Tucked into a nook in her uninsulated camper van, Alex MacMillan talks about learning to trust herself. Or she starts to. The call crackles and phases out.
She moves indoors to her aunt’s living room, forced to boot up an old laptop for the call. Such is the life of a nomadic climber hunkered down for the winter in Australia.
Alex is the creator of the Traveling Rock Climbers Facebook group, a place where traveling climbers can meet partners when visiting a new place and glean beta on an area. As Alex puts it, “It’s a kind community where people are stoked on climbing.”
The group now boasts over 7,000 members, and for some, has become their primary resource for destination climbing information. For Alex, it was a way to scratch her own itch, and give back to the community that had taken care of her.
“Hello?” Her voice rings in clear this time.
Nested on the couch with the laptop propped in her lap, Alex shares about growing up without belief. A litany of things that challenged her: She didn’t believe she could live without pain; That sports weren’t for her; That she didn’t fit in, especially in her own body.
The diagnosis changed everything.
A few years ago, Alex nearly had a seizure from the medication she was taking for mono. It was a red flag for the unusualness of the reaction.
“The medicine was making my disease worse [which was undiagnosed at the time]. I was bed ridden, couldn’t feel half my body. It took a couple of months to figure out what was going on,” Alex begins.
“It was really hard for me to identify my symptoms. They kept asking me if I got dizzy when I stood up, and I always said ‘no,’ because I always got dizzy when I stood up. I figured it wasn’t any worse. But that’s one of the main characteristics of POTS, and it was so normalized to me and my body that I didn’t think it was abnormal.”
“It’s a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system,” she explains. “That’s the part which does everything automatically, like heart rate, circulation, temperature regulation, and eyes adjusting to light. All the things you don’t think about, don’t really work in my body.”
“It validated 21 years of discomfort.”
“If you told my family that I would be a rock climber when I was a kid, they would have told you, ‘bullshit. No way.'”
Before the diagnosis, Alex had begun to push back against the nameless affliction.
She grew up as a dramatist, not an athlete, and it was her attempt to build a stronger body. She started with running. A little here, a little more there. Her body would fatigue easily, but slowly and surely she was adapting.
Then she discovered climbing.
“Kate was way different, a total badass,” says Alex of her high school classmate who showed her the ropes.
“She would take me climbing and every time I got on she wouldn’t let me down until I hit the top. It forced me to gain a proficiency,” she chuckles.
The introduction, and the connection, showed Alex that she was capable of more.
Alex moved to Portland for college and would get away for trips to Smith Rock. She was finding confidence and believing she could handle larger adventures. Father and daughter had talked about walking the El Camino, and with a sounder body she decided to do it.
“Why is the youngest person on the trail also the one whose body is falling apart the most?”
The forested base of the Pyrenees Mountains gave way to granite masses, but the details were shrouded under watery eyes. Alex was crying, she couldn’t believe she was really there.
“It was something I’ve been wanting to do for years,” she recalls.
The journey took 35 days for the 18 year old who was afraid of the dark and dutifully stubborn.
“I was a massive purist about it. I walked every single step, even though the first ten days I limped every single step,” she says with a wry grin.
“People would look at me and go, ‘Why is the youngest person on the trail also the one whose body is falling apart the most?’”
Photos courtesy of Alex Macmillan
The trip helped her come to an important realization.
“The Camino was this crazy thing that taught me to wake up and get out of bed every day,” she shares. “No matter how crap I felt, I realized I didn’t have to feel good to exist as a human, that I just had to exist. And that was okay. That led to this road of being intentional in life.”
She gives a pause then blurts out, “I later found out that my family didn’t think I’d make it a week!,” she says, laughing.
The trip fortified her. She began thinking about the transformative nature of wandering with purpose, and of connection.
“Shit, this is my life now.”
An invitation to Australia set a new course. The Birthing Canal made her a dirtbag.
“I was really in New Zealand for a kayaking trip, then someone said I’d enjoy the Hangdog Camp,” a climber’s hostel, Alex begins.
“So I hitchhiked on the back of a hay bale truck. When I got there the gate said it was full. ‘Yea right,’ I’m thinking. I just hitchhiked for hours, I’m going in.”
From the beginning she could tell it was a special place, and within five minutes she was in a car and on the way to the crag.
“I met some people who are some of my greatest friends today. I’ve traveled around multiple countries with a lot of them, seen them around the world,” she says.
That night she was given the welcome treatment.
“I went through an initiation, which is going through a boulder problem they call The Birthing Canal. You do it naked and it looks like people are being birthed. It’s a two meter long hole that you go down head first. Yea know, after that, it was kinda hard to leave!,” she bursts out laughing.
She emerged with a new perspective, and saw a meaningful way of life within the group there.
