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.”
Alex was diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), a form of dysautonomia that is estimated to impact between 1,000,000 and 3,000,000 Americans.
“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.