I recently had the opportunity to record an hour long talkshow segment with Miles Dunklin of Mile High Sports. It was a fun conversation going deep into a number of topics that I don't talk about that often. This article contains links to the full-length Mile High Outdoor episode as well as to a few other podcasts that I was a guest on in Q2/Q3 2018.
To get paid directly for going on outdoor adventures of your own design really just means that you are an outdoor industry content creator. Maybe you're an athlete; maybe you're a talented photographer, or a hard-working writer. Or maybe you're simply a relatable guy or gal with a distinctive voice who enjoys telling stories. No matter which of those categories you fall into, content is your bread and business.
The good news is that brands are always hungry for fresh content. The bad news is that content creators are a dime a dozen, and establishing yourself as a content creator whose work is worth money doesn't happen overnight; like anything else, it takes a lot of time and effort.
So how do you break into getting paid for content?
A couple days ago I shared the first post in this mini-series, talking about what’s a realistic #vanlife budget. I also talked about how much lead time you may want to plan on to get financially - and physically - ready (read the full thing here), and then I said this:
“You can cut down your lead time, and the amount of savings required to quit your traditional day job, by setting yourself up to work from the road and try to earn a living while traveling.”
But really… before I get into specifics, let me ask you a basic question: why are you thinking about vanlife in the first place?
I shared a post the other day talking about how @clmbrlifr and I are going to return to full-time #vanlife in short order. It'll be my second stint in a van in the last three years and Paul’s return to his old dirtbag roots after working corporate for the last three decades: he used to be an itinerant climber in his twenties.
Financing life on the road
‘How do you make it work financially?’ is one of the questions that I get asked most frequently these days.
“I’m signed up to run the Ouray 100 in July. Why don’t you join me? It’d be great training for Nolan’s 14, and allow us to log some proper mileage together.”
My friend Mercedes is sitting across a small wobbly table from me at Boulder’s Red Rock Coffeehouse. She is looking for a partner to attempt Nolan’s 14, the famed Sawatch peak bagger’s ultra linkup, which only three women have completed since the challenge was conceived by Jim Nolan and Fred Vance in the 1990s. I know that Nolan’s is an extremely ambitious goal, and I am hesitant to commit - but I am also intrigued.
The sound of an ambulance washes up from the plains far below. From up here at 6600ft, in velvet early dark below the summit, Boulder’s lights and the humming noise of civilization are a short half mile away; the tumultuous ocean of humanity washing over rocky mountain shores.
I love the mountains; Colorado is good for that. I am charmed by Boulder’s easy access to the wild, yet I yearn for more. More wild, more free, more silent solitude: unadulterated untouched country. I drift off into memories of space.
Two months ago I found that untouched space. I walked for weeks, four weeks and four days to be exact, from one side of Utah to the other. I walked through desert canyons and high mountains, sand and water, I waded and I bushwhacked and I climbed and fell and scrambled. I walked across the Colorado Plateau, right through the heart of one of the most remote desert backcountry out there: Grand Staircase Escalante. An untouched roadless area so vast I didn’t see another human soul for days, where I could walk for weeks without ever setting foot on asphalt. A dream for some, nightmarish desolation for others: true wilderness.
I grew up in Germany, just one among eleven million German children with their seventy-one million parents and grandparents and grownup aunts and uncles all crammed into an area not even quite as big as California. Germany is exemplary: so safe, so clean, so civil. Every last little spec of usable land has been improved upon, to build neat towns and well-run farms and autobahns and big grand metropoles and tightly-managed forests. Germany’s rise from the ashes after World War II is the stuff of textbooks; chaos and destruction turned systematically to meteoric order and success. A triumphant return to civilization, and in its march there is but one thing that got overlooked: the necessity of wilderness.
That’s why I so value the existence of unspoiled wildness. Because I remember what it feels like, having none of it. I remember being a kid in Germany, standing in our back yard, looking out across the fields. I remember feeling the urge to explore and to get lost, and I remember how disappointingly the world closed in on me once I was old enough to walk the talk, to head off on my own to see my little German world: there was no exploration to be had. The fenced-in backyard of my childhood was bordered by a field was bordered by a road and three more fields and the two local farms and fences and more farms and roads and fields and towns. You see, less than 1% of the land in Germany is undeveloped; there was no wilderness.
That’s why I was so captivated when I first saw the American West’s great public lands at age 12. I remember that first time I tasted the desert, feeling small and feeling wild. It’s a feeling that has stayed with me since. It’s the feeling I set out to live fully and taste deeply when I started my long solitary walk across the Utah desert along the Hayduke Trail.
I set out north of Moab at the northern edge of Arches, enveloped in the darkness of a moonless night. The first few miles of my month-long journey take me through protected lands inside the iconic national park. Soon I find myself traversing along the very edge of the national park boundary, and this is what I find: on the inside of the fence, cryptobiotic soil, deep and undisturbed; on the outside of the fence, inches from the boundary, dirt roads and natural gas pipeline infrastructure. Stark contrasts and a powerful reminder of the importance of protection.
Weeks later I walk through the roadless heart of Grand Staircase Escalante: a 1.9 million acre landscape so complicated and fantastic in its revelation of progressive sandstone layers that 'Staircase' had to be its name. Days go by without me seeing another soul; I feel more alive and human to the core than I have in years. Living among wilderness brings out human essence; there is a primal peace to existing simply, a natural rhythm of living with the land. Being small and part of nature drives home life’s beautiful simplicity.
I spend hard long days on the Kaiparowits Plateau, crossing through its hellish heat and desolation. “It is a fierce and dangerous place, and it is wilderness right down to its burning core.” I didn’t know these words before I headed off into Kaiparowits, but having come out the other side I know first-hand how true they are.
It is here on the Kaiparowits that I first walk alongside surface layer coal beds. It is here I realize that I have no excuse to not speak up for public lands. The Kaiparowits drives home for me what wilderness entails: existential clarity, unforgiving solitude and irrevocable experience. Development is just the same but on the flip side of the coin: unforgiving, irrevocable. Once development starts up there is no going back; once wilderness is lost, it’s lost for good.
There’s a funny thing or two about how natural treasure works.
Size matters. Three individual parcels of wilderness don’t carry the same value as a single area three times the size of one. Contiguous wild spaces are the most powerful form of preservation, for wildlife habitats and historic study just as well as for adventure and explorers.
Pure existence matters. We don’t have to actually be out there hiking and exploring; simple knowledge of wilderness’ existence changes our understanding of ourselves, our past and our future. We don’t have to constantly - or ever! - venture off into the wild to feel its value; simply knowing that it’s there, that we CAN get lost if we just wanted to, and that our children have that very option, changes our lives.
Do you remember the feeling you had when you got the keys to your first car: all a sudden, the possibilities are endless; you could drive over to your friend’s house, or even all the way across the country! Did you actually drive all the way across the country? Your answer doesn’t change the power of the notion.
Another ambulance starts blaring. I am far above the lights of Boulder still, abruptly taken from my desert dreams. My Hayduke hike was a dream. This, here, is life; it’s real. And for now it’s time for me to sink back into the depths of the turbid ocean of humanity.