“People really thrive in routine: You wake up every morning, you eat your oats, you go out climbing, eat your PB&J, keep climbing, go home, cook over the fire, drink crappy wine out of old bean cans, and go to bed.”
“You do that everyday and it’s awesome, the routine is beautiful.”
She continues, “It gives people the work they need, something to work towards. They have their climbing, sustenance, sleep, all these basic tenets of human needs that a lot of time we don’t have in our 9-to-5 existence. And they feel that and go, ‘ah, this is the thing!’”
“We often lack community so deeply. In climbing, we’ve found this beautiful group of people.”
It showed Alex the power of community, and what it could mean to welcome others into it.
“All I needed was Hangdog apparently, and then I was like, okay I’m a dirtbag!”
“I’m not a very good internet person”
Alex spent the next few years traveling and climbing. She discovered how challenging finding partners and gathering beta on a place can be.
“I was sick of every time I wanted to go somewhere, I had to search out and join a local group to find partners and info,” she vents.
“I used every search word I possibly could for an international climbing group because it just seems like it would be something that would exist. There just wasn’t one. Which is weird because it’s such an international community.”
The group has taken off.
Photos courtesy of Veronica Maffioletti (left) and James Herrera (right), members of the Traveling Rock Climbers
“There are 1,000s of people who use and value this thing. We have been really fortunate to have such a kind community, and an awesome admin and moderator team that totally pick up the slack because I’m not a very good internet person,” she says cheekily.
She’s proud of the group. “The best part is it’s an online community that you can connect with wherever you go. And it’s all about the people, they make it special.”
With a bit of a Greek mythology twist, she adds, “It feels a bit like my child that I birthed and now is independent.”
From unknowing to knowing; From walking to running to climbing; From self-doubt to self-confidence, self-discovery is a lifelong journey that we all share.
For Alex, she’s coming into her own through the communities she’s a part of and helps foster. She’s seen how it’s supported her, and hopes others can experience the same.
“You should try and do good,” Alex shares.
No matter where we are in life, we can put something positive out into the world, because you never know who it might touch or how it might help.
Luckily, climbing is a sport that connects, wherever we are.
Road tripping is part of the great American mystique, it’s a rite of passage, and for climbers, it can be a way of life.
If you’re keen to head out on the road in 2019, for climbing of course, here is a list of some of the coolest climbing festivals to organize your trip around. From ice farming classic lines to bouldering on an uninhabited island to a bean-based fete and even a 24 hour suffer-fest, you’re sure to find something to catch your eye and make you want to hightail it the hell out of Dodge.
The largest ice climbing event in North America, the Ouray Ice Festival started with a little luck. Scratch that, it started with a little leak.
Many moons ago, climbers in the area found a dripping penstock which carried river water to a century-old hydroelectric plant. The result of the holey pipe was fantastic ice features, including icicles as high as 100 feet.
Fast forward to today, the Ouray Ice Park manufactures over 200 routes using a gravity-fed irrigation system, making this one of the highest concentration of easily accessible ice climbing anywhere.
Thanks to Jeff Lowe and gang, this event now attracts 1,000s of attendees a year, from pros to beginners.
Nearly all of the funding for the Ouray Ice Park comes through donations. The easiest way to support the Park is to become a member, and much of the money raised for the festival goes towards the operational expenses. When you sign up, be sure to consider extras like the Gear Card, which lets you demo gear from the sponsors, including crampons, axes, gloves, jackets, backpacks and more.
Date: January 23-26, 2020 (25th Anniversary of the Ouray Ice Fest!)
Where: Ouray, Colorado
Cost: Free! But you can sign-up for (paid) clinics during the Fest weekend. Clinics run from Intro to Advanced!
Food: Check out Brickhouse 737, Bon Ton, Thai Chili, KJ Wood Distillery or one of four breweries in town, including Colorado Boy Tap Room and Red Mountain Brewery. Like chocolate, be sure to visit Mouses Chocolates. More info.
What to Bring: Ice climbing gear. Warm clothes to be a spectator. A thermos!
How to Get There: About a 5.5 hour drive from Denver, CO and 6.5 hours from Salt Lake City, UT, and just under an hour from Montrose Regional Airport. If you need transport to Ouray, check out Western Slope Rides.
Known as the “anti-climbing festival,” this irreverent event used to be passed along by word of mouth only (so, like, shhhh). It’s a little more accessible these days yet still maintains much of the haphazard good-clean fun of its origin.
Well, maybe “clean” isn’t the right word here. N00bies are likely to be “beaned” by the Bean Master which ceremonially beatifies them into the bean-loving ranks. This consists of having beans smeared across your forehead. Welcome to Beanfest.
