Ryan Wichelns on Becoming a Freelance Outdoor Writer

The sweat was mounting on Ryan Wichelns’ brow. His breath was labored, his hands tiring, his vision narrowed. Like his summit push to Mt. Brooks in Denali National Park in whiteout conditions, what lay ahead was unknown. 

He talks calmly about it now, but he probably gulped a few times before sending. It being an email to the editors of Backpacker Magazine containing his first ever story pitch. He says he dashed the submission off for fun, an inconsequential story idea that he didn’t expect much of. 

As happens with unexpected pursuits, that throwaway email changed the direction of his life.

I don’t buy his telling though. Ryan seems like the kind of meticulous person that would carefully analyze each word to make it sound just right; that plans week-long excursions to Alaska to undertake a “technical first that links five peaks in a remote part of Denali National Park.” He strikes me as a planner with an affinity for spreadsheets.

Either way, as with many of his climbs, he’d end up scaling this new trajectory with quick progression: He’s the editor of Eastern Mountain Sport’s goEast blog, has written for Outside Magazine, Backpacker, and Alpinist, and he’s fully supported himself through writing for over a year.

That’s not a normal course for a young freelancer. 

Ryan in his element. Photo source: ryanclimbs.com


It started with a trip to Arcadia… Rhode Island. 

“Arcadia is probably the only place you can backpack in the state,” he chuckles. Rhode Island being all of 37 miles wide by 48 miles long.

Backpacker bit. Ryan was now a writer.

“It taught me a valuable lesson, that you should focus on a niche. Certainly, not a lot of people were writing about obscure trips in RI.” His idea stood out and they took a chance on him.

One small trip, one small act, one big life-altering outcome.


Ryan is at the dawn of his writing career but is already one of the rare species to make a full-time living off it. 

As my editor at goEast, I was curious to learn more about his own path, and to see what advice I may be able to glean from someone a few years ahead of me on this journey. In our call he shared some tips for breaking into freelance writing.

Advice on How to Become a Freelance Writer

Find a niche: 

“This might be the most important thing,” Ryan declares. “There’s a lot of competition and it’s not easy to dive in if you’re pitching yourself as just another writer,” he says.

Anyone can be just another writer. What makes you stand out? What can you write about better than most others? What special angle can you provide? Find your expertise and make yourself valuable with it.

A niche can often be identified by thinking creatively. Start by considering what you already possess, such as local knowledge (which tends to be overlooked), a combination of distinct perspectives (maybe via your upbringing or education), or a particular interest you have.

“For me, it was somewhat accidental and somewhat forced. My niche was in the Northeast. Backpacker didn’t have a ton of people writing about that, but they needed the content,” Ryan offers.

Know the publication you’re pitching to:

You need to understand the publication in order to appeal to the editor.

How does the story you want to pitch fit into what they publish? What is the format or structure of their stories? Are there any gaps in their content? 
Familiarize yourself with their articles, try to understand the reader, and think like an editor.

Ryan at Pico de Orizaba. Photo credit: Lauren Danilek


Write about what interests you:

Ryan studied journalism in college and was the editor of the school paper, yet it wasn’t until he started writing for Backpacker that he saw a future in the pursuit: “The thing is, I never enjoyed writing all through high school… and while it was rewarding to work on an investigative piece [at university], I had more fun writing about the outdoors,” he shares.

Now when he considers potential articles, he evaluates whether it is interesting to him personally. If he’s excited by an idea, it will likely come through in the pitch and the piece.

Relationships matter:

“My first editor at Backpacker took a chance on me. I give her credit for a lot of my success,” Ryan says from the onset.

“After awhile she was giving me assignments, put me up for a job with the [Outdoor Retailer (OR)] Daily. She recommended me for all sorts of press trips.”

The relationship they developed, the trust, and Ryan’s ability to deliver led to an abundance of future opportunities. 

Network. Or, go where the people are:

In a digital world, face time (not the app) matters.

“Going to OR and working for the Daily was the best thing I did for my outdoor industry freelance career,” Ryan notes.

Outdoor Retailer is a beacon for the industry in the U.S., attracting gear companies, athletes, media, and others involved in the space. As a reporter for the daily paper that runs during the duration of the show, Ryan was able to meet editors and writers at other publications, gain leads for stories or pick up products to test, and receive invitations for press trips.

Pitching:

The bread and butter of getting in the door of a publication is the pitch, an “elevator style” presentation of a story idea with the hopes that it intrigues an editor.

The aim for a first story is just that, get a story. Any story. Ryan suggests pitching something more formulaic, such as a a round up or a short interview—in a magazine, look to the beginning sections (often known as the “Departments”) and shy away from pitching a feature.

