a lot of stories from people about loss and death but—what about grieving the death of someone…you didn’t know? Caitlin had never met Heidi before, but she had essentially witnessed her last breath of life. While the specific nature of Heidi’s death is traumatic by definition, how we process these things will inevitably always come down to how the event is experienced by the individual person. Seemingly, at first, not much in Caitlin’s life had actually changed. Big picture? She still went to work every morning, she still lived in Brooklyn, she still ate pizza and she still had to feed her cat. In between all of those moments, there was still a lot of change happening. Even if she didn’t know it. But, life went on and Caitlin didn’t stop climbing, either. Climbing and baking are directly related for her. In the past, she would bake banana bread to use to bribe friends with—that and a little gas money in exchange for rides up to the Gunks.

(CM): It started from this vegan recipe that my sister had, and I never had all the right ingredients in the house. So, I would just use what I had and substitute ingredients and just cut certain things out completely, which with baking, you’re really not supposed to do that. But I cook for myself a lot and I never bake, so it was just more that approach of, “Ok—eyeballing things and throwing them in a bowl.” But everyone always really liked it.

(KK): Fast forward a couple of years later when a new guy Caitlin had been dating one day suggested that she sell the bread. Caitlin’s response?

(CM): No. Like, how? What do you—I mean, I’m—I had no experience in food—ever. Never waitressed, never bartended, never worked in any food service industry—ever. And there’s rules for that stuff. You know, like you can’t just randomly start selling something. I’m not someone who loves baking, like, just gets a whole lot out of it. It was more just like, “I like how this tastes and my friends like it, too. So, when we don’t feel like bringing lunch to climb, we’ll just eat this instead.” (laughs). And so, yeah. I never thought about it—even considered it. And then, I started freelancing at this other job that my old boss from Nautica had basically poached me for this company and it was full-time for a while, but it was horrible. So, I was like, “I’ll give myself a year here.” ‘cause a year off is a reasonable amount of time on a resume. And so, then in that time, basically the company wasn’t doing well. They decided to cut staff and so, I kind of started thinking about the bread. ‘Cause I was like, “Well, ok—let’s pretend that this is an idea. What would I even call it? What would it look like?” I kind of looked at it from a visual standpoint just ‘cause that’s what I knew.

Then I broke up with this guy—it was insane. Like, the most traumatic crazy break up experience ever and I just went into a hole. I didn’t want to talk to anybody, I wasn’t eating properly, I lost weight. I was just in this crazy state of mind and that’s when I just like—I think I spent four days in the house. Just like, I would go to work and I’d come home and I just, in four days, created the LLC, I made a website, I did all the graphic work, got the whatever initial permits I needed and I just threw myself into work. It was just one of those moments when you’re like, “Who cares? Like, why not? Like—why not.”

(KK): It was the culmination of everything that had happened in those two years that made Caitlin really and honestly ask herself: why not? It was Heidi, it was climbing—

(CM): And also, my mom in the last couple years—and this could be literally its own podcast on its own—but my mom had to start over her life. And she, at the age of sixty, went from volunteering at a food bank to being the garde manger, which is the chef that’s responsible for all the bar items and salads and appetizers at one of the fancier restaurants I’ve ever been to. She was second guessing her worth and all the stuff that she brings to the table and her experience and I was just like, “Dude, you work on the line with men that are half your age and you’re one of their best employees.” She ended up getting another job and now she’s lead line chef at this other incredibly fancy restaurant, and she did this at sixty. So, I was like, “If she can figure that out, I think I can try it.” (laughs). Yeah. You don’t ever have to stop learning new stuff. You can literally start over whenever you feel like it (laughs). That was a really good thing to realize.

I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about why people stay at jobs that they actively hate for years—and it’s fear. And I’ve asked other bosses, I’ve asked other people along the way: “Why do you think that that happens?” ‘Cause I was right there, you know? And I was doing that exact thing myself. But it’s fear. And so, if you can get over being afraid when there’s no real danger, then that makes everything more possible. But, I have to say (just so everybody who happens to hear this knows): I don’t have kids. I don’t have anyone I’m responsible for financially. I don’t own my house; I rent. You know, there’s all these factors that made it work for me, personally. And I do know other business owners that, you know, have whole families and have different financial obligations to other things and, you know, it does change it. It doesn’t make it impossible. I know tons of people that do that. But I’ve had a very fast and light approach to it. I’m not responsible for much else besides me and my cat.

(cat meowing)

(KK): Caitlin told herself that she wasn’t going into debt over this, so if she couldn’t make it work and make ends meet, that’s it. The company’s done. But, with a little bit of moxie and a lot of grit, she put her head down and got to it. There was a parallel between entrepreneurship and climbing for her; because climbing has so many parallels to everyday life, Caitlin saw that. Having the experience of learning how to lead mentally prepared her for the challenges of becoming a business owner and a baker.

(CM): Even things like assessing risk and dealing with fear—climbing taught me so much of that. Because you get in situations when you are genuinely scared and you’re like, “Am I scared or am I in danger?” ‘cause there’s a difference—and if I’m just scared, I can work through it. That skill was valuable so many times. Like, I learned how to ride a motorcycle when I was in my thirties—I mean, I am in my thirties now. But that was scary! But I just thought about leading, you know, for the first time and I remember taking thirty minutes to build an anchor ‘cause I was so freaked out that it wasn’t going to work. And you’re like, “Ok, I can learn that. I can figure it out and I can keep myself safe and I can do it here, too.” And then, same thing with the company. It’s like, just mitigating fear and that anxiety response in your body or just dealing—having it, but just doing it anyway. You know? That has helped me in every aspect of my life.

(KK): All of that hustle has paid off. The banana bread is now sold in over forty coffee shops, climbing gyms, and stores in the greater New York City area. Caitlin created a product that people love and a company that gives back to a community that has supported her these past two years. DANK sponsors initiatives such as the New York City Adventure Film Festival, Adaptive Climbing Group, Gunks Apps, Project Girl, and more. DANK may have started as collateral for rides to the Gunks, but it’s grown to be much more than that. It’s a community. It’s a lifestyle product. It’s vegan.

(CM): We sell to thirty-five places in mostly Brooklyn and Manhattan now, but there is the Cliffs in Queens, which is awesome—love those guys! And yeah, I mean it started out just walking around and going to coffee shops and giving samples and talking to people. And it’s definitely growing all the time. Two of our newest spots are Brooklyn Roasting Company—five of their shops have the bread and The Elk in West Village just picked it up. But we have places like all the Little Skips stores in Bushwick. They’ve been around forever and the owners are amazing. They have a real family for their team, and a lot of my shops are like that—where people work there for years. Most of the time, a good metric for me, if I think the space will do well or not, is if it’s a place I genuinely just enjoy being in. If it’s a spot where I would hang out and do some work or meet up with a friend for coffee or just go there on my lunch break ‘cause it’s nice to get out of the office for a minute and be in a good space. That’s where I sell to.

Yeah, we’ve been in business since—I started the company in January 2016. The first week of sales was the first week of March in 2016. And our first account, Yours Truly: I cold called them on the very first day I did sales. And actually, the owner, Fabrizio—I introduced him to climbing and he loves it—a lot! So, (laughs) that’s been super cool. I am actually going to do a day where I reach out to my stores and see if people are interested to start climbing, ‘cause I’ve gotten a lot of questions about it from places that I sell to and people are really interested. One of my bakers wanted to come for sure, one of the managers at Happy Bones is gonna come, and I just talked to one of the managers at Sey Coffee in Bushwick and he’s interested, too. And so, I’m gonna put out a couple dates where people can come and then I can show them how it works. So, it’s been really cool that there’s been both ways. The climbing community has been ridiculously supportive of me the entire time. It’s been so cool.

(KK): We love you.

(CM): Aww! Thank you! (laughs). But like, yeah. It’s really cool to see the other side of it now, ‘cause I do have, now, a community in the food industry. It’s so cool that I get to be a part of the New York City coffee scene because I just think there’s so many genuinely creative, interesting, hardworking, and driven people in that field. So, the fact that they’re kind of getting interested in climbing has been really cool.

I’ve lived in Brooklyn since I was eighteen, so I grew up as an adult in the city and I didn’t start climbing until 2011. So, it’s really funny because when we were climbing at Brooklyn Boulders and everyone was learning and people started going outside and kind of figuring it out—like, we are the babies of the climbing scene. Because other cities, this is just what you do: everybody trad climbs, everybody’s really good at it. There’s probably just, like, the level gets ratcheted up. But, the cool thing about the New York community is that I feel like there was a second wave of it around 2010, 2011. It’s super interesting to see how it’s developed because even things like all the new gyms opening up, it’s super interesting. It’s becoming a much more widespread thing. It’s really not that much counter-culture anymore. It wasn’t even when I started, I mean, I’m not kidding myself. It’s not like it’s the seventies or even earlier or whatever. Those people were so hard (laughs) you know?

But I think that the community on a personal level is really special. I always assumed if I moved somewhere else, that climbing would be the in: that’s how you meet people, that’s how you make friends. And I know people that have moved to, you know, Colorado, to Vancouver, to California and they just say it’s not the same thing. I do think New York is a transient place. Not that many people are really from there and so people are just more open to making friends, meeting people, doing different things. And then, when you take that tier of people in that community that are adventurous and like to take risks and learn new things, it is a really special group of people. So yeah, I mean, they’ve been there for me from the beginning—like the gyms that I sell to: Brooklyn Boulders and The Cliffs, friends at GP81 opening up their new gyms. It’s really cool to see how it’s progressed over such a short amount of time.

You know, it’s cool that it’s accessible. I love climbing. I love showing people climbing. I love bringing people outdoors for the first time or putting them on their first lead, which I’ve gotten to do a couple of times. And that’s always really cool just to see people learning it. I think it’s such a valuable skillset because if you get to the point where you are climbing outside and leading, especially trad, there’s this level of care and consideration that you have to take with doing things the proper way. I feel like a lot of times, especially within certain age brackets nowadays, there’s not ever a real sense of consequence with anything because you can undo so many things, you can change so many things. I just think that making a decision and having to really stand behind it and be like, “I did this the right way. I’m positive of it. Because if I didn’t, something bad’s gonna happen.” You know, climbing teaches you that, which there’s not that much else in day-to-day normal modern life that will do that.

(KK): A few years ago, I was really struggling with my writing career. I remember calling Caitlin up—and I feel like I’m always calling her when I’m having a crisis or a business question. And she told me that there was a shift once she was able to start identifying herself as a baker. And that carried a lot of weight for me. I stopped thinking of myself as a two-bit hack wannabe, and you know what? She was right. I was a writer as much as I was a climber, as much as she was a baker.

(CM): Yeah, you don’t have to really care what other people see you as. I mean, even other people, which is funny, saw me as being a baker ‘cause I own a baking company—that seems logical. But, any time I had thought about my career now being in food service, it would just stress me out ‘cause I just don’t know that the way that I knew designing. I worked in that industry for ten years. I knew a lot about that field and I knew nothing about my new field, so.

I hope my mom’s not listening to this (laughs). So, this is probably two summers ago and it was such a really difficult time because I had come into working for DANK full-time. I had this awesome girl, Camille who, that was my first hire, who basically had been doing the baking for me while I went back to work during the day. ‘Cause at the time, we were baking between 2:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m., three nights a week. So, you can imagine just how that throws your entire life off. And at the beginning, when you have no resources and no money, everything’s hard because you just have to be super scrappy and just do most of it yourself. So, that’s where I was at and Camille got another job which was super great for her, but she had to stop baking. And so, I had a meeting with my financial advisor and was just like, “Is it ok if do this right now? Is this a good idea?”

On top of all of this, I have no money. Like, I’m paying myself a hundred dollars a week. Like, I can’t go out to a bar and buy a single beer with friends. So, one of my girlfriends is having a bachelorette party and luckily, it was in the city. But they still had this whole itinerary of different things that they wanted to do—and all of it cost money. You know, you can explain to people that you’re broke, but even if they’re your best friends, unless you’ve kind of been there recently, it’s hard to remember what it’s like and I was totally there myself when I left Nautica. I mean, that’s why—I would have quit that company minimum two years earlier, but you get comfortable with the money and it’s hard to picture cutting back. And I had cut back so hard that people my age with careers had a hard time really understanding what I meant when I was like, “I’m broke.” It’s not like, “Oh, I’m broke till I get paid next week.” It’s like, “I actually don’t have money right now.” (laughs).

So, at one point in the daytime—I don’t who started talking about doing mushrooms, but people decided that they wanted to do that. We get some. And the part of the night that I was going to do was this cruise thing. It was like a—you get on a boat. There’s a dinner component to it. It was like eighty bucks and the food was horrible—and, you know, that’s what I pay myself in a week. That was a really hard blow. Then, we spend a million hours running around Greenpoint trying to find a bar to go to. I pay the six bucks it costs to get a beer—

(cash register opening)

—which—again, this is literally knife in the heart every time I have to exchange money that night. And then, the minute I get a beer, everyone decides that they don’t feel like being there anymore.

(murmuring crowd at bar and background music playing)

Even while we’re at the bar—at the time, I’m single and this guy is chatting with me and he asks if I’m a teacher and I’m like, “No, why? Are you a teacher?” And he was like, “No, you just look like a teacher.” And I’m like—

(record scratching)

—“That’s not a compliment! Like, what the fuck is going on with this night?” I was just over it. I was over everybody. I was just so filled with anxiety, stressed, and whatever. So, my girlfriends leave and they were all going to go to one of their houses, but I was like, “I need to just go home.” I’m like kind of over everything right now.” And so, I call a cab—

(fast whistle)

(cash register opening)

—of course, more money. There you go. And when I get into the cab, I start to trip a little bit.

Ok, I’m like, “These mushrooms better kick in because something needs to happen tonight. Like, something interesting just needs to—whatever.’” (laughs). So then, I get out of the cab at my house and because I’m tripping I look at my apartment door—almost don’t recognize it because it’s so ugly and dirty looking and just horrible and I’m like, “Is this where I live?” And I walk into my house and the hallways are so scuffed and terrible and I’m just like, “Oh my god. I live in a shithole. I have no money. I can’t even afford to go out with my friends for one night. Like, what the fuck. I’m working at night. Like, what is wrong with my life right now?” And I’m in my apartment—same thing—everything just looks hideous and I just can’t deal with where I’m at in life (laughs).

And so, then, I just take a shower because I’m like, “You know what. I’m just gonna take a shower and hopefully, things will feel better.” And while I was in the shower, it started to feel a little better. I don’t know, just things kind of seemed more positive and the bathroom’s kind of steamy. And it’s so weird because in my memory, I come out of the shower and it’s all steamy and everything’s really clean and sterile, but in a comforting way, like in a 1950’s hospital where things are still homey looking but it’s very clean. It’s not like how hospitals are now. It just felt like—ok. I kind of realized that if I just kept working, like if I just put my head down and I just kept working so hard, I’d be able to work my way out of the situation. That was the first thing. And then, the second thing is because everything was all clean and white—ok, my bathroom’s not white by the way, it’s teal. So, I don’t know where the whiteness came in (laughs).

Everything was so clean and nice feeling that I had this feeling of being reborn into this role and for the first time, I’m like, “I am a baker. I just need to become a baker.” (laughs) and I go to lay down and it’s really getting late and then, after a second the money part just starts weighing on me again. And I spent the next five hours awake in my bed doing calculations on my phone calculator of whether or not I’d be able to make ends meet (laughs). So, it kind of took another turn, but it was genuinely productive. I don’t think I need to be endorsing everyone to go to drugs or anything, but it was just a genuinely productive time and it kind of just did shift my headspace a little bit about it. It wasn’t any easier or I had any more money the next day, but we did work out of it.

I still say “we” every time I talk to someone because I’m making people think it’s not just one person doing all this stuff. And now, I pay my bills, I pay my rent, I pay my insurance, I pay my employees, all the payroll taxes, workers comp insurance on that, rented the kitchen, storage. That’s all from the company. Like, all of it. That was the switch, which is kind of funny ‘cause I probably shouldn’t even be telling this in a public setting, but whatever.

(KK): I’m not cutting this.

(CM): That’s ok (laughs).

(KK): All deaths have the capacity to shatter us, to shatter our worldview. Caitlin didn’t let the incident in the Gunks shatter her, though. Instead, she took one big moment in her life and let it be part of this catalyst of change for her, and in a lot of ways, become a part of her. Caitlin had a choice—she could stay at a corporate job in fashion or give DANK her all. She thought of herself in twenty years saying, “Remember that time I owned a banana bread company…?” and it just seemed like the more interesting path to take.

(CM): You know, I really still look at every day as if, you know, anything can happen at any time. In two weeks, I could be dead. I don’t know. It’s not like I walk around with a shadow over my head or I’m freaked out by it at all. But, when it comes time to making certain decisions, I mostly will just be like, “Yo, let’s do it. Let’s go for it—because why not?” I think a lot of the fear that came with messing up or things not working out went away because I saw what happens when you don’t get a chance—when you always think, “Oh, maybe I’ll do it later.” and then later doesn’t exist. So, why not just do it now? Being able to just be like, “Yeah. Let’s try it.” I think I’d be happier to try and not make it than to just wonder if it would have worked forever.

(KK): It can be difficult to pick up the phone and ask for help, but calling a PTSD hotline number is always free and confidential. If you or someone you know is dealing with a traumatic incident, consider speaking with someone about the treatment options available. If you experience suicidal thoughts during a PTSD episode and don’t know who to talk to, call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. That’s 1-800-273-8255 to be connected to a trained counselor at a suicide crisis center nearest you.

– Even though I still have no idea what I’m doing—things are happening. And if you’d like to help out and support this podcast, please check out patreon.com (that’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N) where you can sponsor us for as little as $1 per episode. It really helps keep this podcast going, and I’m so grateful for all of your help. Special shout out to Cameron MacAlpine because he makes this thing sound good. And a big thank you to everybody who knows how to speak another language. You are infinitely cooler than I am—I gotta get Rosetta Stone.

– You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. A huge thank you to Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, and a big thank you to Gnarly Nutrition for supporting this podcast and the messages that we share. Gnarly Nutrition supports a community of vulnerability and equality—and tastes like a milkshake, without all the crap. And a big shout out to Roaming Ingenuity, a team of outdoor enthusiasts and tinkerers based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Support companies who support this podcast—we couldn’t do it without them. If you liked what you heard, you can leave a review on iTunes or give us a like—like all good things, you can find us on the internet. Until next time.

6: #NWS

Angela has loved to the end of the earth, which is exactly how far she would travel in order to say goodbye to Scott. After two flights that covered every aspect of the Ogre II, search and rescue could find no trace of Scott and Kyle. Adventurous souls leave broken hearts behind, but what about the aftermath? This episode is in loving memory of Scott Adamson and Kyle Dempster, who left the world with the question: What will you do with the days that you have? #NWS

This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Evo Hemp, and Dirtbag Climbers. Music by: “Jazzy Frenchy”, “Cute”, “Enigmatic”, and “Funny Song” by bensound.com, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, “Hélice” by Monplaisir, “Our Home” by Borrtex, “Bloom” by Jahzzar, “Eastern Thought” by Kevin MacLeod, “Tech Toys” by Lee Rosevere, “Pandora’s Delight” by Krackatoa, and “Arboles” and “Pives and Flarinet” by Podington Bear.

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Transcript:

(KATHY KARLO): This podcast is sponsored by Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, but most importantly–your snacks. Deuter is known for fit, comfort, and ventilation. Stay tuned for a new line of women’s climbing packs, coming out any day. I can’t tell you which one, but stay tuned for more about Gravity SL line–made by women, for women.

Deuter has a history of first ascents and alpine roots. Their head of product development even climbed Everest once, in jeans (hashtag not fake news.) Founded in 1898, Deuter believes in good fitting backpacks, so you can focus on way cooler things like puppies, pocket bacon, and gettin’ sendy, whether at the crag or in the alpine.

– We’re working with Better Help to connect you to licensed therapists because even though my advice and opinions are free, I am improvising the whole thing. Better Help lets you message a licensed therapist, day or night. They’ll match you with the perfect therapist for a fraction of the cost of traditional therapy. You know who goes to therapy? Prince Harry. Emma Stone. Jenny Slate. Kesha. Therapy is beautiful—everyone should go to therapy. Go to betterhelp.com/climbing to sign up and receive one free week. It helps support this show, and it helps support you.

(ANGELA VAN WIEMEERSCH): Oh, Scott. Yeah so, I met Scott in 2013 and I was super new to ice climbing. Nobody would go climbing with me. I was at the Ouray Ice Park and I was gettin’ ditched every day. They’re like, “Oh yeah, there’s that gumby chick with the core shot rope and a helmet that’s falling off her head.” You know?

