Learning to Climb Again – Rocking the Red River Gorge

It’s been humbling to face the prospect of relearning to climb again.  I’ll be brief…primarily to spare those around me who have been by my side during this trying period.   I tore my ACL in a random snowshoeing accident in April 2011.  Normally, the post-ACL reconstruction surgery is a painful and consuming 4-6 month process.  My medical team flippantly remarked that I would probably bounce back faster than normal because I was “young, fit, and compliant.”  However, by November, I was still struggling with constant pain, inability to walk with a normal gait, and the frustration of feeling like I was inhabiting a stranger’s body.

My annual trip to the Red River Gorge near Lexington, Kentucky was fast approaching and I wasn’t sure I would be up for technical rock climbing.  Keeping my fingers crossed that the knee would be far enough along by then, I reached out to Red River Outdoors to request my favorite guide, Kennan Connor.

I really dug Keenan’s vibe the last time I was in the Gorge.  He was very mellow, even keeled, and unassuming despite some of the serious and record-breaking climbs he has accomplished.  I thought I would be coming back to work on lead climbing with him, something I hadn’t really been attracted to as I’m a big weenie about leader falls.  That would definitely have to wait a while because I wasn’t sure if I would even be able to top-rope easy routes!

Keenan belaying me on a tough start at The Shire in 2010

I met Keenan and Rae at the Red River Outdoors meeting spot a couple of miles from the infamous Miguel’s Pizza.  Rae was a young women who aspired to become a guide and who would be shadowing us.   Thankfully Keenan remembered me and asked “So, how has your climbing progressed over the last year?”

I chuckled and explained how much everything had slid backwards due to the injury…one year older and yet no progress.    He reviewed the areas and the routes we climbed last year, inquiring what kinds of climbs would be most appropriate for my current condition.  I truly did not know whether I would try to make one move on the rock and suddenly turn into a beached whale floundering about…but I REALLY wanted to try and definitely felt like Keenan’s mellow encouraging way would be positive.

All three of us climbed into Keenan’s beater (I was surprised to still see it kicking!) and drove out to the Southern Region area.  Keenan decided to first go to an area called Left Field with some easy 5.5 and 5.6 climbs as a test.  I still needed my poles for balance on uneven terrain and walked slowly on the trail, thinking to myself that it was probably silly to test my knee in the vertical world when it was still challenged in the horizontal world.

Hiking in the Southern Region

Keenan did a trad lead (where the leader places gear in natural features of the rock for protection) to the top of a set of anchors that would serve two routes – Return to Zoe (5.6 35ft) and Flee the Fixer (5.5 35ft).  I chose to try Return to Zoe first which was a dihedral (corner) as I tend to enjoy this kind of route – it uses a lot of balance and opposing forces versus muscling straight up a route.

I was very nervous as I put my harness on and tied into the rope on a figure-eight knot.  I hoped I would not turn into that beached whale or worse, hurt my knee, but I was trying to keep my expectations extremely low.  I stepped up to the rock face, asked Keenan to keep me tight, and took a deep breath.  I could feel the sharp crystals through the skin of my fingertips and feel the connection with the earth as I took hold of the rock.  I stepped onto two small footholds and mentally crossed my fingers as I stood up on my feet.  They held!  And no pain!

I very slowly and deliberately planned my moves and carefully balanced on each new foot placement.  As I ascended the dihedral, I began to use opposing forces with my legs, stemming out across holds.  I had never needed to be so deliberate with my movements before and I found it actually felt more fluid and effortless than the year prior.  I was absolutely elated to reach the top of the climb and not feel tired at all.

Reaching the top of Return to Zoe (5.6 trad)

Keenan lowered me and had to ask, “Which leg was it again?”  He said he couldn’t tell that I was favoring either side.  So far so good!  I then climbed Flee the Fixer, a more slabby climb which was tougher, but I also made it to the top without resting.  Rae led a sport climb just to the right (Sandy’s A$$ Cherry 5.5 45ft – climbers are definitely good for colorful route names!!!).  This was one I had climbed last year so I could make a direct comparison, and it was MUCH easier than the last time.  Maybe there is something to being more deliberate with your movement!

We headed over The Shire where I had also climbed before.  I really struggled to walk down the small hills, leaning on my poles because my left knee couldn’t bear to be loaded downhill.  How bizarre that I seemed to feel better in the vertical world than the horizontal world!!!

Climbing over a bulge on Audie (5.8)

We climbed Peewee (5.7 35ft) and Audie (5.8 35ft), two slightly tougher routes that were more vertical and with a few bulging sections.  I had to rest once on Audie as my lack of fitness and rock-climbing endurance was kicking in, but I was still stoked to complete both climbs.