From an editor’s perspective, it’s easier to take a chance on a new writer with something simple. It’s uncommon for editors to accept a big feature idea from a new writer without a demonstrated history.

“Once I see someone can do [a simpler piece], it becomes far easier to take the reigns off and let them do something more from their own judgement,” Ryan shares. After you have established a relationship with the editor, try pitching a slightly larger idea, then build from there. 

I’ve found Tim Neville’s, The Art of Travel Writing ebook from World Nomads, to be a wonderfully helpful beginner guide that features a detailed “how to pitch” section.

Ryan and pals on their Mt. Brooks expedition in Alaska. Photo source: ryanclimbs.com


A long and bumpy road:

Of course, a word of caution: This path takes time. 

From most accounts I’ve read, years of dedication are required before freelance writers are able to fully support themselves from writing alone. Often this path begins as a part-time thing, they have savings, or there is a very supportive spouse.

But if you can make it work, you can achieve creative flexibility, get paid to go on trips, and work from wherever you have internet access (at least intermittently). 


Ryan has earned his career, step by step, much like his increasingly technical climbs after years of training.

And where one person goes, another is likely to follow; seeing an example acts like a green light for others. If you are pursuing a freelance writing career, or thinking about it, good luck–and consider doing what Ryan did, just keep moving forward.


You can learn more about Ryan Wichelns and read his work at ryanclimbs.com.


Feature photo of Ryan on Mount Rainier, from his website.

Josh Cook: On Developing Crags, Self, and the Next Generation

The drill whirls about in place, boring into the soft limestone. Fine grit clouds kick out at the edges of the hole, puff, puff, puff. The walls echo with the ricochet of millions of years of solidity grinding back into individual particulates. Water droplets sizzle on stone from sweat trickling down forearm and dripping off at the wrist. 

The man at the helm is Josh Cook and he is bolting new sport lines. He’s an English teacher at an international school and he’s developing the first sport crag in Škaljari, Montenegro. 

Škaljari, Montenegro
Škaljari, Montenegro. Photo courtesy of Josh Cook.


Josh never thought he’d end up in Montenegro as a mis-fit kid in Denver, CO. 

When he told people he was thinking of going, the response was generally the same: “nobody knows where it is.” He continues, “That’s already cool. Anytime you hear of a country you don’t know anything about, then it’s very enticing. You know there’s something special there.” So off he went.

This type of adventurism is easy for him now—motorcycle trip across the Himalayas? Backpacking in the Andes? No problem—but things were different when he was young. It’s not that he was a misfit, it’s more like he felt mis-placed. 


Josh grew up as one of the few white kids in school. Not that he had a problem with it, he just stood out. Then he got a scholarship and was one of the few lower-income students in a fancy private high school. Not that it was an issue, he just didn’t quite fit in. Then he wanted to be a climber. Not that it should have been too difficult, but there weren’t many of those around.


At last, climbing was a place where he felt he belonged. He started when he was 6 and was obsessed by 16. Every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday: Morrison bouldering area. You know the drill.

At 18 he took a year off to travel the country and climb. He started in Yosemite. To boulder. Mis-fit as he was.

Josh in his element from a young age
Josh in his element from a young age. Photo source: On The Move


If you’re wondering how an inner-city kid from Denver ends up in Montenegro, you have to start with Yosemite. 

Yosemite Valley is an international port of call for climbers. In 2018, over four million visitors came through from 33 countries. Most come in the summer and it can be a madhouse. Especially for an 18 year old out on his own for the first time.

“I’m driving in and it’s just packed. There’s one way traffic, all these cars, rangers everywhere. I’m looking for Camp 4 and I can’t find Camp 4. At that point, it was briefly named Sunnyside Campground so I’m not seeing signs for Camp 4. I finally pull over then realize [I’m here and] you have to have to wait in a long line to get a campsite, and you have to share it with other people. I’m learning trial by fire, this whole rigamarole,” Josh recalls.

He continues, “I squeeze into Site 17 and there’s these scruffy, complete dirtbag-looking climbers. The youngest was maybe 5 years older, the oldest was probably 10 yeas older. I go, ‘oh, uh, I have to share this site with you guys.’ And they just stare at me.” The climbers were non-plussed but helped him unload nonetheless. 

Josh stayed a month and they got to know each other. They became friends. Turns out they were die hard trad climbers from the Welsh tradition. As they would go off to climb big walls, away for days at a time, Josh would be there wrestling pebbles. 

They couldn’t believe he was in Yosemite just for bouldering. Josh couldn’t believe they were climbing those walls. They opened his eyes to a larger world.

