Being landlocked a majority of the time, I forget about how much I have always loved the ocean. My high school sweetheart and I spent much time at the beach, and I’ve always equated it with a place of peace and love. The ocean can be described in an endless number of ways. It’s beautiful and humbling. Its vastness makes it both mysterious and terrifying.
When we first arrived at the island, we dove into the sea during a lightning storm, bare and buoyant and free. There was a happiness, and we all shared it, separately and together at the same time. It almost felt as if each wave we went under healed certain parts of us. As a child, I used to think I was a mermaid, and a part of me is still that same child and believes in whimsical dreams that only little girls can imagine.
That night, everything felt good. We were refreshed and well fed and feeling ready for the weeks ahead. Despite obstacles, when we got to the base of the climb, the moment that Tiny and Gaz started putting on their harnesses, everyone was feeling good. The first day, Tiny bolted about twelve meters and my job was to belay, send Tiny gear as needed, watch and learn.
There are so few formations in the world like this, and we were climbing one of the most remote ones, thanks to Adidas and a dream. Pico Cão Grande is perhaps even more impressive than the Devils Tower in Wyoming, surrounded by jungle and hidden in a constant thick fog of clouds. I felt beyond lucky. Words couldn’t express how lucky I was feeling then.
Below the peak, the roots beneath the earth overtook the jungle floor and because I was afraid of fumbling (and I did, often), I kept my eyes to the ground and was able to collect small mementos along the trail. I was missing somebody back home but began to feel sorry for all of the “I miss yous” when I’d overheard Gaz telling José, one of the plantation managers, about his girlfriend in Mexico. He said that it takes a strong and independent woman to be able to support someone on a trip like this. I suddenly wished I hadn’t felt so needy in the weeks prior, remembering that I wanted to be fuerte (strong), like the women on the island.
I was starting to jug pitches faster, but I was still slow in comparison. Tiny and Gaz were basically jugging hundreds and hundreds of feet and I could not keep up. I tried to be meticulous with scrubbing (having never done this before, I wanted everything to be perfect that I simply took long). Everything I did was slow. Everything I did was stupid. I felt stupid. I felt awkward. I was inadequate, and I knew it, and the guys knew it; everybody knew it. Every day felt like full exhaustion and I still wasn’t doing enough. Every night I closed my eyes and kept telling myself: with a little extra sleep and a little more determination in the morning, tomorrow will be a better day.
When the guys pushed past the roof, they said the climbing was much easier and I was relieved. I am not a 5.13 climber. And then I was uncertain of the lower out, where the how-to explanation came quickly and then the voices of both Gaz and Tiny were suddenly gone, somewhere well above my head. I sat at the belay, nerves wrecked and feeling like crying. I didn’t want to cry; I didn’t want to panic. It’s just hard to get rid of a thought once it enters your head and the stress of not bouncing on the ropes because they will surely cut kept me in a panic. Matt came down and sat with me for a few moments, which was comforting, and said not to make decisions when I’m upset without thinking first.
One day later, I went back and lowered out and started trusting the gear and the ropes as I thought about all of the mechanics of each piece and how each one worked, just as Gaz had told me to do. We ate breadfruit that the porters hiked in for us with olive oil and honey, and as I munched the sweet, sticky bread, that isolated feeling within me kept creeping in and this time, would not leave.
At this point, I’d been spending so much time alone that one morning, I sat at the base for a very long time, not ready to jug up. I simply sat there. That was the first time I really wanted to give up. I wanted more than anything to go home. I was aching to leave. I was aching for comfort. I felt shut off and alone—as if I might as well have still been up on that wall.
The next day, the guys believed to be three or so pitches from the top. I was silently cheering them on, but also selfishly wanted it to be done. It was completely apparent to me what a failure I was. The reason I didn’t feel like a part of the team was because I wasn’t a part of the team. One day, I’d said to Gaz that this was the hardest I had ever worked, and I will never forget the look on his face. I immediately felt ashamed.
They summited on May 29th, 2016 around five in the evening. We made plans to head back to our first basecamp the following day, which was good because we were out of breakfast oatmeal as of the next morning. The plan was to resupply, take the rest day, go back in to try and redpoint the harder pitches, and then film the send. There was still much to do now that the climb had been fully bolted. I kept telling myself: six days until I can go home.
We were treated to a shower by Guillaume Taufflieb, the plantation manager. An actual hot shower! I let the water run down my filthy skin, wishing I could let tears out but they never came. I still hadn’t cried and I wanted to—I just couldn’t. They weren’t in me. Afterward, talking to Guillaume’s girlfriend, Eva Bouchard, while everyone shared beers and pictures, I felt grateful for female companionship. It felt like one of the only real conversations I’d had in weeks, and she was full of compassion and understanding; she wanted to talk to me. She suggested that I take a step back to find the lesson in it all. Her kindness greatly helped me through the next few days.