Why beans? It all starts when Ray Ringle, Scott Brown, John Steiger, Don Gallagher, Fig, and Steve Grossman, local climbers, got rained out one evening in Bear Canyon. They decided to bide their time with a hot pot of beans and a bottle of tequila. Shenanigans ensued and the rest is history.
Of course there’s plenty of good climbing to be had in the rugged canyons and towering granite domes, which keeps people coming back year after year. And the remote location means no one will hear fart, after you eat all those beans that are good for your heart.
Leavenworth is a tiny town with a massive climbing footprint. At 1.25 square miles and a population of about 2,000 people, the town’s Rockfest, surprise surprise, is actually Washington’s largest climbing festival.
Why’s that? Because of bomb ass climbing! Leavenworth has some of the best alpine climbs in the country, from the big granite spires of Liberty Bell to the West Ridge of Prussik Peak (400 ft, 4 pitches, Grade III, 5.7) to the stunning rock of the North Ridge of Mount Stuart (9,415′, Grade IV, 5.9). If you like staying closer to ground level, there is a ton of bouldering, which makes this the go to destination for Seattle boulderers.
Organized by the Leavenworth Mountain Association, the event is now in its 20th year and features all sorts of goodies from climbing clinics, gear demos, a bouldering competition, raffles, and talks by pro climbers, Will Stanhope and Brittany Goris (who just completed the first female ascent of City Park, once, and possibly still, the hardest crack climb in Washington).
All the money raised during this event goes towards conservation efforts (the dry climate makes erosion problematic), trail maintenance, and even simple things, like paying for porta potties (which are actually desperately needed in the area).
In the words of Adam Butterfield, the Vice President of the LMA, “People should come to the Leavenworth Rockfest because this is one of the north west’s best climbing areas. It’s beautiful, has amazing climbing, and you can ski, climb, and boat all in the same day, where else would you get that?” Another insider tip: Once you’re in town, be sure to try the Timber Town Brown from Icicle Brewery or grab a glass of the homespun Huney Jun kombucha.
Big mountains in a small town and great beer? Um, yea. Who’s coming with me?!
How to Get There: About a 2 hour drive from Seattle.
Flash Foxy Summerfest
Summerfest is about inclusivity, which strikes a chord for climbers of all genders because these events sell out in a minute. That’s right, one minute.
Flash Foxy began in 2014 as an online platform to celebrate women climbing. It has since grown into a series of climbing festivals, women’s outdoor leadership training, and climber education. What started with a women’s only focus has expanded into Summerfest, an event that encourages “all genders” to attend in an effort to move away from binary characterizations. “Our goal is to create and maintain a safe and diverse space where consent and respect are our first priorities,” notes Shelma Jun, founder of Flash Foxy.
If you want to help “shift the climbing culture to be a better reflection of all of us,” as Jun declares, be sure to register before sales close on May 31!
Accommodation: A list of places to stay can be found here.
What to Bring: Mostly sport and bouldering gear.
How to Get There: ROAD TRIP! Fayetteville is centrally located in WV, about 4 hours from Charlotte, NC, Louisville, KY, Columbus, OH, and 5 hours from DC.
Rock the Blocs Bouldering Fest
Come on lucky #7! Okanagan Bouldering Society has turned in a masterpiece (going into their 7th year) in this 2 square kilometer boulder field with over 1,000 problems–with countless FAs to be had.
The Kelowna Boulderfields is one of the largest and best bouldering areas in this part of North America, consisting of highly-featured gneiss for varied holds, styles and terrain. Okanagan also happens to be one of Canada’s most favorable climbing climates, so you’re bound to get good sending conditions. Thanks to locals, Jason Duris, Doug Orr, Andy White, and others, the bouldering scene grows by leaps and bounds each year.
The festival includes a bouldering competition, area development projects, clinics, and fun comps like a pinch and pull-up contest. For British Columbia natural beauty and stellar bouldering, make this your Canadian destination of choice for June.
In its 26th year, this is one of the most renowned festivals in the U.S. And they go BIG in their production: Big attendance (over 600 climbers annually), big list of activities, big mountains, and big swag (from what I hear).
Here’s a sample of what you can expect from this cowboy and climber haven: Plenty of sport climbing from Wild Iris and Sinks Canyon and alpine trad in the Wind River Range, a mini film festival, a Limestone Rodeo red-point competition, nighttime bouldering, a dyno competition, a writer competition with Climbing Magazine(!), an art walk in town, a lip-sync battle, beer, bluegrass, and more clinics you can shake a quickdraw at. Yee ha!