Josh's friend, Tania, bouldering in Kashmir
Josh’s friend, Tania, bouldering in Kashmir. Photo source: On The Move


One day, one of the guys hung back. 

“Neil goes, ‘I’m gonna take a rest day and boulder with you,’” Josh reflects. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘oh trad climber, he won’t know anything about bouldering, hopefully he can keep up with me.’”

Josh continues, “We’re at Curry Village, warming up on opposite sides of the boulder. He walks around to where I am, and I present what I’m working on. I was just flailing on this thing, it was like a V4 or something. When he got on it he flashed it. And not only that, he did it with such grace and ease that my jaw dropped.”

“I realized at that point my world of climbing had been all about the media and the value of recognition. [Basically,] you were a nobody if you weren’t in the magazines or at the competitions or whatever it was.” 

Of course, Neil wasn’t in the magazines.

“No one knew who he was,” Josh laments. “But he was the best climber I ever met, ever seen climb.” Back home he was known as a Dark Horse. “The best climber you’ve never heard of,” he says.

Neil still pops up from time to time in mentions, but not features.


That interaction changed everything for Josh. Neil and friends loved climbing for all that it was, and they climbed all that was available around the world. They didn’t seek notoriety, they simply did it for fun and self-improvement. 

“I really came to respect that, doing everything to the best of your ability, climbing all the different styles and disciplines, and to do it humbly. Not trying to seek attention,” Josh shares, admiration ringing in his voice.

“That shifted how I thought about my goals: to become more about being the best that I can be, and to not let it be about ego… I want to know that I can dedicate myself to challenging tasks and become better at them through the learning process,” he sums up.

Josh applies much of his lessons learned in climbing to his teaching pedagogy. 

He explains, “Teaching fits a lot of the same characteristics: constant problem solving and decision making, performance under pressure, mentorship, refining weaknesses, measuring growth and skill development (in the students and in myself), the list goes on.” 

And he teaches because in his words, “I influence the lives of youth, hopefully for the better. I help make them critical thinkers, lovers of literature, and attentive writers. I give them opportunities to be good people and work with them through the process of creating their own paths.”

He encourages that the beauty is not in the big send, but the progression towards the goal: “I describe this process to my students as: attempt, failure, reflection, refinement, and attempt again (repeat… forever). The signs that we have done that well, that we are conscious and attentive to our experiences, are what we call improvement. That awareness of our experiences is also just good living, I think.”

Josh motorcycling through the Himalayas
Josh motorcycling through the Himalayas. Photo source: On The Move


Josh has bopped around, having taught in Peru, Bhutan, Japan, Montenegro, and soon, Colombia. Wherever he goes he welcome new people into climbing, develops a local area, and finds connection through the sport.

“As you live this itinerant lifestyle, intentionally drawing away from people, it [can] prohibit you from being a part of community,” Josh says.

He goes on, “I found recently, because I’m always living everywhere, my community is climbers that I meet. It helps me feel connected to something larger.”

Climbers tend to be roamers and travelers, perpetual motion in new lands. It sounds like he’s found where he fits in.



You can read some of Josh’s writing on his blog, On The Move.

Dirtbags Climbing: Giving Old Gear a Second Life, Sustainably

The climber’s paradox

The equipment that keeps us safe has an expiration date for its usefulness and eventually has to be retired. What to do with the gear?

You can’t recycle it, not in a traditional sense anyway. So we throw away these once indispensables. All that technical matter that let’s us enjoy the outdoors—dashed and trashed—an eye sore filling in the very nature we love.




Jennifer Wood comes from a long-line of climbers. But she wasn’t one of them. A break in the chain, until she met James Dickinson.

Jennifer and James weren’t entrepreneurs. But they knew how to be resourceful, to work with their hands, to fix things up. Then Jennifer found out she was pregnant. Idle hands and an artist’s creativity bred something reimagined.

The young couple didn’t have a lot of money. They begged and borrowed and cleverly sourced materials to renovate their home. Instead of contributing to the growing mounds of trash they found they could help reduce it. 



A bump and a business

A Dirtbags mat for clean climbing. Photo source: dirtbagsclimbing.co.uk


Dirtbags Climbing began out of a reluctance to throw away old climbing gear. They didn’t want to perpetuate the problem of single use, one-and-done products anymore. 

“The outdoor industry, at the end of the day, is really a polluting industry because it uses lots of plastic based materials: polypropylene, nylon, all these fibers that go into equipment. You can’t melt down the fibers in climbing ropes. It’s extremely difficult to recycle them. They will remain on the planet forever,” James elaborates one of the contradictions of outdoor sports.

Jennifer and James encountered the challenge directly: They had old ropes lying around. Past trips were wound into the frayed threads and they were reluctant to toss them; they were mementos of places, people, trips.

