Nothing can compare to some of the friendships I’ve made through climbing. One of the most special ones I’ve found is with Christina Natal, who is one of these people who leaves a lasting impression on you when you meet them. It’s just part of her personality. Forget the fact that she is an extraordinary rock and ice climber; she is a woman who lives her entire life with such intention and love, and you are a better person for knowing her.
We met when I first moved to Brooklyn. My life was in a constant state of panic. I was only halfway through college, had broken up with my boyfriend and taken all of my worldly possessions to NYC and moved into a shoebox. A beginner climber, I took a job at a gear shop in Manhattan when she walked in one day. She was finishing nursing school and looking for part-time work. She walked her Univega (the very same bicycle I now ride every day to work) out of the store and my boss turned to me and said, “That woman is a badass climber.”
I never in a million years thought we could be friends, let alone climbing partners. Her experience put her completely out of my league. She intimidated the fuck out of me, so when the gear shop hired her to work in the climbing department, I took it upon myself to avoid her like the plague. Any time she tried to speak with me, I’d answer with short responses and find any excuse to leave the conversation.
Eventually, I had to work through those feelings. One evening, I summoned all of my courage and walked up to her in the break room. My shift had just ended, and hers was probably just beginning. I’d like to think I articulated it well, but I probably blurted out a sad apology for being such a shitty, terrible person, and the fact of the matter was that she intimidated the hell out of me—and maybe she’d be willing to climb with me someday?
We wound up climbing together once, where she put me on Baby (5.6), my third lead climb in the Gunks, and I forever dubbed her a sandbagger. We didn’t tie in again for several years, both constantly coming and going out of the city to climb. We were both embarking on our own journeys, but the beautiful thing was that despite passing time, we kept coming back to each other with bigger and better stories to share. And her stories have inspired me for decades to come.
In my years before becoming a climber, I’ve always thought that the best friendships in life are the ones where you aren’t up each other’s asses all of the time. You exchange ideas and help each other, you don’t talk shit about each other and constantly compare. You just live your life and share your experiences with others, and they live and share theirs.
Our climbing and friendship actually had very little overlap, but over the years I have known Christina, I have been moved by her many accomplishments. She has achieved all of her big moments of success by remaining dedicated to both the sport and her heart. Moments of success, she taught me, aren’t always sends and onsights. It’s about perspective. Throughout eight years of rock climbing, she has pushed past physical challenges as well as mastering the emotional and mental game involved.
She once read an issue of Alpinist when she had started climbing about the Diamond, and this summer she realized that dream.
“You know those articles that just wow you with the history of the place, the adventure that leaves you dreaming of that thousand yard stare? It was something that stuck with me. So far out of reach in my days following 5.8 in the Gunks.
And then this year the Diamond wasn’t a faraway epic idea, but something tangible. Sure, I fell on the crux pitch but whatever. That’s not the point. We bivyed three nights waiting for weather. Hiked the approach twice, crossing snowfields that scared the crap out of me. Twenty-two hours of motion. Sure, it gets a rep as being a freakin’ climbing gym for locals these days, but it was an epic adventure for us. We put in a lot of time up there and earned that mountain. I stood at that summit and thought about the other climbs I dream of. Cerro Torre…one day that will be possible too.“
I asked Christina about some of her biggest achievements in climbing:
“Most of these aren’t achievements per se. It’s more of that personal journey of following your dreams and believing you are capable of anything you want. Everything seems big and impossible from far away, but take one move, one step, one pitch, one mile at a time, the journey unfolds and there you are! Finding that out. Believing that and continuing to travel and try new things that have always seemed impossible to me—I think that’s my greatest achievement over the past eight years in climbing. Who cares what I’ve actually sent but wow, look at all the stuff I’ve tried!”
When Christina came into my life, I knew that I was changed forever. I struggled a lot this past winter with identity, and we spent a lot of time sitting in cars, in parking lots, talking in great depth about love, life, and climbing. There was a point in time when life felt hard, and I needed someone who understood me and she came through. She’ll never understand how much that meant to me–as much as we try to tell people what they mean to us, they’ll never really know. She once told me, “Even if you decided today to stop climbing forever, that’s okay. You’ll still be Kathy Karlo. You will still be you.”
Christina reminded me that it’s about climbing a route that you love, leaving out the expectations of what you can and cannot do, and learning from the rock. You can learn if you’re willing to be taught.
When she told me that she is moving out of Brooklyn at the end of the month, I tried to keep the emotional range of a teaspoon. It wasn’t long before I was a weepy mess. As sad as I am to be losing her, I couldn’t be more excited about what comes next.
It’s all about the onsight. We have no idea what’s going to happen next—will there be a safe stance to plug gear? Are we going to bail at the crux or push forward with great pride, strength or stubbornness? Maybe we’ll have to build a bivy for a little while and wait out the weather. Sometimes a guidebook is handy, and it’s good to know what’s coming next. But this isn’t a rock climb. This is life. Sometimes you fall, but sometimes you send.
Life is just one of those things that, because it is so full of change, it is full of wonder as well. Here’s to the next chapter, and everything else in between. Natal, the next pitch is all yours.
Cover photograph courtesy of Jordan Erenrich.