For now, wilderness is far away yet still in reach. Out west, just on the far side of the Rocky Mountains, there still are those places that are vast and wild and free. Grand Staircase is still wild; Bears Ears is still on the brink of monument protection. For how much longer… we don’t know.
Go visit your wild lands while they are wild, go see the marvels that may soon be paved and mined; and if you believe in the value of knowing wilderness is out there, for yourself and for your children: speak up, post and tweet, and let Trump know that public lands deserve protection.
As I head down the well-built trail towards Chautauqua Park, Congress’ definition of wilderness reverberates within me: “An area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” How I long already to return to those areas where I may not remain.
'Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.' [Edward Abbey]
If we’ve been friends for a while you’ll recall that I quit my fancy shmancy strategy consulting job at the end of 2015 to become a full-time nomad and live in a van down by the river. It was amazing, it was terrifying, and depending on your perspective it was hands-down either the dumbest or the best thing that I have ever done in my life. And it was all made possible by a loyal little roughed-up dream mobile that I discovered on Craigslist and subsequently rescued from a series of abusive (or at least non-caring) prior owners.
That roughed-up little dream mobile is Eddie the Van. Eddie is the first vehicle I ever owned. He spoiled me with a long honeymoon and many incredible moments that have been indelibly burned into my memory. Eddie was there and patiently waiting when I placed top 10 in the US Track and Field National 100K trail championships; when I celebrated my 31st birthday - my first birthday of freedom - in Goblin Valley with my mom and her husband; when I fell in love with the incredible man who has since become my best friend and as of late my husband; when I almost sank my inflatable SUP on Lake Powell and had to get an emergency evac back to the marina; when I headed off to Yosemite to climb El Cap with Paul as our sixth date; when I signed my first outdoor industry sponsor contract and when I got my first paid photography assignments. Every time I drive to a trailhead for a long training run, Eddie is the one who sees me off and waits for me to get back; no big run is complete until I slap him on the butt. Except that now… well, now I am married and as incredible as Eddie is, he’s just no match for two 6ft+ people with hundreds of pounds of payload from big wall gear to full-strength winter mountaineering equipment.
So Paul and I bought a bigger van to accompany us on our adventures. And Eddie… Eddie still has too much life in him to consider putting him down, but it seems heartless to just put him up for sale and try to get the highest price (in case you’re curious, I bought him for $2800 back in 2015, and have since put and additional ~$2-3k of labor and parts into him). Which is the reason that I am giving Eddie away to an individual who loves and values the spirit of vanlife as much as she or he values having a functioning four wheels.
Eddie is awesome. He’s an old gentleman with almost 270,000 miles on the chassis (150,000 miles on the engine) and a couple of ailments, but chances are that he’ll keep running for many more thousands of miles if you are gentle with him. I took Eddie on a hard 1000 mile trip through the desert as recently as two months ago; starter, alternator and battery have all been replaced within the last 24 months. The interior is built out in simple fashion - a bed platform, storage box that doubles as seating area, and little table in the back; no solar or insulation - designed for one person but Eddie is also workable as a fun weekend mobile for two. Don’t expect to *sleep* two people in there with the current setup, but with some basic carpentry it should be quite easy to modify the bed platform so you can extend it into a double.
As far as old man ailments go, here is what you’re looking at…
Permanent / too pricy to fix
- Electrical: there is a short in the system leading to warning lights on the dash (breaks and engine; I’ve had both checked out regularly; they’re fine) and screwy door actuators - doors must all be locked manually
- Air Conditioning is broken, would be $1000+ in labor and parts to fix. I have lived with out A/C for the last 20 months
Easy / affordable fixes
- Windshield: big circular crack right in the middle; been stable for a year, but probably wouldn’t pass inspection…
- Rear hatch: doesn’t open due to a stuck actuator; should be an easy fix, I didn’t bother since I knew there was going to be a new van soon…
- Spare tire: needs replacing, the old one is cracked - this one is a safety issue should you break down with a flat, so I’d highly recommend addressing this.
Eddie is still running well enough that I could get a bit of money out of him on Craigslist, but that just doesn’t feel right. Instead I want to share the happiness that he’s given me over the last 2.5 years and gift the joy of vanlife. So, here’s the deal: if you want Eddie, find me on Instagram and direct message me there (since that's where most of my engagement happens, this will allow me to keep everything in one spot and not lose track of submissions in different places). Share your story of why you love the idea of owning Eddie and what you’re hoping to do with him. I’ll choose his new owner this Friday June 22 based on my favorite story.
If your story is the one that wins, Eddie will be yours for free! The only costs you'll have to cover are any applicable state taxes (not sure about the details but I think this might be zero for a gift?), and standard title transfer/registration costs.
And if you're still on the fence about vanlife... here's what my first six months on the road looked like.
It's an honest question: Why do hard things?
I may not be the most natural person to pose this question, given that I seem to have somewhat of an unnatural propensity towards suffering or what we like to call Type II fun: "fun in retrospect". And yet, I wonder: Why?
In a way, I believe that choosing to do hard things is a privilege: having the freedom and the drive to go out and actively pursue difficult challenges tends to be an indicator of a life that doesn't include a great deal of day-to-day hardship. At least that's the conclusion that Brad Stuhlberg arrived at in his 2017 piece for Outside Magazine Why do Rich People Love Endurance Sports, and I have to admit that the logic (and research) resonates.
On a very personal level, though, I have a completely different answer to the question of 'Why do hard things': for me, taking on challenges is all about accessing the full range of human experience. It's not that I want to suffer - but I want to take on projects that require me to give my all, to be fully present, to creatively solve problems, to strategize, to improvise, to persevere and to live and work through the joyous high of successful progress as well as the lows of unexpected roadblocks or the threat of defeat. I want to feel the full amplitude of human potential; my weapon of choice is mental and physical challenge rather than mind-altering chemicals.
On Running 100 Miles...
So in case you were wondering what on earth made me sign up for an ultra hard mountain 100 miler - did I mention that the Ouray 100 has 83,000ft of elevation change?? - at the end of July... this is your answer. More pragmatically though, and in response to several inquiries, let's talk about how to get ready for a race like this.
I have completed three 100 milers in the past, and attempted another two which I ultimately DNF'd (Did Not Finish). The successful finishes in 2012, 2013 and 2014 were in three races of wildly different character but they all had one thing in common: I did not train very much for them. Let me quantify that. Lean Horse, my first Hundred, was the one I took most seriously; I was happy to be able to carve out 35 flat, sea-level miles per week (mpw) for the four months leading up to the race. In 2013 I completed Western States - averaging less than 18 mpw in the six months before the race, even though that time period included several ultra races. In 2014 I finished the very rugged and tough Ghosts of Yellowstone... and I have no idea what my average weekly mileage was, but I am willing to bet that it was closer to 18 than 35 mpw as I was working on a difficult project and towards a major promotion at work that summer.
Why am I sharing my old 100-Miler history? For two reasons: one, to let you know that it is possible to be an ultra runner and complete long-distance races without committing to a training regimen that feels like a part-time job (I even managed to pull off a sub-24hr finish on the 35mpw training schedule). Two, because I want to put into context how major a stepup my training for the upcoming Ouray 100 is. Now let's talk tactics.