They decided to turn the ropes into rugs: Cut out the core (new drying lines!), iron the sheathing flat, zigzag stitch it up and hey, that looks like fabric. Turned out other people liked the idea, and the designs.

Old climbing ropes given new life. Photo source: dirtbagsclimbing.co.uk



A circular economy in Cumbria

The 1968 Singer sewing machine Model 239 whirls to life and taps away with drumbeat precision: thump-thump-thump-thump. Pastel cords are braided along a hanging rack like melted Crayola crayons, an oozing kaleidoscope down the wall. The large front window emanates the artistic spirit from within, and welcomes the petering day’s light towards the craft perched on the workbench.

One of their many refurbished sewing machines. Photo source: dirtbagsclimbing.co.uk


Through and through, the Dirtbags workshop is the embodiment of the company’s mission: It is made entirely from recycled materials sourced from construction sites, as local as they can get it, and is solar powered.  Everything made within is from materials otherwise sent to landfill.

“We don’t want to be just another brand,” James enumerates. “The fact that it’s made in the Lake District, our customers learn where the ‘raw’ materials come from, they know us. Each piece is unique. We’re not churning out 25 of the same bag.”

For Jennifer, a self-described introvert, she enjoys that the artistic expression of her inner world emerges through the materials and helps form a connection with the customer: “I like that it’s just tools in a shed, that our customers can call us up with a custom order and it’s us they talk to, that it’s very personal.” 

Around the community, they have a symbiotic relationship with the local businesses. There are many outdoor companies that caters to the tourism in the Lake District. Year over year they generate waste with cast off material: old life jackets (waterproof material, buckles, straps!), rucksacks (fabric, zippers!), ropes (see above!), etc.

These businesses are happy to give Dirtbags their waste to turn into beautiful “new” goods, which goes back into the Lake District economy. Around and around.




A new reality

If we want to enjoy climbing sustainably, we need to alter our consumption patterns from an environmental to economic perspective.

“We are part of that generation where our parent’s feel privileged that they can constantly add to their wardrobes, buy new cars, [you name it]. We can’t keep up with that, and we don’t want to keep up with that,” Jennifer chuckles, though conveying a serious new reality.

Partly circumstance, partly self-determination, and partly living a life they are proud of, Jennifer and James “get a great sense of satisfaction by doing everything ourselves.”

They continue, “It comes from not having a lot of money. It’s out of necessity. We have been lucky to learn a lot of skills; James’ dad was an engineer, built houses. You acquire craft skills, wood work, metal work. Makes you realize how resourceful you can be.”

Sewing it up. Photo source: dirtbagsclimbing.co.uk


Anyone can make a small change to their habits. 

“Be mindful of the way you use products and materials,” Jennifer urges. “Don’t throw things away that you can use or that someone else can make use of. If things continue as is we’ll be living in a very polluted world.” Each small action adds up.

Dirtbags Climbing is giving back to the sport they love, through the community they live in, in order to create a more sustainable environment.
 
“We live in a beautiful area, and it’s frustrating when you find rubbish about. You realize this is a special place that you need to keep special,” James punctuates with a final note.

We all need to do our part to keep it special, for generations to come.



You can learn more about the work of Dirtbags Climbing (and/ or buy one of their products), explore their community partners, and get inspiration for how to recycle some of your own climbing gear on their website: dirtbagsclimbing.co.uk

I for one felt compelled to make my own bouldering brush after our call. What will your project be?

Boulder brush I made from scrap wood.

Emilia Wint: From Losing Sight to a Laser Focus on Living a Full Life

How might your life change if you only had 20 more years of sight?

The run came and went in a blur. Emilia Wint struggled to navigate the contrast between the packed dirt of the forest floor and the streams of light shooting between the canopy in the afternoon sun.

“Uhh, that was really hard to see, felt sketchy,” she pressed her friends at the bottom of the track, straddling her mountain bike. Hmm. Everything appeared fine to them, they assured.

That’s odd. It dawned upon her, “Maybe I’m seeing this differently.” 

As a member of the US Freeskiing Team, the ability to differentiate between the snow, the sky and the terrain of the slope in flat light is vital for competition. On dark days the sky and snow are basically the same color and she was having a hard time seeing out there too.

Something wasn’t right. After day’s worth of tests at the hospital she found out why.


Emilia in front of El Cap. Photo source: emiliawint.com


Our call crackled in and out, Emilia’s voice was a soft murmur under a barrage of conversation at nearby tables and passing cars. I overheard a pair talk about their astrology signs and the homework they didn’t feel like doing. 

She plugged in her headset and the world of stereo sound faded out. Her voice honed in with 20/20 clarity. The wind, like lifting a sail, would rush in and fill my headset from time to time. 