And just look at the pro list…
Volker Schoffl, Craig DeMartino, Kitty Calhoun, James Edward Mills, Kris Hampton, Brittany Griffith, Kate Rutherford, Tommy Caldwell, Elaina Arenz, Chelsea Rude, Eric Horst, Maria Fernanda Rodriguez Galvan, Jessa Goebel, Kai Lightner, Marcus Garcia, Dru Mack, Colette McInerney, Molly Mitchell, Shingo Ohkawa, Becky Switzer, Jonathan Siegrist, Matt Segal, Ben Rueck and more… And more they say!
Yep, go big, Wyoming.
Attendee perspective: “This past summer, a close friend, myself, and a cute dog were on a three week long climbing road trip. We had no set plan, and no itinerary. The general idea was to just cruise around, and see what we could find. After getting chased out of Salt Lake City by thunderstorms, we ended up in Lander, Wyoming.
Unbeknownst to us, we rolled in right in the middle of the 2018 International Climber’s Festival. We took to the festivities, and found a welcoming, vibrant community. We slept in the city park, sampled beers at the Lander Bar, and took to the local crags.
Some locals showed us around Sinks Canyon and Wild Iris. We had a great time, and it reminded me of how awesome the climbing community can be. I hope to attend the ICF again in the future. If anyone wants to meet up and chase down some Alpine route in The Winds, then I am all game!” – Timothy Carlson at Hike the Planet!
Cost: $60 early access, $80 regular price. $25/ clinic.
Food: Grab a pint and a burger at the Lander Bar.
Accommodation: Free camping in Lander at the City Park for 3 days.
What to Bring: Camping gear, climbing gear, and a lot of energy.
How to Get There: About 4.5 hour drive from Salt Lake City, UT and about 5.5 hours from Denver, CO.
Dover Island Boulderfest
Known as Nova Scotia’s Granite Playground, Dover Island provides sweet serenity and over 100 boulder problems on a little plot of Canadian paradise. The festival is only accessible by boat, and Norm, the local blacksmith, will happily ferry you across. No joke. You can also rent kayaks and paddle the 1km from shore to shore, if you please.
Think this sounds more like a chilled out summer canoe trip with your buds than a climbing festival? That’s about right. The organizers, Climb Nova Scotia, cap the number of attendees at about 100 in order to keep the uninhabited landscape closer to it’s naturally low-key ambiance. After all, you’ll be sharing the island with over 50 endangered species.
Oh ya, and there’s stellar boulder problems ranging from V0 to V10, situated right along the shore, next to docile lakes, and in the shade of pine forests. I hesitated to include this because, well, I just hope I can snag a ticket!
You won’t find a lot of spuds here, despite it being in Idaho (branding opportunity?). But, you will get a plate full of off-kilter activities to help you cope with your forlorn potato deprivation.
For one, this is a mecca of moderate trad climbing and a treasure trove of granite bouldering and fun oh fun sport climbing. The festival takes place at Castle Rocks State Park near Almo, Idaho which is next door to the well-known City of Rocks National Reserve.
Some of the shenanigans include a booty easter egg hunt, in which the trails have been magically filled with Ergonomic-Gift-Guards (E.G.G.s) overnight, for you to discover in the morning in child-like reverie. If you’re into trail running, there is a 6-mile trail race, and a climber’s rodeo if you want to playtend at being a cowboy.
And if all that is not enough to keep you entertained, try and rally the 350 climbers to play a game of hot potato. Could be fun.
Food: Breakfast and dinner provided (thanks, sponsors!).
What to Bring: Maybe some empty bags to carry all the swag you win.
How to Get There: About a 3 hour drive from Salt Lake City, UT and a 3.5 hour drive from Boise.
24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell
“We are lions in a field of lions!” The proclamation rises in a roar, The Climber’s Creed, the crowd hoots and hollers as they prepare for a merciless 24 hour hunt of the finest sandstone sport climbing around.
“Partner! Do not freaking drop me!” The throng repeats from the MC, making declarative statements of partnership, climbing, and jokes. A lot of jokes.
Teams of two can compete in the 12 hour or 24 hour endurance climbing event (over 300 routes), with a chance to win sweet swag for things like best haircut, best costume, most routes climbed, and most biners returned by team.
Once that’s over, the festival lasts four more days with food (including a Kevin Bacon Bacon Station), camping, music, games, parties, and fellowship. Oh, and costumes! And tattoos!! And haircuts (most likely buzzed, leaving some sort of graphic on your skull)!!!
If you thirst for tomfoolery, go have a hearty chuckle with your lion pride in Arkansas.
How to Get There: About a 4.5 hour drive from Memphis, TN or Kansas City, MO; 5 hour drive from Oklahoma City, OK.
Red River Gorge Rocktoberfest
Celebrate another successful climbing season with the Red River Gorge’s biggest fundraising event of the year. With over 2,000 routes, and hundreds in the moderate range of 5.11-5.12, the RRG is one of the best destinations for sports climbing in the country.