Sunny's Ouray 100 Training Plan
I am notoriously terrible at following training plans - life always ends up getting in the way, doesn't it?! The way I use this plan is mostly to have a concrete goal for my overall mileage each week, and an idea of the number of long runs that I'll need to make time for in order to hit the goal. I rarely execute the plan precisely as it's written, but tend to shuffle things around as my life schedule evolves.
Here is my conceptual training plan, and what my actual training log looks like.
A few other things that I place great value on - beyond having an actual training plan but approaching it with a notion of flexibility - are sleep, food, and altitude. Sleep and nutrition should be no brainers (the body needs more and better quality of both when undergoing this type of effort). Altitude is a specific twist to the Ouray 100, the race I am training for: with a course that tops out at 13,300ft and never dips below 7,600ft... acclimatization is key. You can bet that I will spend as much time as I can training and sleeping above 10,000ft.
And with that... time to go for a run. Happy training!
A quick note to keep you all in the loop of what's happening. So much has been going on in the last few weeks, and there are lots of exciting changes happening and projects developing that I will share with you as time progresses. In the immediate future, though, is one massive project that I am incredibly excited about: the Hayduke Trail.
I am leaving civilization behind this afternoon to start a (hopefully) speedy thruhike of the 812 mile Hayduke trail through southern Utah and northern Arizona. Find out more about the project here or check in on GPS to see where I'm at! I expect to be out there for the next ~month, and look forward to hopefully finishing the trail with plenty of time to get myself to Yosemite (and take a shower...) before Jim Bridwell's memorial on May 19.
I will be fully off-grid for 95% of my time on the Hayduke. If you want to get a hold of me between now and late May, feel free to use the GPS link above to text me. I'm beyond stoked to spend a month in the desert and hopefully come back with lots of beautiful memories, random stories and powerful imagery of our public lands.
And until then... see you later!
Sometimes, life is beautiful. Actually - scratch that. Most of the time life is beautiful! But sometimes it's just particularly perfect. For me, and for my better half, that particular kind of perfect is something we most often go to seek (and find) in the Utah desert. But little did I know that the 2018 desert season opener was going to have a special surprise in store.
A short six hour drive across the Rockies is all that separates Paul and me from what sometimes feels like our second home, the vast expanse and beautiful towers and cliffs and mesas of the desert that sprawl for miles - hundreds of miles, depending on which direction you're going - around Moab. We love the desert so much that we made the long drive on eleven different weekends last spring; not great for our carbon footprint (though at least Paul had a hybrid Toyota Prius for most of the season) but splendid for the soul and for adventure climbing, too.
It's no surprise then that, once I returned from my latest multi-month high altitude stint, the desert was #1 on Paul's and my weekend wish list. It took us a few weeks to make schedules work but one early Friday afternoon in March finally had us westbound on I-70, ready to cross over snowy Vail Pass in order to chase sunshine and warm rock in the Utah desert.
It was long dark by the time we reached camp on Friday evening, and we made quick work of setting up the tent and seeking warmth in our sleeping bags. Saturday morning rolled around in exactly the way that we had hoped for: sunny with pleasant temperatures, and not another soul in sight. Paul and I have a tradition for desert camping by now: start with coffee, add bacon and eggs and top it all off with camp mimosas. It's both decadent and dangerous, because by the time we're done feasting it's often a challenge to rally for the transition from comfortable camp chairs to steep trails and sorta-heavy packs.
Well. This time wasn't much different, but the weather was splitter and so were the cracks. Long story short: we did rally and started the thirty minute approach to our familiar crag. A gentle trail gradually steepens into an unpleasant scree scramble which leads straight to a ten-foot vertical cliff band that is surmounted with the help of a fixed rope. Right above the fixed rope, the terrain flattens out onto a beautiful terrace before the final steep ascent up to the base of the crag. I was a minute or two ahead of Paul, who was carrying a quadruple rack (the joys of desert crack climbing), all the way to the top of the fixed rope where I waited briefly so we would finish up the approach together.
It seemed to me that Paul was having to work harder for the approach than he typically does, and I couldn't quite tell if I had simply gotten faster from my high altitude work or if Paul had slowed down from prioritizing bouldering over cardio exercise while I was gone. Once he caught up to me at the top of the fixed rope we started hiking across the flat terrace, me still in front; just a few steps later Paul veered off the trail towards the edge off the terrace and said "Hang on - I want to take a break. I need to take my pack off for a minute." I was confused; the crag was just another five minute climb up the hill. Why wasn't he continuing on? I was starting to worry; maybe Paul's fifty-seven years were finally starting to catch up with him... but could he really have lost all of his endurance over the course of those few short months that I was gone?
I followed Paul off the trail and to the edge of the terrace. The views were beautiful, yet I was preoccupied thinking about my boyfriend's condition as he proceeded to take his pack off to take a rest. What was going on? I too dropped my pack and turned around, looking at Paul quizzically. He was breathing hard. I put my hands on his chest and felt his rapid heartbeat. 'Oh boy' I thought to myself. 'Getting up here really isn't that strenuous. This is not good.' My face was close to Paul's, and he pulled me in for a kiss; a second later, he dropped to the floor. 'Ah crap, is he having a heart attack?!' was the immediate thought that entered my mind as he grabbed my hand. An instant later, I realized that he was kneeling and looking up at me with tears in his eyes. "Suz, you mean so much to me. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want you to marry me." A beautiful, one-of-a-kind silver ring in the palm of his hand. "Will you marry me?"
And the rest is history. HELL YES!!
It's been a couple months since I ran around Annapurna, but there's been a frenzy of activity regarding the run lately! First of, a two minute video on what it was like to complete the whole trail in less than four days (spoiler alert: it was HARD).
Secondly, Outside Magazine published a write-up of the run here - I'm not quite sure I agree with their title assessment (ha!) but I'm certainly stoked to have been able to pull off the FKT at moment's notice.
Finally, if you're an ultra runner and considering a big mountain FKT attempt like this yourself... you may enjoy the beta that Himalayan Adventure Labs published in their "Behind the Scenes" post a little while ago; I hope it's useful to you.
If y'all have been reading my blog or social media posts for a while you know that I care massively about women empowerment - and that I believe the outdoors are a great avenue to help address gender equality. It's why I make it a point to lead all-female teams on high altitude expeditions each year, and it's been the topic of a number of my posts and interviews in the past.
It's also the reason why, today, I want to turn over the stage to Sarah Richards. Sarah just wrote the most beautiful piece about being a woman adventuring in the outdoors, and if you're a woman you'll want to read it; if you have a daughter, sister, wife or mother... you'll want to read Sarah's piece and then pass it on to the women in your life.
An Epistle to Women
by Sarah Richards.