(KK): It’s so hard to imagine you getting ditched!

(AVW): Oh yeah, people loved not climbing with me right at the beginning there.

(KK): The reason it’s hard for me to imagine Angela getting ditched is because she is probably one of the most prolific and tenacious climbers in the US. Not an exaggeration. If you’ve had the pleasure of meeting her IRL, then you know that she absolutely lives up to her reputation. And if you’re lucky enough like me, to be able to call her a friend means you’ve got someone pretty solid in your corner. And—did I mention this girl can climb?

Her adventure resume isn’t limited to first ascents in the alpine, though; Angela has ice skated, bike toured, paddled, and hitched hiked her way through life (and Canada) before she learned how to swing picks, which is how she met Scott Adamson. And was it fate? Or just happenstance? Who knows. Like most things in life, true love is unpredictable. It’ll find you when you aren’t looking, and usually in the most awkward moments at the most inconvenient times. And, hey—sometimes it even shows up in ripped Levis.

(AVW): So, it was super funny ‘cause I was begging people. I was like, “Will you take me climbing?” and they’re like, “Yeah, maybe Thuuursday.” And I was soloing the kiddie wall just trying to figure out how to kick and swing. I was just so desperate to try to get on some ice. And somebody came over to me and was like, “What are you doing? Like, what are you doing?” I was like, “I’m learning how to be an ice climber.” And they were like, “Do you wanna actually get on a rope?” and I was like, “Yeah!” Then they were like, “Ok, well we’re going to rap in over here.” I was like, “What?” They’re like, “We’re going to rappel in over here.” And I was like, “What’s rappelling?” And he was like, “Oh god. I don’t wanna deal with this.” I was like, “No, no, no! You invited me to go ice climbing.” He was like, “Scott, can you teach this chick how to rappel?”

So, Scott comes over and he’s wearing a pair of Levis. And he tried to put his harness on and he tripped and he fell face first into the snow and was like, “Don’t worry! I’m a guide.” Anyways, we go to rappel off this little tree and I’m all freaked out—so he puts in a bunch of ice screws. It’s so funny: I’m rapping off a tree and three ice screws ‘cause I’m like, “This is so scary!” Anyways, we go in. We climb and over the next couple days, basically I climbed with this crew and I just was so keen that I think he was like, “Aw man, everybody’s really busy with the ice festival competing and sponsor obligations and slideshows and this girl has nothing to do. She can belay me on all this backcountry ice.”

And so, I think it might have been like my fourth day of climbing or something and we did Gravity’s Rainbow, which is a super cool backcountry ice climb that never comes in. And I’m hammering out pitons and I’m like, “How do I work this thing with the lever that you pull?” and he’s teaching me as I’m climbing how to take out cams, you know? Super fast-tracked. But so, we went on to climb, I think seventy days on of ice climbing? And I moved into his truck without even asking. We weren’t even romantic at that point. It was so funny. It was like, everybody was going to Cody, Wyoming to climb and I just wanted to be part of the gang. And I had this rent that I was paying in Ouray—I’d paid cash. And I went to the real estate lady and was like, “Can I get my money back? I don’t actually want to be here anymore. You see, these climbers are going to Wyoming and I want to go, too.” And so, she gave me my money back and I got to bail out of rent and moved into his truck and then I was like, “I hope this guy doesn’t mind that I just totally moved into his truck with him.” And off we went, and we climbed in Cody, we climbed in Santa Quinn, we climbed in Maple, we went to the Vail cave.

And then it was time for Alaska and he was like, “Well, I got big objectives but if you can wrangle a partner up, you should probably come to the central Alaskan range.” So anyways, this was my foundation for meeting him. And I also had no clue that he was “cutting edge”. I didn’t know that he was sponsored. He didn’t tell me any of this. I mean, he gave me Conrad Anker’s biner and I’ll never forget this ‘cause now it’s super funny: he was hooking me up with stuff ‘cause I didn’t have anything, like biners and slings and just things that a climber should own, you know? And he was like, “Oh. This anchor’s Conrad Anker’s.” and I was like, “Who?” And he was like, “That’s awesome. Hang onto that one, ok?” And I was like, “Ok!”

It wasn’t until days before Alaska that I realized that he was super cutting edge and sponsored—not that being sponsored means anything. It just was like a certain stature. I had no idea when I was getting dragged up all these water ice sixes that he was the bee’s knees when it came to climbing. Then I got mad at him and I was like, “How come you didn’t tell me?” and he’s like, “Tell you what?” And I was like, “That you’re this dude with these big goals and these things and you’re cutting edge in this sport.” And he was like, “‘Cause it doesn’t mean anything about me.”

Sure, everybody was like, “Yeah, well you’re a blonde chick. Of course, he took you climbing.” But it wasn’t like that. He took gumbies out all the time. That was why I loved him so much, you know? There’s these kids in Provo that would look up to him. It’s like hometown, small-town Provo, Utah. All the climbers know everyone and he’d be like, “Yeah? You want to go ice climbing? Let’s go.” He’d take out kids that couldn’t climb water ice two. What pro athlete do you know that’s making an effort to go to the local climbing shop and pick up some kid who doesn’t know how to put on his crampons? Scott was always like, “Yeah if you’re psyched—let’s go.” And, I don’t know, he was always like that.

He was always really sarcastic, really funny—his sense of humor was really dry, though. People didn’t get his jokes half the time. He had a flip phone and his jeans were always ripped. The back left pocket of his pants on the seam always ripped. He had five pairs of Levis that were all ripped on the back left pocket and it was so signature Scott. You’re like, “Oh. I can see his underwear.” But he never got new pants and, I don’t know, he was just so Scott. He always came up with these little sayings like “chimpleton”—like when it was really easy. He’d be like, “That’s chimpleton!” and I’d be like, “What are you talking about?” and he’s like, “A chimp could do it! It’s easy!”

(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.

– Before we start this episode, I want to take a minute to emphasize the impact that Angela’s story has had on me. There is a pretty lengthy list of people who are definitely responsible for this podcast, but Angela was the one gave me the guts to actually do it. Just as I’d sort of finalized what I wanted the podcast to be, I thought to myself: “NOBODY IS GONNA TO WANT TO TALK TO ME ABOUT THEIR SHIT.” Like, their life shit. And I went back and forth in my brain for days and weeks, thinking I couldn’t possibly ask people to share these deep, dark feelings. Those feelings belonged to them. I had no right.

But shortly after, I read a blog post that recapped Angela and Jewell Lund’s trip to Pakistan. In 2017, the girls crossed rivers and glaciers to commemorate Scott Adamson and Kyle Dempster’s memory. It was incredibly hard to read, but I felt like I was fat biking down the same roads, indulging in the same fields of wildflowers, and staring up at the same daunting peaks.

Angela wrote: “Pakistan is a beautiful place full of beautiful people. I’m eternally grateful I got to go see the place that brought so much magic to our boys. I hope for all of you close to the boys that I run into you and share all that I can. It’s hard for me to write about because there’s so much I don’t even know where to start. So, don’t be scared to ask. I want to share.”

(AVW): The thing that’s so crazy about all this stuff is that you don’t know how you’re affecting other people. I would have never, ever assumed that somebody reading it would find their own meaning or whatever. It’s funny—the same way that you felt about me writing that, I felt about coming to Hayden’s service and seeing all the people who had gone through so much shit. And everybody was there and strong and trying to be present with it, and that was why I was like, “Oh my god. I have to write something.” You know? And I haven’t written a post since. Great blog. A once a year blog.

(KK): I don’t know anyone who can keep up with a blog.

(AVW): It’s just—I know. But, yeah. I guess you just never know who you’re affecting by just doing what you’re doing or sharing what you’re sharing.

(KK): Definitely. Yeah. There’s a whole ripple effect that I think we’re just completely unaware of, all of the time.

(AVW): All the time.

(KK): Is my light blinking?

(FEMALE NEWSCASTER): It’s been thirty-nine days since the search for two alpine climbers from Utah was called off. Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson were trying to conquer a Pakistani peak that had never been summited.

(MALE NEWSCASTER): The sport of alpine climbing can be extremely dangerous, even deadly. As one Utah doctor knows personally. Kathy Aiken has her story.

(RECORDING OF KYLE DEMPSTER): Risk is—it’s synonymous with life.

(FEMALE REPORTER): The life of an alpine climber is risky. A journey Kyle Dempster knew well.

(KD): On that journey, you go through the feeling of fear to an eventual outcome.

(FR): Dempster made those comments a little more than a year ago, just before he and fellow alpinist, Scott Adamson, attempted to climb the north face of a 23,000-foot mountain called “Ogre II” in Pakistan. It had never been done before, and the outcome last year was nearly fatal. Both men survived falls of several hundred feet.

(KATE WILSON): Ogre II is one of the most challenging and inherently dangerous peaks. It’s not just something that you can walk up.

(chatter in the background)

(FR): Dr. Kate Wilson knows all about the dangers alpine climbers face. Her son, Drew, fell to his death on Baffin Island in northeastern Canada in 2005. Dempster, her nephew, was Drew’s climbing partner that day.

(KW): This is where Drew landed and where Kyle, at great effort, retrieved him. I used to say, “If Drew lives to be twenty”. A good friend told me that I should quit putting that out there, which I did, and he made it to twenty-four.

(FR): Dempster continued his adventures even after Drew’s death. For years, he’s traveled the world and climbed some of the most dangerous peaks.

(KW): Life with passion is the way we should all live—and not everyone has the opportunity to do that.

(KD): I’m loving life, for sure, right now.

(FR): On August 21st, Dempster, age thirty-three, and thirty-four-year-old Adamson wanted one more try on that Pakistani peak. It was supposed to be a five-day trip.

– What was your greatest fear when you knew that Kyle and Scott were going back?

(KW): Certainly, there were fears of an accident. There were fears of weather systems. It’s certainly something that you have to think about when you consider that mountain range.

(FR): The two were last seen August 22nd. The cook at basecamp saw them near the summit before a terrible storm engulfed the mountain. A helicopter crew could find no sign of the climbers. Dr. Wilson’s sister, Terry Dempster—Kyle’s mother, spoke with a climber she knew at the scene.

(KW): She asked him if it was a beautiful place and he assured her that it was. And I think she was comforted in that image of him being lost in a part of nature that he would have cherished. Adventurous souls leave broken hearts behind.

(FR): Kathy Aiken, KLS 5 News.

(wind howling)

(KK): Sunday, August 21st, Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson started up the North Face of the Ogre II in the Karakorum. The Ogre II sits over 22,000 feet. Their intent was a five-day climb and descent, however, the following day Ghafoor Abdul, their Pakistani cook, spotted headlamps roughly halfway up the peak. One day later, a storm moved in.

On August 28th, Scott and Kyle were overdue. Climbers from all over mobilized in an effort to initiate a search and rescue effort. A fundraising page was launched and raised almost $200,000, which was critical in covering significant costs incurred in the search and rescue effort. Despite the gravity of the situation, there was hope.

(tweet)

(Facebook message alert)

People posted thoughts and encouragement all over Facebook and social media: “Kyle and Scott, get your asses out of your tent or snow cave and get back to camp. We need you back home!”

A rescue helicopter was launched early on September 3rd, 2016. Given the complexity and scale of the terrain, as well as the weather, the family called off the search. After two flights that covered every aspect of the Ogre II, search and rescue could find no trace of Kyle and Scott.

(wind howling)

(AVW): So, in 2017, the summer after the boys had gone missing, Jewell Lund, Andrew Burr, and Steve Fassbinder (also known as “Doom”) trekked over to Pakistan. And the whole meaning behind the trip for me was some sort of intimate experience with this place that Scott and Kyle had felt super close to. More so, I had this compelling feeling to be where Scott was and as the whole rescue was going down, we were orchestrating it out of Salt Lake City. And, I mean, I got overnight visas through the embassy in Pakistan. I was like, “I’m going!” And they were like, “You can’t just go. We need to be on the phones. We need to be dealing with the bureaucracy. We need to be dealing with visas, long-line rescue, helicopters, you know? And it was really hard for me ‘cause I just thought, “Well, if there’s any chance of them being alive, I want to be on the ground. Like, I want to be there.” And so, going back a year later, even though obviously, the search was inconclusive, was a really important thing for me ‘cause I just wanted to be closer. I had this like, “I just really wanted to be there” feeling.

(KK): Physically close. The distance, I mean.

(AVW): I don’t know why. But the physical was so huge for me.

(KK): Angela and Jewell are both well-seasoned climbers. And neither of them had ever imagined going to Pakistan and not climbing. But that’s exactly what they did. With the help of Andrew Burr, “Doom”, and others, they organized a trip to establish a memorial at the base camp where Scott and Kyle stayed. They rode fat bikes up to the Choktoi Glacier, navigating cobblestones and steep cliffs, where they eventually had to carry the bikes.

Jewell and Angela spent days walking around the glacier, talking to someone who wasn’t physically there, sleeping in Scott’s tent at basecamp, listening to old voicemails, and piecing together parts of the boys’ time in Pakistan. Because Angela struggles with high altitude, she thanked the universe for keeping her healthy enough to get her there. She was as close to Scott as she could be. Even though the summit of the Ogre II sits in a thick fog of clouds, they lifted for a few days and the girls felt lucky to see the summit. Angela had dreamt of traveling there with Scott, and it was bittersweet to be in such a beautiful, mountainous place without him.

(AVW): It’s the Karakorum. We’ve looked at objectives, looked at Laytok II. I mean, these mountains weren’t unfamiliar to us. These were also dreams and goals that we have had. And so, deciding to not climb was a really hard thing, which seems funny ‘cause we already had irrational and rational fears about the alpine since losing the boys. But it was just strange. You know? You dream about climbing somewhere and then you’re going to go there and not climb. But we wanted to make sure that it was an adventure and that we were doing something besides sitting and crying in Pakistan. And so, we decided that we would fat tire bike, which was super hilarious. We became the first people in the world ever to take our bicycles up to the Choktoi Glacier, which for a good reason, we were the first people in the world to do it. But it was an adventure. I mean, we basically carried bikes for a long way.

(KK): In death and loss, we find ourselves in a tunnel of grief. Like with most traumatic events, we can actually function pretty normally, at least—part of the time. Making breakfast, answering emails, driving to work—because we have to, right? It’s life. But then, sadness creeps in or the feeling of loss is suddenly overwhelming, and we feel like life will never be unclouded again.

People talk a lot about closure, but closure is pretty prescriptive and tries to put a limit on grief. And I get the feeling that the people who talk the most about closure are the ones who might not understand it, or haven’t necessarily experienced deep loss. Instead of understanding that grief is a part of mourning, and life, people want to timetable it (such as: you have to see the body at a funeral, otherwise you can’t accept the finality of death.) But mourning isn’t like a singular event that eventually comes to a close. This isn’t some Beyoncé concert; it doesn’t sooner or later come to an end—it’s a long, complex, and individual process. And part of it involves working out what aspects of someone you’ve lost are, and which aspects endure.

(AVW): So, my biggest struggle—I mean there’s a whole list of struggles that I’ve obviously had—most of which, just being super fucking sad. Just sad all the time and just missing him a lot. But I think a hard one for me has been kind of realizing that I don’t have what I used to have and having a relationship with someone that you love so much—like having that person to talk to, all these things that you have when you are in a relationship—you get to see these people and create memories with them and watch them grow and you’re just proud of who they are. Something that was really hard for me through this whole process was realizing that that was gone and that his spirit and his energy and all that we’ve learned will live on, but I don’t have that anymore.

You know, I still call him my boyfriend even though there’s…what do you call someone who you spend the longest period of your intimate life with and then they pass away? It’s not like we broke up. It’s not like he’s my ex-boyfriend. But I think a lot of people were like, “Ang, you gotta move on. You can’t keep calling him your boyfriend.” I was like, “Well, he is.” And I still very much talk about him in the present tense and it’s ‘cause I just feel like I wanna keep him present in that sense, you know?

My good friend Thad, who’s really wonderful, also lost his girlfriend, and it’s been a really interesting and beautiful friendship and I think we understand each other a lot. But he told me that people die twice and they die in the physical when they leave us and then, and then they die when their name is said for the very last time. And I feel that we don’t have to lose these people twice and that it’s important to cherish and honor and keep their spirit alive. So, going to Pakistan made me realize that I didn’t have that and that even though he was gone and I didn’t have this relationship and we were no longer us, it was still really beautiful and I was so grateful for all the time I spent and I’m so lucky to have met him. It just helped me be like, “Ok—that was what it was but you don’t have it anymore.” And I don’t think it’s moving on, but I think it’s having a little more grace with the situation and just being honest about it. And being like, “Ok—this sucks so much but it’s the card you’ve been given and there’s so much beauty that’s happened in my life and maybe it’s a tradeoff, you know? Like, you can’t have it all. Like, at least I got to know him. And, I mean, he essentially has made me who I am. So much of him is me. So, I’m really grateful for that.

I think what people don’t know, too, is: people know you at a certain point in your life. Like, nobody knew me in the industry before Scott. And so, I’ve gotten this a lot since he’s passed—everyone’s like, “Oh, I just thought you followed Scott around.” And I was like, “Well, yeah—he taught me essentially how to be an alpinist, per se but before I’d met him, I had paddled four hundred thirty miles of an arctic river and gone on a bike tour. I was hitchhiking solo for four and a half years before I met him. I was planning a trip to Antarctica. I mean, I essentially have been in motion since I was nineteen. So, a lot of people, when he passed, were like, “You’re running.” I was like, “No, I’m just doing the only thing that I know.”

(KK): The frustrating thing about grief and losing someone is that physically you’re fine. Like, you can’t just walk into a doctor’s office and get diagnosed for “heartbreak”. But emotionally, it’s all fucked up—and not all of the time. There are so many different feelings working in conjunction with one another. Like, you can be sad, but still have these little bursts of happiness. You can still laugh and smile and walk your dog and sneeze and go grocery shopping—and still be mourning loss.

(AVW): I went through this period of time where I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t do much. And you start to be like, “Ok—I have to do these things.” And I think the hardest thing was: I would go through a few moments without thinking about the loss, without thinking about Scott being gone, and then I would immediately feel guilty about not thinking about it, for like, literally I’m talking like, thirty seconds, like, a minute and a half. And that’s been a really hard process. You just feel, I don’t know, like you should be keeping these people super present, but I think part of dealing with it is giving your mind a little bit of break.

You know, there’s honestly not an hour that goes by that I don’t think about him. But sometimes, you just have to be present and I think for me, being in new and different situations was a really essential part of my healing. I left Salt Lake City when shit hit the fan. I moved into my truck. I went from place to place and everybody told me I was running. And I was like, “I’m creating something new. I can’t go back to an empty house with his dirty socks on the floor and this void.” So, I created new experiences and new memories and I met new people and it’s not like I don’t still obviously cry all of the time and deal with this. It’s an ongoing thing but it’s definitely in shorter frequency and there has definitely been people that have been monumental for me.

There is somebody right now who I’m starting to see. It’s been an ongoing, kinda interesting situation where I met him back in 2015 when we were climbing the Hulk and I was together with Scott and he had a girlfriend and whatever—it was totally platonic. We had kept in touch over the years and his name’s Dave and he is an avid big mountain snowboarder. And he’s lost eleven friends now, you know? And this is something we all deal with in these sports. And so, he reached out after things went south and was like, “Hey, I don’t know where you’re at, but if you need an out and you wanna go climbing, my friend Gavin and I—we’re on a road trip. You’re more than welcome to come.”

And so, I took him up on it and we met up. It was huge for me because I didn’t know Gavin and I didn’t know Dave, and they were just being themselves and not treating me any different because they didn’t know me before. You know, my friends were like, “You’re so sad and you’re not laughing and you’re not bubbly and you’re not you.” And I think it was just hard for my friends, but these two perfect strangers could just treat me how it was and give me shit for stick clipping and gave me a hard time for not keeping up with them on the trail. I mean, it was really good for me. That was a huge transformation because—I mean, I always tell people this story, but it’s such a big deal. Nobody will ever know how much this small act meant to me.

So, I would sleep in my truck and Dave has his truck with Gavin and then, every morning when I would wake up, I would feel like I was living this recurring nightmare, you know? Like, I’d wake up and Scott was gone and my life had fallen apart and I’d lost him. And it would just crumble me, you know? I’d just sit there and bawl my eyes out and it’s like I didn’t want to wake up. So, at some point during the trip, Dave would open my tailgate

(tailgate creaking)

and he’d put a cup of coffee on my tailgate for me. And he would put a song on his phone and he would leave the phone there and just let me cry it out. And it went from me, not wanting to wake up, to me, wondering what song was going to play in the morning. Like, I’d hear the creak of the tailgate open and I’d be like, “Oh, I’m going to get a song. This is so great!”

