“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“]

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

  1. Pingback: Bay Area Guide to Climbing Groups | Emilie Cortes (aka Mountaineer Chica)

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