A few years ago, my boyfriend at the time and I had a combined birthday dinner celebration. He worked in the wine business and had some friends at the Brown Cafe in NYC close a part of the restaurant for us. There was even a special dinner menu and beautiful cards made to mark the occasion—it was lovely.

Between the laughter and the wine, Birk 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 this life.

Four years later, and that’s everything I have. Plus rock climbing and a snuggly puppy. Friends, support, unconditional animal love, plans. All so helpful. The future will be interesting. How many times have you heard people say the best things in life are free? Love, friendship, spirituality, nature. The way I see it, a lifestyle is fluid. Because the “climbing lifestyle” is so temperamental, it almost becomes fixed, a foundation of sorts.

Zack giving a proper spot (aka DAB)
Zack on his first crack, Cracked Actor (5.10a)

Zack took me to Leda for the first time on Friday, which was interesting because few people had anything good to say about this roadside crag. I’m almost hesitant to write anything about Leda because we had the crag almost entirely to ourselves all day…a climber’s dream! Amazing rock quality with a variety of routes. Zack thinks that Leda receives such negative feedback because the moderate routes are actually much harder than the given grade.

We warmed up on Free to Think (5.8), which began with long moves to a chockstone to then gain a corner crack. We then moved on to Cracked Actor (5.10a) which shared the same start as Free, but then moved left onto the face into a wider crack and eventually changed to fingers.

I’m still getting to know the Tennessee area, and I had been hoping to get on some 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 pump 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.

Running gear out on Cracked Actor before the finger crack. Photograph by Andrew Lowers
Optimus Prime (5.9+) had exposure, excitement, and hand jams!

The best way to recover from heartbreak is to climb the most beautiful crack you can find. Optimus Prime (5.9+) is a right facing arching crack that we hand jammed and chimneyed our way out to the exposure. Super thought provoking and fun! It was definitely the cherry on top of an already perfect day.

Nick Lanphier and Erick Barros from the Dirtbag Climbers drove from Atlanta the next morning to climb at Sunset Park on Lookout Mountain. The percentage of rain for the day was at about sixty percent, and by the time we pulled into the Craven’s parking lot, it had already begun to sprinkle.

By the time we had finished our warm up climb, the already gray sky blackened and the wind started picking up. We began hiking back to the car until the weather deterred us and we decided to park underneath the giant roof of the Drain Pipe (5.11a). The plan was to just eat lunch and stay dry, but 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 put everything out of my mind and started up the initial cave crack. What a learning experience…

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

So it turns out that 4s are butterflies for me. I’ve always understood the mechanics of it but never had a chance to practice. 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 after diving in fingers first, I 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.

Because the crack felt like it went for miles and miles, because of what felt like a shortage of gear to me (the 4s section opened quickly to 5s), because there were NO FEET for what felt like more than a hot minute—I basically aided most of the roof. I felt way in over my head.

Beginning the traverse. Photograph by Nick Lanphier

The roof was worth struggling through to gain the offwidth. I wedged body parts into sections of the crack and for security and tried to use the outside edges of the crack. I let as much weight as I could possibly hang on my jams, and ultimately did whatever worked. The feeling of pure joy when I made it to the top and lay claim to those bolted anchors was indescribable—there was just a full body bliss.

That night, I went to dinner tired, sore, thrashed, and bleeding in various places—but I was happy.

I am not a dirtbag. I have bills, I have an apartment, and I work hard for a paycheck that I 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.

So Brooklyn.

Recently, one of my oldest childhood friends moved to Europe and dropped me a line. What we concluded in a long chain of back-and-forth emails was that even though we live completely different lives (on separate continents nonetheless), we are often going through the same life struggles. Neither of us wants to be single forever, but we also 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 the questions: 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.

This is what I have concluded: 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 some day. 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.

Sunset Park silhouette. Photograph by Zack Slade

I will not let one bad day or moment of doubt or loneliness stand in my way—I acknowledge it sometimes (okay, a lot) because I have doubt often. But I’m not on anybody else’s schedule and it should always feel good to take my time learning more about myself and the things that I want in this life.

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.”

Bring your big gear and game face. 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.

4 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.

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