You know, it’s such a small gesture but it meant more to me than anything. It shifted not wanting to essentially be alive to having something really small to look forward to. So, it’s things like that—that’s kind of how I started with the little moments of clarity and moments of, I should say “lightness”, you know? You sending a climb you like brings you a couple minutes of peace or seeing a really beautiful sunset or, you know, whatever. Life does move forward. Sometimes my hardest days are my best days—like when something really great happens that I just really want to share it with Scott and it’s a weird feeling to not be able to. Oh man, like the Dawn Wall got climbed? I was like, “Fuck! I wish I could tell Scott. What would he think of this?” Or even more so, Laytok just got climbed. Like, I started bawling when I found out Laytok got climbed. I mean, it’s been this unclimbed mystery for years and years and it’s taken a bunch of lives and it’s honestly been the sole focus for so many alpinists all over the world. I mean, all their hopes and dreams and everything that they put their time and effort into has been to climb Laytok—and it’s finally been climbed. Not being able to share that has been a trip. I’m just like, “Babe, all this shit’s happening.” You know?

(KK): You’re missing it!

(AVW): ”You’re missing it! People are climbing shit! Donald Trump is president! What is going on?!” You know? Ugh, so crazy.

(KK): Road tripping with Dave and Gavin gave Angela something that she needed: the chance to just be herself and feel whatever she needed to feel. She could be who and how she wanted to be in any moment and didn’t have to try and put a face on. It turns out that the essence of what Angela had with Scott could be found in other things and places and people. And it doesn’t mean that it was replaced, or anything was taken away from what they had. You know, my theory about love has always been: as long as you have love in your life, it doesn’t really matter where it comes from or how it’s dispensed—all that really matters is that it’s there.

(AVW): And it was the most fun thing ever. And it was nice to not be bawling every minute, you know? It was nice to play a game of, I don’t know—it was like this putt putt game they play in Canada with these wooden mallets? I don’t know—it was like croquet, kind of. But, just to spend time with those boys and to see the evolution of who they’ve become and who I’m becoming, and how we all harmonize now. The same thing that I was so excited to see with those boys is the same thing that I lost with Scott, and it’s just made me realize, “Man, that is essentially what I love about my friends and my people. You get to see who these people are and watch them grow and it’s super beautiful.

(KK): I’ve always noticed how climbers often comment on how many people we’ve lost. Like, “Man, we lost a lot of good people this year.” But I just keep going back to—that number didn’t just randomly increase. We’re always dealing with death and loss in these sports, but I think that we tend to notice more often when it’s “mainstream” news or relevant to our own lives. I don’t know…

(AVW): No, that’s exactly what it is. You don’t have to sugar coat it. It’s exactly what happens.

People think that it’s happening in these outside reaches—that it doesn’t pertain to them and then it hits home and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, everybody’s dying!” Everybody has been dying—they just weren’t your friends. Months before Scott and Kyle passed away, somebody else had passed. Chad Kellogg, I believe, was a year before the boys, and then there was another loss and I just remember Scott being like, “Man, we haven’t had a loss in almost a year.” He was like, “I wonder who’s going to be next. It sounds bad, but I just know that somebody I love’s going to die.” And then it was him.

We talked about it all of the time. I feel so lucky that I had as many conversations as I did. And our last conversation from camp was so good, and he told me how much he loved me. He’s not as a mushy gushy dude for all the people who know Scott. To get a phone call from Scott being like, “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me!” I was like, “Wow! He’s really maturing out there in Pakistan.” (laughs) I was like, “This is great news. He’s going to climb safe, he’s going to come home.” I don’t know if he somehow knew, deep in the bottom of his heart that maybe this was the time, but it felt like he was at some apex of understanding of his friends and his family and that’s what he talked about on the phone to me—in three-minute intervals with the satellite phone cuts out and he’d call me back and kind of reiterate the same thing. And I feel so lucky to have had that. You know?

(KK): Yeah. Definitely.

(AVW): Yeah. Ugh.

(KK): When she started climbing, Angela always prided herself in having a good head. That was something that was always relatively easy for her.

(AVW): I soloed big alpine routes my first and second year of climbing and I just remember so many people being like, “Wow that’s really crazy.” and I was like, “Nah, it’s not that crazy. You just don’t fall and if you get hit by a rock, well—that’s your time. It is what it is.” And I think at the time, I didn’t have that much to lose. I know that sounds crazy ‘cause life is valuable—but I hadn’t loved someone to the end of the earth. I hadn’t experienced something like that. And my friends, believe it or not, just a few years ago—I didn’t think that they were the most important thing. I thought whatever vision quest I was on was the most important thing to me. And as that shifted, I still love going to the mountains and I still love climbing but I have these moments where I’m like, “I don’t give a shit that it’s proud. I don’t give a shit that I can brag about it. This is where I draw the line. This isn’t worth it to me anymore.” I don’t think it was till I took basically a whole summer off climbing that I’ve kind of moved past that expectation a little bit.

So, the summer before Pakistan, I trained my ass off and ran marathons above 10,000 feet and lived outside of Durango, Colorado. I was actually working for Alpaca Rafts to help pay for the trip because Pakistan’s not a cheap trip. I have health issues and I actually can’t go to altitude, really, which I am still dealing with. But I wanted to go where Scott was and that was between 18,000 and 19,000 feet at the base of the Ogre II. And so, anyways I just ran and biked and did big link ups where I’d ride a hundred miles, then I ran from Telluride to Ouray up and over this mountain pass. And I was ok with not climbing. And I was like, “Weird.” because I still wanted to go climbing, but I was just like, I can’t deal with this right now. I mentally don’t have the capacity to deal with this because my identity is wrapped up in it, you know? When you place importance on your accomplishment in climbing—it’s a kind of messy thing and I think that’s really common. And some people talk about it, some people don’t. We don’t have to talk about everything. But I think that that’s really common. You see people rupture a pulley tendon and they are a mess of a human being. You’re like, “Dude—you ok? It’s just your finger.” They’re like, “Who am I? What am I doing with my life? Am I living the way that I am meant to live out my existence?” And you’re like, “Dude, it’s just a pulley.”

(KK): Ok, be honest—like half of you can relate that. Anyway, taking a step back from climbing isn’t the worst thing in the world. Maybe the reasons why aren’t always so fun but 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.”

Stepping back was necessary for Angela in order to train for Pakistan last year, but she’s back and she’s still climbing. And she, like so many of us, asks herself: why do we continuously stack the odds against us like that? And I think the answer is: because that’s the whole point. To go big, and be bold. We’re all bound by the same thing: mortality. It’s a pretty glum truth. And like most of us know, there is a risk that comes with doing something we love. But nature, at its core, is unknowable.

(AVW): We had a close call this winter and that was really hard. I was climbing with Sasha DiGiulian and I was doing everything textbook safe—as much as you can when you’re trying to put up first ascents and it’s all unknown. Really, I felt like I was doing so good—I was picking routes that didn’t have overhead hazards and if it did, I was making sure the daggers got kicked down before I put her on the route. I just don’t want to take somebody who isn’t signing up for the risk fully, ‘cause, you know, with every style of climbing, you accept a certain risk. Whether it be a runout pitch or an ice climb with a dagger overhead or whatever. There’s acceptable risk. And then, there’s risk that is only acceptable if you know it’s there. So, as a new ice climber, I wanted to kinda child proof it so that she didn’t have to make those decisions.

And, ironically enough, a climb we were going to get on just fully collapsed. And I was like, “Wait, what did I do wrong? I’ve been doing everything that I can to make sure this is as safe—“ and I mean, I’m like, paranoid trying to be safe. Everyone’s like, “Whoa, Angela. You can chill out. She’s a pro climber. Like, one of the best climbers in the world. I’m sure she understands.” I was like, “Yeah, she totally understands, but I don’t want to put people in objective hazard.” So, it was a really tough call.

We’re coming on this hovercraft boat essentially over open water to an ice climb. I spot it and as we skim close to the corner, the ice climb goes out of view, you know, there’s a big bluff in front of it. And then, as we pop out around the other side of the bluff, the climb’s gone. And the water’s just a huge wake, and I’m just like, “Where did the climb go?” And what had happened was: the lake freezes over and the temps had warmed up, and underneath this pillar, there was no rocks, whereas these other climbs that had formed around it, they had rocks underneath the pillar, and so they were supported. So, this was essentially on a veneer of thin ice on open water. And so, it collapsed under the pressure. I had a camera crew above and I had somebody dropping daggers. I called Jackson and was like, “Yo, Jackson. Can you drop daggers so that they’re not in the way of the belayer?” Ordinarily, we don’t have this privilege as an ice climber but on a big feature production, it was so nice. I was like, “Yo, make this thing safe! Just get rid of some objective hazard.” People are probably like, “Those girls had people getting rid of the dangers?” but it’s kind of a nice luxury. I’m not going to say that if I had people on the rim that I wanted it to be just as dangerous as normal. Get rid of that stuff!

So anyways, a dagger got dropped and that shock loaded the base and the whole pillar collapsed. Basically, what it was standing on gave out. And this thing is tons and tons and tons of ice. It would have killed the film crew, Sasha, me. And I just was like, “Oh my god. There’s no winning. You can’t avoid the risk in these sports. You just can’t mitigate it, and if you can—there’s always a freak accident. You’re signing up for it and whether you wanna keep on doing it or not, that is your call, but sometimes I’m just like, “Yeah, if you don’t go alpine climbing you might not die, but you might accidentally get dropped at the crag. Shit just happens. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just part of it.

You know, a lot of people are like, “Are you going to stop alpine climbing?” and there’s not a way in hell! If I stop climbing, my friends are gonna still keep on dying. I’m already in too deep. Every single person that I love is doing the craziest shit in the world. And I am super proud of them for it, but I’m not going to stop experiencing loss and I don’t want to waste a minute away from these people that I love so much. And really, I don’t want to waste a minute away from climbing. It brings me a huge amount of joy in my life—a lot of challenge and a lot of focus. There’s not much out there that brings you to these incredible places—ridiculously beautiful shiver bivvies, which I experienced just a few days ago. But, you know, that’s all part of it.

(KK): Do you use the internet? Of course, you do—you’re human. If you’ve spent any time on Instagram, you’ve probably seen some pretty great hashtags. And then, you’ve also probably seen others and wondered, “What the hell does this mean?”. “Stay shitty” and “NWS” are two hashtags that Jackson Marvell adopted and popularized. Angela tells us the story behind both:

(AVW): So, this has been super funny because hashtags rule the universe. So, “NWS” has been this thing “no weak shit” that Scott had as a child. Him and his brother have done an immense amount of climbing together and some really badass stuff, like expeditions all over. And when they were learning how to climb with their friends, you know, partially homemade gear or whatever they could scrounge up, nuts on limestone, like they were just going for it. And they would shout up to each other, “No weak shit, dude! Finish your pitch! You got this!” type of deal. And it became this theme and there’s a party every year in the desert that was for his brother’s birthday and everybody would climb a tower, and it’s the NWS party. And so, that was my first desert tower. It was on top of Castleton for the NWS party, which happened to be on my birthday. So, it’s this big group of mostly Provo climbers that adopted this saying of “no weak shit” and it had always been this thing in Scott’s life. It’s not like he ran around being like, “Oh, I live by this.” But it was just like this funny thing where he would write it on my tools and so when I was scared, I could look at my tools and be like, “Come on, Ang. You got this. No weak shit. Finish your pitch. Dig deep.”

And then, Jackson Marvell is a local Provo climber. Jackson, I think, is Scott in a younger form. When Jackson was working in a little gear shop, Scott would be like, “Man, that kid’s gonna do things.” And when Scott passed away, the first thing I said to Jackson was, “Scott told me that if you could make it through your twenties, you’re going to be one of the most prolific climbers of our generation.” And I still feel that way about Jackson. He’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever come into contact with, but he had the same rowdy, desert, sarcastic, dry, politically incorrect essence that Scott has. And so, I think I’ve latched onto Jackson super hard because he reminds me of Scott a lot and he’s become a really dear friend.

But there’s this rivalry between snowboarders and skiers. And the whole thing was that the snowboarders were always shitty. They were always gettin’ a little tipsy or smoking pot. And the skiers were all prim and proper and at the resort being like, “Those snowboarders—they’re dangerous! They’re like torpedos going down the hill!” You know? And so, it’s kind of like the skiers versus the snowboarders, or like the trad climbers versus the bolt clippers, or the people driving four by fours versus van life, you know? And it’s not saying good or bad, but it’s like: keep it shitty, keep it old, clip rusty pitons, whatever. You know? Just like keep it shitty. And it’s transcended the friend group, so it’s been like “no weak shit”, try hard, and keep it shitty: like, “stay true to your routes” kinda like in this olden world. But oh my gosh, Jackson’s friends got “stay shitty” tattoos on their thighs! I found out. It was so upsetting.

It is funny though ’cause I did an Enormocast—it must have been of my first year climbing or second. And I’m sure the contrast is hilarious because I remember Kalous being like, “It will be interesting in a few years when uh—“ (laughs) I think essentially what he meant was like, when shit gets serious and you start seeing the impacts of the sport, you know? ‘Cause I was just so sparkly-eyed and was just like, “This is the best thing ever!” And it’s still the best thing ever! But there’s a weight that comes with it for sure, and I couldn’t possibly feel that way without experiencing stuff.

(KK): Even though I still have no idea what I’m doing—things are happening. And if you’d like to help out and support this podcast, please check out patreon.com (that’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N) where you can sponsor us for as little as $1 per episode. It really helps keep this podcast going, and I’m so grateful for all of your help. Special shout out to Cameron MacAlpine because he makes this thing sound good. And a big thank you to everybody who knows how to speak another language. You are infinitely cooler than I am—I gotta get Rosetta Stone.

– You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. A huge thank you to Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, and to Evo Hemp, who is on a mission to bring you quality hemp products that are both affordable and accessible. What the heck is hemp, anyway? We’ll have to tell you next time. Support companies who support this podcast—we couldn’t do it without them.

If you liked what you heard, you can leave a review on iTunes or give us a like—like all good things, you can find us on the internet. Until next time.

5: Hold Fast

There’s a remarkable beauty of relative perspective. I mean, it’s kind of amazing just to think that we all have this unique opportunity to alter reality. And some things in life are just good and some are bad—really bad. Or are they? The concept that it all comes down to our perception is sort of an interesting one—a gift—to create good of bad. Alex had the individual realization that let him see life this way.

But it still doesn’t keep things from happening, and it wasn’t going to stop the shit storm that was about to happen—that Alex was about to walk into. Two weeks before leaving for Patagonia for a climbing trip, Alex’s life was turned upside down. Introduction from the one and only Conrad Anker (he’s an alpinist: pronounced “al-pee-nist”).

This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Evo Hemp, and Dirtbag Climbers. Music by: “Jazzy Frenchy”, “Cute”, “Going Higher”, “Retro Soul”, and “Funny Song” by bensound.com, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, “Puzzle Pieces”, “All the Answers”, “Let’s Start at the Beginning”, and “Under Suspicion” by Lee Rosevere, and “Pives and Flarinet” by  Podington Bear.

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Transcript:

(KATHY KARLO): This podcast is sponsored by Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, but most importantly–your snacks. Deuter is known for fit, comfort, and ventilation. Stay tuned for a new line of women’s climbing packs, coming out any day. I can’t tell you which one, but stay tuned for more about Gravity SL line–made by women, for women.

Deuter has a history of first ascents and alpine roots. Their head of product development even climbed Everest once, in jeans (hashtag not fake news.) Founded in 1898, Deuter believes in good fitting backpacks, so you can focus on way cooler things like puppies, pocket bacon, and gettin’ sendy, whether at the crag or in the alpine.

– We’re working with Better Help to connect you to licensed therapists because even though my advice and opinions are free, I am improvising the whole thing. Better Help lets you message a licensed therapist, day or night. They’ll match you with the perfect therapist for a fraction of the cost of traditional therapy. You know who goes to therapy? Prince Harry. Emma Stone. Jenny Slate. Kesha. Therapy is beautiful—everyone should go to therapy. Go to betterhelp.com/climbing to sign up and receive one free week. It helps support this show, and it helps support you.

(gear clanking)

(CONRAD ANKER): Well, if you that sound makes you think of climbing, you’ve passed the Pavlovian dog test that you’re a climber. One climber that loves this sport, through and through, is Alex Wildman. We had the good fortune to meet years back, stayed in touch and then—Alex, just prior to leaving for his life dream, finds out fate has another thing in store for him.

(ALEX WILDMAN): I remember when I first got sick, I couldn’t even say the word “cancer”. You know, I had written a journal entry at one point. I was by myself in a room and I remember writing down: “I have cancer.” And to write that down and know what that meant was a heavy thing: “I have cancer and what does that mean?” You know, you’ll have so many unanswered questions. Especially when you initially get diagnosed. It’s so scary to just not know. And that’s the worst part.

(KK): Alex Wildman is a lot of things: he’s a climber, and a nurse, and a father. He’s also a cancer patient survivor. Alex is exactly as his name suggests: a brave, adventurous person, who, in 2016, would embark on his most challenging expedition to-date. And we’re not talking about winter slogs through ice fields or high-elevation crusades. We’re talking about month after month of intense chemotherapy and fighting the hardest fight of your life—and never really knowing the outcome.

And—why is cancer so scary? Because it can kill you, right? I mean, obviously. But, truthfully, a lot of things can kill you: ignoring crossing signals or alcohol poisoning or texting and driving—all things that common sense can usually be used to mitigate disaster. But people aren’t terrified of those things the way we usually are about cancer.

Cancer is scary because it’s ugly. It’s a thief because it steals pieces of you, bit by bit. Your energy. Your hair. Your life. Most of us know someone who has been affected by it, maybe even enough to feel like we understand it. Cancer’s this weird illness that’s familiar enough to be acquainted with (like a distant cousin you only have to see at holidays) and yet, it’s still unfamiliar enough to scare the shit out of us. Even uttering the “C” word out loud and asking Alex to talk about his cancer was intimidating—and I’m comfortable with all of the “C” words. Saying it for the first time made it feel so real, which I know is only a fraction of a fraction of what Alex felt that day, and all of the days following.

(AW): So, to acknowledge the fact that you have it in the first place is difficult. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and then I said, “You have to say it out loud.” I remember being like, “I have—“ and the word just kind of dropped out of my mouth, like a ten-pound weight and hit the floor, was like ”—cancer.” And I just started crying ‘cause to hear yourself say it, you have to know it’s one of those things that will potentially decide your fate. So, it’s hard to know. You know, it’s one of those things it’s hard to know. And then I said: “And I’m going to be ok. And I’m going to make it through this.”

(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.

(AW): I know this seems real bad right now, but it’ll get better.

(KK): Alex isn’t talking about cancer, by the way. We are talking about camping, climbing, and “Type 2 fun”.

(AW): It’s the coldest you’ve ever been in your life but you won’t be cold forever, I promise. You will like it when we get back to the car and you take off your backpack and you’ll reflect and you’ll say: “That was great!”

(KK): Alex and his girlfriend, Colleen, had just returned from a week long climbing trip in the Eastern Sierras. And just as soon as it started, it was over and back to life on the east coast. He’s a busy guy! A new homeowner working a full-time job as a telemetry nurse, which deals with patients who have cardiac issues, Alex also helps run the Philadelphia chapter of the American Alpine Club.

(AW): We were a beta program for the American Alpine Club and we were one of their very first chapters, which is pretty cool. We started out by hosting Reel Rock which, this will be our sixth year.

(KK): People like that stuff.

(AW): People like it. People like to come out. Shawn Ryan, who pretty much runs the AAC Philly chapter, and myself, and our other good buddy, Mike Delaney—we were on a trip out to the Tetons and the Cirque. While we were out there, I was like, “We should throw a Reel Rock!” You know, I’d gone to it for the few years before that and I’d always kinda felt this emptiness. Like, I’d be in a room all of a sudden with two hundred and fifty other climbers. And I was like, “I didn’t even know there were that many climbers in the Philadelphia area.” And then, we’d watch the movie and then the event would end—and then that was it! And I always felt kinda like, “Man, this stinks. I didn’t get to connect with anybody.” And I felt a loss of connection and I was like, “This is such a missed opportunity. We should be doing things to try to enable community.”

I kind of brought that up and Shawn played around with it and was like, “We could make this a big event.” And essentially, we’d gone to the American Alpine Club to be like, “Hey, could you help us do this event?” And the first year we threw the event, we had something around four hundred and fifty people come out—which was huge! We had so many people. And it was all about trying to just create an awareness: “Everybody in this room—all of your hands are sweating at the same time because you all get it. Nobody here has to describe why you like climbing. Everybody here gets it so, look around the room, like—we’re all here for the same reason. We are all part of a bigger thing.”