Twenty-four hours ago I came off the water from a 100-mile solo canoe trip in the Canadian wilderness. The magnitude of the experience is only just beginning to sink into my bone marrow and become a part of Me, this list of moments, images, smells. Navigating in the fog on big water, listening to an eagle tear meat from bone as he ate his lunch with gusto, breathing in deep of wet forest, waking to a fierce west wind (and initially thinking it would be of great benefit since I was going east – it was not – quite scarier when you can’t see the rollers coming), paddling into an equally fierce headwind for three days, talking to a pair of stalker otters that stayed close to my canoe for nearly a mile late one afternoon, speaking urgently into my imaginary military sat phone to call down an air strike every time I encountered a beaver dam (there were many and this strategy didn’t work), hoisting my muddy pack onto my back while cursing at her and calling her a wretched water-retaining whore, scraping smashed banana slug off my small pack (poor slug – he was in the wrong place at the wrong time), screaming (with a canoe on my head) in pain and frustration in the middle of an interminable bog, absolutely certain I was going to lose my mind right then and there if I had to take another step…
But I took another step…
I slept on a bed of dried sphagnum moss.
I scrounged, sawed down to size, and split my own firewood.
I stared down a bull moose (actually, he grew bored with me and disappeared into the trees).
I dispensed with all table manners, shoving food into my maw, wiping at my mouth with the back of my hand.
I blew my nose onto the ground (this takes skill to not get it all over your face).
I stood on a great slab of bedrock in the rain with my face lifted and my arms spread wide.
I pissed the perimeter of my campsites.
I was, at different times (sometimes all at once), cold, wet, tired, sore, hungry, hot, angry, exhausted, exhilarated, at peace, and struck abjectly dumb by the beauty all around me.
I felt powerful.
Prior to my trip, when people would ask where I was going, upon learning what I intended to do, for some, my Woman-ness was an important consideration.
“You’re going alone?!” “Aren’t you afraid?”
Afraid of what exactly? A woman’s most prevalent predator is a man, and I didn’t expect to see very many of those at all.
Yes, I am going alone.
Men do it. Go into any bookstore and look at the travel writing section. Men do it AND write books about it.
That I was a woman, who plotted her own route, who had taken two prior solo canoe trips, who is physically fit and most days of sound mind…that is enough.
Sufficient resume for man or woman.
But since the Woman-ness factor was introduced into my trip (I’d thought I was just a human going on an epic adventure), I will address it.
To ALL women I say this:
Break through those boundaries.
Smash those walls into a million billion pieces and roll naked in the rubble.
Travel through your life as you see fit.
Cut your hair off. Or don’t. It’s YOUR hair.
Ride a motorcycle.
Make yourself strong, be it physically, emotionally, mentally – Be HUGE.
You do not need approval or justification.
Never apologize for being female. It is a strength. Not a liability.
Own your existence and shape it to YOUR liking.
Pay homage to the millennia of warrior women who have come before.
Swear like it’s a second language.
Do not let fear be your guide.
Sing at the top of your lungs and dance with abandon.
Accept nothing but the best from yourself and from others.
Be your own Motive.
Wear that dress because it makes YOU feel sexy – fuck everyone else.
Let your blood race through your veins, red like fire.
Paint your face on a flag and march into battle.
Don’t be afraid to give voice to your mind.
Let no one tell you what you are capable of doing – that is for YOU to decide.
Be your own hero.
Reject the moniker "Rebel".
We are not rebels.
We are Women.
And we are far more powerful than comic book caricature politicians or an objectifying culture can begin to touch.
We ARE life.
It ought to be on OUR terms.
Square your shoulders, hold your head up proud
And go forth.
Do you know that feeling of having a really wild and somewhat crazy dumb idea… and then going through with it? That seems to be how I run my life - literally. It’s how I came up with the idea of going for a speed record on Aconcagua last year (coincidentally also an idea that I hatched while adventuring in Nepal). And it is how I came up with the idea of running the Annapurna Circuit - a ~220 kilometer high-altitude trek that’s commonly done in seventeen to twenty-five days. I had the Annapurna Circuit idea one random November weekend in lakeside Pokhara, mostly because I was starting to go stir crazy and knew I was looking at another two weeks of free time before leaving Nepal. Sure, I could have gone paragliding or rafting or signed up for a yoga retreat or any number of things… but trail running is what I do, and I’d never yet been to the Annapurna region, and I felt like I should be training for other high altitude projects anyway - so my natural thought process was: what’s the longest, toughest, baddest journey run that I can come up with without having to do much scouting or complicated logistics planning? Ah, yes, the Annapurna Circuit.
There. Crazy, dumb idea. Let’s go run the Annapurna Circuit - after two and a half months of not running at all because of a sprained ankle, and right on the heels of a nasty infected blister on my left big toe that had me pathetically limping in flip flops for almost a full week (thank you, Mera Peak expedition, for that particular souvenir). But hey: running the circuit is going to be fun, right?? And what’s the women’s fastest known time on it anyway? Ah, 4 days and 14 hours. Mmmmh. For how many miles again?
Next step: a WhatsApp message to my boyfriend Paul at home in Colorado. “Hey love, I’m thinking I might try to run this big trail around Annapurna and see if I can’t set a new speed record on it. Talk me out of it…?” - Paul’s response: “Cool. That’ll be great training for your upcoming Argentina trip. Have fun, and CRUSH IT!!” Well, okay then. I guess I’m going for it now.
This was Monday mid-morning. The very next evening I am agonizing over whether or not to pack my big Mountain Hardwear Absolute Zero jacket for the route’s high point Thorong La - a pass which rises to almost 18,000ft in height and is going to be COLD. Wanting to minimize volume and weight I decide against the jacket. The sleeping bag stays behind, too.
Before I have a chance to reconsider it’s 5:30am on Wednesday morning; just a little over 48hrs since the Annapurna Circuit run idea first crossed my mind. I am on my way to the bus station in Pokhara where I can catch an early-morning ride to Besisahar, the official starting point for the full Annapurna Circuit. At this point I am still telling myself I might use the next several days simply to scout the trails in a fastpack mission, to then decide if I want to return and give the women’s FKT a proper go the following week.
But of course that’s not how it plays out. I arrive in Besisahar shortly before noon; the gateway town looks about as uninspiring and dirty as I was expecting, and I just want to get moving - so that’s what I do. I start running at noon in the heat of day. The jeep track is hot and dusty; I find myself dodging speedy motorcycles and sputtering local buses.
Darkness catches me five hours later. I am now twenty-five kilometers into the ~220 kilometer circuit. Running through the night is one of my least favorite things: not only is it cold and lonely and much harder route-finding than during the day, but the mental energy it takes me to keep pushing when I know that I have hours and hours of darkness ahead is monumental; the nights here are long. I also know that I need to manage my reserves: I am looking at three to five days of big mileage in a row, and I have no experience with multi-day efforts of this caliber. I don’t want to flame out going too hard, too fast.
I arrive in Jagat as it is getting too dark to see without a headlamp; a tea house owner beckons me, wanting to sell me a room, and I gladly take him up on his proposal. 100 Rupees (the equivalent of $1) for a bed to catch a few hours of sleep seems like just the thing right now - and since I am not carrying food I have to stop for dinner anyway. Five minutes later my already-tired feet are happily propped up on a chair; I am warming my hands on a cup of strong black tea.