Emilia speaks in a calm, easy-going manner, and she laughs easily. She emphasizes key points and jokes by talking faster and raising the pitch in her voice; you’ve got to keep up.

She had just gotten back from 3.5 months Patagonia. We talked about the turning point in her life. 



The Turning Point


“You have this thing, it’s Retinitis pigmentosa. There’s no cure, but you’re young. Talk with the genetic counselor and see me again in a year. Don’t look anything up on the internet,” Emilia relays her doctor’s prognosis.

She didn’t know what the diagnosis meant and her mind was focused on other things anyways. A few days later, she left on a six week trip to compete at the World Cup in New Zealand. She would be skiing on a twice reconstructed knee that wasn’t holding up as well as she had hoped after four years of rehabilitation. 

The practices came and went. In the meantime, Emilia was receiving more information about the disease from her mother back home.

One paragraph shook her to her core: “’Presents in people with adolescent night blindness.’ Which I kinda had. ‘Depressed scores in ERG tests,’ (which is basically like an EKG tests for your heart, but for your eyes). And I had low scores in that. And then ‘most people with Retinitis pigmentosa go blind by the time they turn 40.’”

Um, what?

“I called my mom, and was like, ‘what the fuck? This is not WebMD. This is actually in my chart,’” she recalls of the frantic exchange.

Emilia would go on to place 8th at the competition and out of the finals. It was a run that a few years prior she probably would have medaled. The next day she couldn’t walk down the stairs.

“What would I have done if I had made finals?,” she asked herself. She needed to take a hard look at her next steps.


Emilia competing in a freestyle skiing competition. Photo source: emiliawint.com


Emilia had always wanted to compete at the olympics, but she needed to decide if she was okay with the possibility of getting hurt. Again. It’s part of the game.

She did some mental math.

She was 20 at that point. Two years in a physical therapy room would be 10% of the time she had left to see. Was that worth it?



Emilia doesn’t have time to live the life she wants later. Not if she wants to see it all anyway. 

After retiring, Emilia had to figure out who she was outside of skiing. She grew up as a professional and it was her entire identity. Now she was a wasn’t. 

She went on a tear of adventures she had always wanted to try, but never had the availability for because of skiing: Wildfire fighting, completing a college degree in 2.5 years, a remote medicine fellowship in Ecuador, an attempt at climbing The Nose at Yosemite. Emilia would not slow down in her pursuit of living.

It’s a simple decision making process for her: “What are you going to remember in 20 years? I want to remember riding this epic trail in Moab, not doing laundry,” she says.

It took Emilia a year to move beyond the constant feeling of imminent mental breakdown, despite all that she was up to. Now that she’s in a positive headspace, she feels a sense of gratitude. 

The diagnosis has given me a push to live my life right now. Because whatever it is, I might not have this opportunity forever. And that frame of mind is a special thing,” she says on her blog.


Living their dream (grant). Photo source: emiliawint.com


On Committing to Living a Full Life

Emilia shared her perspective on how she’s choosing to live a full life post-diagnosis.

She recognizes that it can be scary and that she’s also coming from a place of privilege (with some financial security, little debt, and a van that offers cheap accommodation, etc.). She’s also burned herself out from time to time. 

Still, her input offers guidance for pushing our own boundaries, and maybe doing more than you thought was possible.


Living Intentionally

“It’s so easy to not do it,” Emilia declares in our call. 

She continues, “I met so many people in Patagonia who said, ‘I’ve wanted to come here for years. I just retired and finally got the chance.’ I don’t have 30 years to do this thing, I want to do it now.

“Acting intentionally is really important. Picking up the phone when you know you should call your friend. Telling someone you love them. Things can change so drastically, it would be so sad to not pick up the phone, not to tell them you love them. Not to do that thing you really want to do.”

Being intentional is making it happen, with the way you spend your time and your money.” she says.


Face the Fear

Emilia has traveled to Southeast Asia, South America and all over the U.S. 

“You can do it, it’s not like I’m an elite travel person, it’s not an exclusive thing. You just have to book the ticket. I went to SE Asia and used my credit card miles there and back. The whole month cost me about a $1,000,” she shares.

“It can be horrifying,” she admits, “but you can push past that. Exist in the discomfort.”

“For weeks in Bangkok, I had this burden: I don’t speak any Thai. I was horrified about this one micro instance. I’m going to land there, then what am I going to do? I couldn’t think about the rest of the adventure because of this.”

“Then I got there and went to a taxi stand, showed them my phone, then got to the hostel. Yea, you will probably be ripped off a few times, but then you’ll learn,” she recalls of confronting her fear head on.