And it’s been great. Last year, we had five hundred and fifty people out to Reel Rock and we have an event planned for almost every month in 2019. So, I mean, we have event after event after event. We have mentorship programs now to try to address this mentorship gap. We’ve been able to implement education programs here. The whole idea of these programs are: identify the barriers that are keeping people from getting education. Having a mentor, I feel like, is like the gold standard.

(KK): I’m not sure if I mentioned that Alex is also a dad. And apparently, doesn’t sleep.

(AW): You know, sometimes you have a lot of extra time where you can be putting together events and things like that but, I mean, there is only so much time. You know, time is a precious luxury. And you have to be super aware of how much time you actually have that you can dedicate to certain things. I am definitely a “yes” man. I love to say “yes” to doing things but, you know, you get to a point where you get so stressed out ‘cause you’re like, “I can’t possibly get to all of these things.” So, I have been saying “no” to certain things and I’ve had a fear that if I say “no” to an opportunity, then I’ll never get that opportunity again. And I don’t know where that came from, but it certainly has had me say “yes” to a lot of things (laughs).

(KK): Alex is definitely a “yes” man, which is pretty difficult when you’re balancing things like running AAC chapter events and raising a daughter and you know, being a full-time nurse.

(AW): My mom was a nurse and growing up, I was certain that I would not be a nurse—‘cause I was like, “I’m not going to grow up to be like my mom.” Although, all my life, I’ve always been just like my mom. My dad would be watching football games. I’d be like, “I don’t wanna watch football. I want to watch a soap opera with my mom!” And I would always be like, “Oh, let’s go baking something in the kitchen, Mom!” I always just followed after my mom so much. In that same token, my dad took me out and introduced me to the outdoors. So, I mean, I got both columns from my mom and my dad. I guess I just cherry picked the things that spoke to me.

I love being a nurse. That’s a huge passion of mine. It’s such a beautiful privilege to be able to help people when they’re at their ultimate, sometimes worst. I’ve helped more people die than I can or would like to remember and it is such a special thing to be able to be there for somebody at such a unique time in their life. It might be the worst moment of their life and you have an opportunity to potentially make it a little bit better. I don’t know what else I would do. It feels very natural to me, like I don’t feel like it’s work.

(KK): Being a nurse was something Alex was sure that he didn’t want to do until one day, he had an epiphany. He was driving to work when a man on a motorcycle

(car door slams; car driving)

hit a patch of sand and skidded out on the highway in front of him.

(tires skidding)

(AW): And he tumbled across the road and before I knew it, I had pulled over my car and I was running out of my car to this guy. I run up to him and by the time I get to him, he’s patting himself off and he’s standing up. I was like, “We need to go to the hospital right now! Get in my car. I will drive you to the hospital.” And he’s like, “No, no, no. Please leave me alone. I don’t need any help.” But as I start walking back to the car, my mind starts going, you know, a thousand miles an hour and I’m thinking, “What would I have done if this guy really needed help? I ran out to this person to help them but I didn’t even know what to do.” And then I heard my mom’s voice and it was like, “You should be a nurse.”

(choir singing “ahhhh”)

And the very next day, I went and I applied to nursing school. I’ve always been—if I’m going to jump into something, I want to do it at a thousand percent. I want to really see it all the way through.

(KK): Alex went from working in a gear shop to later becoming an acute medical surgical nurse. He went in, a thousand percent. And he reminds us that, like most things in life, his job can be both ends of the spectrum—and a lot of what he does comes down to attitude. You can’t teach good attitude—so they say?

(AW): So, my girlfriend is a nurse too. That’s kinda how we met. And, you know, she still has a hard time with bringing a lot of stuff home with her. She works in cardiothoracic surgery, so she sees people getting heart transplants, lung transplants, and then any other sort of cardiothoracic surgery. She’ll be with someone for months. It’s difficult for her to let go of that stuff, but I’ve been trying to tell her—to be an effective nurse, you need to be genuine and connect with somebody when you’re in the moment with them in the room. But then, as soon as you’re done—you leave the room—you have to break that connection and leave it there. Because you have to go into another room and you have to connect with that person. And you can’t bring one person’s situation into another person’s room.

And then, you can’t go bring all of those patients with you home because you have your friends, your family—people that you care about that you have to have space for in your mind, in your heart. So, to be, I think, very genuine and effective as a nurse, you have to do it in the moment. Say what you mean, mean what you say. And you have to find a way that you can make a real connection with somebody, but then also break that connection and leave it there. Because compassion fatigue is real, especially when you’re new and you think you’re going to heal the world. You quickly realize that you’re not. But you can make genuine connections with people.

It’s a privilege. It’s totally a privilege and you have to hold it very gently. You have to be aware the whole time that it doesn’t matter what your day’s like. Nobody wants to wear a gown. Right? Nobody wants to be in a bed. Nobody wants to be a patient. As bad as your day is as a nurse—is meaningless compared to whatever somebody else is there for. You just have to always keep that in mind, you know, because it’s easy to get frustrated. It’s easy to have a million people asking you to do a million different things when you’re there for twelve hours, sixteen hours. I mean, if you’re doing a long alpine objective, that could be eighteen hours. And you have to be able to shift your focus from patient to patient to patient and then (snaps) code hits, and you gotta jump into action and just go through the algorithm. You have to just know what to do. It’s just that you’re constantly on the sharp end (laughs). You know? You are. Like, you’re always on the sharp end and then you’re also belaying everybody. You’re belaying all your patients while you’re on lead. But it’s a privilege and I love it. I don’t know what else I’d do.

When you’re facing some serious adversity, you get to really see your truest nature and your truest character of who you are as a person. And I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to deal with adversity—but, if you go through adversity enough times, you can start to take a look at it and say, “How do I want to go through this? I’m aware that I’m about to enter a shit storm. How am I going to walk through it? And if I can even take it a step further: if I reflect back on my experience, would I look back on it and say, ‘You handled yourself well. Good job.’ or ‘Wow, I can’t believe you acted like that. Maybe you should try to check yourself, next time.”

(KK): There’s a remarkable beauty of relative perspective. I mean, it’s kind of amazing just to think that we all have this unique opportunity to alter reality. And yeah, there are some things that we can’t change, like that mean thing you tweeted when you were three sheets to the wind. And some things in life are just good and some are bad—really bad. Or are they? The concept that it all comes down to our perception is sort of an interesting one—a gift—to create good of bad. Alex had the individual realization that let him see life this way.

But it still doesn’t keep things from happening, and it wasn’t going to stop the shit storm that was about to happen—that Alex was about to walk into. Two weeks before leaving for Patagonia for a climbing trip, Alex’s life was turned upside down.

(AW): January 28th, 2016. 3:30 in the morning: I woke up with this severe abdominal pain—to the point that it woke me out of my sleep, rolling around on the floor, curled up in a ball in agony. I was in so much pain. It went away, I went back to bed because—I don’t know why, ‘cause I was scared (laughs). And when I woke up for real, I drove myself to the hospital. While I was driving in, I knew Colleen was there that day and I had a mega crush on her, so I was just like, “Hey. I’m going to be at the hospital today.” And she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t think you were working.” I was like, “Oh, my stomach—I’m not really sure.” And she’s like, “Oh, I’ll drop by and see you in the ER.” And I was like, “Ok. Cool.” The last thing I remember saying to her: “Oh, I’ll just text you later once I leave and let you know how things worked out.”

(KK): But it was hours later and Alex never left the ER.

(AW): A doctor had come out from the ER and was like, “You actually have this really rare blood clot in your superior mesenteric vein—” (which is one of the few veins that drains blood from your stomach to your liver) “—To have a blood clot there could be potentially fatal. We called vascular surgery. They’re coming down to evaluate you. You may be having an immediate surgery. Also, we saw your lymph nodes in your abdomen were quite enlarged—you know, seven, nine centimeters and you have all of these soft tissues masses everywhere.” But that was kind of more of an afterthought because it was like, “Oh my gosh—this clot might kill you.”

(KK): Alex has gone in for a simple cat scan and all he wanted was to get laughed out of the ER. He wanted to check in and be told that he was wasting everybody’s time, that he had gas pains. Give him some Gas X and tell him to go home—that’s what he was hoping for. Instead, he was suddenly facing a potentially fatal blood clot.

(AW): When the doc had come back and told me that there were all of these things going on—the last thing on my mind was cancer. I was two weeks away from going to Patagonia, you know, to go try to do some suffering down that way. I didn’t have any sort of concept, really. When they were like, “You’re going to be staying. We have vascular surgery team coming to see you.” it definitely was a curve ball from left field and I got really scared. Luckily, I had previously worked at this ER. One of my friends was my nurse and she’s like, “Maybe if you just read a little bit more information, it’ll make you feel better.” I remember reading over this cat scan report. It was hard to read it. I didn’t understand a lot of it. There’s a lot of things I had to look up that I was like, “Oh my gosh. This is really not something I’d want to read about myself.”

At this point, Colleen texts me and she’s like, “Hey, how did things go? Did you get home safe?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah. No, I’m still at the hospital. Turns out, things are terrible.” And she’s like, “Well, who’s there with you?” and I was like, “Well, nobody’s here. Nobody knows I’m here except for you, actually. You’re the only one.” And, you know, she was just a friend from work. We’d never even hung out outside of work and she’s like, “Well, can I come and be there with you?” and I was like, “Yes! (laughs). That would be great!” Because in my mind, I was like, “Ok well, that would be great. I have a major crush on this girl.” I was like, “Ok, you can come.” I said, “But I’m not really sure how things are going to go.”

So, she comes and basically, once she gets there, they put me into an actual room. I get admitted to the hospital and she’s in the room with me when my doctor comes by. I chose Dr. Goldberg ’cause he’s very direct: he doesn’t sugarcoat things. He doesn’t BS people. He just says it the way it is. And he just walks in the room, and it’s just myself and Colleen there, and he just says, “If this isn’t cancer, then I don’t know what this is.”

And that was the first moment that I was like, “Cancer? What? I thought we were dealing with a blood clot.” It was one of those things that I guess I just didn’t even want to consider that as an option. And he basically said, “Don’t eat anything else tonight. You’re going to get biopsied in the morning. Try to get some sleep.” And then he left the room. And Colleen was there and this is the first time we had ever hung out outside of working—which happened to be in the hospital. And it was the first time we had seen each other in regular clothes! And there we are, in a hospital room, and she hasn’t left my side since. She’s been through every appointment, every chemo treatment, everything. Our anniversary for when we started dating is the day I was diagnosed which is always bittersweet. You know? I always tell her that could have potentially been the worst day of my life, but I feel like it was the best day.

(KK): Funny how that works out, right?

(AW): Yeah. Very thankful for Colleen. She’s been an incredibly bright light in my life.

(KK): Wait, now I have— (sniffs).

The thing that hurt Alex the most was knowing how much it was going to hurt the people in his life: his mom and friends, and his daughter, who had just turned four the same day Alex found out he had stage three cancer.

(AW): It was stage three diffuse large B cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. So, lymphoma’s a blood cancer, so basically like your immune system is working against you. So, for me to try to explain that to somebody that just turned four—how do you do that? (laughs) But when I told my daughter, that word didn’t have any weight to it. It didn’t have the meaning. It didn’t have the context that we have associated with it. She’s four—so, then that made me think a little bit more about obviously, I know why it has that much weight and why it deserves the respect that it gets. But that being said, it kind of follows suit for how things have kinda gone in my life.

(KK): Like a lot of us, Alex has faced a lot of different adversity in his lifetime. He lost his dad when he was twenty, when he and his brother found the body.

(AW): Twenty years old: it’s tough to lose one of your parents. I remember I actually called him that Wednesday. I’d just had this random thought that I was like, “You know? I haven’t seen my dad much lately and we haven’t hung out.” I was twenty-years-old. I was in a punk rock band, was playing shows every weekend in some basement in New Jersey.

(KK): You were all the kids my mom didn’t want me hanging out with.

(AW): Yeah, but I was still such a dork.

(KK): Yeah, she didn’t want me hanging out with dorks.

(AW): Yeah, well with good reason. But yeah, we were all a bunch of dorks. I remember being excited about being like, “Oh, we’re going to hang out!” He doesn’t pick up and I leave a voicemail on his answering machine. This is Wednesday and I was like, “Hey Dad! I’m in your area. Let’s hang out. Let’s go bowling. Let’s go to the diner. Let’s go for a hike—I don’t care. Just give me a call back when you get this. I’m super excited. I’ll talk to you soon. Love you, bye.”

(voicemail beep)

And we found him that Friday. The next week, when we were clearing out his apartment, I was listening to the messages on his answering machine. Turned out that he passed away on a Monday. That Wednesday, I left a voicemail for him so, when we were cleaning out his apartment, I listened to that message. It was just a few days too late.

I have a tattoo across my chest to remind me. It says: “Live your heart and never follow”. The sentiment is: at one point, I’d thought because my dad’s an adult, it’s on him to fix things. But it was that awareness of “If something’s broken, you fix it.” And when I kind of came to realize that, was that Wednesday and I was a couple days too late. So, “Live your heart and never follow” is “Do what you feel like is right for you. Don’t worry about what you think you’re supposed to do or the way things are supposed to go. Do what you feel like is right for you—follow your heart.” That was my first experience with adversity.

(KK): Ok, plot twist! Can we talk about how Alex became friends with Conrad Anker now? Because I mean, how does that happen? Trajectory: get diagnosed with stage three diffuse large B cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, become pals with renowned alpinist Conrad Anker, and then climb a big wall with him?

(AW): Conrad has become a good friend, no doubt. He called me a couple weeks ago and

(iPhone ringtone)

I was doing something around the house and I was like, “Who’s calling me?” My phone says: “Conrad Anker”. I was like, “Oh my god, Conrad Anker is calling me. This is so cool!” (laughs) And he was just like, “Hey man, how are you? How are things? How’s life?” And we were catching up and I was asking about Jenny and his kids and how life is out in Montana. And he was telling me how ice is coming in in Hylite.

(KK): Like normal “shoot the shit things”, but with Conrad Anker.

(AW): Conrad and I first met in 2010. I was working for REI. Conrad was doing a film tour for “The Wildest Dream”. I was kind of the point person. We talked and he told me, “When you’re ready as a climber, you should make a trip to Patagonia.” and I was like, “Alright. Cool.” And then put that on the back burner for a long time. So, when I was finally ready to try to make a trip to Patagonia as a climber, I’d sent him a message that was like, “Conrad—we met six years ago. You inspired me, blah, blah, blah.” Just off the cuff, I’m just writing to him. When I found out that I had cancer, out of all the things I was doing, one of them was: “Oh, I better write Conrad back and tell him, ‘Hey man. Don’t wait for a trip report from me.’” And I don’t know why I thought that that was important but I guess—“live your heart and never follow”, right? So, I did. I wrote him back.

(typing on a keyboard)

And I was just like, “Hey Conrad. I’m not going to Patagonia. I’ve got to climb a mountain that has no rock. Thank you for all of the inspiration though.” And immediately, he writes back:

(email notification ding)

“So sorry to hear that. I hope you’re stronger. Hold fast, all storms pass, Conrad.” And that phrase: “Hold fast, all storms pass”—I grabbed onto that phrase right from the get-go. Conrad had then, you know, over the next week, had said, “Hey. You know, I’m going to be in the Philadelphia area. Is it ok if I come by and see you and see how you’re doing?” This was February 2016. I was like, “Well, I’m going to be in the hospital.” My first chemo treatment was ninety-six hours long so, I was in the hospital for a solid week in this crazy long chemo alpine push. Conrad shows up at the hospital. He, I’m sure, had a million other things that he had to do. He was touring another film. He took time out his day—he took hours out of his day and sat with me and my mom and my brother in the hospital. And just talked with me and wrote stuff down in his journal and he wrote in my journal. And I, still to this day, I don’t know to express enough gratitude.

While Conrad’s in the hospital with me, he says, “Well, you’re going to get better and we’re going to go do something big next year together.” And he said, “Have you ever climbed El Cap?” And I was like, “No. I’ve never climbed El Cap.” (laughs) and he’s like, “Next year, you and I are going to go climb El Cap together.” Writes it up on the hospital board on the discharge goals: “Climb El Cap with Conrad, 2017”. And he wrote “hold fast” on my knuckles. Every chemo treatment after that, I wrote “hold fast” on my knuckles. And now, for when I go out on a big climb I’ll write “hold fast” on my knuckles and it’s on all of my gloves. I actually did a little search, like a hashtag search for it, and I found all these other people now that write “hold fast” on their knuckles, going through chemo and stuff like that. And I don’t know if that’s from this or it’s just coincidental but that gave me so much strength, and if that can help some other people—that’s such a beautiful thing to have blossomed out of it.

Conrad, again, tells me that we’re going to climb El Cap together the next year, but there’s work to be done before that happens, right? I gotta get better.

You can’t choose the things that happen to you, but you can choose how you respond to them. And for me, that was a big takeaway. I was like, “I’m going to choose how I respond to this. I’ve got through enough adversity in life. You know? I know how to deal with an unpleasant situation. It’s ok to be scared. It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to be angry, but right now what I need to do is I need to deal with the situation at hand and get through it, and while I’m dealing with the hardest bit—I can choose to be happy. And I can choose to be positive. And I can choose to still smile, still choose to get up and try to have the best day possible. And that was all very conscious thought.

I end up doing six more cycles of chemo. By the end, when I do my PET scan, it’d come out clean.  So, it was just like, this kind of initial craziness to the beginning of the year, and then by the summer, it kinda floated by it and had gotten better which was just crazy to think, “I have this aggressive, fast-growing cancer and then went through, you know, months and months of chemo but—here I am.”

(KK): In a few months’ time, Alex was faced with a mountain of difficult things. While he’d asked himself why he had cancer, at one point, he started asking: “What?”. What kind of attitude was he going to bring going into this? Which is a hard question to reckon with when you don’t know the outcome—when the potential outcome is death.

But, Alex knows like he knew then, that there are lots of silver linings. And I know that silver linings aren’t always for everybody and that some people even consider them trite. But Alex acknowledged that every dark rain cloud has a silver edge to it and that those little slivers of hope do add up. That attitude, out of many things, is what got him through it. The point that a lot of people miss is that you can be sad and angry and have cancer and feel awful about it, and still choose happiness. Those things can coincide.

(AW): They can certainly both exist at the same time.

(KK): I mean, I think you’re living proof. Really.

(AW): (laughs) Yeah. I went through a lot of different emotions and it constantly felt like I was trying, always in the moment, to understand why I felt the way I did and try to make the best of it which is difficult. At one point, I had gotten really self-conscious about losing my hair. For six months, I didn’t have any hair which, big picture, not a big deal, right? But, I’m a ginger for those of you that can’t see me right now.

(KK): You can’t see Alex right now because this is a podcast.

(AW): I am a ginger, warning (laughs). Growing up as a shy redhead, I got made fun of a lot. I went home crying a lot, specifically because of my red hair. As an adult, I developed a sense of “this is who I am” and I loved it and it was very much a part of who I was. So then, to kinda lose that thing that I self-identified with so much, even though it’s super superficial (super superficial) it’s just my hair. Still, it was just one of these other things that I didn’t choose it and in my mind, every time I walked outside, all I felt was people saw was cancer. Like, I wasn’t a person anymore. And I tried to figure out how to deal with that.

My friend owns an art studio and I was like, “Hey, why don’t I come in and be one of your models for your art class?” She’s like, “You wanna do that now?” and I was like, “I want people to come out and be able to see what somebody could look like in (what I perceived as) at my worst. And so we called it “Cancer in the Raw”. And I did, I went out and feeling my worst about, again, things that were not super important, but my looks and how I felt—like I didn’t go outside without a hat on. Nobody saw my head. I always had a hat on. And to get completely naked in front of a group of strangers and hold poses for two hours in total—that scared me more than anything. And I said, “Well, because it scares me so much, I think I should do it. I think I should learn something from this.” I remember at the end of the evening, I got a chance to walk around and see everybody’s artwork. And all of the things that I was self-conscious about and all of the things that I felt like they were the only things people could see—none of those things made it onto the paper. None of those things made it onto anybody’s painting. And I was like, “Wow. The way that I perceive myself is not the way that others perceive me.”

After that, I walked out without a hat on and I actually had to go to the hospital the next day for some scans and I remember writing in my journal. I said: “I went into the hospital for machines to look deep inside my body, to look at things on a cellular level.” At the same time, I’m trying to explore my own thoughts in my mind, but I was able to do that without a hat on and I was smiling. And, again, it was one of these things that I was able to take that control back and I was able to choose. I was able to kind of just change my perspective. And that’s the thing, in these hard situations, is like, yeah, it’s a hard situation, but maybe you can change that perspective a little bit and look at it from a different angle. And maybe that different angle is just enough to keep you going. And for me, it took nude modeling.

