Well, here you are and life is not going according to plan. This trip is not going according to plan. You are inexperienced and awkward and do not meet any of the demands, physically or mentally. Life has come down around your ears. You want to go home, you want to cry every damn day, you want to be anywhere but here.
But you are here, so saddle the fuck up because you aren’t going anywhere for two more weeks.
About halfway through, I started questioning why I said yes to an expedition in the first place. I was reminded why: “You weren’t recruited for your aid climbing skills or your rigging abilities and you don’t climb 5.13 limestone. We know you ‘suck at this’. That’s why you went—to experience something new. To take advantage of an opportunity that you probably would never have again, and that ninety-nine percent of people would never get in the first place.”
The psych was pretty high in the beginning. Traveling to a beautiful, remote island in Africa brought me back to memories of my trip to Tanzania last summer. My first trip to Africa didn’t change me in any of the ways I was expecting it to; it prepared me. Aly Nicklas prepared me to be uncomfortable, ask questions, listen, and be willing to learn. Upon boarding our first flight to Lisbon, I knew that this trip had already changed me. I had no idea at the time the truth of this statement.
The culture of São Tomé was rich, colorful, and chaotic. The entire island and its people had an organized chaos to it as well as a set of unspoken and unwritten rules. It was wild. I was impressed by the way that the people of São Tomé lived off of the land. Even small, basic tasks seemed so much harder. It was a primal way of living, much more than anything I’d experienced being on the road solo for a year.
The women, especially, in Africa are beautiful and bold in a way words will never do justice. They are warrior women, and as we charged down the narrow road in our beast of a Land Cruiser, I closed my eyes and wished I could be like that. They grew smaller in the distance as we drove on, babies strapped to their backs in colorful swaddles, heavy baskets balanced precariously atop their heads, and machetes that could cut your limbs clear off, hanging innocently at their sides.
Gaz Leah put an incredible amount of time and effort into this, his whole heart and soul, and was dedicated to something he utterly loves. I made a silent promise to myself to try my absolute hardest because I knew what this meant, and more than anything, I wanted to send that rig for him. I was feeling apprehensive but optimistic. After our first night at base camp, I sat next to him and told him how I was feeling. He told me to throw my feelings of inadequacy out the window and said, “I asked you here because I knew what you were capable of.”
When we started, I was told many things: As a leader, take as much time as you need—but as soon as you get to the anchor, you need to move quickly. Have fun and trust in your support system—your team. It’s about partnerships and communication. Every skill that you acquire helps you move ahead, even if it’s only a little bit.
Everyone is afraid of big wall, I was told, and it was ok to feel afraid. Like everything in life, it’s about doing something enough to make it less unknown. I knew how lucky I was to have someone offer to teach me because so many have to go out and learn on their own. Ryan Kempf joked when I left and said, “You better be a badass wall climber when you get back.”
That was certainly the hope. Hiking out of the jungle one day, Gaz told me, “You might not be a badass big wall climber when we are done. But you will be a big wall climber.”
Feelings of excitement didn’t start to sink in until the night before we left our oceanside basecamp. Everything started feeling real to me once we were finished putting bolts together and taking gear inventory. We were done having simple breakfasts that consisted of bread, avocado, and papaya at the plantation—we were ready to move. We made lists. Gaz was so prepared. I admired his foresight to plan ahead for disaster and that his number one concern was always the safety of his team. Throughout the trip, I thought about how Gaz is a natural born leader, and that isn’t a quality many people have. It was day three at the wall when he told me that I could roll with the boys, and I felt accepted and a part of the team.
Descending into the jungle to the wall, we first had a guide, Mito. The first hike was unbearably hard for me and I was embarrassed at how much I had struggled. I was dehydrated and hungry and tired, and felt relieved to find that the following hikes in felt massively easier (in torrential downpour, the lack of humidity made it less of a struggle.)