Take a Step

“It can feel horrible failing, but you can’t avoid failing. I’ve had to work towards being comfortable with it,” Emilia offers.

“Take baby steps. Everyone has ideas of something they want to do; put it in your calendar or tell someone about it. Put one thing into motion, and build off of that. Do one thing. Just start. Hold yourself accountable. Make a concrete step.” 

For a long time Emilia didn’t feel these were things she could do, but her mindset has shifted as she’s begun pursuing her different interests. “You do belong here, you are the type of person that can or should do that thing,” she says, both to herself and others.



The perks of #vanlife. Photo source: emiliawint.com


I came across Emilia’s story when researching the American Alpine Club’s Live Your Dream grant. She had applied with the goal of climbing The Nose of El Cap in Yosemite.

From her account they failed their objective: “we scared the shit out of ourselves for two months… we realized we were way over our head.”

She went on to talk about how she mentally re-framed the situation: “We could have walked out of there feeling like failures… but we recognized that, ‘oh wow, we would never have been able to do these 10 climbs otherwise.’ Now we can go back next year and build on that.” I admire her tenacity and light-heartedness in spite of.

You can read Emilia’s stories on her website, emiliawint.com

Inside Look: What I Learned from a Mindset Consultation with a Sport Psychologist to the Pros

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.” -Marcel Proust*


The phone rang and went to voicemail. Our scheduled mindset consultation never got off the ground.

I wondered if something had come up, or she forgot. Maybe I’d gotten the date wrong. The thought flashed: Perhaps I’m just a low priority because of the nature of the call?

Dr. Christina “Chris” Heilman is a sports psychologist of the pros, having coached climbers such as Sam Elias, Joe Kinder, and Dan Mirsky. In nearly 20 years she’s worked with clients from olympic athletes to weekend warriors, and I was here for a free 20-minute consultation and angling to write a story, because… Well why not?

Chris had agreed to play along.

I dashed off an email and was surprised a few hours later with the reply, “I have us down for 11am MST…which is in 10-min. Are you available to chat?”

My grave mistake. Wyoming is two hours behind, my timezones had been twisted. The reaction I had says most of what you need to know. Maybe this call with a mindset coach would be helpful after all. 



At 11am (MST), Chris and I saddled up on a call for what I was hoping would be part Gonzo journalism and part let’s-learn-about-me session.

“Hello! Good morning!,” a delighted effluence shot through the muffs of the headset.

“How are you? You’re based in Boston? Have you always lived there? Tell me about this call, you found something about this interesting, what was it that was interesting to you?,” she opened with a flurry.

I bandied back with a peppering of, “Are you originally from Kentucky? Your accent sounds like… How’s the climbing out there? Let’s talk about me.”

The plan was to act like a prospective client, to report on the experience, and find out what I could selfishly glean about how to improve my mindset in order to become a world-class climber—all within 30 minutes.

This quickly bowed to an infinitely more interesting subject, Chris.

So it goes.




Photo source: mindset-coach.com


Chris: The Mindset Coach

In high school, Chris’ world fell apart. She would have to rebuild, but how? She wasn’t sure she had the tools.

Chris was a competitive athlete when an injury derailed her strong body revealing a mind intrinsically linked to her self-definition of being physically fit. Without athletics what was she? Who was she?

As she recovered, she wanted to go beyond a return to a previous state, she wanted to be stronger. Through the process she realized a desire to help others become stronger as well. She would pursue athletic training as a career.



At South Dakota State University she found history rhymes when the athletes she was helping to rehabilitate became unraveled by injury. “They didn’t have the coping mechanisms,” Chris notes with a sorrowful tone.

It wasn’t a fundamentally physical issue.

“Everyone works on the physical,” she says. This arena of well-being is the most tangible and offers immediate feedback, “but we really need to look at your wellness as a whole, the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.”

The athletes weren’t getting the support they needed in these other arenas.
She quickly learned that her gift wasn’t about physical recuperation, her talent lay in meeting the athletes where they were and helping them to return to the field of play mentally.

Chris would go on to receive a PhD in Sport and Exercise Psychology from the University of Utah then headed up to the Tetons with a husband, a gig in ski patrol, and the launch of a new psychology practice. Mindset was born.

Photo source: mindset-coach.com


What I Learned 

1) Our brain doesn’t care about winning or doing exciting things, it cares about keeping you safe.

I can be a worrywart, which is not exactly revelatory, but it has been topical and principal of late. A friend had pointed out that I was spending a lot of time and energy on, let’s say non-life threatening decisions, exasperated by a ring-around-the-rosie repetition. 