Given the popularity, the area has experienced access issues over the years. Which is where The Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition (RRGCC), a volunteer led org, comes in; They have been the leading advocacy voice since 1996.
The money raised enables the RRGCC to make their mortgage payments, manage over 1100 acres of climbing land and roads, and to save money for future purchases. In the past, this fundraiser has helped pay for the purchases of the Bald Rock and Miller Fork Recreational Preserve.
And what better way to celebrate their Herculean efforts than with climbing and a party! If you want to help protect this magical place, be sure to join them in Rocktober!
Food: Some meals are provided. Bring your own and/ or dine on local fare. Beer on tap.
Accommodation: Camping at the Land of Arches campground.
What to Bring: Sports gear, trad, camping stuff.
How to Get There: About an hour drive from Lexington, KY and 2 hours from Louisville, KY.
Color the Crag
CtC is the first-ever climbing festival to celebrate diversity in the climbing community.
You might wonder why that’s important. Well, take a gander at any climbing magazine (or the expanded outdoor industry, for that matter) and you’ll see a lot of white. As in people. Yet, 38 percent of Americans are people of color. Hmm.
The mission for the festival is to “celebrate diversity in the sport of rock climbing. Our mission is to build community, promote leadership from people of color (POC), provide a positive narrative of underrepresented communities in the outdoors through inclusive and educational climbing festivals and events..” They do this by bringing together orgs like Brothers of Climbing, Brown Girls Climb, Melanin Base Camp, Natives Outdoors, Flash Foxy, Latino Outdoors and more, along with people from all backgrounds to climb for four days in the backwoods of central Alabama.
In the words of Stormy Saint-Val, a participant at last years event, “it completely changed my life! I’ve been able to eradicate this false narrative that black people don’t climb. There were [like] 300 people there! These are a bunch of people that are also climbing that don’t look like what the magazines are showing, and what narratives you have grown up with. It’s been a fuel.”
With very little cell service, a lot of friendly faces, and excellent bouldering, you’ll be sure to make friends and find community here.
“I was really excited to meet up with you because I knew you’d be gone in two weeks.”
Maybe I should have read the writing on the wall.
It’s that modern romance, man, the kind that starts with a match. We got to talking during a dreary February in Budapest, a city known for arresting architecture, stag dos, and Eastern Europe’s most blatant political swindler. I’d come to the city with dreams of writing and soaking in thermal baths, the idea stemming from a Wes Anderson flick that actually had nothing to do with Budapest itself. I’d only end up doing one of those things.
She caught my eye, and my swipe, because she was into climbing and had a rad photo of her scaling a steep sun-baked rock face with a siren’s call of sparkling emerald water in the background. That day, the sun shone brightly in the pixelated universe, you could feel the heat emanating from the screen.
We messaged back and forth and she’d speak to deeper topics, respond with thought and care. Intriguing. I’m no good at flirting, but we did a little of that too. We planned to meet at a bouldering gym for our first date.
The match moved towards the striker.
We met at UjjeroBoulder Terem, which loosely translates to “Finger Force,” on the south side of Buda, near the Petőfi Bridge.
She was taller than I expected, and late, which would be something I’d get used to during our relationship of ups and downs and angst over delayed periods.
She came striding into the cave-like entrance in a grey petticoat that she tied around her waist with the built-in belt, mid-calf black leather riding boots, and a blood red scarf wrapped around her neck.
I stood up to greet her.
The climbing goes and we spoke all the while like lost souls do: About life, dreams, poetry, the call of the mountains.
It all sounded wondrous, impressive, inspiring. I’d never met a woman who had climbed so extensively and she talked about these things cooly, like they were nothing special. She was smooth and smart and funny. I thought I’d hit the jackpot, and that the date was only going so-so.
It was my first time back to climbing in nearly 8 months, and she was much stronger and more technically sound. We ended with her traversing the entirety of the gym and my forearms too pumped and fingers too weak to do much but watch. I tried to act cool and not focus too intently on the leggings she wore. I decided to start climbing again that evening.
On the walk to the tram we were in the middle of a conversation about personal values and what it means to live well. We were about to part ways, or so I thought, when she asked if I wanted to get drinks.
I had tempered my expectations about the evening, figured she was only mildly interested and that maybe we’d have a second date. I guess I wasn’t so good at reading the route that night.
“This is an interesting conversation, so I’d like to continue it,” she said.
She’d end up making the first move after two fröccs, a Hungarian wine spritzer. She shuffled around the table to sit next to me and gave me a look that invited me to kiss her. So I did.
The match struck.
We fell for each other and decided to give it a go.