(KK): For those of you wondering, because I bet you’re all wondering: Alex and Conrad did make it to the Valley in 2017. They made a film about Alex’s story; it’s called “Hold Fast”. Spoiler alert if you’re listening to this episode: he survived and he’s been in remission for over two years.

(small crowd applause)

The film is out and just won an award from the Adventure Film Fest in Boulder, Colorado, and they’re currently waiting to hear back from BANFF. If you’re in the Philly area, they will be doing a viewing in April—so, check back!

Climbing El Cap together was a special way to sorta bookend Alex’s initial treatment, and it wasn’t just a nice thing to say in the moment. Conrad meant it when he said it and was as good as his word. They climbed an A3 aid route on the most inverted section of El Cap, hammering little beaks and pitons until they made their way to the summit.

(AW): There was one pitch of free climbing, which I led. It was 5.7 and I was like, “I got this one guys! (laughs)” and I did lead a C2 pitch and I placed hooks and I was terrified.

(KK): They’re scary.

(AW): Oh yeah. I was like, “Captain Hook!” I was just saying all sorts of dumb stuff and they were like, “Just climb your pitch!”

(KK): This whole time, the climbing community rallied for Alex and was there to help. Shawn Ryan, chapter chair of the Philly ACC chapter, put on a huge benefit to raise awareness and money to help offset some of the financial costs since Alex was out of work for six months. It was heartwarming to know that he didn’t have to stress over cash, and he could eat healthy while he was out of work and pay his hospital bills. If this did anything, above all else, it showed Alex that love was greater than cancer.

And—it was humbling. To receive that much love and support from both friends and strangers is humbling. And Alex looks forward to the day when he can pay it forward, when he can share that bright love with the rest of the world—and I’d say it’s safe to wager that he already has.

(AW): While I feel like I was able to draw a lot from within, I certainly took a lot from everybody else. I felt like I was being spotted by a thousand people. I felt like I was super high up on a line without any pro in and I was going to take the biggest whip of my life, but everybody was like, “You look good man. Keep going. You’re strong. Keep going.” I had everybody supporting me and that did make such a big difference. Just somebody just saying, “I hope you do ok, I’m sending you my best vibes.” That meant the world to me. Everybody that had reached out—I have so much gratitude from that and I am so thankful. It filled with me so, so much gratitude and you know, still, I’m overflowing with just this gratitude that I just wanna keep pushing out.

“How do I want to go through this?” When the doctor came in my room and said, “You have cancer.”—I cried. Man, it was hard. It was super hard. I cried a lot of nights. It was super scary, but I had the benefit of going through enough adversity in life. Adversity is one of those things that it’s a lot of kinda on the job training and you go through it once and you’re like, “Wow that was heavy. That was hard.” And then you go through it again and you’re like, “Why am I going through more adversity right now?” And then you keep going through more and more and by the time that I had found out that I had cancer, I had been through enough life experiences that I felt like I knew how to deal with the adversity. There was this idea that I know how to suffer and, in a large part, I think that’s what attracted me to climbing and the mountains.

There’s no sugarcoating it—that if you want to climb, you know, big stuff or hard stuff or fun stuff that’s just far out there, you know, you may have to deal with a certain amount of suffering and adversity. Climbing teaches you how to constantly deal with failure. I have failed more times than I have been successful as a climber, but through that constant training, you kinda see that this is just part of the process of learning: how do I deal with not completing the objective? How do I deal with not sending? You know, what is really the important thing here? Is my life going to be any different at the top of this route? Climbing teaches you so many things about life: how to deal with complex logistics, how to critically think through a scenario that has just changed before you, and how to deal with coming up short all the time. And when I found out that I had cancer, I was able to look back on my previous experiences through life and I was able to draw on climbing.

I choose how much I want to deal with when I’m climbing. Where, if I’m going to go out into the mountains for a certain amount of time, I’m choosing that. That’s my choice. The difference is when the choice is made for you and you can’t choose that, whatever that is. You know, if somebody puts something on you or if, physically, something has happened to you. How do you deal with that? It’s much harder, right? But I think that’s when you have to really draw on those lessons and say, “Ok. What have I learned, you know, as a climber? What have I taken away from this? You know, having big forearms isn’t going to help me when I’m having a hard time in life. It doesn’t do anything to be physically strong. How do you get to be mentally strong? And I think that climbing will teach you that if you’re perceptive to those lessons. And I think that you kind of have to look for those. Most climbers will find those lessons, but if you look for them—they’re right there. It’s always teaching you.

I know, for my daughter—she’s seven—and one of the first things I told her when we went climbing her first time: “There’s nothing at the top and nothing will change if you get to the top.” I said, “The hardest part of any climb is that first step, so I’ll just be proud of you for trying.” That’s the hardest part. Being bold enough to take that first step. Going out on a trip that you’ve never done. Walking into the woods that you’ve never been in for five miles to get to some wall that’s gonna scare you when you see it. The fact that you just got out of the car: good job. Climbing is not as important as the fact that you went for it in the first place.

(KK): Even though I still have no idea what I’m doing—things are happening. And if you’d like to help out and support this podcast, please check out patreon.com (that’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N) where you can sponsor us for as little as $1 per episode. It really helps keep this podcast going, and I’m so grateful for all of your help. Special shout out to Cameron MacAlpine because he makes this thing sound good. And a big thank you to everybody who knows how to speak another language. You are infinitely cooler than I am—I gotta get Rosetta Stone.

– You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. A huge thank you to Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, and to Evo Hemp, who is on a mission to bring you quality hemp products that are both affordable and accessible. What the heck is hemp, anyway? We’ll have to tell you next time. Support companies who support this podcast—we couldn’t do it without them.

If you liked what you heard, you can leave a review on iTunes or give us a like—like all good things, you can find us on the internet. Until next time.

4: All This Death

This episode is about best friends and healing, and it’s a reminder that grief happens, but so does joy.

This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Evo Hemp, and Dirtbag Climbers. Music by: “Jazzy Frenchy”, “Cute”, “Ukulele”, and “Funny Song” by bensound.com, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, “Song Before Sunrise”, “Sad Marimba Planet”, “Morning Mist” by Lee Rosevere, “Light Thought var 2” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com), “Blossoming” and “Pives and Flarinet” by Podington Bear, and ”The Lounge” by Tagirijus.

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Transcript:

(KATHY KARLO): This podcast is sponsored by Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, but most importantly–your snacks. Deuter is known for fit, comfort, and ventilation. Stay tuned for a new line of women’s climbing packs, coming out any day. I can’t tell you which one, but stay tuned for more about Gravity SL line–made by women, for women.

Deuter has a history of first ascents and alpine roots. Their head of product development even climbed Everest once, in jeans (hashtag not fake news.) Founded in 1898, Deuter believes in good fitting backpacks, so you can focus on way cooler things like puppies, pocket bacon, and gettin’ sendy, whether at the crag or in the alpine.

– We’re working with Better Help to connect you to licensed therapists because even though my advice and opinions are free, I am improvising the whole thing. Better Help lets you message a licensed therapist, day or night. They’ll match you with the perfect therapist for a fraction of the cost of traditional therapy. You know who goes to therapy? Prince Harry. Emma Stone. Jenny Slate. Kesha. Therapy is beautiful—everyone should go to therapy. Go to betterhelp.com/climbing to sign up and receive one free week. It helps support this show, and it helps support you.

– Do you have a best friend? Like, a best best friend, as in “BFF” in all capital letters. And I’m not talking about your husband or your wife—no names, Sean. I mean, your BEST FRIEND. The person with no contract legally binding you two together, somebody who has that uncanny ability to read your mind before you even speak, the person you call when you find your forever person. You know, not the person who rats you out in high school and tells your mom you that were smoking pot (which was never proven and, again, no names. Tim.) Anyway, do you have a best friend like this?

If you do have a best friend like this, then you’re one of the lucky ones. Because there’s this weird phenomenon that happens when you reach adulthood where it just…sorta stops happening. Schedules compress, your priorities change, and most people have already established who their best friends are. And I know that there will always be “friends”. Like, you don’t just stop meeting new people and it’s totally possible to make friends at any age. But a lot of them are “situational friends”, or “not quite friends”. You see each other occasionally, maybe go to dinner once a month, and (since most people consider phone calls an act of aggression) you text, a lot. But they’re still not BFF’s in the all caps letters variety. This episode is about that kind of best friend.

(SKY YARDENI): I was his best man at his wedding and his wife, all morning, she got ready and—dress and makeup and hair and all that—and me and him went climbing the day of his wedding. Everyone told us that it’s a bad idea and yada yada, but we went and had a great time. No sends (laughs). Nothing spectacular. But it was just him and me outside climbing really hard. It was really great. And we got stuck in a traffic jam on the way back to his wedding (laughs). And so, we got to his house. Both of us were getting ready and he was all dressed with his really nice clean, white shirt and I was without my shirt on and we were in the kitchen. He was making coffee. And he was like, “Sky. You have a huge zit on your back. I have to pop it!”

And I was like, “Of course man! That’s what partnership is all about.” You know? Fuck yeah. And so, he pops it and this thing squirts in his eye and (huge laughter). Exactly. And we’re like, “Oh my god. That’s the best thing that could have happened.” Because what if it would have squirted on his clean white t-shirt, you know? Or his shirt? Yeah, I’ll never forget that moment because it’s such a genuine, authentic memory that I have of true friendship—of a funny, stupid moment that I’ll cherish it for the rest of my life.

(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.

(SY): (deep breath) His name was Sela, which translates into “rock” in Hebrew. We’ve known each other for nine years. It was kind of like love at first sight. We met each other at the crag and there was a “click”.  We had so much in common. We’re both therapists, we’re both huge climbing geeks, we’re both very warm and also big—and so we love to hug. Both of us are really into social justice and social change. And yeah, and we love to be outside and to be dirty and to sweat and to work hard and to have deep conversations. It was so natural and organic—the way that our friendship kind of evolved.

(KK): Sela and Sky weren’t childhood friends. They didn’t meet at birth, and they didn’t know each other their whole lives. But when they met, they just fit. Sela was warm and magnetic. This was not a “kind of friends” friendship. Sky and Sela met and instantly connected. And the rest of it? It’s history.

(SY): We noticed that we have a really good connection and we both enjoy each other’s company. So, we started doing weekends together, whole weekends and trips, and we started working projects together and pushing each other really hard. We had a really cool ritual that every time, each of us would drive back home from the crag: we would call each other up with the very detailed report of all the sends, all the attempts, all the everything. Everything. And to just let each other know how our climbing day was. ‘Cause it was really important for me to know, you know, how many time he fell on the crux and what went well, what didn’t go well. And same for him, too. We really celebrated each other’s accomplishments. We were just able to really celebrate each other without that competitiveness. I told him, “We’re here to be together and to push each other and to be in partnership—and that’s what really matters.”

I think it was one of the easiest things I’ve ever done in my life. Like I said, it was so natural and obviously climbing was the glue that brought us together and then, through that, our love for each other really grew and blossomed. The thing that is with Sela, he was never really injured. It was always me. I always had accidents. I always had injuries. And through those injuries (it was like six, eight, nine-month injuries) it was a really long time—like broken feet and torn pulleys and dislocated whatever—and that’s when the friendship also really endured.

(KK): When you’re injured, invitations to the crag inevitably become less frequent because if your friends are feeling healthy and strong, they’re probably going to go climbing. But it’s cool, you’ll see them on non-climbing days. Right?

(SY): And so, it was really beautiful to see that, yes—climbing is the main glue that brings us together—and just our friendship and our partnership and the love that we have for each other is stronger and bigger than just climbing.

(KK): It didn’t matter if Sky was injured or if life got busy. Sela and Sky were best friends, period. To the end. This was some full-on bromance, the highest level of friendship between two men. It was so immense that Sky even officiated Sela’s wedding.

(SY): The wedding itself—I helped officiate half of it because, in Israel, everything has to be with a rabbi and Judaism and yada yada, but I was like, “Ok. Scooch over dude, like, I’m taking over.” And I was able to facilitate a really beautiful ceremony: taking two climbing ropes and weaving it into the audience and having someone take the two rings and threading the rings through the rope. And basically, the whole community passes the rings while I talk about community and partnership, and partnership in climbing, and how strong it really is. Yeah, I was really honored to be able to do that for his wedding, especially because he’s my main climbing partner and also, to see him build a relationship with his wife, who is also his climbing partner. And just really be able to support him in that, and both of them, ‘cause I saw their relationship blossom and grow from the beginning.

(KK): Sky moved to the US but he and Sela remained best friends. Nothing changed, except for the distance. They would talk all of the time, give each other the same updates after they went climbing. Keeping each other in the loop was always really important to both of them. And on Sky’s birthday, Sela called him to talk for hours.

(SY): He was actually also on his way back from the crag with his wife and so we had a video chat. They were singing happy birthday to me. And, the day after he called me as well. There are not a lot of crags in Israel and there are a few under the radar crags that are being developed. He asked me which crag to go to and I told him where to go, but he’s dyslexic. And so, in northern Israel, two of the new crags are the Sheeps crag and the Goats crag. And I told him to go to the Goats and he forgot, and so he went to the Sheeps. And it’s very, very underdeveloped and when I got the call, I thought I knew where he was. I told everyone, “No. He was at the Goats crag.” And he went to the Sheeps. It made sense ‘cause he always got lost. He never (laughs) he had the worst memory.

I was at yoga at the climbing gym, and I stepped out and saw five missed calls from his wife and a message: “Call me when you can.” At the time, she was two and a half months pregnant and I was like, “Maybe something happened to the baby.” I was also the first person they told about the pregnancy—before their families, before everyone. They called it a womb name: “Triol”, which is a region in Austria which I sent them last year and that’s where he was conceived. And I thought something was wrong with Triol and then I saw another message from a mutual friend saying that there was an accident in northern Israel, and there’s rumors that it’s Sela, my friend, and that I’m really really sorry.

And I started to shake. And the only thing that was going through my mind is, “There’s no way that it’s possible ‘cause I was always the one with the bad luck. I was the one who got injured all the time. I was the one with all the accidents. You know, four years ago, I was on my way to climbing and he calls me up. He’s like, “Sky. Are you ok?” and I was like, “Of course I’m ok, dude. What’s wrong?” And he said that there was an accident at the crag that I was on my way to and he thought, with my luck, it was me. When I saw this message, I was like, “There’s no way that it’s him. It’s not his time.”

I called his wife and she seemed really relaxed. And I was like, “Shikma, what happened?” She got cut off so I couldn’t really understand what she was saying, but because she was in a relaxed voice, I was like, “Ok, whew. You know, nothing happened.” And then I heard the word “accident”. And then I was like, “Ok. Tell me exactly what happened.” She said that there was an accident and that Sela died. (deep breath) I collapsed on the ground and started crying and screaming. I couldn’t believe it, on one hand, and I visualized it—like, exactly what happened. And that visual is still in my mind to this day.

(KK): Sela and Shikma went to a really underdeveloped crag. Neither of them had been there before. That day, seemingly like any other, Sela got on a warm-up climb and at the third bolt, the huge piece of rock that he was on disconnected from the wall. The boulder fell, taking Sela with him and crushing him below.

(SY): Took search and rescue around forty, forty-five minutes to get there. She did compressions and CPR and she tried everything she could, but he died on the spot. It was one of the worst and most and painful moments and experiences I’ve ever been in in my life. And I’ve been I’ve been through two wars, participated in two wars, I’ve seen death, I’ve almost died too many times. And just the thought of him dying—it just broke my heart. Completely. After processing it for the past almost six months—it’s been almost six months—one of the things that I can’t let go of: knowing that if I was there, it wouldn’t have happened.

(KK): Here’s the thing: Sky does not blame Shikma, or Sela, or even himself. This was a blameless accident. But in his heart, Sky knew that if he had been there,

(SY): It wouldn’t have happened. I would have prevented it—not could have, would have prevented it. He was a really strong climber, a really strong sport climber. And he didn’t have the awareness of rock—loose rock, you know. Rope work, you know—all the systems. He knew how to train, he knew the sequences, he knew cruxes, he knew projecting, he knew—yeah, training regiments. And that’s what he loved. But yeah, knowing that I would have prevented it if I was there is something that I have to live with for the rest of my life, too.

You know, so many people say that it was his time, you know, and maybe if not in a climbing accident, then a car accident or anything else. I don’t know. I know I don’t have any control over anything like that. Yeah. The only answer I think that I am able to understand is that there is no such thing as “textbook grief”. Not about time, not about process, not about how it looks like or what comes up or healing or the ways of healing. I think that certainty—that there is no certainty—is the answer that I’m receiving and I’m trying to accept it. It’s not getting any easier.

(KK): Do you think that it will?

(SY): I think that it will. It’s something that I am trying to learn how to live with—his death. And I have hope, too.

(KK): Loss is losing a million little pieces of that person, in a million different ways. And you not only grieve for the loss of someone, but also for the world that they leave behind. Sela left behind his wife and unborn child, “Triol”, who was due in four and a half weeks.

(SY): And a big hole in my heart that I’m not gonna even to try and replace ’cause that’s impossible. And he left such a huge heritage of love and support and caring and doing really, really, really meaningful work in this world and genuinely making it a better place. He was a leader in every way possible and charismatic, in a really humble and beautiful way, and very gentle, even though he was humungous—he had the biggest biceps I’ve ever seen! Always drooled on them (laughs).

Yeah, everyone wanted to be around him—all the people that I worked with, all of our community. He was a rock. You know, his name—it’s not by accident that his name is “Sela”. He was a rock in every way possible. Everyone in the climbing community knew him. He was consistent. He was there, all the time. While I was traveling and in between injuries—he was always there. Waiting for me or being there for everyone else. And it also showed in the amount of people that came to the funeral. It was packed. It was insane how many people came.

(KK): Sky flew from the US back to Israel the night before the funeral and went to see Shikma the next morning.

(SY): I went to his kibbutz and I met his wife there. And we went on a long walk and she had asked me to write something.

(KK): What did you write? Do you remember?

(SY): How much he meant to me—in every way possible, in every part of my life. I wrote about who he was, to share with people my perspective of him because I was the closest person in his life for a really long time. No one knew him like I knew him. Not even his wife, not even his family. And so, just to share a bit with, I don’t know, fifteen hundred people who came to the funeral, about the way that I saw him and how I experienced him and just the beautiful wonderful man that he was.

(KK): Sela’s funeral wasn’t conventional at all. There was music, The Killers, some Pink Floyd, and a ton of people. Fifteen hundred people, to be exact. I don’t even know that I know fifteen hundred people.

In Judaism, there is a ritual called Shiva (did I say it right?)

(SY): “Shiva”.

(KK): “Shiva”.

(SY): Yeah.

(KK): which means you sit and mourn for seven days. Traditionally, there are five stages of mourning in Judaism. Shiva is considered the third stage of mourning, and after the funeral was over, The Killers were done playing, Sky came and sat Shiva for two weeks with Shikma.

(SY): And the whole family and community come and support, and so I was with her for those whole seven days. Also, I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I came to be with her and to try to grieve and process this whole shit show myself. And it was complicated. You know? We went to two ultrasounds and that was really confusing. Easily, I found myself in his shoes. You know, taking his wife to an ultrasound and standing next to her and holding her hand and seeing a heartbeat. So many emotions came up—for her, for me. And I’m also not this child’s father. And it was just really complicated. Not knowing if I needed to move back to help her out. You know, I can be as supportive as I can and share with this child about his father—be a loving, supportive human being in his life—and I’m not his father. I’m not his father—and what am I? Like, what role do I play in this? So, that was really complicated for me, too.

(KK): Sky eventually had to figure out what his role could be. I mean, he lived on the other side of the world. It was complicated. Taking on this role—it wasn’t in his religion, and it wasn’t out of obligation.

(SY): But there is just something that I’m not really able to describe about the fabric of true partnership, especially in climbing, for me. And how strong it is and how incredible the ties between two people, not only being tied into the same rope, just sharing those experiences and you know, the highest amount of trust and the lowest lows and everything in between. And, in that partnership and relationship, I would do anything for him—also move back to Israel and raise his child. Yeah. We showed up in each other’s lives. Like, we really, really showed up.

(KK): I just got a tingle when you said that.