Chris pointed out that while fear and self-doubt are normal, we have to evaluate these responses against real world potential dangers. By considering the threats and pitfalls we can decide whether our responses is appropriately commensurate.

Worry is instinctual. If we don’t evaluate the worry we can be can be ruled by it.

2) Self-understanding is the real aim. Peak performance emanates from that.

Outside appearances don’t often tell the full story. Chris talked about how the initial problem that clients come with ends up being but a trojan horse.

“I want to be able to focus better while climbing” may unwrap performance anxiety which might stem from unnamed expectations from another. 

Identifying our fears, anxieties and challenges allows you to at least be aware of what you are experiencing, and possibly to work on them. Often we feel discomfort and fear when looking into “darker” recesses of ourselves, so having a trusted guide can help us even approach our deeper selves.

3) How do you get out of your own way?

The meat of the practice is self-awareness, which makes the potatoes the pathway towards improvement. Generally, the reaction towards change is inertia, or “I can’t do that,” which is a habituated train of thought. 

Chris encourages taking action immediately by pursuing the simplest, easiest, and most concrete step you can do today. The purpose is to build momentum and train your mind to develop self-efficacy.

You are working to move to and beyond your edge, which implicitly means you are expanding your range of what’s possible. That is growth.




In the end I found Chris’ bubbly personality, constant swearing, and straight-shooter truthfulness refreshing. Of course, you cannot distill years of rapport, mutual understanding, and learnings into 30 minutes with someone you’ve never met before, but the call was helpful nonetheless (thanks for playing along, Chris!).

You can learn more about Chris by visiting her website, Mindset-Coach, or you can listen to her two interviews with Neely Quinn on The Training Beta podcast (episode 1, episode 2). 

If you want to talk to the woman herself to see if she might be a good fit as your performance psychologist, you can schedule your own 20-minute consultation




 
*Paraphrased from: “The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.” – Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

7 Surprising Lessons from My First Climbing Trip “on Assignment”

The lens cap wouldn’t go back on. I was fumbling by the greyscale schist, turning ‘round the plastic piece like a steering wheel.

“Uhh, what the fuck,” I mumbled, confusedly, to myself. The circular pissant had started on the lens, I was sure of that, those two pinchy prongs, when squeezed, clearly released the cover from the concave portal. Then why won’t it go back in? I tried jamming it, clomp, clomp, clack, into the hole. 

Turns out the camera needed to be powered off in order for the lens to recede and the cap to fit in place. 

“Ah, just first day blunders, it’ll all be easy sailing from here!,” I reassured myself.


… 

I was recently commissioned to write about climbing at Rumney in New Hampshire, for—humbly—what is my first paid article, in real dollarspotentially… because the check hasn’t been cut yet. 

In order to complete the research and take photographs for the piece, I spent a few days on location. This article is about lessons learned, and mostly the mishaps, from my first climbing trip “on assignment.”



Rumney is the mecca of sport climbing in New England, a destination crag for rock scalers within a 5-hour drive radius. Québécoise? Sure thing. New Yorkers? No problem. Bostononians? Of course.

On good weather weekends the parking lots are stacked before the first Regular cup of Dunks and “crawlah” has been washed down by BPD.

Luckily, weekdays see lighter attendance, and less people to witness my flailing with the flagellating camera around my neck.


Lesson 1: Know How Your Equipment Works

No amount of editing was going to fix the blurred images.

Sitting at home the photo previewer showed one out of focus shot after another: A close up of rock here, faded climber in the background there; Censored cliff and a verdant tree wearing a liberal application of green blush; Oh this shot of my boot and dirt is crystal! 

Eventually I figured out the settings and how to target the focus. I also learned plenty of settings not to use!


Lesson 2: Get off the Ground

The most interesting shots were ones from non-traditional vantage points, like “soloing” a slab slate to grab some setting sun or tying in to a first bolt on an adjacent route in order to capture a climber up close.

The difficulty in framing climbing shots, aside from knowing how to use the camera, came down to not losing the climber in the frame. A fellow photographer I met there remarked on how easy it is for the climber to get lost, whether from the scale of the wall, the muted colors they are wearing, or from poor lighting. Getting closer and properly structuring the shot made a world of difference.


Lesson 3: Plan out the Shoot and Know What You Want to Capture

The next day my thighs felt leaden. I haven’t done much hiking lately, but in reality I scaled a few thousand feet of vertical over those days, often on steep inclines heading up and down to the different cliffs along Rattlesnake Mountain. Some areas are more than half an hour from the parking lot. 

Simply traveling to each locale took a few hours of the day, and time away from photographing.

At the wall, climbers can take a surprising amount of time “hanging out” on the cliff waiting for their next burn. While I took a few of these convalescent frames, they weren’t the epitome of an action shot. Add up travel time, stop and wheeze time, photographing (waiting around) and this became an all day excursion. 