But not before some discussion. In a moment of blunt honesty before I left for Boston, she’d tell me, “I was really excited to meet up with you because I knew you’d be gone in two weeks.” She wasn’t of the mind to date, she said, but I had thrown a wrench in her plans.
We were together for the better part of the year. She’d teach me to lead and we parlayed that into my first and second ever climbing trips.
And yet imprinting is hard to shake, her comment would run through our months of quasi-commitment. I learned to expect the unexpected on the terrain ahead, that trust in your belayer is as important as the trust you have in yourself, that a partnership needs a common goal to succeed.
My guess is you can read the writing on the wall at this point.
The funny thing is, the gym no longer exists. They shut the doors and moved on to a new venture with the hope they could make it work out better.
Spaces come and go, but they hold memories, that’s what gives them significance: She’d learned to climb there and I’d gotten back into the sport because of it. Our lives danced about because of climbing, and it started at that gym.
Eventually the lights turned off and we’d never be able to go back to that place again.
The sun beat down on the orange-hued sandstone, the faces of our party burned red and their shoulders glowed. I was surprised by the heat at Smith Rock in May. The sweltering sun couldn’t diminish how much fun I was having. That experience, that exposure, would influence my life in unexpected ways years later.
What is it about climbing that is so powerfully transformative?
For me, climbing was about being outdoors and the freedom of movement. I loved it at first pitch. That’s not the case for everyone.
For Stormy Saint-Val, climbing has been about catharsis and rejuvenation. It’s been about feeling comfortable in her own skin and learning to appreciate what you can accomplish today, while maintaining dreams of progress for the future.
She fell in love with climbing eventually, you could say.
“Do black people climb?”
It’s emotionally taxing to be a stranger in a strange land. When Stormy started climbing she only ever met two other black people at the gym, and one of the guys worked there.
Naturally, one might wonder, “do black people climb?”
“I’m black, I know I climb,” She laughed over the phone. “Is there a like a group or a Meetup? Some[place] where I didn’t feel marginalized?”
She wanted to know the answer, so she googled it. Naturally.
That’s how she found Color the Crag. CtC is a climbing festival in Alabama with a mission to help build community among historically marginalized peoples in the outdoor space.
She found her answer but she needed to figure out how to make her way down there, and how to pay for it all.
“I was so excited [to find it], but then I thought, I can’t afford this,” Stormy noted, dismayed.
Climbing isn’t cheap
The irony of course is that climbing can be free if you just walk into the woods and find a large rock to scale.
But it’s rarely that simple, especially as a beginner in a sport that requires a slew of technique and safety equipment. For perspective, climbing has become somewhat of a hoity-toity trending activity where a day pass at a swanky gym in NYC costs close to 50 bucks. Want to buy your own gear? An intro trad set, biners, a rope, shoes, and harness can easily put you back $500+. If you’re a working adult, sure, maybe that’s nothing for you, but for a college student or a guy working at a self-financed startup, money can be hard to scrape up.
For years I was living a white color paycheck-to-paycheck existence, meeting investors whose car cost more than I would make in the next 36 months. (Yea, I’ve made some questionable career choices, but that’s a topic for another day).
In Stormy’s case, five months at her local climbing gym would put her back nearly $800. As a student on a barista salary that’s taxing.
She resorted to clandestine tactics like pretending to be her friend and using her membership card. (She doesn’t recommend that). Eventually the gym worked out a special deal for her as a local ambassador.
“I found the grant three days before it was due. ‘Oh my god, is it worth it?,'” she asked herself. “‘Is this worth my time? How late am I going to stay up to write this application [tonight]? What are my intentions and goals [with this]?’”
She went back and forth contemplating the fear and disappointment of not receiving the grant, “And then [I thought], what if I do get it? It’s so much greater. And it was. I didn’t want to miss out on the potential opportunity.”
The everyperson adventure grant
The LYD grant is designed to help “the majority of climbers to pursue their goals, whatever those goals are,” according to Howard Sebold, the Metro NY Section Chair and head of the LYD Northeast selection committee.
This is specifically not for the professional climber. After all, they already get free gear, sponsorship dollars, and most grant money anyways.
Howard relays his own story, “I remember when I was first getting into climbing, and reading the mags—you read all this stuff these guys are doing that are rad, badass kind of things, and you’re like, ‘yea, I’m probably never gonna do that.’ Then occasionally you come across a story about [someone] going to Wind Rivers [or the like], and you’re like ‘whoa, that’s totally accessible to me, that’s something I could do.’ And that got me personally excited.”
That’s why the AAC decided to start the grant, “[the thing is] most of the membership is the everyday climber, the weekend warrior, guys [and women] like me— work five days a week, got a family, don’t climb as hard as I used to. I bring my kids out to the crag, just have fun.”