(SY): So, what was really interesting is that a ton of climbers came to the funeral. So many people came and showed love and support to Sela and just the whole community—‘cause that’s when it also really counts and matters, you know? And the Shiva is different. Shiva is more homey—people sit down and really have conversations. And I noticed that there was a huge discrepancy between the amount of climbers that came to the funeral and the amount of climbers that came to the Shiva. And I was wondering where that is coming from. My thoughts were that this accident—this death—touched so many climbers in so many different ways. Not only of personal grief in mourning and trauma, but also…something is missing in the community, or this could have happened to me or a loved one. Because we all climb—all the fucking time. You know? We do this all the time. It could happen to any one of us, at any time. And so, I think it touched home to a lot of people, and not a lot of people really knew how to express it or what to with all of these feelings and emotions.

People know how to show up and be present, but not necessarily express it and talk about it. Two weeks after the funeral, me and his wife had organized a climbing event in his memory. So, we cleaned up our favorite crag and a lot of people showed up. And it was just a really great day to be out and a lot of people were climbing and just having picnics and being together and yeah, and sharing that space together was really great.

Towards the end, I had a feeling that something’s missing, so, I gathered everyone and we sat in a big circle. We’re like seventy climbers. And I started in saying that these past two weeks were pretty much hell for me—couldn’t imagine anything worse, and really painful and complicated and really hard. Yeah, so, just opened it up to being vulnerable, ‘cause I was sure that I wasn’t the only one. Yes, he was my climbing partner and yes, this incident touched so many people in so many different ways. I just invited whoever wanted to talk to talk, to just share and experience a memory, a feeling—whatever. And, wow. We couldn’t stop them. It was like an hour and a half of just people sharing so many wonderful things, and so many really painful things, too, and seeing the importance of being in community. Because a lot of people experience grief. A lot of people experience trauma. And, for me, because climbing is such a big part of my life, there is something unique that I share with other climbers that I feel like only they could really understand. Yeah, ‘cause people just wanted a place to do something with all of these things that have been building up inside and no one really knew what to do and how to do it. And it was like (deep exhale): a synchronized sigh of seventy people. And so needed, so needed.

(KK): If you’re anything like me, then you probably spend a lot of time avoiding things like people you went to high school with or maybe coughing children. And it’s not because I don’t really love awkward encounters or kids, but I’m all about avoiding unpleasant situations and the feelings that come with them. We do this with grief, too. 

(SY): I’m having a really hard time. These past six months have been really shitty. I don’t have “grieving” on my forehead, right? And people forget or I don’t always show everything that’s going on. And also, I’m not grieving twenty-four, seven. And also, grief is so unsexy to talk about. It really is! It is really, really hard to talk about it. It’s really hard to be in the presence of. I’ve had really good friends that have been avoiding me for the past six months because they just don’t know how to be around me—and I totally get it. Why not put a bandage on it and let’s continue living our lives? But it doesn’t work like that. You know, I go to sleep every night with this and I wake up every morning with this and it’s not going away.

Sometimes, all I need is a hug. You know? All I need is: “Let’s go on a walk outside in silence.” Grief can look like so many things and also, support can look like so many things, too. This can’t be fixed and there’s no expectation for it to be fixed, by anyone or by myself. And I just need to learn how to live my life with this now, with the sadness and the pain—and also, with the beauty and excitement and passion and fulfillment that life brings. Because life is colorful. And it has the dark moments and it has the really light moments. It is an inseparable part of it.

(KK): Sky doesn’t seem angry at climbing—like I think a lot of us might feel really angry with climbing if we lost our best friend. But Sky’s passion and love for climbing have only grown, and the more we talked, the more I saw this reflected in his words. His relationship with climbing went through this strange evolution, from hobby to lifestyle to community and identity. It’s hard to detach from that, and even though climbing is what took Sela away, Sky remembers how many things it did add to his life. It shaped how he sees this world.

(SY): How I see this world and how I see my life in others, and yeah, just climbing is the shit. And it’s going to change for me a million more times, as it did in the past, and that evolution is healthy as long as I’m connected to my intention: “Why I am doing it?” Am I doing it to avoid and to run away and to escape? Am I doing it to push my limits, my mental and physical and emotional? Am I doing it to go on adventures and to explore and to meet new people and new places in the world? Am I doing it to connect in different ways to my soul and to my spirit and to nature? There’s so many different intentions, but as long as I’m connected to my intention, I hope to do it for the rest of my life. And yeah, there’s a lot of risk. And it’s also really healing, for me. Being in nature is healing. Being with good friends is healing. Going on adventures is healing. Standing on a summit is healing. For me, it gives so much taste of life—and it doesn’t always taste good. But there’s a lot of richness.

(KK): Mourning is a cyclical thing. It’s not linear—you don’t just get from point A to point B and magically show up on the other side of it, a stronger, better person. You have good days, and you have bad ones. But, the bad days? The shitty moments—they pass. And you do eventually get to the other side of things, and you continue to love the world that they leave you with.

Sela and Sky’s story is proof that we can be just as fragile as we are strong. This episode is about best friends and healing, and it’s a reminder that grief happens, but so does joy.

(FEMALE VOICE): In French, love is “l’amour” and loss is “la perte”.

(MALE VOICE): Ádaraya. Maranaya.

(FEMALE VOICE): L’amore.  La perdita.

(FEMALE VOICE): The word for love in Hindi is “pyar” and the word for loss in Hindi is “khona”.

(FEMALE VOICE): Liebe. Verlust. That’s German.

Kjærlighet. Tap. That’s Norwegian.

Yubit. Poterya. That was Russian.

Ljubav. Gubitak. That’s Serbian.

(FEMALE VOICE): Cinta. Kehilangan.

(FEMALE VOICE): Miłość. Strata.

(FEMALE VOICE): Loss: “shīlì”. Love: “ài”.

(MALE VOICE): Szeretet. Veszteség.

(FEMALE VOICE): Ljubezen. Izguba.

(FEMALE VOICE): Ài. Tòng.

(FEMALE VOICE): “The Hebrew word for love is “ahava”

(MALE VOICE): And the word for loss is “tsa’ar”.

(KK): No matter what language, love and loss are universally known. Everybody experiences them, and never in the same way. Grief is not the price that we pay for love, but a reminder that even though it’s bittersweet, they sometimes go hand in hand. And that’s kind of like life, right? We need the dark and the light, the sweet and the bitter—and may our lives be all the richer for it.

– Even though I still have no idea what I’m doing—things are happening. And if you’d like to help out and support this podcast, please check out patreon.com (that’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N) where you can sponsor us for as little as $1 per episode. It really helps keep this podcast going, and I’m so grateful for all of your help. Special shout out to Cameron MacAlpine because he makes this thing sound good. And a big thank you to everybody who knows how to speak another language. You are infinitely cooler than I am—I gotta get Rosetta Stone.

– You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. A huge thank you to Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, and to Evo Hemp, who is on a mission to bring you quality hemp products that are both affordable and accessible. What the heck is hemp, anyway? We’ll have to tell you next time. Support companies who support this podcast—we couldn’t do it without them.

If you liked what you heard, you can leave a review on iTunes or give us a like—like all good things, you can find us on the internet. Until next time.

3: She, Her, Hers

When we’re born, a doctor proclaims that we are male or female, based on what our bodies look like. But some people’s gender identity is just different from what was initially expected at birth. Halcy wrote in March of 2018: “Dirtbagging has been an integral part of my climbing experience. Two months after I learned to climb, I packed up into my vehicle and took to the road. But things changed when I came out as transgender.”

In March of 2018, Halcy wrote to me: “Two months after I first learned to climb, I packed up into my vehicle and took to the road. But that changed when I came out as transgender. The world became a more dangerous place for me and I didn’t feel safe climbing with whoever happens to be at the crag. While living authentically is totally worth it, it is hard to lose how you fell in love with climbing and find new ways of enjoying it.”

This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Evo Hemp, Dirtbag Climbers, and BioLite. Music by: “Jazzy Frenchy”, “Funky Suspense”, and “Funny Song” by bensound.com, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, “March of the Mind” by Kevin MacLeod, “Bloom” by Jahzzar, “Arboles”, “Flutterbee”, and “Pives and Flarinet” by Podington Bear.

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Transcript:

(KATHY KARLO): This podcast is sponsored by Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, but most importantly–your snacks. Deuter is known for fit, comfort, and ventilation. Stay tuned for a new line of women’s climbing packs, coming out any day. I can’t tell you which one, but stay tuned for more about Gravity SL line–made by women, for women.

Deuter has a history of first ascents and alpine roots. Their head of product development even climbed Everest once, in jeans (hashtag not fake news.) Founded in 1898, Deuter believes in good fitting backpacks, so you can focus on way cooler things like puppies, pocket bacon, and gettin’ sendy, whether at the crag or in the alpine.

– Hey. Are you ready for some new innovation when it comes to headlamps? Get ready for BioLite’s new HeadLamp, launching this spring of 2019.

Is there anything sadder than a headlamp that stretches and sags? There are some pretty impressive tech specs that say a lot about the innovation behind this piece of gear. It weighs less than two and a half ounces, uses a 3D SlimFit construction that allows it to sit flush on your forehead, and won’t bounce around. The design of the HeadLamp is unbeatable: a slim-profile, breathable fabric, and a whole lot of functionality packed in a powerful little light. (Is functionality a word? Because it always sounds fake to me.)

The BioLite HeadLamp launches in Spring of 2019 and is available on Kickstarter until October 19th. Keep updated on its release at bioliteenergy.com (that’s B-I-O-L-I-T-E) and stay tuned for a gear review coming up on the blog. (Seriously, will someone else use “functionality” in a sentence?)

– When we’re born, a doctor proclaims that we are male or female, based on what our bodies look like. Most people labeled male at birth turn out to identify as men and most people who are labeled female grow up to be women. But, some people’s gender identity–their innate knowledge of who they are–is just different from what we initially expected at birth. Most of these people describe themselves as transgender.

And transgender people come from all regions, every racial and ethnic background, from every faith community. Transgender people are your classmates, your co-workers, neighbors, and friends. With approximately 1.4 million transgender adults in the US–and millions more around the world–chances are that you’ve probably met a transgender person. Everyone has a gender identity, but for so many of us, we don’t even think about what gender identity is because it automatically matches our sex at birth.

My friend Halcy and I talk about what it’s like to be a transgender woman in the climbing and outdoor industry. In March of 2018, Halcy wrote to me: “Dirtbagging has been an integral part of my climbing experience. Two months after I learned to climb, I packed up into my vehicle and took to the road. But that changed when I came out as transgender. The world became a more dangerous place for me and I didn’t feel safe climbing with whoever happens to be at the crag.”

Please note that there is brief discussion about depression and suicide in this episode.

(HALCY WEBSTER): My name is Halcy Webster. I am a trans woman and I’ve been climbing for several years but I came out as trans a little bit more recently.

(KK): I asked Halcy if people treated her differently now, after transition.

(HW): Uh, yeah. (laughs) Yes. Yes, life is very, very different. Yeah, climbing, I’m having people telling me, “Yeah, for this next part, use your hands and your feet!” Like, it’s not like that’s any useful advice!

(KK): That actually happens—you get unwarranted advice?

(HW): Yeah! It was kind of funny, that guy who told me that, he said that he was a Stone Master from Yosemite and all that stuff. And it’s like, this is something that happens, you know, regardless of what type of people you’re climbing with: people who really know what they’re doing, people who don’t know what they’re doing—everybody has an opinion on what you should do.

(KK): Can you, in your own words, explain what a transgender woman is?

(HW): Sure. So, a transgender woman is a woman, first off, but what’s a little bit different about them is that at birth, the doctors assign them male. And that’s basically the only difference between a trans woman and a cis woman, or cis being “not trans”.

It wasn’t a singular event that I can point to, I was like, “Yup! That’s the moment I knew.” Although, I will say that once I found out that transgender was a thing that actually exists and there was a word for us, like, “Oh! That’s what I am.”

(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.

(HW): In my teens, when I was studying gene expression and genetic indicators and stuff like that and I thought, “Oh, what’s this trans thing? I don’t know about this.” So, I was just reading more about it, trying to expand my knowledge and then I realized that there’s a lot of similarities that I felt. I think one of the big things was when people would make stereotypes and generalizations about genders, in my mind, it always kind of triggered this thing—like, “Oh, wait. That’s not accurate because I don’t fit in there. That doesn’t describe me.” That was kind of one of the things that started tipping me off earlier. And I do remember just as a younger child being told, “Don’t stand like that. Don’t put your hand like that. That’s how girls do.”

Once I found out there was a name for this, that I’m not alone, that I’m not just some messed up person, that there are things you can do to feel better—it was a mix of emotions. One was relief—that I wasn’t alone. But then also, fear because I knew just right off the bat that, “Oh, this is not going to go well with my family. I lived a pretty sheltered life (laughs). I grew up in Michigan, kind of on the border of Michigan and Ohio, with a large family. I’ve got five sisters and one brother. So, my family is very loving but also extremely conservative. And so, with me being trans that certainly makes things a bit more interesting.

For like, twenty years, women in my family were not allowed to wear pants. That’s how conservative my family was. As a younger child, whenever I expressed any femininity, that was sharply rebuked. And I was homeschooled; all social interactions were focused either on family or on church. Now that I’m here looking back on it, part of the reasoning was if you control somebody’s social interactions, that’s really good leverage on controlling that person. And so, just kind of the specter of losing everyone you love is a huge motivator to act in accordance with what you’re told.

(KK): Coming out to your parents as homosexual, which refers to your sexual preference in partners, can be one thing. And not that one is easier or harder than the other, but coming out as a transgender person seems to be taking a lot longer to become “mainstream”. (I used air quotes, even though you can’t see them.) Regardless, coming out is exhausting—but how else will people know if you don’t tell them?

(HW): I come from a large family: five sisters and one older brother. Very close with my siblings, with my older brother and then my sister. Yeah, I was very close with those two in particular. My sister was the first one I talked to about this, just ‘cause I trusted her the most and I figured, if anybody in my family is going to be accepting, it’s gonna be her. And she wasn’t. She didn’t speak to me for several months. So, when your best hope doesn’t go well—that’s not very encouraging.

My older brother, I mean—he wants what’s best for me, but he thinks that he knows what is best for me. That’s kind of hard because his vision of what’s best for me is different than my vision of what’s best for me. Yeah, it’s definitely caused a strain on our relationship as well (laughs and sighs).

So, yeah. So, my family being as they are: they’re very involved in church—my dad is a church leader and so, they started to include some of his church friends in on this stuff without my knowledge or consent—like giving my contact information to his church friends so that they could contact me and try to change me. Those conversations really didn’t go well. Kind of one thing that struck me about conservatism and my family and just kind of a lot of my background is disregard for the concept of consent.

Kind of ever since then I’ve been receiving phone calls with the area code from my hometown area. I’ve considered changing my phone number—changing all ways of contacting me. To even think about that, to think that I’m going to completely cut off everyone that I’ve ever loved—that’s just a hard thing to even think about. And I’ve got family members with declining health and if I cut off my family then I will lose out. It would be really great if I could see my grandparents before they die.

A lot of people don’t have very good family relations, but I just wish that I could actually interact with my family, that I could talk with them, and that I don’t have to literally hide from them. That’d be nice. Being a transgender woman, it in of itself is not a huge burden. The difficulties come from people. The hardest thing has been my family. It’s been losing people that I care about. It’s dealing with bureaucracy to get the medical care that I need and the legal representation that I need. All of the difficulties—they’re artificially created by other people.

(KK): Today, the youth are starting to reject this binary way of thinking that we’re all so used to and challenging their adult counterparts to keep up. This is so different from Halcy’s early years.

(HW): That I don’t belong is the most accurate way to say it, but it’s not just that I don’t belong in social circles. It’s like I felt like I didn’t belong in the world. It got pretty bad, and then I tried to ignore it and that only further declined my mental health. I felt very stuck. The only people that I had in my life were family and church. Even though I was an adult, I didn’t feel like I had a whole lot of freedom. And so, I felt that I couldn’t do anything to move forward towards transition.

I’ve always been super outdoorsy, always loved just spending time in nature, going camping, going backpacking, canoeing, and kayaking. And so, then around this time in my life, I thought, “Well, I’ve got a whole lot of crap going on in my life. Climbing was something that really appealed to me, and that’s something that I can do. That’s something that I can make some forward progress on.

(KK): And, like any new climber, Halcy started obsessing. She began watching climbing videos, watching climber’s movement, buying gear, building a rack. And then, Halcy took her first ever climbing trip to one of the sport climbing meccas in the southeast.

(HW): My first time climbing was down in Red River Gorge. I made a trip down there. So, then I figured that I can’t pursue climbing here in Michigan; I have to go west for that.

Two months after I first learned to climb, I hit the road. And it was very good for me. I mean, the physical side of it releases a whole bunch of good chemicals in your brain that are really good. So, in just that alone, made a difference but then also having more freedom—feeling like I didn’t have family members checking in on me, looking over my shoulder, free to think. And life on the road is just the best way to be free. It felt so good.

That’s how I met you, Kathy. It was in Ten Sleep and you had an incredible impact on me. I saw you and just kind of how bold you were, and it was obvious that you faced fear, but then, it was also obvious that you didn’t let fear stop you and that was really inspiring. And then, also to see that there’s a woman climber rocking it and living on the road like me and—just everything about our time together was very inspiring.

(KK): I’m not crying.

(HW): It was obvious that returning is not a sustainable solution for me—that I would have to leave my family again. So, I was planning on leaving that spring. Two weeks before I was heading out, I was bouldering in the gym (‘cause I wanted to stay in shape through the winter) and then I took a really bad fall and just totally messed up my leg. I tore my ACL and my meniscus and fractured my femur and had several other partial ligament tears. Yeah, it was—it was really bad. That canceled my plans to go live on the road (small laugh).

(KK): It’s tough to spend an entire summer basically lying on your back, looking at the ceiling, and feeling more stuck than ever felt before. It’s really hard when you have a plan to get out—and then, it’s yanked from underneath you.

(HW): And then also, I’d lost all of my previous coping mechanisms. Before, to make myself feel better, I would go running or go climbing or do something physical and I couldn’t do that anymore.

(KK): But Halcy did recover and in 2017, she finally made it out of Michigan.

(HW): Early spring, late winter—I finally made it out. That time I spent lying on my back waiting for my knee to heal, I had a lot of time to think. I came to to the conclusion that I don’t have a choice on if I’m going to transition or not. If I’m going to live—I’m going to need to transition. I started that as soon as I could and—that wasn’t soon enough because again, like I said, bureaucracy and dealing with people and all that stuff. But here I am now. I mean, this is the best life has ever been for me. This is the best I’ve ever lived—because I get to actually be me, and that’s an amazing thing to be able to do.

So, probably one of the biggest things that I’ve learned from rock climbing that applies to other areas is to rationalize fear. I get scared a lot when I climb, but I’ve learned to say, “Ok—is this fear something rational or is this irrational?” I look at my system: I’ve got a rope. I’ve got my quickdraw (at my knees!) Ok, this is an irrational fear—I’m going to ignore it. But then, also recognizing that, “Oh ok, no. This is actually a dangerous situation here.” So, kind of learning to differentiate between what is a rational fear and what’s an irrational fear is an invaluable tool that I have gained from climbing. And it’s definitely helped me with transitioning, just dealing with these fears and letting the rational ones not control me, but inform me—and just pushing past the irrational ones.

(KK): Not all fears are irrational, though. And living without fear of discrimination and violence and being supported and affirmed in being who you are is something that I think a lot of us take for granted. And, for as many people who are kind and compassionate and open about gender diversity, there are just as many people who aren’t.

Last year, in 2017, at least twenty-eight transgender deaths were tracked in the US. Most involve clear anti-transgender bias. Being fired or denied a job, facing harassment, homelessness or living in severe poverty, or being denied critical medical care—these are just some of the existing barriers that the intersections of things like racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia can create. In 2018, there have been at least twenty-one transgender lives taken by fatal violence.

(HW): My sense of trust has really been damaged. Definitely kind of developed some trust issues there. And (trails off) just, there’s so much more to be afraid of, it feels like.

(KK): I think it’s hard for a lot of people to understand that fear, you know, just that constant threat of attack if you don’t experience it, and you have no way of experiencing it.

(HW): I take much more consideration onto which environments I put myself in. I lost my job over transitioning, all of my family members, everybody I knew in my hometown. And so, just kind of seeing all of those things, I don’t want to give anybody the opportunity to treat me like that again. So, I generally avoid situations where I think that there’s a chance for things to go negatively.

(KK): Did you have preconceived ideas before you transitioned or while you were transitioning about what the climbing community might be like, coming back to it?

(HW): I found some great climbers that I absolutely adore and just love spending time with, and a lot of that’s through an organization that I’m a part of now called the Alpenglow Collective. And so, it’s kind of a community building platform for women and trans people. I wouldn’t either condemn or praise the climbing community as a whole for how it treats trans people because the climbing community is too diverse for that. But I will say that it only takes one negative person to alter your life in a terrible way, regardless of how many positive people you meet. That definitely had an impact on kind of the caution I’ve taken with getting back into the climbing community.