Sleep strategy is one of the biggest levers I have for going after the speed record: Patricia Franco, who set the original women’s record of 4 days 14 hours and 45 minutes, rested and slept for a full twelve hours each of the first three nights on course. I am considering a half-night approach; hitting the trail in the middle of the night will not be fun, but it should allow me to bank miles and time towards the record.
My alarm rings at 11:10pm. I rub my contact-crusted eyes and grudgingly sit up in bed. Twenty minutes later I am ready to get back on the trail. Shoes laced, headlamp clicked on, fence hopped - it is customary in Nepal to lock the gates at night - and a few short steps take me to a world where I am utterly alone and surrounded by darkness. Over the constant roar of the nearby river I can hear dogs barking in the distance. The night is pitch black, yet I can sense the presence of enormous mountain ridges towering above me. The snowy summit of Annapurna is still some 30-odd miles away but as I’m traversing the cold, deep cut canyons of its surrounding valleys the massif looms large in my imagination. I try to focus my thoughts in the narrow beam of my headlamp, and remind myself of the secret to long distance endeavors: it’s all just about putting one foot in front of the other. Relentless forward motion.
And that’s exactly what the next seventy plus hours come down to: relentless forward motion. I run, I power hike, I bonk, I crawl until I can run again. I am diligent about picking up snacks along the way, making quick pit stops in many villages along the way. I maximize daylight to avoid the psychological toll of moving through the dark all by myself. Every few hours I take off my shoes and take care of my toe, which is still raw from that nasty blister infection which had just barely begun to heal when I set off on the circuit.
Forty long hours after starting the trail I have made it to eleven thousand feet and the start of the long, hard climb up Thorong La Pass. Thorong La tops out at 17,700ft; it is the very same pass where 43 people died in a snowstorm in 2014. To give myself the best chances of a successful crossing I stopped in Manang last night, to wait out the night and fuel up with a proper dinner and a few hours of sleep in the last big village below the pass. But now it is 5am and go time. I lace up my shoes, shoulder my Mountain Hardwear running pack, and open the door into the dark pre-dawn morning to find an unwelcome surprise: it is snowing.
Snow. This is not good. I am wearing running shoes rather than mountain boots. Thin liner gloves with big holes at the tips of several fingers. And I only brought the lightest one of the three puffy jackets that I typically layer atop one another once I get above 16,000ft. I need good weather to safely cross this pass.
I tentatively step into the night. There is half an inch of fresh accumulation on the ground and the snow is continuing to come down. I know that Thorong La’s highpoint is more than ten miles out from where I am, and there are a few more teahouse settlements along the way. I am worried about the conditions but I know what I have to do: put one foot in front of the other, stay alert, wait for daylight to arrive, and not make excuses for myself to give up before I have even tried. I have no desire to climb Thorong La in the snow but that is a decision to be made once I reach the last cluster of teahouses right below the pass, sometime later this morning. Onwards and upwards.
As so often, dawn saves the day. At daybreak the snow is starting to let up; I can see in the distance that the clouds are clearing on Thorong La pass. A deep-seated feeling of relief powers me up the next steep section, and then some. At this point I am quite confident that I can break the record, as long as my body just doesn’t break from the unaccustomed stress of a multi-day ultra push.
And so I push on. Relentless forward motion, one foot in front of the other. Thorong La comes and goes. I bomb down the backside of the pass, losing almost nine thousand feet of elevation in just a couple of hours. Muktinath appears in front of me. I stop to register my trekking permit at the official checkpoint. The officer asks where I am coming from; when I say that I started my day in Manang he nods and says “Ah, yes, helicopter.” Too tired and indifferent to explain, I push on. I’ve been on trail for 53 hours.
Night catches up to me once more. I welcome the darkness as an excuse to stop in Kagbeni for a warm meal and a bed. From here, my map is telling me, it’s another 80 kilometers and all downhill.
Miraculously my body seems to be getting stronger through this ordeal, not weaker as I had feared. The ankle I sprained three months ago is stable and strong. My badly blistered and infected big toe, which had almost sent me running to the emergency room in Pokhara a few days ago, seems to be healing more and more with every mile I put on it. My lungs, which are known to occasionally succumb to intense-exercise-induced asthma, are humoring me through dust and cold air and altitude. My blood oxygen clocks in at 99% after crossing Thorong La Pass, even though it’s been almost ten days since I was last up high.
At this point my internal dialogue changes. It’s no longer about breaking the existing women’s record: I am starting to believe that I can do that. But can I get to the finish line in Nayapul before noon on Sunday, to complete the whole circuit in less than four days? If I’m just willing to endure another midnight start on my last day I might just be able to pull it off. The only thing that is fueling me now is my own ambition and curiosity to see what I can do.
Another midnight start. Another big day. Another big climb of more than 6,000ft to get across Poon Hill, Nepal’s most loved-to-death introductory trek. And then the equally steep and long descent on the other side which finally gets my body to start complaining: my right shin seems to want to explode. At least I should only have some fifteen kilometers of downhill left to the finish line! Only of course the map is grossly inaccurate for this section. What shows as a two kilometer stretch between villages turns out to be ten, and what should have been a casual stroll towards Nayapul turns into a chase for my self-imposed Sunday noon deadline. Once I am down the steepest sections of the trail I pick up the pace and force my exhausted feet to start running again - because what’s that old ultra running saying? Pain is temporary, glory is forever.
And just like that, a mix of stubbornness and relentless forward motion and inspiration from the runners who came before me carries me to Nayapul, across the bridge that marks the official finish line, at 11:39am on Sunday morning. After 219 kilometers and more than thirty-three thousand feet of climbing, just twenty-one minutes shy of four full days on the trails that circumnavigate Annapurna, I don’t care anymore that I am confusing a few random bystanders with my level of elation and the size of the grin on my face. Because the only thing that I care about right then and there is this: I finally get to stop moving.
Note: when I decided to run the Annapurna Circuit I had just spent weeks leading a team to the summit of 21,247ft Mera Peak which provided the necessary acclimatization for me to attempt this on a whim. Do not try to tackle a high altitude run without allowing time for acclimatization first.
You can find GPS tracks and a few video snippets using the links below.
Suunto Ambit animated track
Video journal from the top of Thorong La Pass
DeLorme GPS track (if the page doesn't load auto-centered on the Circuit...
zoom out and manually navigate over to Nepal)
Earlier this year, on a crisp Colorado spring day, I was sitting at a Starbucks in Boulder trying to get a bit of photo work done before hitting the trails in the afternoon... when I saw an email from the UK pop up in my inbox, asking if I had heard about the Rich List and how I'd like to be part of it in 2017.
Um, wait, the Rich List? What Rich List? And why me, when I'm a Starbucks-is-a-lavish-expense dirtbag now??
Well, long story short... I did my research, I said yes, and half a year later the project has come to fruition. I am excited to share the resulting 360 VR film that I got to work on with San Miguel in Zermatt this past September. Watch in high-res with sound on and make sure to look around!
I think the VR City crew did a great job capturing why I do what I do these days, and why I made the decision to leave my old life as a strategy consultant some 20 months ago.
