I’ve been following Shawn Naughton on Instagram over the last several years. You probably don’t know that name because she isn’t a famous rock climber and she doesn’t send 5.13 rigs. In fact, she just bought her first trad rack this past year and packed up her entire life to live and climb in the Gunks.

I climbed with Shawn a few years ago in the New River Gorge. Her infectious energy was impossible to deny then and has only grown tenfold since.

“Spent my first night in the orchard last night. Don’t mind waking up to the Trapps cliff line, that’s for sure. Feelin’ pretty much at home already.” @msshawneeriver
“Signed up for my first songwriting course…I feel nervous and excited. Like getting a tattoo; I’m nervous to go through the process and see what emotions come up, but I’m excited to see the end result: a more expressive, artistic, freer version of myself.” — Shawn Naughton. Photograph courtesy of Christopher Cheng

One of her more recent ‘grams actually made my heart pound. As I read and reread her words, they poured into my heart and left me feeling something that I haven’t felt in a very long time. It was a familiar feeling, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it right away.

The longer I’ve been climbing, the more drawn I find myself to new climbers, especially new leaders. I think that there is something inside of me that relates to a lot of what they are going through. Do you remember your first routes as a new leader—the learning process that came with it, the unmistakable uncertainty as you placed your first piece of protection, followed by that unshakable will to get to the top?

And then you got to the top and everything changed. You felt alive, punched open and running freely, unobstructed and ethereal. And that feeling took you to some pretty cool places, higher elevations, and put you on more self-discovery adventures than you could have possibly imagined.

“Lead my first multi-pitch route yesterday! Gunks Betty 5.3! Woot woot! Thanks @mloc321 for the rad pic at the top of pitch 2! Can’t believe how much I love this sh*t!” @msshawneeriver

And that was it. I realized that it was the feeling of magic that stirred inside of me when I read her words. Try as we might, we can’t recreate the magic of our first climbs. The longer we climb, the more experience we have tucked away, but is some of the magic dulled with time? Some days, I would give anything to go back and relive the year I learned how to rock climb. Figuring it all out for myself, learning new systems and testing them, feeling utter defeat, reveling in my successful sends, the euphoric experience of my first fall and first onsight—it was all magic.

A few weeks ago, driving back to camp in the Creek, my friend jokingly said to me: “I’m basically an old curmudgeon climber these days. You know, the one who is always yelling at those dang kids: ‘Back in my day, we only used hexes!’, except I don’t use hexes.”

It’s kind of like losing the magic of childhood over time. You ask yourself where the wonder and magic disappear to, but it’s not that it ever disappears. It’s not that we stop making time for it; we just start making more time for other things. We start growing up. First, there’s college and then careers, and then bills and taxes, and suddenly we get a little lost in the tedium of paychecks and responsibilities of adulthood. Things like morning work commutes and paying taxes dull our world a little, our magic. They quiet our restlessness. Maybe that’s why some of us started climbing in the first place.

Maybe it’s not why some of us started climbing, but it’s why we continue to climb. It’s why we place our feet on the path to adventure in the first place—to uncover the magic and make it our own again.


“I set out to lead a 5.7 yesterday but found that I still had lessons to learn from 5.6+. We went for one of the most sought out climbs in the Gunks yesterday, ‘High Exposure.’ I love this picture because it was a very happy moment re-racking for “the money pitch,” which is not the emotion I felt for most of this climb. I was so happy to be on the picnic ledge (so they call it) because getting up the first wander-y pitch, I had just battled with rope drag like I’d never experienced only to look up and realize what I had just (mentally and physically) gotten myself into for the second one.

I had watched people stronger than me back off of this pitch trying to move out onto the exposed face from underneath the massive roof, but I went for it and made what I thought was the hard crux move of the climb. I battled the forearm pump the rest of the way up this pitch, taking on my red #1 cam and then again on my small alien two moves later. When I took on that small piece of gear and looked down over two hundred feet below me, I started to cry…and in front of three really strong dudes. Haha! I was terrified and desperate.

‘I’m sorry. I’m just realizing how much I don’t trust myself.’ I whimpered. My belayer said: ’It’s ok if you need to cry, just no more apologizing; you’re doing great.’ And so I sat there as night quickly came and decided that I had to trust myself in order to move forward…so I did and now I do.” —Shawn Naughton

10 thoughts

  1. You have no idea how much this hit home for me. I started climbing as an adult. After school but before work. I’ve been through so many stages of magic: Hitting the gym. Top rope. Bouldering. Lead. Climbing outside. Climbing outside as a travel destination. Trad. Each bringing a new head game. A new set of skills. I new reason why I scream/cry as I work through the mental and physical challenge. And yet, it’s those same challenges that keep inspiring me to come back for more…

  2. Good read! I’m a climber too. I mostly climb indoor but I’m trying to go outdoor more often. Lmk if you com to DFW area. Summit Rock gym is pretty dope. 🙂

  3. I read in a wheelchair sports magazine about this guy who climbed with the wheelchair harnessed to him and he was like totally vertical, all hand grips, it was was amazing. So I try it out in Virginia, no for I stayed with what I do best

  4. I just started leading for real this fall (two leads last year, 6 or 7 this fall). The amount i want to cry, the amount i hate and enjoy crying, the heartache, heart song and joy when i get to the top. I’m happy to read your post, because, I’ve been climbing for two years, and have been nervous to get on the sharp-end. Now on the sharp-end I’m all psyched to tackle all these climbs and this tick-list. Your words are a great reminder to slow-down and enjoy the journey, because (hopefully) one day I’ll be a competent leader and maybe need to be recreating the magic I’m currently experiencing.

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