(KK): Because she chose to live openly as a transgender woman, Halcy lost a lot in a short period of time. She lost all of her family, all of her friends and social life, and her job that allowed her to work from the road. And yet

(HW): It pales in comparison to how much I’ve gained from actually being able to live. I’ve climbed with people who, some of them know that I’m trans, some of them probably know. But, I mean, it just hasn’t been an important point of discussion. I mean, it doesn’t really matter that I’m trans. They treat me as a climbing partner and as a friend and that’s really great—just to feel accepted and to feel kind of somewhat normal. So much of my life has not been normal and so, to kind of get a little sense of that is very nice.

I don’t think that if somebody is close-minded, there’s a whole lot we can do to change that. In order for somebody to learn, they have to want to learn. So, that first step of wanting to learn is up to the individual. We can’t make somebody want to learn. What we can do is provide them with information—educate them. Talk about how gender is a social construct or just talking about the experiences of people and just letting them know that there’s more to the world than they’ve seen and that they know—that they’ve seen a very small perspective of what can exist in the world and that they should consider things that they haven’t considered before and that they should listen to people they haven’t listened to before. There is so much out there to learn. So, yeah just encouraging a culture of continued learning.

(KK): You know, I’ve definitely realized over the years that being a passive bystander can actually be more harmful than anything. And so, what do you think some things that we can do to aid in transgender visibility and help create safe environments are, based on your own personal experience?

(HW): I mean one is, when you see transphobia or anything like that, I mean—calling it out. It’s far more difficult for me to call it out because, in doing so, then I’m opening myself up to attack to from that person. And so, having a cisgender person who can kind of call them out without fear of being attacked for their gender—that’s a very appreciated thing. And also, just one example of really good allyship was, again with Alpenglow Collective. Our organization was asked to speak on a panel and so, the leader of our organization was the one who that was asked and she asked them if they had any trans people speaking at this panel. And they said they didn’t. And she’s like, “Well, then you need to get a trans person’s perspective.” And so then, she suggested that they talk to me. And so, kind of making sure that trans people’s voices are represented. So, sometimes the act of action that allies can take is being quiet. But not just being quiet—but being quiet to make a space for additional voices.

I would say that a really big misconception that I’d want to eliminate is the idea that a trans woman becomes a woman. No, I mean—a trans woman has always been a woman it’s just that she’s had to hide who she was for a period of her life. I’ve been really tempted just the thought of, “Ok. So, what if I tried to make sure that nobody knew I was trans?” And just everybody that met me would think that I’m cisgender and I wouldn’t correct them and just kind of go along with that. And I mean, that’s really appealing—that idea of normalcy and just leaving behind parts that have caused so much grief in my life. The thought of being able to escape is very tempting. If I did that, then I would be silencing myself and not lending my voice to an important issue.

When I was first figuring out gender and all of this stuff, it would have been so nice to have a trans person, particularly in climbing, that I could look up to and see that, “Oh. It’s ok to be a trans climber.” And that there is hope for a good life. I didn’t have that. (pause) I want to send out that message to other trans people who are scared. I want them to know that: things will be tough. I won’t lie to you and say that it will be easy, but I will tell you that it will be worth it and that you can get through it.

I am now on the executive team of Alpenglow Collective

(KK): Shout out to Emily!

(HW): and that’s been hugely impactful for me. Just connecting me with amazing people and getting to do wonderful things and make a positive impact on the world—and doing it all through climbing. I mean, (laughs) what better thing could there be? It’s something I do just because I love it so much—calming my mind, making my body stronger, and developing relationships with really awesome people. And I’ve got climbing to thank for all of that. Climbing has changed my life and it will continue to do so. I hope that I can continue to climb for many more years.

(KK): Some things we can all do to be better allies that I’ve learned: if you don’t know what pronouns to use, listen first. Challenge anti-transgender remarks in public spaces, including on social media. Set inclusive tones. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something. It’s always better to admit you don’t know something than to make assumptions or say something that may be incorrect or hurtful. Being an ally is a sustained and persistent pattern of action. 

(HW): I am very excited about where the community is heading. I don’t think that most people are intentionally malicious—I don’t think that most people want to hurt people—but just because of their lack of awareness and their ignorance, they do end up hurting people. And that does not excuse their behavior but to me, it feels me with hope because I can’t change it if somebody intentionally wants to be hurtful, but I can do something about it if somebody doesn’t want to be hurtful but just doesn’t know. We can change people who just aren’t aware—that’s a thing that can change and to me, that’s so encouraging and so hopeful.

And I think that there’s a lot of conversations going on right now about people of color, the LGBTQ community, women, and so many important people that have been excluded. There are conversations now about that that didn’t exist before. And I think that we have definitely come a long ways, but I still think we have a long ways to go—and we will probably will always have a long ways to go. The point isn’t to be perfect. The point is to be better. I think as long as we keep that forward progress—that’s really all that matters. And I do see that forward progress happening, and it does fill me with hope.

(KK): If you are a transgender person in crisis, there are so many resources available. Check out The Trevor Project, which is open 24/7, 365 days a year at 866-4-U-TREVOR. There’s even a list of international resources at http://www.thetrevorproject.org.

You can call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 and if you are having thoughts of depression and suicide, please—reach out to the The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK. You are not alone.  And just keep talking about how to challenge the beliefs of close-minded people in constructive ways. We can’t force everyone to be supportive, but we can give them the tools to learn and try to understand. Acceptance doesn’t always require understanding, but understanding will often follow acceptance.

(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast

(record scratch + iPhone ringtone)

(FEMALE VOICE): At the end of your message, press one

(light beep)

(FEMALE VOICE): I am calling ‘cause I am making the long drive up towards Washington right now, ’cause I’m gonna go spend some time in Squamish. But I listened to your podcast and you weren’t lying—I literally cried the entire time. The entire time! (laughs) I wanted to call and just, first off, tell you how moved I was by it and just how I wish there were more podcasts for me to listen to today. (laughs) I have a long drive! But also, just talk about it and how moved I was. It brought up so many thoughts! It was so good and I just wanted to share how moved I was.

(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing, and even though I still have no idea what I’m doing—things are happening. And if you’d like to help out and support this podcast, please check out patreon.com (that’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N) where you can sponsor us for as little as $1 per episode. It really helps keep this podcast going, and I’m so grateful for all of your help. Special shout out to Cameron MacAlpine because he makes this thing sound good.

(record scratch)

A huge thank you to Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, and to Evo Hemp, who is on a mission to bring you quality hemp products that are both affordable and accessible. What the heck is hemp, anyway? We’ll have to tell you next time. Support companies who support this podcast—we couldn’t do it without them.

If you liked what you heard, you can leave a review on iTunes or give us a like—like all good things, you can find us on the internet. Until next time.

2: A Unique Relationship

Bryce’s brother Tyler died in a climbing accident but because of his death, Bryce became more intrigued with the sport that took his brother’s life. He says he has a unique relationship with climbing, and he doesn’t believe that the grieving process is this big scary monster we all think it is.

This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Evo Hemp, and Dirtbag Climbers. Music by: “Jazzy Frenchy” and “Funny Song” by bensound.com, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, “Brave”, “One Moment”, “We Are Saved”, and “Warm Feeling” by Borrtex, “End of Winter” by Rest You Sleeping Giants, and “Heart Ache” by Broke For Free.

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Transcript: 

(KATHY KARLO): This podcast is sponsored by Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, but most importantly–your snacks. Deuter is known for fit, comfort, and ventilation. Stay tuned for a new line of women’s climbing packs, coming out any day. I can’t tell you which one, but stay tuned for more about Gravity SL line–made by women, for women.

Deuter has a history of first ascents and alpine roots. Their head of product development even climbed Everest once, in jeans (hashtag not fake news.) Founded in 1898, Deuter believes in good fitting backpacks, so you can focus on way cooler things like puppies, pocket bacon, and gettin’ sendy, whether at the crag or in the alpine.

(BRYCE GORDON): Myself and climbing have kind of a unique polar relationship where after it took my brother, I became very intrigued with it because of the community it held and the connection back to him. But, at the same time, sometimes I’ll either be at the base of a climb or on a climb or, really, at any point associated with climbing and the switch will flip. And I’ll just be disgusted and tired and really turned away by it. And it’s interesting…coming up to those moments or realizing that I’m approaching them. It’s just kinda the way it is, but it’s still a really insightful opportunity for me every time I tie in or head up the crag.

(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.

(BG): Sometimes people are like, “Do you have any siblings?” and you’re like, “No.” and you go on with the conversation and you’re sitting there sweating like, (quick breath) “I just lied about my brother dying!” I didn’t lie but, you know, you get really–I get really stressed out sometimes. I can’t believe I just swept that under the rug! And then I’m like, “Fuck it, they don’t need to know. Like, I don’t have to put that on them or me at this given time–we’re enjoying an ice cream sundae. There’s no reason to fucking slap them in the face with that.” So, you can either say no and continue on with the conversation or you can say, “I did.” and continue on with that conversation.

(KK): Bryce Gordon used to have a brother. For the rest of his life, there will always be a before and an after. The before, when his family was intact and his brother, Tyler, was still alive and with them. And after, when Bryce would somehow learn to live without Tyler. And losing a brother or sister is a little bit different than losing, say, a parent. Relationships can come and go and parents age, but a brother or a sister is different. A sibling is sort of a co-keeper of your childhood, someone you’re supposed to get to spend a whole lifetime with.

(BG): So, it’s totally an in-the-moment judgment call. And my mom and I actually talk about that quite often: “What do you say?” like, “What do you do?” Because my father passed away and a lot of people–like, “Oh, what do your parents do?” and I say my mom’s an architect and that’s normally enough to satisfy them. They never ask about the second parent. So, it’s this interesting, yeah, it’s an interesting way that you get to choose how you interact with society and how much other people know. It’s a valuable tool–to recognize that you have that choice.

(KK): Is choosing to talk about Tyler about finding the right people to talk with?

(BG): I think sometimes, if it’s the right person and I feel like they are up for the challenge. It’s a really traumatic event and like, you’ll tell somebody this traumatic event and they get a sense of trauma themselves. So, I feel like if they’re up for the challenge and they want that struggle, then I’ll definitely engage with them. But, there are a lot of people–and this could just be ‘cause I’m a twenty-year-old and all the students I go to school with, thankfully, have never experienced anything like this—and so, there’s a lot of, they just don’t know how to respond and then you just kinda get this award silence of “I don’t really want your pity or your sympathy. I want your thoughts. I want your ideas.”

(KK): Tyler and Bryce spent most of their childhood adventuring and climbing together. Having grown up with an older brother myself, I just sort of picture most brother relationships to be filled with your typical antics—you know, name-calling, stealing Halloween candy from each other and, sometimes, you pretend that you’re The Rock and practice your Ultimate Fighting Championship moves on the weaker person…you know. Fun stuff like that.

But Tyler and Bryce had a different kind of childhood.

(BG): Yeah, I think some of my fondest memories as kids are climbing up Elephant Rock. Mom was off on a run and Tyler was just dragging me up this thing. And he was like, “Come on, come on! You gotta get up this!” And I was like, “Ahh, what’s the big hurry?” and got up and ran up to the top of the dome and watched this amazing sunset. And then he was like, “Alright, cool. You wanna toss the rope on the rappel?” He always just led by like a very simple and subtle hand, so.

There was never an option to not clean a route for him. No matter what, he was gonna be like, “Alright. I don’t care if takes you an hour–you gotta top rope this thing and get me my draws.” And so, there’s like, clipping chains, there’s always that moment of like, “Thanks Tyler. Thanks for fucking kicking my ass as a kid.”

And I’ve been back to Penitente Canyon down in the San Luis Valley. It was a big place we used to climb as kids. A very unique style of climbing on really beautiful rock and that was where Tyler really started to kind of first push his leads. And going back there with some of his friends and being able to repeat the first 11 he ever did, and then repeat some of the other 11s that were kind of bigger goals for me, and being able to just do those clean in a place right next to that piece of scrub oak where I used to be tied in as a little kid belaying him as he tried things as a twelve-year-old is like, “Wow. This kid was fucking rad and he’s made me a pretty rad little brother.” And so, you get these moments of kind of emotional ecstasy and complete gratitude for him. A lot of people could also get really mad at him for the position he’s put us in. So yeah, climbing is just this kind of double—this really amazing—double-edged sword.

(KK): That’s pretty much the elephant in the room with all of the lights turned on, isn’t it? Going in deep and asking whether or not climbing is fundamentally selfish means that we have to look at our lives and our loved ones within it. How do climbers justify the risks that we take to the people that we love? And can we?

A question that we all ask ourselves honestly, at least once in our lives. It was a question that, after May 27th in 2015, Bryce has had to ask himself, too.

(BG): I guess I like to start kind of where it entered our reality, which was Wednesday night at 1:30 in the morning. And I just remember, kinda in that pseudo dream state where you’re aware of these things going on outside of—you know, like, you should maybe be waking up but you’re not really sure. And I remember our dog was up and about and sirens outside, and I was like, “Well, there’s no reason the police officer would ever be at our house.” And then, there was a lot of banging on the door. Mom wasn’t going to get up, so I got up and answered the door and was staring at an officer in my boxers. And the first thing he said is, “Is your dog friendly and safe?” and I was like, “Yes. She’s fine, you can enter the premises.” And then the chaplain, I believe is the title of the person, was also there and was like, “You should go get your mom.” So, I went and woke her up and she came out. They came in and the officer and chaplain pretty much just said, “All we know is Tyler had a fall and Tyler’s dead.”

And I just remember my mom just turned around, and my mom’s like 4’11”, so, turned around and looked up at me was just like, “Bryce, you should go put some clothes on.”

(KK): It’s 1:30 in the morning and the police have just shown up at your door. And you’re standing there in your pajamas, thinking, “This has got to be a dream.” Except you don’t wake up because it isn’t a dream at all, and you start to quickly realize that everything has changed—and nothing will ever be the same again.

(BG): And I remember that was kinda the last moment, I think the last bit of maternal confidence she had. And then, after that it was just kind of, you know, let the world fall apart. And we were in the middle of remodeling our kitchen so, all of our cabinets were in the middle of our living room and our house was just a shit show. And the officer couldn’t leave until somebody else could show up. So, we called a really good family friend of ours whose sons have grown up with me and my brother and just kinda sat there in a puddle of drool and tears and snot.

Cletis, he had done a bunch of climbing with. Ryan, he hadn’t climbed with until that trip, but they had done some routes in Zion before heading to The Valley. They’d gotten to know each other, and both Ryan and Cletis are like, “Those first three days we spent on the wall were absolutely fantastic.”

(KK): Tyler had been on a twelve-month long road trip through Europe and the US. He studied applied mathematics at CU, where he finished a difficult undergraduate degree with a 4.0 GPA in three years. Trying to get in as much climbing as he could before attending grad school at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, he and two other friends found themselves in Yosemite National Park.

(gear clanking)

The Valley, where climbers go every year to cut their teeth on big wall style ascents. It’s where Ryan, Cletis, and Tyler had plans to ascend The Nose, a thirty-one pitch big wall route that follows the massive prow.

(BG): Tyler and his two partners left, I wanna say, they were camped at pitch twenty-six on The Nose and had climbed two pitches. And one of his partners was leading, one of them was belaying him, and he was jugging up the pitch they had just done. And the lead partner dropped a nut, which fell past the belay ledge and landed on a ledge below. And Tyler got to the belay ledge, and there was another party of three there. They were all kinda jamming out. They knew they were going to make the summit that day, so it was like, very casual, happy atmosphere. And got to the ledge and the belay partner, I think, said, “You know, I can go get the nut once we finish this pitch.” And Tyler, of course, kind of being on top of things, voiced up and said, “I got it. I’ll go get it.”

And then, got up, tethered in with his PA and then, the next thing his partner Ryan remembers, he heard Tyler say, “Whoa.” and he turned to his left and Tyler was just leaning back and there was nothing to catch him. He just took a three hundred foot whipper and hit the ledge they had camped on the night before and died immediately.

(KK): Had something in those split seconds gone horribly wrong? Bryce would go over this in his head, again and again.

(BG): That’s–I mean, that’s the strangest thing about the event. There shouldn’t have been any mistake and there really was no causality or reason for it. But, when they found him, his Grigri was on—he was still tied into the fixed line he had been jugging and his Grigri was on his belay loop but wasn’t threaded at all, so, he somehow just was one step away from his full transition into rappel and just, for some reason, hit a moment of complacency.

(KK): Tyler had fallen twenty feet to the next ledge beneath them, and then further down to the Camp 5 ledge. He was never connected to his Grigri, which is a rope braking device that assists in belaying. This caused him to free fall the length of the rope. Ryan and Cletis were unsuccessful in reviving Tyler…he was gone.

(BG): A few months later, around beginning of July—it was my birthday. My birthday’s July eighth, Tyler’s birthday is July tenth. So, I was up in Boulder with his friends for that occasion. I went over to their house—Ryan and Cletis both live together. And they made me breakfast. We went into the backyard and I just kinda let them talk, and it was super cathartic for them. And yeah, just talked for like an hour and a half.

(KK): Grieving friends did what anybody in that situation would do—they tried to piece together what had happened on El Cap. Not only was Tyler a good friend, a mentor, and a strong climber, but he was smart. He was a safe, smart climber.

(BG): In the days following, there was a lot of like, Tyler’s old climbing partners, who were older men in the community who had kind of taken him out and showed him the ropes, were like, “It must have been some other mistake, ‘cause Tyler was really smart and a really good climber and really thorough.” That’s definitely one of the hardest notions to dwell on, is that it was just a moment of complacency. There’s really no other causality for it.

(KK): Bryce took me through what the next few months looked like. Nobody is ever really prepared to lose somebody. I mean, you never see: “Happy and fulfilled person dies in their sleep at the exact right age without any discomfort, surrounded by all of their friends and family, all of whom are able to accept the fact and let go of that person and go on with their lives.” And when you lose somebody, nobody prepares you on how to mourn.

(BG): I mean the feelings–yeah, it’s not like a feeling, it’s a lot of feelings–definitely comes in waves of—like the first month, every other day was an up and a down. Like, down my brother just died. Up, I pretty quickly got embedded in his Boulder community and just got to experience second-hand the life he had formed in college, which was kind of his blossoming. So just, like constant ups and downs and then, you know, eventually, those ups and downs stretch over the course of a month, and now, kind of more constant and less aggressive fluctuations. But yeah, it’s a constant feeling, for sure. There’s very few moments where you’re completely oblivious to the fact.

The sadness and depression kind of go away and those you can kind of remediate, but yeah, you kinda gotta accept the fact that even when you’re eighty, you’re still going to be in this process of just interacting with that event and the consequential emotions of it. Yeah, the grieving process.

(KK): The thing about grief is that it’s not just a matter of coping with loss; it’s also about coping with change. We’re talking about all of the big changes, like having to go to funerals and receiving sympathy cards (and casseroles, probably). And just not having that person around anymore to celebrate things like Christmas and their birthdays with—and then, all of the little ones, too. The more subtle ones, like wanting to send a text message to someone and then, suddenly remembering that they aren’t there anymore.

Grief…sucks. Life is impermanent, everybody dies, and everything over time will change—I think it’s Buddhism that tells us that (not the grief sucking part; that was me). It also tries to tell us “that life is characterized by suffering”. Seriously, Buddhism? I guess what they’re probably trying to say is that it’s ok to work through pain in your own way, and at your own pace. It makes us who we are.

Because grief is a process and not a task. Even if you’ve never taken a psych 101 class in your life, you probably know the five stages of grief. Or maybe you don’t! Here they are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages are meant to be used as a framework for going through loss and, while you might identify with some, if not all, it’s never really a linear progression. Grief just isn’t like a staircase; you don’t just get to the top and be finished. It’s more like a janky-ass rollercoaster ride with all of its peaks and dips. And it’s natural to have an uneven journey.

(BG): There’s so many beautiful moments I’ve had within this process in the past three years. It was three years, three days ago. So many beautiful moments and cathartic moments and moments of interaction, not only with the emotion but with Tyler. It’s got a whole lifetime. It fucking sucks. But, at the same time, it’s like, my life is going to go on and the seventeen years that he added to my life, you know, that I had him, is still priceless.

(KK): Most people in Bryce’s position might walk away from climbing forever. Bryce did the opposite. He formed this really unique relationship with climbing after losing Tyler—which definitely might seem a little strange. But, Bryce didn’t stop climbing and instead, he continued to tie in and let it mold his life.