In the end, it’s about helping people go out and accomplish their own mountain dreams, “it really gives back to our members to help them get outside and climb, to pursue their personal goal.” Whatever they may be.
For the love of climbing
Life is often punctuated and defined by key inflection points, with a lot of smaller connecting-the-dots in between.
According to Stormy, Color the Crag has been a life changer: “Months later, thinking about all the experience and friendship that I gained from the festival, it completely changed my life.”
She goes on to say, “I’ve been able to eradicate this false narrative that black people don’t climb. There were 500 people there! These are a bunch of people that are also climbing that don’t look like what the magazines are showing, and what narratives you have grown up with.”
“It’s been a fuel,” she accentuates.
She still stays in touch with friends she made at CtC and has found a deeper appreciation for the sport as she’s progressed from VB to V2: “That’s what Color the Crag taught me: ‘be proud of your achievements and honor them for what they are.'”
Overall, the sport has “been a big tool in helping me build my awareness and my confidence in myself. It’s more than physical. And the problem solving aspect of it, too, is so fun. [I’ve been able to] apply problem solving to my own life [outside of climbing].” She’s come a long way from sneaking in to the gym and feeling intimidated by the VBs. She’s hoping to get over her fear of the harness and start sport climbing this year.
On my end, from that initial day at Smith Rock to leading my first 5.11a this past year, learning to climb has been a process of pushing through the fear and going after what I truly want to pursue. That is, in the face of the self-doubt, financial concerns, or whatever other objection I make up for myself.
This year, I’ve got a lot of normal, everyman-achievable goals: Climb 5.11 consistently. Do a multi-pitch trad route. Summit a 5,000m peak.
In the past I may have chalked these ideas up as unattainable, or at least highly unlikely. Probably wouldn’t even have tried. I’ve learned to let go of pre-conceived notions and to let myself dream, even if just a little.
We all have our reasons for climbing, and for some, our love of the sport is really about finding love for ourselves. Sometimes a little help along the way–a friend, a community, a dream–can make all the difference.
Want to apply for the Live Your Dream grant?
Howard shares some advice on what they look for:
1) Well-researched climbing objective. Be specific of the why, what, and how. For example, some people have detailed spreadsheets outlining their training plan and gear list.
2) Be clear with how this goal will help you personally progress as a climber. 3) Think about what it is like to review hundreds of applications. How will your application stand out? For one, tell a good story. (Everyone has a story to tell).
I’d never wanted a vacation to be over before it started.
Maybe it was because I knew we’d be over when the trip ended. Maybe I was trying to delay the inevitable.
But we were 10 months in and things still weren’t working.
We tried of course, but when it came down to it, you kept holding back. Something didn’t feel right, you said.
We decided it was time to move on. But not before some fun.
A two-week climbing trip in Turkey awaited. A nice way to end things after the shit that was Kraków. Let’s go out on an upswing, we thought.
I knocked on your door in Budapest.
We hadn’t seen each other since that fateful weekend. We were filled with trepidation.
I entered. You gave me a look. I threw myself into your arms.
We moved to the bedroom and eliminated the distance between us. We fucked then held each other. Hours passed. Sometimes it was so easy.
They were good days. Then we left for Geyikbayiri.
Maybe this will work.
Budapest went well, maybe this will work. Maybe.
I repeated those words to myself like a prayer. I had a bad feeling but tried to be hopeful. My stomach began to knot up at Atatürk airport, not a good sign.
We caught a flight to Antalya, then took a shuttle to our hostel. I’d tip the driver too much.
It was dark when we arrived.
The air smelled sweet. Oranges and pomegranates wafted ripe around us.
There was something else too, the citrus masked a pungent aroma. I breathed a sort of goat, orange, mountain air mélange. It reminded me of the farm. A memory of mixed associations: The smell of verdant life and an imminent season of change; Of the infinite cycle and of confinement.
The bungalows where we’d stay were coupled off with fruit trees in little vistas of privacy. They were small cottages like gingerbread homes with a Turkish twist. Inside, an Ottoman gourd diffused light through shimmering gems of red, orange, and green. The lamp was too weak to read by.
That night we settled around the fireplace to shoot the shit with our new camp mates. She’d sync in with the rhythm of the place more easily than I would.
She was so god damned cool with everything.
It was the lightest I’d ever seen her, just carefree and enjoying herself.
I wasn’t able to match the buoyancy.
Why? I didn’t quite understand.
How could she be so at ease when nothing (and everything) was on the line?, I questioned myself. I questioned her.
We’d talk again about our thoughts on love — how we love.
She’d say, I’d rather give and receive love when it’s there.
I admitted it sounds good in theory.