I remembered one really nice long 5.8 that I saw last year, but we had run out of time.  We donned our packs and hiked over to the area called The Gallery and I climbed a 65ft 5.8 called 27 Years of Climbing. Due to rope stretch, I could have hit the ground if I fell on one of the first moves, the crux of this climb, but I just stayed focused on not falling and pulled through.  I had to rest twice toward the top, but was flying high as a kite by this point.

Up high on 27 Years of Climbing (5.8)

Finally, we walked around The Gallery to the Volunteer Wall to hit a challenging climb that I completed last year.  Darwin Loves you is a strenuous 5.9+ 50ft climb.  I was starting to feel a bit more tired by this point and conscious that I shouldn’t push too hard on my first day back on the rock.  I got through the first moves off the ground, one of the cruxes, and then became exhausted about 25ft off the ground.  My forearms became so pumped that I couldn’t hold on any longer and I called it a day.

My support crew for the day, Keenan and Rae

Keenan, Rae, and I left the Southern Region of the Gorge as the light was beginning to fade from the sky, and I was immensely grateful for their support and to be back among this wacky tribe of people that are compelled to climb.

Route highlights

Wall Route Rating Height
Left Field Return to Zoe 5.6 35ft
Left Field Flee the Fixer 5.5 45ft
Left Field Sandy’s A$$ Cherry 5.5 45ft
The Shire Pee Wee 5.7 35ft
The Shire Audie 5.8 35ft
The Gallery 27 years of climbing 5.8 65ft
Volunteer Wall Darwin Loves You 5.9+ 50ft

Lessons for Life – From the Flanks of Mt Rainier

In 2006, I had been climbing for a couple of years and decided I wanted to put my mountaineering skills to use for good instead of evil for a change.  I joined the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center fundraiser climb of Mt Rainier. The fundraising goal of $5,000 was a steep one, but I figured if my friends were able to do it for Team in Training and the AIDS Ride, I should be able to manage it for something unique and challenging like climbing Mt Rainier.

I met all the other climbers in the offices of Alpine Ascents International in Seattle, WA, and I realized I was the only one that hadn’t personally had cancer or been touched by a close loved one with cancer.  All of the other eight climbers had, and in fact, this would be their very first mountain.  A requirement to participate was completion of a 6-day glacier travel and crevasse rescue course, and most of them had completed their course in the preceding weeks.

FHCRC crew at the White River trail head

Although I was accustomed to being sized up on these sorts of trips for being a small woman, I was instantly the resident expert (outside the three awesome AAI guides – Dave, Eric, and Brent) which was a cool shift for me.

Emmons-Winthrop Glacier route is challenging primarily due to its length and altitude gain (White River trailhead is at 4,400ft).  The first day was pretty brutal – it was hot and our packs were heavy. Mine was probably 55 lbs, nearly half my body weight.  After about 5 seemingly never-ending hours on trail, we stepped on the glacier for the first time and took our packs off to take a long break.  We looked up and saw a menacing slope we would need to ascend to access the Inner Glacier where we would make camp for the first night.

Menacing slope - see the rope team the size of ants in the middle?

A young buck named Jason asked me how I was doing.  I said, “Great!” enthusiastically.  He looked crestfallen and said, “Really???”  I asked him how he was doing in return.  He said, “Well, I’m tired, I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, and I’m really not sure I’m going to make it!”

I think may have even chuckled out loud and responded, “Oh!  We’ll I’m also tired, hungry, thirsty and not 100% sure I’m going to make it…but that’s NORMAL!  That’s why I’m great!”  A light bulb went off in Jason’s head and he said “Oh!  That’s NORMAL!  So, really, I’m doing great, too!”

The ascent up that menacing slope was a battle for each climber, both mentally and physically.  After we crested the top of the slope and the terrain leveled out, there was palpable relief in the air when the guides announced we had reached our new temporary home.  The next day was a short one as we just rounded Steamboat Prow to camp on the Emmons Flats (near the ranger hut at Camp Schurman).

Chillin at camp

We arose at 1am and were off before 3am.  We call this an “alpine start” and the purpose is to climb as much during the night when the glacier is firm and stable.  You are much less likely to have a snow bridge give way under you and fall into a crevasse when the temperature is low and the sun hasn’t had time to weaken the bridges.

A little before 5am, the guides called us to a halt because a dry lightning storm had kicked up in the clouds surrounding the mountain.  Lightening is a particularly dangerous force of nature when you are up on a mountain, typically the highest thing around and you are covered in metal (i.e., crampons, ice axes, carabiners).  We all put on every warm layer we had with us and sat on our packs, trying not to nod off and fall down the side of the mountain.  Our patience and persistence paid off as the lightning storm dissipated within an hour.