Also check out my official Rich List profile (all photography by the one and only Tyler Roemer) and, more importantly, the collection of incredibly individuals and the stories of everyone else on the San Miguel 2017 Rich List. I'm honored to be part of this beautiful campaign.
Here's a question: How do you define 'badass'?
Alex Honnold's freesolo of Freerider was badass. Definitely. BASE jumping is badass. But do you need to jump off stuff or climb ridiculously hard and/or without a rope to qualify as badass? Does being 'badass' mean that you must be willing to risk life and limb?
I don't think so. OK, you may ask, then what does it mean to be (a) badass? Here's what the dictionary definition for 'badass' is according to Google:
badass -- ˈbadas/
tough, uncompromising, or intimidating.
"a badass demeanour"
Mmmh, funny. Yeah I can see the 'tough' part; I disagree quite heartily with the 'uncompromising' bit. Yes, when I think of examples of badassery I think of folks like Jess Roskelley and Clint Helander on the Gauntlet Ridge. I think of Paul and his lifelong big-wall exploits. But I also think of someone like Kristine, whom I met at an AndShesDopeToo Rendezvous last year, who wouldn't let others tell her that she couldn’t, and shaped herself into a long-distance runner despite her asthma. I think of my best friend Katrin, not an athlete, who decided to complete an Ironman... and did. I think of my mom, who trained for and summited Kilimanjaro at age 65 - for no other reason than to see if she could. I'd venture to argue that being tough plays into all of these feats, yet none of them require you to be uncompromising.
In my view, badasses are people who defy conventional expectations of capability; not just other people's expectations but also - and maybe most importantly - their own expectations of what they should be capable of.
Yes, badasses are people who push outside their comfort zones and go beyond what others believe should be possible - but also people like you and I who are willing to try something that they themselves aren't sure will be within their realm of the possible. Clint and Jess on Mt. Huntington - badasses measured by the absolute level of their achievement - just as much as Kristine and her first half marathon.
So how about the third part of that Google definition: 'tough, uncompromising, or intimidating'? I'd like to suggest replacing 'intimidating' with 'inspiring.' Yes, the more of us dare to try and surpass our own expectations of what we think we can do, the more we all (current, aspiring, and non-badasses alike) lose our excuses for not going after hair-raising goals, really big ambitious projects and far-off dreams. So maybe that makes the badasses among us a touch intimidating to the rest of the world; but they're also a fantastic source of inspiration, for me at least. I'm not suggesting you go off and try to free-solo El Capitan, but seriously... as far as those other big dreams of yours are concerned: what are you waiting for?
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" My boyfriend looks at me quizzically. "Just saying... Mike and Rich really know their Grand Canyon stuff, and they both think we're crazy for attempting this in July."
'This' is a 32 mile roundtrip with a total of 20,000ft of elevation change to climb a formation in the canyon called Zoroaster's temple. Paul has been wanting to climb Zoroaster for decades, and I have a mad love affair with all things Grand Canyon - so of course I was excited to give Zoroaster's Temple a go when Paul first brought up the idea. All we needed was a permit and a long weekend; because, you know... twenty-four hours of driving, thirty-two miles of steep hiking and a six pitch chossy adventure route on top of it.
With lots of enthusiasm and little research I convinced Paul to do the climb over Independence Day. What better way to escape the holiday weekend crowds than to pursue an obscure, off-trail Grand Canyon objective in the heat of summer, right?
Having been to the Grand Canyon about a dozen times before (including three solo runs of the 42 mile Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim), I should have known better. Actually, I did. I know it gets hot on the South Rim, and when it's hot up there it's REALLY hot down in the inner gorge. On one of my early visits to the Canyon I almost passed out from heat exhaustion on Tonto Plateau after an easy and flat two-mile walk. Yes, I knew better than to think that hiking heavy packs into the depths of the Grand Canyon in July is a great idea. But I figured we're fast, we'll be smart, and while it's going to be hard we should be able to cheat the heat. Mike and Rich disagreed. "Bring superglue", they suggested. "Your shoes will be delaminating from the heat."
In the days leading up our grand adventure Paul makes last-minute efforts to convince me that we may want to find an alternative. "Have you seen the forecast? There's an excessive heat warning for the area. The temps over the weekend are projected around 108 degrees..." - "Yeah, but!" I interject. "The route is northeast facing. It will be in the shade. And it's high up anyway. We just gotta get through the approach, and we'll be fine."
It's Saturday afternoon when we pick up our backcountry permit at the South Rim's wilderness office. "Yes, yours is the only bivy permit we've issued for this whole backcountry area over the weekend" the ranger confirms. "Nobody wants to be out there in these temperatures. Good luck!" And off we go.
As we start our hike on the South Rim at 7,000ft it's a balmy 88 degrees. We are hiking in late, at 3:30pm, to chase shade. By the time we hit the bottom of the Grand Canyon at 2,000ft ASL the temperatures are well above 100 degrees, even though it is now 8pm and the inner gorge has been in the shade for several hours. The heat is oppressive. I am glad to reach the Colorado River where I drop my pack to walk straight into the cold water, shoes and all. Paul is a few minutes behind me and not as keen on a cool-down session in the river. Soon we are hiking again. Only two miles and 1500ft of climbing to our bivy spot now.
And that’s where the heat starts to wrestle us down. Paul’s energy is zapped, his pace crashing. Sunset turns to dusk turns to a beautiful moonlit night while we continue our ever-slower crawl towards camp. We are traversing steep exposed sections without headlamps; the moon is guiding us brightly. The final two miles feel like forever; behind every turn there is another stretch of climbing. It’s a spectacular shadow world that we have entered, the rapids of the river sparkling far below us, pale cliffs towering all around intercepted by deep darkness where the moon can’t reach. How can a landscape that looks so peaceful and calm be such a hostile furnace, an unlivable wasteland where every breath heats up your core until the body shuts down as from a high fever. It is long after dark, and the heat is still oppressive.
We turn another corner and breathe a sigh of relief as the trail finally flattens out. I can just make out the silhouette of two huge cairns which mark our bivy site. Packs off, pads thrown in the dirt; it is finally time to sleep. The plan? Wake up four hours from now, cover another four plus miles and three thousand feet of climbing before sunrise, then climb Zoroaster’s Northeast Arete.
The alarm rings after what seems like just a moment of sleep. I am not excited. Paul grunts and rolls over on his sleeping pad to look at me. “I feel terrible.” I nod. He’s not one to bail or to ask for help lightly, but he went into a deep bonk on the final miles last night - just a few hours ago. “What do you want to do?” Paul stares up at the sky and doesn’t answer.
I can imagine what’s going on in his head right now. The climb isn’t that much farther from where we are. We’ve come all this way to climb Zoroaster. We’re way down in the canyon. Bailing sucks. There’s no shade where we are camped, but if we could just get on the route! The route will be in the shade. It’s only another three thousand feet of ascent to get to the base of the climb. But three thousand vertical feet in this kind of setting can take forever….