I’m not sure why it is like this for me, though. I do find the clarity of knowing things will end to be a relief. It makes it easier.
Not that I’m happy about things ending, but it helps to have resolution.
I do wonder if I’m the one with the weird strategy, she offered.
She’d told me before that she always feels the emotional pains of a breakup months later. I wondered about the mechanics of regret and grieving.
The trip would be a tug-of-war with myself.
I was frustrated as hell and felt uncomfortable with us. What we were. It was hard for me to love so freely knowing it was over. It felt pointless at times.
I wondered why I put myself in this mess.
Days passed. It wasn’t working. I needed to get away.
Away from the room, away from the camp, away from her.
We talked and I said I wanted to go for a hike the next day, to get some space to think. She misheard me and thought I was asking her to join.
The next morning, I left two hours before sunrise. Mostly, I stumbled around in the dark. My headlamp was too dim in the blackness, it made me near-sighted. I kept going off-route.
Come on sun, rise and take me with you. I want to go fast. I want to go far. I want to explode.
In time the sun came. It shone out onto the kingdom in long streaks of color and flare. My feeble eyes tilted towards the sky. I could see a path forward. I ran.
I needed to feel the freedom of movement.
We settled into an up-and-down rhythm.
We had a cadence of a few good days then a fight. I was mainly the instigator. She was always the more understanding one.
On one day the Slovakians went into town for a rest and to re-stock on cigarettes. Only the ear, nose, and throat doctor stayed behind.
We invited her to join us climbing, which made four. We paired off and I chose to climb with Doc. I wanted a day away from her. I felt tight and distracted. Not good for belaying.
I’d lead my hardest climbs to date.
On another day we’d hitchhike to town to buy food. We’d end up with bottles of wine from the driver’s private vineyard and Toblerone. S has her unique social charms, and conversational German.
It was my first hitchhiking experience. We’d toast to our fortune later on.
On another day I’d surprise her by dressing up the bungalow with birthday decorations. I got her some small things and we enjoyed the morning sipping coffee and talking on the porch. I decided not to make a cake.
Yet another day I’d be cold and distant.
We’d talk through our frustrations and challenges which ironically brought us closer. When we were relaxed we found harmony in continuous laughter. At points we’d feel the closest we ever felt.
It was emotionally taxing.
The days marched on.
Nearing the end we looked back and wondered where the time went.
I had been agonizing, which had made the days feel slow. Now our time was fleeting and it felt like everything was slipping through my hands.
We left camp and drove down the Turkish coast along the Mediterranean Sea, taking the D400 from Antalya to Çıralı. Three days left, just the two of us.
We each chose one activity: She wanted to go hiking, I wanted to see ruins, and we both wanted to climb.
We walked among the dead.
The mausoleum had fallen into the sea. The foundation was washing away and the walls now spilled into the sand. The cacophonous chambers were aired and quietly filling with empty water bottles.
I seek the ancient world because it reminds me that it was once the present. We will all topple some day.
Phaselis was a prosperous port city that passed hands from Greek to Roman to Persian and on and on, before eventually falling out of favor for larger ports nearby. The slow decline lasted until the 11th century when it stopped being of any importance. Quite a good run, though.
That night she’d tell me, When we were in the car, you were talking with Nico about something — I was only half-paying attention — I was looking at you in the sideview mirror and just felt this overwhelming sense rise up; This swell of love for you filled me.
We did love each other after all.
I pulled her close, held her. What am I supposed to do with that?, I thought.
Quite a good run, though.
December first. Our last night.
We jumped into the Mediterranean naked.
We’d swam in the ocean — in December — and were all giggles and shivers over it.
Over it. That’s what we were. Tomorrow we’d both fly out from Antalya. You’d leave half an hour before me. We had separate flights because I had bought my ticket later. Because I wasn’t sure if I’d want to jet before the trip was done.
It had been hard. But I was glad I stayed.
A small part of me hoped that I’d run into you on the layover in Istanbul. That wouldn’t happen.
The ocean waves bristled with electricity, the shock absorbed us. We swam with the current then broke the circuit. The lights dimmed.
We left on good terms.
We had a joke that these were the best breakups we’d ever had. Or maybe it was only me that said that.
Parting at the airport was confusing, difficult. We both admitted we felt closer, more open, more honest. We agreed not to talk for awhile.
Back home she’d show pictures of the trip to her grandmother.
I popped up on the screen here and there. She asked who I was. She said something about a complicated relationship.
Her grandmother said a few words and they both moved on. She told me she really liked her grandmother because she didn’t judge.
In Istanbul I was going through some old emails.
I can trace our time together in the flight details in my inbox. We covered a lot of miles.
In the end, no matter how far we went, we couldn’t bridge that final distance.