A story about a climb on August 27th, 2016
I contemplated writing about this for a while. It is hard to write about your own shortcomings and to know what approach to take in doing so. But I think, as with most things, it is best to learn and laugh. Sure there is embarrassment, but failure comes with the territory of trying, right?
For those non-climbers reading this post, Matthes Crest is a classic climb in Yosemite, CA famous for it’s easy shark fin traverse. As a climber, when you look at images of Matthes, it is hard not to get excited. As many of my non-climber friends have pointed out, their reaction is quite the opposite: “Are you fucking crazy!?”
I suppose I was doomed from the get go. We (my boyfriend, Billy, and I) had a lot of build up to this climb. As someone with serious anxiety issues, I struggle with big groups of people, this includes climbing in front of big groups of people. Billy, forever the optimist, struggles to understand this and believes my fears should be faced head on. Afraid of climbing in front of a group of your peers? NO PROBLEM, let’s go climb a world famous route on a holiday weekend with troves of other people!
And my anxiety issues weren’t my only reservations. Billy and I had gone in rounds about: gear (he wanted to take 1 rope even though the majority of recommendations said you should take two), trad lead climbing (which I was new to), simu-climbing (which I attempted once and is the main mode of climbing on Matthes), our collective skill level (neither of us are particularly fast climbers), medications that were messing up my body, and timing. Billy’s free spirited figure-it-out-as-we-go attitude was clashing with my I-would-feel-better-if-this-was-planned-out anxiety. Just because a climb has an easy rating, doesn’t mean it lacks risk.
Side note for those who don’t climb:
1. Trad climbing or “Traditional climbing” is when you bring your own gear to wedge in the rock face in order to keep you from plummeting to your death in the event of a fall; assuming you placed it wisely. The person following you then cleans the gear as they climb up and this pattern continues for the duration of your climb, hopefully keeping you and your climbing partner safe.
2. Simu climbing or “Simultaneous climbing” is climbing with your partner at the same time with only a few pieces of gear between you. This is also known as a Death Pact due to the fact if one of you falls, and your gear doesn’t hold up, you both fall… to your most untimely death. Yep.
So to recap:
- We disagreed on gear
- I was a beginner trad lead climber
- I had only tried simu-climbing once
- I didn’t feel particularly confident about my skill level
- Medication was tearing up my insides
- I have significant anxiety issues
And just to top it off, we originally wanted to do the climb two weeks earlier than our actual climb date, but Billy’s car broke down on the middle of our 6 hour drive to Yosemite and we had to use my AAA to get a nearly 100 mile tow back to Palmdale, CA. As I said: doomed.
Despite all that, I still decided to face my fear head on: we were going to do the climb.
Our second attempt at getting there went much better. By the time we got to the base of Matthes there were already a few parties in front of us and about another handful behind of us. It was a busy day on the rock and my anxiety wasn’t taking it so well. Our plan was to have me lead the first two pitches, and Billy would lead the simu climbing section. I would switch lead if I felt confident, but I didn’t. I barely made it up my first pitch without imploding. It was like my fear was short circuiting and I felt I was holding every team back.
By the time I got my anchor set up and got Billy up to me, I was already on the verge of tears. The anchor took me two attempts, as I had only made anchors a few times before. And sadly, I already knew I was in over my head. Billy was right about one thing: I could do it. Physically, I could do it. It was well within my climbing range. But mentally, I felt nowhere near prepared. Everything I was concerned about seemed to be assaulting me at every step. And the worst was actually something I didn’t account for: the exposure.
I do fairly well with heights, especially climbing. I feel, for the most part, safe in my calculated risks with climbing. But Matthes took it up a notch. Normally I have a wall on one side and a steep, long fall on the other. This is not the way with Matthes. You are at the top of a sharks fin and there are steep and long falls off both sides. Only having 2-3 pieces of gear separating Billy and I in our death pact, while he was saying things like, “That doesn’t feel secure,” didn’t help.
Every move I took was precluded by my inner voice telling me, “You can do this. One step at a time. Don’t think about the gear failing. An earthquake is not going to happen. You are not going to fall and subsequently take your boyfriend to your deaths. They will not be writing headlines about how anxiety ridden climbers are idiots for trying Matthes Crest. You will not become the poster child for idiot climbers who follow their idiot boyfriends up climbs fraught with danger. Baby steps. You got this. One step at a time… Fuck I’m going to die!”
I nervously apologized to every climber who had to passed me. On long climbs like this speed is important and even though I couldn’t move fast, it was important to me that I didn’t jeopardize the climbing experience of others. Thankfully every climber who passed was not only kind but deeply encouraging and helpful. One even helped me get my foot unstuck as it got caught on a down climbing section.
Most climbers go to the half way point and repel down. Billy wanted to do the full traverse, which knowing our climbing speeds, I thought was highly unlikely before heading to Yosemite. After starting the climb, I would’ve been happy to make it to the mid way point. But I didn’t; my nerves got the best of me and I called it.
Luckily Matthes is known for it’s many points of being able to repel. I could write another novel about the repel itself, but I doubt you have that much time, and I already appreciate you reading this far. Let’s just say our ropes got stuck more than once, gear definitely had to be left behind, and even for someone like me who loves repelling, I couldn’t shake my anxiety.
By the time we gathered our gear and started hiking out we only had a short window of sunlight before the sun dropped below the mountains. When we finally made our way to the car, my arthritis was so bad that I was hobbling. And just to add insult to injury, I had to toss down my backpack and run to the woods where I threw up 4 times from my meds. I’m sure that was a fun site for other hikers, since my headlamp was still on spot lighting my vomit.
Luckily Billy was kind enough to drive us out of Yosemite to June Lake, because the drive out of Toulumne Meadows also has a big drop off and I couldn’t shake the thought of careening off the road; something that never terrorized me so badly before on my trips to and from Yomesite. I could’ve kissed the ground when we got to the valley, if my body had felt strong enough to get out of the seat.
The next day, I eased my disappointment with a Bloody Mary at June Lake. There is part of me that is proud of myself for pushing my own personal limits. But as someone who highly regards climbing and being a safe contributing member of the climbing community, there is also a part of me that still questions whether I had any business being there. As someone who has friends who have free soloed Matthes, I truly thought it was physically and mentally doable for me.
After this experience I hunted down others with similar experiences, but I couldn’t find one. So if you made it to the end of this post and you perhaps have had a climbing experience that was less than stellar, just know you are not alone. And don’t forget all the wonderful things you’ve accomplished amongst your failures.