Trying to stay warm while waiting out a lightning storm

We continued the long difficult slog upwards winding around ice patches and open crevasses, finally reach the crater rim.  As we hiked along the final stretch of the crater rim, the clouds seemed to vanish right as we summitted at 9am.  Views of most of the state of Washington and the other Cascade mountains such as Mt Baker, Adams, and St Helens expanded beneath us.

FHCRC crew at the summit of Mt Rainier

On our way down, I reflected that Jason seemed to be doing really well.  It was as if he had an extra spring in his step and an air of quiet confidence ever since our brief conversation that first afternoon.  In fact, it appeared he was relishing everything about this challenging climb in contrast to some of the other participants who were reaching their limits on the amount of alpine suffering they wished to endure, even for a good cause.

Descending the crater rim

I pondered that brief encounter and learned three really powerful lessons that afternoon on the glacier down low on the flanks of Mt Rainier…

1.  Your perception of events has an unbelievably powerful influence on their outcome.  If Jason had continued to believe that he wasn’t doing well, his mind probably would have been consumed with negative thoughts about how hard it all was, how he wasn’t good enough, how much more he should have trained.  Those negative thoughts would have killed his energy and he may have given up before discovering he was indeed capable.  Instead, he embraced the “new normal” of what was considered doing great on a tough mountain.

2.  I also learned the power our words have on others.  I have always thought of myself as just “little ole Emilie,” not a leader or influencer, and that my words did not really matter.  However, I realized if I had been in a cranky mood and said something less than supportive to Jason, I could have shaped his entire experience on that mountain for the worse.  He looked up to me as an experienced climber, and I gave him positive reinforcement that buoyed him for days.

3.   Many of the best things in this world are a struggle.  Starting a new business, finishing a degree, a personal athletic challenge, or raising children is often a struggle.  It’s NORMAL to be tired, hungry, thirsty, afraid, to doubt yourself, even be doubted by others.  But working through your challenges will make your success just that much more rewarding!

Don’t forget how much your perception of events can influence their outcome, carefully weigh the power of your words on others, and embrace the struggle!!!  These are the lessons I learned on the flanks of Mt Rainier.

Happy Jason


Epilogue:  I kept fundraising for a month after the climb and reached $3,800, short of the goal by $1,200.  Given Rainier usually cost $1,000 to climb it guided, I felt that the after-tax cost ($1,200*(1-40%)=$720) wasn’t such a bad deal given it would benefit the FHCRC.   I would highly recommend FHCRC fundraiser climbs as a way to use your climbing skills to give back.

“Before Climbing” & “After Climbing” (and not much in between)

The way I look at and interact with the world around me was radically and permanently shifted when I discovered climbing.  There is the period Before Climbing (BC) and After Climbing (AC), and not much in between.  Unlike many who become climbing disciples, I was not introduced to climbing by anyone else, mentor, boyfriend, fellow newbie; I stumbled upon the pursuit through a series of serendipitous events that changed my life forever.  This is the story of how it all began…

Half Dome

After I graduated from Berkeley with my MBA in Finance, I took an investment banking job structuring esoteric Collateralized Debt Obligations.  The hours and stress were intense and I packed on the pounds.  My girlfriend from b-school, Elizabeth Meyer, called me and said “hey!  what do you think of hiking Half Dome?”  Although I was struggling to workout during the work week, each weekend I would hit the trails with the Sierra Club SF Bay day hiking section to explore the Bay Area, meet new people, and do some “moving meditation” to distress.  I did a little research on Half Dome and it sounded very serious – 17 miles, 4800ft gain topping out at 8800ft, and a fear-inspiring steep “cables section” toward the top.  This would be an altitude record for me, and Elizabeth agreed, we would need to take this classic California epic hike very seriously.

Half Dome and Tenaya Canyon

For weeks, we trained, we researched, we prepared.  We measured and brought the right number of calories, 3 liters of water, first aid to deal with Acute Mountain Sickness, and special gear like sturdy gloves for the cables section.  The hike was long and hard and we felt the altitude, but we arrived at the bottom of the cables in good form to find the common traffic jam of hundreds of people inching up the cables.

First glimpse of the cables

Elizabeth stepped onto the cables section and promptly backed off, unsettled by the exposure (climber translation alert…exposure=the feeling you get when looking over a cliff or tall building).  She assured me that I could continue on with no pressure and she would wait as long as necessary at the base of the cables.  I got back on the cables and a big guy just above me broke down, started to cry, and forced his way past me to safety.
I was really scared.  What was I doing?  Was I strong enough to get to the top? Would I get myself killed in the process? This was all new to me and I didn’t have a partner or mentor whispering over my shoulder that everything would be OK.  I saw two gals heading down and asked them “do you need a lot of upper body strength to get to the top?”  They said “no” and recommended that I stand on the planks along the way to keep from burning out my calves and Achilles.

