Standing on my single set of ancient Metolius pocket aiders, I stared at the three lobes of my Alien that were nestled in the sandstone seam in front of me. Hmmm… not so good. I quickly placed a micro-sized HB Offset into the seam. It was tiny tiny, nearly the tinest micro-nut I owned, in fact (a #1). Then I tried to distribute my weight evenly on the two pieces.
Scratch. Crackle. Pop.
Another lobe of my alien ground its way out of the crack, dusting me with red sand. Now I stood with my left foot in aiders that hung from an alien with only two lobes in the rock and simultaneously felt the little nut on which my right aiders rested start to slip.
“Good chance my gear’s gonna pop!” I yelled down to my buddy, Joel Love. It was his first wall.
“Do you have any good gear in?” he shouted up nervously.
“Sure, bomber, just down there,” I hollered back, pointing to a slightly larger HB Offset, #5, 10 or so feet below. I was sure it would hold.
And then I was off, falling into space. And it didn’t hold. I think I let out a holler. I’m sure I did, but I don’t actually remember. I remember only that I had time to think both, “When am I going to stop?” and “Jeez, how many pieces am I pulling out?”
Ping, ping, ping… gear zippered out of the crack.
I did stop, finally, and I hung there for a minute, four itty bitty nuts and a blue Alien dangling in front of me. “Whoa! That was big. S**t.”
“You OK?” Joel shouted up, but not as loudly as I was much closer to him now.
“Oh f**k! F**k f**k,” I said in reply as I looked up. I was 35, maybe 40 feet from my high point. I’d have to redo the entire C2+ section again. Sigh. So much for finishing our wall before dark.
That was my biggest fall, for sure. I wish I could say it was on some super gnarly, daredevil, amazing first ascent in Pakistan. But it wasn’t. It was the trade route Spaceshot in Zion National Park, a route I first had done 16 years ago in a day, at age 23. Some argue the crux is just C2, but I’ll take SuperTopo’s assessment that it’s C2+. It certainly felt +++ to me. I haven’t led a proper aid pitch since I solo aid climbed Moonlight Buttress a dozen years ago, at age 26. Lucky for me I seemed to remember my second go on the seam. Laser focused, I made quick work of it, thinking, “if I don’t get us down by dinner, Melissa (Joel’s wife and one of my close friends) is going to kick my butt!” She wouldn’t actually, but I wanted us to get down. I had something to prove to myself—that I could still climb big walls, lead all the pitches, and not destroy my body in the meantime.
You see, three years ago almost to the day I had this crazy thing happen. One day while bouldering at Carter Lake, Colo., my ankles started to swell up. Within two days, they were both the size of cantaloupes, and every joint in my body burned with intense pain. To make a really long story short, I spent time in the hospital, couldn’t walk faster than a 100-year-old for three months, and then spent the next year trying to figure out why most of the joints in my body felt like they were being stuck with razor-sharp knives that had been roasted over a hot fire. WTF, right?
￼It turns out I have a rare autoimmune disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis. It causes major inflammation and arthritis. I had always wondered why my body was so prone to tendonitis and was so slow to heal. My best friend Heidi always tells me, “Your body is just not made to climb!” But I persist. Twenty years later, it’s still all I want to do with my free time.
So what’s an obsessed climber to do when she has some gnarly disease that pretty much means her tendons and joints will break all the time? Figure out what the hell is going on and make major life changes. I took Western meds for 1.5 years and I discovered that if I just stay away from inflammatory foods (such as coffee, alcohol, refined sugar, etc), if I don’t eat starch, if I sleep well, and if I simplify my life and have less stress, well then I feel less pain. Phew, that’s a lot right. And sometimes a girl just wants a margarita! This disease is super inconvenient. And even when I’m extra careful to ensure I do everything absolutely right, I never really know how my body will react to my climbing endeavors.
So back to the fall and the wall. I didn’t know if my body could handle Spaceshot. It’s definitely the biggest, most demanding thing I’ve tried to do since this crazy thing happened to my body. Would I be alright—me, leading all the pitches, teaching my friend Joel to wall climb? Granted, he’s a 5.13 climber and super bright, so I didn’t really have to worry about him. He figured the systems and rope management quickly. But, I did have to worry about me. I confessed to Melissa the night before, “I’m not worried about Joel, I’m not worried about falling (the route is so steep), and I’m not worried about our safety; I’m worried about my body holding up under such pressure.”
My body did, in fact, hold up, mostly… My hip and shoulder joints have ached like an 80-year-olds probably does this past week. I’m slower than I used to be, my hands cramped up big time on the upper free pitches, and I took the biggest fall of my life. But I did it. I climbed a big wall in style with a good buddy. And, we got down in time for a giant hamburger with bacon, blue cheese, sans bun at Oskars.