When we returned to the jungle for what would be my last hike in, I walked alone. I cried profusely, finally, and it didn’t make me feel any better. I knew that I wasn’t climbing well before I was told that more was expected of me, and I’d contributed to the loss of days in bolting the route. It was all true and that day, I didn’t know where to look for comfort anymore. I wanted to leave, but where could I go? I didn’t even know what my life was going to look like when I got back. I had never come with the intention of getting to the top or being in some film; those were things I didn’t care about. I came with the intention to work hard and to learn new things, and all I’d discovered was that I was a failure.
Maybe climbing has always been about instant gratification for me. I’ve worked hard, but I’ve never had to work this hard to climb before. Before leaving home, at a party in Boulder talking to some friends, Ryan laughed and said, “Homegirl has no idea what she is getting herself into.” and it couldn’t have been truer. I’ve always been told that suffering builds character, and I’d kept saying that I could use some real character building moments. I’ve now had a few.
Wednesday and Thursday felt the longest, for sure. Matt became very sick, and I cooked him plain rice to help his stomach. He went up early, determined to do his job while I sat and drank coffee and ate a small starfruit for breakfast, planning for one more (and hopefully the very last) day alone. I had plans to pack up the basecamp as best I could so that we didn’t lose any time when the guys rapped down.
They didn’t rappel down until very late in the evening, and even then, Tiny went back up the start of the climb to retrieve the portaledges. The entire day and night, I did not sleep until everyone was back on the ground. We did not go to bed until four in the morning. I would just lay silently, like most days, restlessly shifting in feelings of sadness, exhaustion, and loneliness. Just taking breaths—low and deep, with no expectation of real sleep.
When I was alone, I found myself revisiting key moments. What did I do wrong? How could I have done it better? I don’t know which one was weaker, my physical or mental abilities. Ultimately, it didn’t even matter; I was both dulled and overloaded at the same time.
I apologized to the team for letting them down, because I know that I truly had. I said that I had a deep respect for what wall climbers do (what I could not). It had become obvious to me that if you put in the time and work, you really can achieve almost anything. I told Gaz that every time I spent time with him, he gave me an experience that gives me thicker skin. And I really meant it in the most genuinely grateful way that I could.
I’d overheard Gaz saying many times that this was the hardest he had ever worked before. It made me feel relieved to know that this was how he felt because I’d just spent four weeks being the hardest on myself that I have ever been.
It was time for me to explore a little bit of self-empathy. I told Matt that as terrible as I’d felt, I couldn’t keep being angry with myself. The truth is, nothing will ever seem this hard—not that I can imagine, at least not right now. I have to remind myself of that when new challenges arise. When you are trying what you feel like is your best and you are only a disappointment, you can let the moment utterly defeat you, or can press onward. I chose defeat and in the future, I will try to choose the latter. Maybe I didn’t completely fail. Maybe, somewhere within all of this, I built a little bit of mental stamina. I’ll let you know.
I often feel like the reason I should visit places I don’t belong in is because I don’t belong there. I’ve always believed that there’s an important lesson to take away in trying something and being really bad at it—and I was really bad at something. You can’t always be good at everything right away, as much as we want to stick to doing the things that we’re good at. Trying new things that are probably way over my head will always be important to me because life is short, and you’ll never know if you don’t attempt it—even if it doesn’t work out, nothing is done in vain. I could have said “no” and never experienced the beat down of my lifetime, or I could have died on that wall—or I could die tomorrow. And if that happens, did I spend my time doing the things that I really loved and with the people I really cared about? Did I let myself get scared? Or did I let curiosity slip its leash and attempt something that most people would never even consider? Tiny had said: “Fear is the thing that you feel before you do the thing that is worth it all.”
Any experience that reveals some part of the human spirit will always be worth the hard trials, perhaps not in that moment. It certainly didn’t seem worth it to me at the time, and I’m still trying to get there. Gaz said that not as many people big wall climb because there is so much suffering involved. I asked myself why I wanted to try it in the first place—was it based on ambition? Was it going to be self-satisfying to know that I could? I think it was about the importance of understanding why we have big dreams in the first place.
The little girl who dreamt she could be a mermaid knew that a dream can be strong enough to define you. They let you prove to the world that nobody can say who you can or cannot be—what you can or cannot do.
I have learned that a big wall is very much like the ocean—it is unrelenting and will take absolutely everything you physically have to give, unremittingly swallowing you whole. It will give you nothing back. The entire experience is humbling.
During our goodbyes, I was asked if I would go back to nannying. Gaz said: “You should. It’s easier.” Those words carved something out of me, and it cut, deep and slow.
It would be so much easier to say yes, and I will never do this again. But that would be a mistake. I may not be a big wall climber, but all that matters is that I start somewhere. It should be less about not giving up and more about continuing to move forward—as slow and painful as it can be sometimes. His words, sharp and somewhat cruel, gave life to the voice that was already inside of my head, loudly telling me what I couldn’t accomplish, what I’d failed so miserably at.
Gaz told me, in the beginning, to be prepared to be hungry, all of the time. I think that the point is to stay hungry because the meaning of life is not simply to exist. Never be completely full, and let that hunger be the thing that pushes you onto the next thing, and then the next.