We hiked with Mito, Torte, and Pasquel many times. In total, we hiked in and out I think nine times. The locals knew the path very well and did it gracefully (wearing flip flops instead of the Wellington boots we’d purchased for protection against snakebites), whereas I bumbled along the trail, lucky to have a pole for balance. I watched Mito cut through the jungle, making new steps for us with his machete, as the old ones had been washed away in the rain. Trudging through the thick jungle felt like vertical swimming. When I used to hike approaches with Jon Hutt, he would always warn me not to grab branches because you never know how stable any of them actually are. In São Tomé, even the ferns felt strong enough.
Mito helped me across the river each time. When he hiked with us, he insisted on carrying my backpack. I tried to politely decline each time but he would never take no for an answer. At the time of our final hike out to the plantation, I was exhausted mentally and physically and for the first time, I graciously let him. During the four weeks, not understanding Portuguese, I couldn’t tell if Mito and his friends thought it was cute or endearing or wildly hilarious that a small, Asian woman was joining these men on their expedition.
Gaz had plans to take the steepest, least vegetated line. He was committed to several days, close to a week, of sleeping on the wall: “Once you are on the wall, you are not coming down. Ninety-nine percent of big wall is morale. I have seen grown men break.”
But we didn’t have that kind of time. When the rain came, basecamp was soaked. Our clothes were soaked. Batteries were soaked. On the fifth day, the battery chargers were zapped and smoking and we packed and prepared to head back into the city. Big wall is about problem-solving: prevention and having a plan B. In addition, we were struggling with rope issues (as in, not having enough rope for fixed lines). By that time, progress was slow and everyone was starting to worry about falling behind schedule. It wasn’t a huge tension, but a slight concern on everybody’s minds. I started feeling sick on those windy roads back into the city.
It was somewhere around the battery charger malfunction that I started feeling that disconnect. It’s such a small thing, but the dynamic of being the only female started to feel like an inconvenience. I was physically far away from everyone I knew and loved and started feeling it. From a distance, we had scoped out the peak with binoculars and I remember watching the falcons floating through the sky; I have always wanted to be a bird (specifically a red-tailed hawk) and ride thermals all day, and in that moment, I wanted to be a bird and fly as far away as possible.
The entire dynamic of the group was shifting, and I felt it. One night, I was helping fill a container and some gasoline spilled on my hand. I mentioned that it still smelled, an hour later, and was told not to complain about things you can change. A part of me felt like saying, “Look at all of the things I haven’t complained about yet!” Instead, I meekly said that I wasn’t trying to be a complainer, and I was sorry. I went to bed early.
By Saturday the 21st, Tiny had finished bolting pitch three and Gaz started through the roof. We were short on time and I understood that. I wasn’t going to bolt any of the first four pitches; that much was obvious. It wasn’t really communicated, but I knew what I wasn’t being told. They were hard aid pitches anyway, and Gaz was certain they went at 5.13. We were running short on time and there really wasn’t any extra to waste on showing me things I wasn’t going to get the first time, anyway. Instead, I was shown how to jumar.
I have never jumared before, with the exception of one time in Yosemite many years ago. Frustrated at how slow I was, I was assured that I should move slow and learn the technique rather than move fast and be sloppy. That day I cleaned a half pitch.
And from that point on, that’s what I did. I jumared and I cleaned pitches. I started looking at it like a job, where you have to begin at the beginning and work your way to the top. Nobody gets promoted immediately, and you have to work to earn your place. I kept finding small comforts in things, such as a piece of candy I’d placed in my pocket that morning or thinking about a familiar love, far away. I kept my self-talk upbeat and kept doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing.
And on Sunday the 23rd, I began to slowly realize that there is a difference between feeling twelve steps behind everybody and being left behind.
So, here you are and life is not going according to plan. This trip is not going according to plan. You are inexperienced and awkward and do not meet any of the demands, physically or mentally. Life has come down around your ears. You want to go home, you want to cry every damn day, you want to be anywhere but here.
But you are here, so saddle the fuck up because you aren’t going anywhere for two more weeks.
Today, I picked up the notes I had been scribbling to myself. This one said: Sunday the 23rd. I am not a big wall climber. But maybe, someday, I will be.
Cover photograph by Matthew Parent.