I planned the types of shots I needed—action shots, lifestyle, and ambiance—and I knew generally the order with which I would go to each location. This helped keep me on target and set a route for the day.


Lesson 4: Pretend to Be Friendly and Nice so People Talk to You and Let You Take Photos of Them

Photos of big hunks of rock can be quite boring, lack scale, and generally leave one uninspired if you don’t showcase people demonstrating what’s possible (on them).

So, I had to try talking to people *groans* to see if I could photograph them while they did interesting things on these big hunks of rock. In the end this was less awkward than sitting there taking pictures and leaving without a word.


Lesson 5: Don’t Listen to Someone When They Say Not to Pay for Parking

This one is self-explanatory. Support the local park.


Lesson 6: Shooting Is One Half the Battle, Editing Makes a World of Difference

Do you need to amplify the purple longsleeve of the climber to make her pop out against the wall? Coming right up, alongside the bleaching backlighting! 

The editing process, thanks to a free online program, was instructive and useful. Turns out you can do quite a bit to manipulate a pic, from tinting people’s skin color to look like the Hulk to sandpapering away all the details to leave an image akin to squinting your eyes.

On the other hand, editing made too dark pictures turn out vibrantly, and things like cropping or manipulating contrast did wonders for highlighting the subject of the image. 


Lesson 7: Beats Working in a Coffee Shop, or Library, or at Home

The main challenge was wanting to climb more, which is really a difficulty I have most days.

It was only due to my herculean grit and vast reservoirs of restraint that I was able to complete the assignment relatively on time. And with that, my first paid piece and on assignment trip are officially in the books with maybe a check in the mail as my reward.

In the end, it was fun, and it was work, and I’d like to do more of it.


Photos by the author

Thoughts on Sport Climbing: Too Many These Days

“The most valuable thoughts which I entertain are anything but what I thought. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if I can only walk with sufficient carelessness I am sure to be filled.”

– Thoreau

“You’re gonna fall…”

Stop. Breathe.

“You’re 31, what are you going to…” 

Breathe. “She’s probably out enj…” 

Fuck. “Kids??… Plans?… Your leg is shaking.”

Breathe in. Out. Stop thinking. Forearms pumped, bad hold. Right leg is jack hammering away on a small ledge.

“God damn it. Why is the crack wet? You’re going to fall…”

I throw the cam in. The placement is good enough and I grab for the leash, desperately, feeling weak-willed.

“Fuck!,” I screech, pissed at myself. The roar ricochets off the cliff walls and surprises me with its pitch. The singular growl is the first audible thing I’ve heard other than my heavy breathing and what sounded like sharp clattering about, a smashing of kitchen pots and pans, in my head.  



This mental turn-around-whirling-this-way-and-that which creeps up on you and can overrun the thought train—is gnarly.

Some days I have my head on, fine tuned, ready to cope. This mostly looks like steady breathing and a present attentiveness. On other days it gets away from me and doubts from life seep into a domain they have no place being. 

Not here, not now.



I climb to create space, to have non-thought. Like a reset button, things become clearer after a good day out. 

Yet, lately I think about leading sport and am met by a gut curling, that twisting up of intestines like the lead in to a break up or the pre-fessing to of a lie; Some Poltergeist worm niggling about in your pit eating it’s way to coring you out (that movie freaked the hell out of me when I was a kid).

Bouldering: Purity in movement. Trad: Deeply satisfying. Sport: Something ain’t right.



It’s a bad association perhaps—like how I can’t do vodka—and I think it’s tied to the last time I did a lot of the sport in Turkey. The juju ain’t good.

There’s all these emotions wrapped up into the discipline that was our catalyst for the trip. Those days spent on a wall, our time buttressed by discomfort. It all seeped together like water coloring on too much wet; bleeding.

I guess what surprises me most is how visceral the aversion is, how much angst is there. 



As a comparison: With writing, for example, I may avoid the work, brimming with inertia as I am, like a hook in my stomach weighted to the bottom of the sea. But when I sit down the anxiety doesn’t amplify, it actually recedes; I’m hauling the anchor up. It feels good, it’s fun.

When sport climbing it seems the discomfort can only be managed. I find myself being pushed into the disquiet more often than not, with the consolation being a reprieve from anxiety more than satisfaction of movement or achievement. Where’s the flow? Where’s the fun? 



I know it’s not all memory-laden, there’s a fear of falling and the simple need for more experience; There are expectations.

Such as it is, something to explore. Something to give space to, something to let play out. 

And as Thoreau says, maybe I’m being all too careFULL about it.




Photo by friend of the author