I inched my way up the cables, taking care not too look over the side, and sure enough, I eventually reached the top of them.  As I stepped onto the summit of Half Dome, the views expanded before my eyes.  To the West, I could see up and down Yosemite Valley including Glacier Point, El Capitan, North Dome across the way.  To the East was the dramatic Tenaya Canyon and Clouds Rest.  All around there were hundreds of spectacular jagged peaks for miles and miles.

Celebrating at the summit of Half Dome

The sense of accomplishment was visceral and truly overwhelming.  All that physical, mental, logistical preparation, thousands of steps along the trail, working through my fears on the cables, culminated in the amazing reward of having the world open up at my feet.

I was ruined for “plain vanilla hiking” forever.



One month later, I was in Germany for a b-school classmate’s wedding and to take an active vacation with my boyfriend, Michael.  We drove from Frankfurt to Garmin-Partenkirchen, a small town nestled in the mountainous region of Bavaria.  In Lonely Planet, I noticed that the highest mountain in Germany, Zugspitze at all of 9,717ft, was right next store.  The guidebook warned that Zugspitze was not a tourist peak and you either needed previous alpine experience or a guide.

I had a tough time convincing Michael we should hire a guide to climb it.  He said, in his thick German accent, “You do not understand the Alps!  They are very dangerous.  And there is no liability here in Europe like in the US.  We can die and no one can sue the guides.”  I assured him we would be fine and that it was, in fact, a fabulous idea to climb Zugspitze.

Both of our confidence wavered when we asked around and had trouble finding a guide referral.  The hotel staff seemed so confused when we said we didn’t want to take the cable car up but preferred to go “na hofen” (on foot).  Persistence prevailed and we were connected with a guide broker who provided details on where and when to meet our unseen guide the next day.

Michael was cursing me as we woke up at 5am to make our 6am rendezvous.  This was supposed to be vacation, after all!  The guide was a young, fit, hearty fellow named Simone.  He gave us a hard look up and down and said, “Are you sure you guys are fit???”  We both assured him that yes, we were.

Red sky at dawn

We set off into the unknown with this young alpine god as the sun began to rise sending red cirrus streaks across the sky.  Four hours of extreme hiking later (steep scree slopes, edging along ledges hanging onto cables fixed to the rock), we reached the Wiener-Neustädter alpine hut where we took a luxurious break  of hot chocolate.  I was surprised how good I felt.  The slow, deliberate pace of the guide was almost effortless and I didn’t feel tired.

First time wearing a harness

We donned our harnesses with fixed runners to clip on to cables up higher and we set out for more vertical terrain.  The next three hours were filled with scrambling and high stepping.  Several times Simone chided me for taking big power steps and showed me how taking smaller steps would tax my muscles less.

Simone, the alpine god

At around 9,000ft, Michael was so over the whole thing and likely silently wishing he had a girlfriend that just wanted to walk around town and hang out in a hot tub.  He kept asking, “how much further?”  Simone, the alpine god, looked at me and said “how do you feel with the altitude?”  I paused, thought, and said, “Altitude?  Wow, I don’t really feel it.”

Simone responded, “Well then, you really must be fit!”  As these words sunk in, the heavens opened up, angels began to sing, and I realized this was the sport for me!  Not only did I dig it, but I was actually GOOD at it!  The gal who was always picked last for dodge ball finally found her niche!

As we crested the last bit, I relished the surprised glances of the fat Germans drinking beer and eating bratwurst at the summit.  We proudly strode past them with our hardware clanking.  If the “plain vanilla hiker” in me wasn’t already dead, this was the final blow.

Scrambling up this chute was very extreme climbing for me in 2004

After a cush ride back down on the cable car, we drove to the town of Berchtesgaden to continue our vacation.  Alpenhof, the B&B where we stayed, had numerous brochures in the room and one of them featured mountaineering adventures.  I fixated on a photo of three climbers, roped together, ascending a snow slope on a 12000ft mountain called Grosglockner.  I was completely mesmerized.  What were they doing????  I had never seen anything like that in my life, but yet I knew that’s what I wanted to do!

Returning to the states, I researched the style of climbing I saw in that photograph.  I surfed the web until midnight every night learning about snow and glacier climbing, roped team travel, training and skills required, what order to climb mountains to safely acquire the experience to avoid getting killed.

Emilie & Michael at the summit of Zugspitze, Germany

Mt Whitney

I put a deposit down to climb Mount Whitney Mountaineer’s Route ascent in winter conditions in April with International Mountain Guides.  It was October and I had until April to learn everything I needed to know for my first REAL climb…but that’s a story for another time…[EC update:  see “Journey versus Destination? Whitney Set Me Straight“]