After what seems like an eternity Paul turns to me and makes the hard but smart call to bail. “I'm not sure I can safely do this today. Just thinking about hiking those eleven miles back up to the South Rim right now seems really borderline…” I agree, and am glad for Paul’s reflected level-headedness.
Even with Zoroaster out of the picture now we are still looking at a big day to make it back to our car. We decide to stick to our original schedule and spend two nights at the bivy site, to take a full day of rest before the strenuous hike out. At this point it’s all a question of hiding from the sun, finding little spots of shade, hydrating and fueling, and trying to keep from overheating.
36 hours later we are back on top of the rim, wiping sleep out of our eyes as we’re watching the sunrise from Grand Canyon Village. What an adventure it has been. “Maybe I’m just getting to old for this stuff…” Paul says into the silence as we’re looking out over the vast expanse of gorges and towers and temples bathed in early morning light. Then he shakes his head. “Bullsh*t. We’ll come back next year and get it done. But let's pick a weekend when it’s not 108 degrees, yes?” He puts his arm around my waist. I nod. "Deal." We can see Zoroaster’s Temple clearly, a long ways away towards the North Rim, and there's no place I'd rather be.
Hey boys, it matters. Oh boy does it matter. What, you ask? Encouraging increasing women participation in the outdoors.
I’m a woman. I’m an outdoorswoman. I am friends with many other outdoorswomen, a lot of whom are certified badasses (unlike myself; though I like to think of myself as a badass-in-training, ha!). And I firmly believe that getting more women into the great outdoors has the power to make a huge positive social contribution - a contribution that reaches far beyond what REI calls “the largest level playing field on earth.”
I said something to the same extent in a recent NBC interview, and it drew a surprising amount of negativity and criticism; most of it from boys. So here are a couple things that I want to clarify - because I think they’re important, and because I care.
- Promoting the notion of women empowerment, female role models and, gasp, the occasional all-female climb or activity is not an anti-male statement. It’s not suggesting that men are misogynists or that climbing with guys is no fun. It’s not about segregation either, but rather an acknowledgement of the unfortunate truth - as shown by many different studies - that in mixed-gender environments, women tend to fall behind and men tend to dominate. And I’ll say it again: this is not about men being misogynists. It’s just how team dynamics, on average, tend to play out when you have both genders present. There’s a term for it too: second-generation gender bias. This is how Robin Ely, Senior Associate Dean at Harvard Business School, defines it: “Second-generation forms of gender bias aren’t the result of conscious, discriminatory intent; rather, they arise from a million micro interactions, cultural assumptions, and historic ways of doing business that still carry the imprint of our history of gender hierarchy.” Skeptical if it's real? Start by reading this article in the Atlantic.
- On the topic of segregation: the NBC interview drew some responses that suggested that gender shouldn’t matter, and that we should be gender blind because anything else promotes segregation. Conceptually, I would like to agree. In practice, it just doesn’t work that way. Because even with the best intentions gender discrimination is rampant - it’s not something that’s specific to the outdoors, nor is it something that has to be a deliberate act; it’s simply deeply engrained in our societal history and pervasive across too many aspects of daily life. Again, second-generation gender bias. If you are a guy who is (like I would think most if not all of you!) NOT a self-professed misogynist, you’ll most likely not ever experience this gender bias firsthand - though you might witness it in many social interactions around you. Take this anecdote, which is just one among countless others:
On a Thursday in March, a coed climbing party makes a call to a ranger station to enquire about snow and climbing conditions in the backcountry, sharing their plans for a weekend climb. The ranger readily and happily provides beta and advises the team to pass good judgment on their climb but to have fun out there and enjoy the weekend. One day later, the climbing party passes by the ranger station on their way to the trailhead and decides to check in on conditions once more for good measure. The woman in the party, who has many more years of mountain experience than her partner, heads into the ranger station; she’s greeted by the same ranger that her partner spoke to on the phone the previous day. As she asks for an update on conditions - which haven’t changed - the ranger gives her a slow up-and-down, and says “Oh you shouldn’t be going out there honey. It’s dangerous in the backcountry. And you’d need flotation devices anyway - you know, like skis or snowshoes. This is not the weekend for you to attempt this.”
Thinking “what’s the big deal” as you’re reading this? If yes, my guess is that you probably have a Y chromosome. Because if you are a girl, these interactions do matter - not because we can’t get over a one-time, unnecessary sexist remark, but because it happens over and over again, in all sorts of different situations and across the whole universe of imaginable contexts. It suggests to us that we’re weak, that we shouldn’t put ourselves out there, and that we shouldn’t be confident in our abilities. No matter how strong and irreverent a woman may be, this kind of interaction leaves its mark if it happens again and again and again, year after year after year. That’s why being gender blind doesn’t work: because even if you, male reader of this article, may be the most wonderful man and not ever discourage or diminish the women in your social circles, there are plenty of others - men and women both - who do, and many of them without even realizing it (I’m sure the ranger who told me that a climb which he deemed perfectly acceptable for an unknown and for what it’s worth, inexperienced, guy was a really bad idea for me had no bad intentions but simply wanted to keep me safe) and until they stop, and until we consistently tell our little girls and young women and adult females that they’re just as capable as their male counterparts, being gender-blind is a noble thought but utterly amiss of what’s actually happening in the world.
- Next point: Why do I believe that we should put effort and investment and, yes, airtime into promoting all-female activities and into supporting and showcasing female role models? Because when I look at Sharma or Adam Ondra or Tommy Caldwell, I think to myself “Wow those guys are incredible. They’re so strong. I could NEVER do that.” When I look at Beth Rodden or Margo Hayes or Libby Sauter, I think “Wow these girls are incredible. They must have put a ton of work into getting where they are. If they could do it, I wonder how far I could get if I really focused and got after it?” Inspiration is a powerful thing. Women mentors and role models matter, not because male mentors are bad or misogynist or only interested in sex, but because having role models of your own gender is a fantastic source of motivation as well as a huge confidence builder. And it's motivation and confidence that'll enable more women to get outside and experience the joy and freedom that comes from moving competently in the great outdoors.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I firmly believe that women who get to experience and embrace adventure sports are poised to develop a higher level of self-confidence, that they're more likely to challenge the status quo and be strong leaders and female role models for their communities. There's so much more to why this matters, but for now I want to leave it at this: supporting women empowerment in the outdoors is NOT synonymous to accusing men of misogyny; it is not a publicity play, and it shouldn't be divisive either - on the contrary: it should be a no-brainer that unites adventurers and outdoor lovers, male and female alike.
Guys, be part of the solution. Ladies, let's continue to get after it!
Ever thought about going on a crazy adventure with your mom/dad/son/daughter? There are plenty of horror stories about what can go wrong when you take non-outdoorsy loved ones into the mountains. Ignoring the stories, my mom (65) and I (31) decided to climb Kilimanjaro together - and we had a blast. Just take a look through the gallery below :)
PS... case in point: our trip leader Gavin, who runs the Colorado-based guide service Summit Xperience, brought along his fourteen year old son Max who also did wonderfully well.
How many Kili summit teams can boast an age spread of 51 years!
Thinking about your own Kilimanjaro climb?
There are many possible routes and many different outfitters.