(BG): Yeah, I think that climbing is probably one of the biggest triggers, but I pretty immediately was like, alright. I have to go climbing—mainly as a way to interact with his community, but also, as a way to interact with him. Our father passed away when he was four and I was fifteen months old and so, he was always a really quiet kid and climbing was always this way for this really brilliant young kid to use his mind and his physical skill and engage with an activity. And so, climbing is a trigger, both in the present but also, in the past, thinking about being tethered to a piece of scrub oak so I could catch him on lead when I was eight and he was twelve and weighed forty pounds more than me. And those sort of memories of going back to crags that we were both at, you know, when we were young, are definitely triggers.

I never really pushed myself climbing until after Tyler passed, because then I ended up doing it lot more of it to engage with his community. Some days, climbing is a really fun experience and somedays, I’m like, “Alright, this is what Tyler—this is what he felt! Problem-solving and making your body work and making your mind work to accomplish whatever objective.” Somedays, I engage with that at a really high level and other days (pause) I can’t get the sensation of uncontrolled free fall out of my head and I’m just like, I’ll be a top rope hero today.

My buddy Sam and I just went down to the White Rim and climbed Primrose Dihedrals on the Moses Tower. It was kind of the last hurrah before finals week. And I kind of knew, coming in the spring, climbing gets a lot harder and becomes more of a sensitive trigger to trauma. And I was leading the second pitch–and I love the desert. Tyler and I grew up in Durango really close to the desert and sandstone—it’s my healing environment.

So, I was really excited that Sam was like, “You’re going to lead this next pitch. It’s going to be awesome.” And it was just uncomfortable, and I was really exhausted. I had multiple moments where I was like, “I might fall here.” and instead of being like, “Alright cool, you might fall.” I just got really panicked and eventually just got to a point where I was like, “Sam, you have to finish this.” and came down and we just had a quick chat on the ledge. I was like, “I don’t think I want to lead anything until May 27th comes around. Until I’m past that date.”

And I’ve never been hard on myself because I think any other person in my position would just walk away from climbing and never want to interact with it. So, there are definitely moments where it’s just paralyzing and awful. It was an amazing climb, but it was still kinda, the whole time, I was like, “I kinda wanna just be back on the ground.”

Our father passed away at an early age and my mom was just an absolute trooper in raising us. And you know, if she doesn’t do fourteen miles a week trail running, she kinda goes stir crazy. And so, it’s definitely kinda something in our family where, yeah, we like to suffer through things–engage with hardship. And even though there are moments of emotional paralysis and utter, just total—not devastation, but kind of a form of depression that hits you on the wall very subtly.

I mean, since that last trip to the tower, I haven’t put my shoes on. I don’t really feel the need to, and it could be all summer, it could be not until school starts again and I want to go burn off energy at the bouldering gym. It’s just—I don’t force myself to interact with it in any sort of way. I just kind of allow whatever opportunities come and if I feel good, I’ll get on something and if I don’t, I’ll just be a top rope hero all day.

(KK): Or just not even climb.

(BG): Or just not even climb. It’s like, climbing I love you and I’m grateful for you but at the same time, I can tell you to just go fuck off whenever I want. (laughs).

It’s pretty rare that I just go from point A to point B through the event. But, it’s good to do sometimes. I will pull up things that have been dog-eared in my journal that are these crazy cathartic passages I’ve written and I’ll share them with Tyler’s friends at the correct moment, you know? Yeah, when you allow somebody else to interact with your thoughts, it just adds a whole different level of complexity and purpose to the whole discourse.

When you’re feeling these really heavy things, it’s hard to conceptualize them and there’s a lot of little boxes in our society, but you can’t draw little boxes around events this unique. So close your eye and, you know, look into your mind’s eye, which some people get that and some people don’t get that, but just think about what that looks like and what that is, and to me, it’s always kind of been this really heavy weight. The way I kind of visualize it and think about it is like you’re tossing somebody this anecdote, and you’re tossing them this weight, and you get to see them fumble with it and try to catch it and figure out what it is. And sometimes, they get a really firm, solid grasp. And you’re like, “Awesome. We did it. Like, we made that connection. You got something out of it, and I got something out of it.”

(KK): Grief affects our whole self, and yet we tend to treat people who are coping with a loss like treating somebody with an injury. But, eventually, a broken limb will heal and even though we physically look fine on the outside, internally, we aren’t always. But—also, don’t treat us like we’re helpless. Right? Grief is…really complicated.

We shouldn’t treat it with over sympathy but we also need to share real thoughts and feelings with those who are dealing with it. Engaging with the actual event and trauma that someone is experiencing, and not just assuming that they’re helpless and sad. Because most people aren’t helpless. They’re still walking, breathing people.

I think that society views people going through loss as very broken. Like, it’s almost easier to view someone that way because when you have a benchmark for what it’s supposed to look like, then you can compare it to what getting over it looks like.

(BG): I mean, when it happened, I didn’t give a shit what people were saying to me. I was kind of in this (quick breath) paralyzed kind of–not paralyzed, just kind of…as my mom puts it, this state of surreality. Like everything is surreal to the point where your whole reality is surreal and you still enter those moments. But I think, I mean, like you said people tend to say, “I’m so sorry.” and that is a really good thing to say.

My buddy, just the other day, texted me and I haven’t seen him in a long time and we were going to make dinner together and catch up. And he was like, “I’ll probably be really late. I’m just getting back—I’m driving back from the hospital in Billings” (which is a few hours away from Bozeman) “‘cause my brother had a paragliding accident.” And he really didn’t give me anything other than that and I just said, “Ah. That’s fucking shit. I won’t ask any questions over text. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

So, I think, yeah, you should always offer something. Like “I’m sorry” is great, but it doesn’t have to be “I’m so sorry!” If you don’t have any concept of the emotion they’re going through, you don’t need to try to. You can just say, “I’m sorry. If you want to continue, continue. But you don’t have to tell me anything else and I’m not going to pry.” If I want to explore the emotions that come along with it with you, then I’d be happy to do that, but ya can’t fix me. And you can’t fix anything, so, you know, I appreciate the effort.

(KK): Because Bryce had lost his father at a young age, the Gordon family could easily be compared to a three-legged table: constantly wobbling and teetering, but still standing. Still functional. And then, the third leg was suddenly torn off.

(BG): Mom kinda took a–I mean, for me, in my concept of her, my visualization of her, kinda took a pretty big shift after Tyler passed away. But, Mama Gordon, as I like to call her, Connie, she’s always been really strong and after our father passed, she goes, “I’ve got these two young boys and I’m just going to raise them to be fantastic”—and I think she did a pretty damn good job. But she definitely—it definitely took her a while to kinda come to a resolve regarding the causality. And I think we’re kind of both in the same place now where we won’t know why Tyler forgot to thread his Grigri and we never will, so we can’t torture ourselves with always asking that.

It also took about over two years before she got to have the conversation with his partners that I got to have only a month or two months after his passing. And so I think for a while there, I was kind of more content because I had a deeper understanding of the day and the event. She just didn’t quite have that grasp of why and what and how—how it all went down. But she already has amazing coping mechanisms for grief: trail running and pushing herself, and now is enjoying time with me. And I think it’s been a little bit harder ‘cause now she doesn’t have an objective to turn her mind to. I’m raised. I’m out of the house. And for me, it’s been kind of easy ‘cause, you know, I went to college and I had to pick a college and pick a house and pick a major. And I was kind of forced to move on with decisions in my life, where she’s at a point where she could retire, she could not retire, and so she’s kind of been a little bit paralyzed in this indecisiveness. But she’s moving out of that. She knows she needs to do something. She’s trying to figure out her next steps, and she definitely has figured out quite a few of them.

And then our relationship, I mean, we’ve always been really close and I get all off my happiness and energy directly from her and my desire to suffer directly from her as well. I think she dragged us up probably ten 14ers by the time I was fourteen-years-old. It was from age seven onward, it was like a 14er a year pretty much, or more. So, definitely has that put your head down and go mindset and that’s definitely brought us closer–just the fact that we could share that grieving mechanism. Like, endurance activities are just so valuable to both of us. And when I come up with these crazy far-fetched ideas, like go bike twenty-six miles to a tower to go climb it and then bike out the next day, all within a thirty hour period. She’s kind of like, “Alright cool! Pack enough food.” (laughs)

I’m the only child. I’m kinda the last heir to our little family. And so, you know, of course, she’s gotten a little bit more protective, but I think she understands and trusts me to make good decisions and I think she understands that as much as she’s probably worried about having only one kid left, I’m equally as worried about being the only kid. Like, I am not allowed to die before–my mom’s not allowed to outlive me. That’s not an option. Like, “What are your goals in life?” “Live to be older than my mom. And then career, whatever, all that other stuff.”

Definitely kind of creates some tension sometimes, and I think on my end, I need to be better at being expressive of my decision making. I’m a really big backcountry skier, so I need to be expressive of, you know, here’s what we’re doing today and here’s kinda the situation and how we’re going to approach the safety level that we set. I mean, one, I put a lot of weight on myself to be really good at that stuff. And two, I think I’m starting to learn and starting to realize the value of, not necessarily reassurance, but just her understanding of my approach to all the activities that I’m not going to stop doing.

(KK): That can be a HUGE responsibility to bear. How do you not live in a bubble?!

(BG): I started wearing my bike helmet when I go make grocery store runs now, you know? You don’t see any other twenty-year-olds cruising around with their bike helmet when they go to the bars at night or when they go grocery shopping or to campus. I’m like, “Well. Fuck. That would really suck if I got creamed by a car.” Just little things like that have definitely shifted within our relationship.

(KK): Two people can mourn the loss of the same person but in very different ways. Bryce and Mama Gordon both lost Tyler, but their grief didn’t necessarily run parallel with one another.

(BG): I don’t always go to her, and I don’t always go to people. Normally, I write the struggle down and normally I sit with things. I revisit them for a while, and then there’s a moment where sharing seems right. It’s nice to be able to just say, “Oh fuck.” with somebody else and have them just completely reciprocate that. But, I don’t think they’re parallel paths. I think there’s more of a sense of maybe failure on her part, or even greater loss, ‘cause the whole point of having children is to see them grow and blossom. And then for me, I more value the past seventeen years of experience I had with Tyler than I grieve over the future seventy years that I don’t have with him. And I think for her, it’s the opposite.

(KK): Which makes sense as a parent.

(BG): Which makes sense as a parent, for sure.

(KK): They say that lightning never strikes twice, but try telling that to Bryce. He and two of Tyler’s good friends, Cat and Laine, had planned a trip to the Grand Tetons the summer following Bryce’s high school graduation. 

(BG): Laine was in Jackson, Wyoming for work and Cat and I both decided to visit her. And we did just some fun climbing and some fun hiking and then all three of us had a day that we could go out and do things together, so we were going to go climb the Grand. Walked all the way up there and got to the upper saddle, which is where the route actually starts. And the route traverses left (right from the beginning) to this thing called the belly crawl, which is this big flake that you kind of saddle and scooch across. And the rappels for the route come down directly to the apex of the saddle, just to the right and we were putting on our harnesses. One member of their party had done the rappel and they were sending back up an ATC because they were short one, for some reason. And Gary Falk, an Exum guide, was pulling up the ATC and it got stuck and so, he was kind of finagling with it and weighting his personal anchor. And, apparently, from my understanding of the final accident report, is that the type of knot he had is a knot that slowly walks. So, it had walked to the end of, you know, the extra tail he had originally tied it with and came undone.

And so, what I remember is hearing a yell and assuming, you know, we’re on a very popular route, assuming it was rock. And then Cat saying, “Oh shit.” and turning around and seeing his body hit the ground at the base of the rappel and bounce, probably forty to sixty feet, and hitting again at the ledge and then, below the belly crawl and—below the route is Valhalla Couloir, which is a thousand vertical foot relief—and he just disappeared.

(KK): Everything wanted to shut off, especially having experienced his own trauma. But Bryce knew that he had to shut it down, shut down all thoughts like that and just go help. So, he immediately buckled his helmet and ran back over to the apex of the saddle where the first member of their party was waiting.

(BG): There’s really no (pause) we were the first responders, but there really was nothing to respond to. It was going to be a body recovery. And we got to him and he didn’t know if it was Gary at the time or if it was somebody else, and I very vividly remember khaki Black Diamond pants with black knee patches. So, I told him that, and he was like, “Oh shit. It was Gary.” and he started breaking down. And then, Cat and Laine caught up to me, you know, a hand full of seconds later. And it was not lost on either of us that we had just witnessed essentially what Tyler did. Like, a simple mistake with no real causality except for complacency. Like, an uncanny similarity. And they both kind of looked at me, and were like, “Are you ok?” and started to bring up the fact that it was an uncanny similarity. And I just cut them off and was like, “We’re in the middle of a rescue. We got to shut that thought down.”

(KK): And for the next twenty minutes, they did. A ranger came up and the rescue ensued. Bryce, Cat, and Laine sat there, just waiting. They waited until they felt like it was appropriate to leave and Bryce sat by himself.

(BG): As soon as I could allow myself to think again, the first thought I had was: “Are you fucking kidding me? Again? Fuck you, mountains.” I remember distinctly thinking, if I was Thor, I would just smash them to little pieces. And then I remember thinking, “Well, that’s not possible. Maybe we should just put a fence around them so no humans could get in them anymore. We gotta block off the vertical world.” And these are just like, ping balling through my head really quickly. Yeah so, I sat with that for a little bit and we started making our way down. And walking down, I started kind of shifting my frame of thought to one of—kind of what started as more analytical, like what are the chances that I see that first hand and am the first responder? There’s some greater forces, you know, who knows.

(KK): The more that Bryce found out about Gary, the more his thoughts started to shift towards the possibility that there was a purpose to him being there that day.

(BG): Up until that point, there’s definitely a lot of sleepless nights where the first, you know, thirty minutes to two hours were trying to fall asleep would be like, what does falling three hundred feet look like? And so, my thought kind of shifted to this, “That’s what that accident and that event looks like.” And shifted towards this really uncanny closeness to Gary, even though I’d never met him or even heard of him before, and this sense of gratitude—which seems really weird to say about somebody’s passing, but the sense of, thank you, for kind of giving me that resolve on that big “what” question that I had. And I think that is something that I got and my mom didn’t get.

A lot of people would be like, “Well, why would ever you want your mom to see that?” Like, well I wouldn’t, but because I did, I got this sense of gratitude and resolve for the whole event. Aspects of it are really, really crappy, but sometimes I will just sit down and hash out that memory and replay it. ‘Cause knowing sucks, but knowing is, in the long run, better.

I wasn’t going to go back to my therapist anymore that summer, and after that, I was like, “Alright! I owe you one more visit.” And I told him that and he was like, “Wow. Even as a therapist, I have associative PTSD just from hearing that story.” And I don’t tell people that one that often because I don’t want—you have two events like that happen in your life and people are going to start thinking, “This kid’s really something special. He can really handle anything that people throw at him.” and maybe that’s true, but that doesn’t matter because that’s not who I am.

It doesn’t matter that these events happened to you. All that matters is that you understand that they happen in this world. So, the fact that I was lined up with them twice doesn’t matter. Both of those events happened, and that’s what matters. I just, for some reason, have this weird keystone connection, but that’s not consequential to the way I carry myself, or even the way that the rest of this whole world, like—I saw a butterfly flap its wings twice but the butterfly still flaps its wings. You know? That metaphor. So. Yeah, I don’t share as often but it is really crucial to my developmental grieving and how I’ve applied it and sat with it and processed it.

It’s a much less fun story to tell because it’s so impersonal in a way. I didn’t know him. I don’t know if I deserve to carry his story, you know? No one deserves to be a first responder, but it’s just like, it’s kind of weird to say that I’m grateful for seeing that. I think at this point, I’d like to go connect with his wife and his remaining family. It’ll be a one of a kind grieving engagement between two people.

(KK): Grief happens. And, in our hearts, we all know that death is a part of life. But sometimes, death is so senseless and we try to make some sense of it, give it some sort of meaning. Bryce found meaning in Tyler’s passing, and some people could call him unlucky. Others could see the experience as a gift. It definitely isn’t the kind that you can wrap in pretty paper. And it doesn’t come with bells and whistles or have monetary value. But it can give us all a better appreciation for the brevity of human life and, ultimately, how we treat the people we love.

(BG): I think that was the moment where I pulled the meaning of the event itself. The actual “How does this happen?” And it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re doing, and it really doesn’t matter why trauma hits you—we live in a universe built off chaos. And if trauma hits you, you just have to understand that that happens to people, and I think that’s kind of the biggest umbrella meaning I’ve pulled away from it. I’ve been dealt card after card of trauma and the why and the how are nice to know, but it’s going to happen to someone, to something in our world. And if you’re one of those–if you’re on the receiving end, I don’t want to say the victim end, but you know, if you’re on the receiving end of it, that’s what you’ve been dealt and that’s just what you’re going to deal with and that’s fine. Kinda add it to yourself and let it mold you and mold it and just realize that it’s what happens in this world.

(KK): Death is a loss that echoes and echoes and the loss of one person is felt by so many people—not just the ones closest to them. I wanted to surprise Bryce with something special. So, I asked some of Tyler’s friends to share who he was to them, and I also wanted to say thank you to everybody, and to Bryce, for sharing Tyler with us.

(MALE VOICE): One of my favorite things about Tyler was how simple everything was to him. He always really loved rock climbing and so, he went rock climbing. He really liked mathematics, so he did a lot of mathematics. One thing that was really beautiful to see over the last year was how important Tyler’s friends were to him. I’ll always cherish the memories I have with Tyler—growing up, in college, in the Alpine club with him. He was one of the first people that I looked up to as a climber in the climbing community in Colorado. He was able to show everyone how to climb for just the right reasons, just for the pure love of it.

(FEMALE VOICE): Whenever I think back on Tyler, I always think about his ease with determination for things that the rest of us find quite hard. And yeah, he had a simplicity about him that I think most of us found pretty inspiring. But he was one of the most determined people I’ve ever met and he did it with an incredible amount of compassion and ability to listen, so I always felt safe around him. And I think that’s one of the most inspiring qualities a person can have.

(MALE VOICE): So, when I first moved out to Colorado, I had only a handful of consistent climbing partners and Tyler was one of them. He was definitely the shortest of the four of us that climbed regularly together, and he would have to do these crazy sequences—dyno-ing between holds to climb the same routes that the rest of us would. But, at the same time, he’d always be the first one to try something intimidating or a grade that was too hard for most of us. Yeah, he just kind of had this mentality: you should just go and try to do what you love—and that’s it. He kind of had this “Nothing’s a big deal” attitude, which I definitely always admired. Any time we were out climbing, he’d kind of have this mischievous smirk on his face, like he knew a secret that none of the rest of us did (which, he probably did because he was super smart). I remember he was trying to explain a bit about cryptography, which is what he was going to study in grad school. And I was completely lost, but totally pretended to keep up, and I wasn’t used to that feeling of being so intellectually outmatched.

In early spring of 2015, I was out filming for work and I had a break, and Tyler was on his way through. He was taking a break between school, after graduating undergrad. And he was kind of hitting up the classic trad climbing areas in the US, making his way to Yosemite on a big break before he went to grad school in BC and I just happened to catch him at the right time. And so, we went out and did Lightning Bolt Cracks on the North Six Shooter in Indian Creek.

You know, any time you climb in the desert, it’s always a little bit sandy and a little bit unnerving. So, of course, Tyler was kind of nonplussed and we got to the route and the weather’s great, you know, we got to the last pitch and it was Tyler’s lead and he just seemed to float on up, and I thought, “Oh great. We must have gotten past the hard part.” And proceeded to follow an overhanging offwidth and just, the whole experience just kind of seemed really casual, and it totally makes sense if you knew him.

I remember getting to the summit of North Six Shooter and it was just super windy and our ropes were blowing everywhere, but just being really satisfied and just enjoying the whole experience without too much concern or—I really just remember being pretty content in that moment.

(MALE VOICE): One of my favorite memories that I have with Tyler is back from the summer that he and our friend Jordan and I spent traveling around Wyoming and South Dakota. And the audio that you’re about to hear is from a video that we took just near the summit of, I think, Spire Four in the Cathedral Spires in the Black Hills. And the last pitch—it’s like a 5.4, but you have to crawl through this tiny little hole. And in the video, you’ll hear Tyler cheering me on trying to get me through the hole. So, enjoy.

(TYLER GORDON’S VOICE): (cheering and laughter) Come on Eddie! You can do it. Yeah! Come on, dude. Cruxing! There’s no way you’re going to fall there…if you did, you’re really screwed!

(gear clanking and laughter)

Whooo!

(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. A huge thank you to Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, and to Evo Hemp, who is on a mission to bring you quality hemp products that are both affordable and accessible. What the heck is hemp, anyway? We’ll have to tell you next time. Support companies who support this podcast—we couldn’t do it without them.

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