For my twenty-second birthday, friends came for a special dinner celebration in New York City. Between the laughter and the wine, my boyfriend at the time turned to me and said with a little bit of that Colorado charm, “This is what I want life to be. Good friends, good food, and good wine.” And really, what more could you want? In that moment, those words struck my heart and I knew that that was all I really wanted out of life, too.

We had a tumultuous breakup. I was devastated and found myself moving to the big city alone. It took some time to patch things up and start making sense of my life again, but repairs were slowly made. Four years later, and that’s everything I have. Plus rock climbing and a snuggly puppy. Friends, support, unconditional animal love, new plans–they were all such helpful things to have.

I had a lot of new friends, too. Mainly in the southeast, where I spent most of my spring and summer this year.  The T-wall is the most famous traditional climbing area but much too hot to climb in those months, so instead, my friend Zack Umbarger took me to Leda for the first time. I’m almost hesitant to write anything about Leda because we had the area almost entirely to ourselves all day—it was a climber’s dream! It had amazing quality rock with a variety of routes.

Zack giving a proper spot. Photograph by Andrew Lowers
Running gear out on Cracked Actor before the finger crack. Photograph by Andrew Lowers

Still familiarizing myself with the climbing in Chattanooga, I’d been hoping to find an offwidth this trip. Having found a fairly moderate pitch on the first day, I knew we were off to a good start! There is an extension to Cracked Actor, an 11c sport route atop Free to Think called Temple of Doom. It’s a couple of pumpy moves to an exposed dyno. The crux move is done with the anchors in your face—it’s literally two bolts to the chains and an absolute heartbreaker.

The percentage of rain for the day was at about sixty percent when Nick Lanphier and Erick Barros from Dirtbag Climbers drove from Atlanta to join us later in the week. By the time we pulled into the Craven’s parking lot, it had already begun to sprinkle.

We parked underneath the giant roof of the Drain Pipe (5.11a) and it wasn’t long before I began racking slings to cams. With maybe fifteen or twenty feet of what looked like number 4s ahead of me, I decided to figure it out when I got there.

The Drain Pipe (5.11a). Butterflies give me butterflies. Photograph by Nick Lanphier

As it turns out, 4s are butterflies for me. Butterfly stacks (a form of hand stacks) is a technique using both hands when a crack is too wide for a regular hand jam. I placed my hands together back to back, and cupped my hands to the side of the crack and tucked my thumbs down. Not certain how the roof would go, I wound up bumping a lot of pieces along the crack. The roof was more of a lie back with high feet, which felt strenuous and scary.

The roof shortly opened up from 4s to 5s. There were no feet throughout the entire traverse and I half aided, half groveled my way through it. It was worth struggling through to gain the offwidth. I wedged body parts into sections of the crack for security and tried to use the outside edges of the crack. The offwidth went clean, and I was proud to have accomplished that. That night, I went to dinner tired, sore, thrashed, and bleeding in various places—but I was happy.

Beginning the traverse. Photograph by Nick Lanphier

I am not a dirtbag. I have bills, I have an apartment, and I work hard for a paycheck that I can put towards gas and plane tickets and food in my stomach.  People often joke and tell me what a dirtbag I really am. But despite being a little gross from time to time, I have never considered pursuing the “dirtbag lifestyle”—mostly because I really like my bathtub and a well-stocked fridge. Cooking meals at home in my kitchen. My array of quirky but adorable coffee mugs—which I obviously can’t bring with me on climbing trips; I’d break them all.

Recently, one of my childhood friends moved to Europe and dropped me a line. In a long chain of back-and-forth emails, we concluded that even though we live completely different lives (on separate continents nonetheless), we find ourselves often going through similar situations. Neither of us wants to be single forever, but we feel as though the lives we envision ourselves having are incompatible with the men we have met up until this point. We both wonder about sacrificing things, such as a relationship with substance, a family, financial stability, a career. Thoughts that often lead me to ask: What am I doing with my life? What do I want to get out of it? And ultimately, what kinds of sacrifices am I willing to make?

So if I never find that perfect life partner, or have kids of my own or buy a house, am I really sacrificing anything if I’m happier where I am now than I was when I started all of this? Is it a sacrifice if I’m doing something that I love? Yes and no. I guess there will always be a trade-off.

Climbing is so much of who I am. It’s in my bones and it’s my passion and it’s everything. Have you ever heard the expression “Go beyond love”? I know what people might say about me; maybe I AM a little obsessed. Passion and obsession go hand in hand—you need both of these things to get to where you’re going. They are both the fire that you use to make your dreams happen. Passion is beautiful and there are so many people in their lifetime who will never know such a thing. I can’t compromise a passion for a nine to five scenario—and it isn’t wrong to want that sort of thing. It isn’t wrong to not want it, either.

Moments before moving into the offwidth of The Drain Pipe (5.11a). Photograph by Nick Lanphier

There might not be any husbands or babies in the near future for me, but that doesn’t mean I won’t have those things someday. I am edging away from the past and stumbling, falling, climbing ahead into unknown future days—which to me, will always be more exhilarating than settling for “safe”. Do I want those things? Of course, a part of me wants those things. Do I want to get those things by playing it safe? Hell no.

We are risk takers, whether it be climbing an unknown route or moving our life to a new city, state, or continent. It’s about exploration—explore the world and we explore new parts of our hearts. The world is our playground. It teaches us about ourselves and if we don’t expand on it, then we don’t grow.

I question the path I am taking because let’s face it, I have a lot of doubt. But my friend’s words sparked a fire in my heart last week: “If there are any takeaways from this, let it be me telling you the thing I constantly try to tell myself: you are doing the right thing by refusing to ignore the possibilities of your life (even if everyone else does). You earned that proud feeling when you wake up in the morning and step outside to the places and things you always wanted.”

Photograph by Nick Lanphier

I am not a dirtbag. I am not a dreamer or following a lifestyle. I am just living a life according to my own happiness. And there is always good food, great and amazing and supportive and loving friends (and wine).

And the passion you release is the passion you absorb.

Cover photograph courtesy of Nick Lanphier.

5 thoughts

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  2. Really nice photos Kathy! You look so scrappy and thuggish. Even if you are a woman and not a dirtbag I trust that you will take that as a compliment. I appreciate your reflections on the romance and security that one sacrifices to pursue one’s passions. Like climbing, I’m sure that when the time is right the husbands and babies will find you too! 🙂

  3. Funny, I was looking for a new wallet of all things and came across your site, then I realized I just saw you yesterday (I think) at Brooklyn Boulders. I’ll say hi next time!

    Nice blog, btw! I’ve been wanting to create something similar for some time but never get around to it.

  4. Kathy, thank you for sharing this. I’m an east coaster in Boulder for grad school and constantly choosing work over climbing, despite how tantalizingly close it is. I feel guilty about it a lot! And weird that I do want stability and an apartment and a paycheck. Ive been thinking about that a lot recently, and this post came at a wonderful time. You do you, and I hope good things keep coming! Also these photos are fantastic – Ive been trying to get into trad climbing and its been tough finding the right partners so yay for faith theyre out there! Love seeing that youre out there getting your adventures 🙂

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