Be aware that any climb of less than 6-7 days is highly likely to produce altitude sickness - fast ascent attempts are the reason that the summit success rate on Kili is only ~40%, even though mountain is easy from a technical perspective. The Machame route, best done in seven days, covers ~78 kilometers and is considered the most scenic way up the mountain.
Nepal has a special place in my heart. It's almost impossible for me to explain why, but every time I return to Kathmandu I am taken over by a level of excitement and happiness that I don't find in many other places. It's paradoxical: I don't like cities, I dislike crowds, I hate traffic. Kathmandu is the perfect combination of all three and yet I love it.
Nepal is where I climbed my first big mountain five years ago, a spontaneous decision that started me on a path my mom isn't super excited about (sorry mom!) and led me to a series of expeditions to develop my alpine skills.
Back then, the final steps across Island Peak's summit ridge at 20000ft felt like the hardest physical challenge of my life. In the years since I have upped my game on the endurance front and become a stronger climber. And now another spontaneous decision is bringing me back to the Khumbu: together with Mingma, the sherpa who introduced me to big mountains on Island Peak, I will attempt Kusum Kanguru - a rarely climbed 6367m peak not far from Lukla.
After a month of hot and muggy sport climbing in Thailand I am excited to breathe crisp mountain air and stretch the legs, and test a ton of new gear too. And as far as my mom goes... well... she's in her final stretch of training before we climb Kilimanjaro together over Thanksgiving! Apple, tree :)
Climbing and I have a special relationship. I am writing these words as I am sitting in Tonsai, the Thai sport climbing paradise, with sore fingers after a day of moderate toproping. I’ve been playing toprope hero for a few days and have yet to work up the courage to take the sharp end. If you’ve climbed with me before this may not come as much of a surprise, but if you know me from outside the climbing universe you are probably scratching your head. Me, the girl who quit her job to climb and run full-time, who’s been spending the better part of this past spring on big walls in Zion and Yosemite and in the Bugaboos - yes, that same girl can be a real candy ass on rock.
Climbing humbles me. It takes me apart and builds me back up; all too often it does more of the former than the latter. I haven’t yet invested enough time and training to become a strong leader; with haphazard dedication I find my progress to be excruciatingly slow. I am often scared of falling; even though I know how to fall safely and have taken my fair share of falls, the thought of it can paralyze me or send me into a panic.
Then I don’t climb for a while and selective amnesia sets in: I forget about all those moderates that I’ve bailed from because I was afraid. Instead I remember the 5.10s that I have sent, and the Indian Creek warmups that I’ve been working on lead. I remember free soloing easy routes in the Flatirons and crazy exposed 4th class ridges in the Bugaboos. I think about the strong, courageous girl I want to be and rope up at a new sport crag eying the easiest warmup. Surely I can walk up a 5.8 with my eyes closed, right? Hey, I’ve rope-soloed Space Shot and done all sorts of other badass stuff. A little sport climb won’t faze me, will it?
Enter the meltdown. Hanging at the second or third clip, my mind is spinning with scenarios of unsafe falls and reasons for why I might not stick the next few moves and excuses for why I shouldn’t go for it. More often than not the gap between who - or how strong and brave - I want to be and who I actually am is too large for me to reconcile; rather than focusing on the climbing in front of me, I allow self doubt to lead me down a rabbit hole and bail. More often than not, once I’m back on the ground the rabbit hole expands into a black hole. Why am I doing this? I am such a coward; I shouldn’t have bailed. I’m not sure I even enjoy climbing. Maybe I should sell my climbing shoes. More often than not, what was supposed to be a fun session at the crag turns into me being immensely frustrated and not in the mood to climb anything at all.
But I haven’t sold my climbing shoes; in fact I own five pairs. And I’m in Tonsai now — for at least a month if not longer. Not climbing is not an option for me.
I climb because I love the joy of moving over rock. I love the movement, I love the exposure, and in a twisted way I absolutely love that the rock forces me to be brutally honest with myself. Because climbing holds a mirror up to me and stubbornly refuses to let me get away with posturing; the rock doesn't care how well I think I *should* be able to climb, it simply shows me how well I really am climbing on any given day.
There's a simple beauty to becoming a better climber. I believe that at its essence there are only two questions that matter, and I'm not talking about finger strength and technique or about better footwork and more mileage... unless you're an elite climber who is approaching the limits of human physiology in the 5.14+ range, I think what matters is something much more personal:
- Am I willing and able to embrace falling? Do I have the guts, the grit to push all the way to failure, and is it safe for me to fall.
- Will I get back up for another go after I have fallen? Am I willing and motivated to push towards that point of failure again and again and again until I've given my body and mind the chance to learn enough so that I can gradually turn failure into success.
I firmly believe that if both of these questions are a "hell yes", then improving your technique and strength and endurance is mainly a matter of how much time you can spend climbing. Remember the meltdowns I was describing earlier? The situations where I have been the most frustrated with myself were always the ones when I would answer "no" to either one of the two questions above. I have never yet walked away from a hard climbing session where I got after it and took multiple falls thinking "wow that was a terrible day." I only get sucked into the black hole of frustration when I approach a climb with an expectation of what I *should* be able to do, don't deliver on the expectation and end up losing my joy and motivation to keep trying.
As the saying goes: happiness equals reality minus expectations. Replace expectations with humility and openness towards learning, and all a sudden frustration about not achieving a particular outcome gives way to excitement about the journey.
In the end it's not about sending this or that route, or any route. I know that there is no absolute level at which I will be content with my climbing. If I'm sending 5.10s today, redpointing a 5.11 tomorrow won't make me happy; if I'm starting to work on 5.12s (ha! hopefully in the not too distant future), sending my project won't be the journey's finish line. What brings me joy and makes me happy is not a tangible outcome, but the attitude that allows me to work towards getting stronger: it's having the confidence in myself to try something that I'm not sure I'll be able to pull off, and to be okay with the possibility of falling.
I want to be that strong, courageous woman who moves confidently on rock and uses sound judgment to push her own limits, a woman who continues to learn and grow every day. To become her, there’s only one thing to do: get back on the wall and climb. So that’s what I’ll do. Take the sharp end, fall, get up again, and keep climbing.
Thinking about your own sport climbing trip to Thailand?
November through January is the best season meaning dry and reasonably "mild" temperatures, but it's also high season. Expect crowded crags, beaches, and bungalows; on the bright side, you won't have any trouble finding climbing partners if you're traveling solo, and fun nightlife is guaranteed. If you're not into crowds and would like to save money, consider traveling in the off-season where you can rent basic private bungalows for 200-400 baht (~$6 to $12) a night. Despite plenty of rain, many crags are steep enough to remain climbable during monsoon season.
The crags of Tonsai, Railay and Phranang beach are all within walking distance from one another. Tonsai has the highest concentration of climbers and cheap accommodation; Railay is closer to Phranang (best beach and a couple good crags), has more variety of restaurants, resorts, and comes with a nice beach as well as ATMs. Regardless of where you decide to stay, fly into Krabi or Phuket before taking a longtail boat or ferry to Tonsai / Railay.