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Climbing at the Edge

Connecting With Female Trad Climbers and New Online Communities Driving Adventure

When I’m in need of rejuvenation I often turn to Zen dosing ocean waters or nature’s celadon greens for a jolt of inspiration. But this time I wanted to connect with the deserts I grew up in and there’s no better way to do that than with my belly pressed against Southern Utah sandstone, sucking in crisp air as I calculate the next hold ascending a well-known multi-pitch. In sport climbing the rock doesn’t distinguish between gender it’s a medium that will challenge your skill and keep you humble. A place not measured in workplace output or economics, but in adventure. When we broke the rim atop the, 300 foot precipice of Terma overlooking the Colorado River, I knew I’d made the right choice. This is exactly where I wanted to be.

Moab is multi-sport mecca for weekender’s and dedicated climbers, and with its proximity to so many world renowned climbs and national parks it’s the perfect place to soak up Utah’s sun. The dramatic landscape is hard to beat and the 4025 ft. elevation make the cooler autumn shoulder season enticing to visit. Now all I needed was the right guide to help me test my endurance. After a couple of years of not climbing, yet working in the outdoor industry I was craving exposure to more unknown elements. I reserved my Moab climb with 57 Hours, an app founded by adventurers that eliminates the need to call around vetting guides or negotiating. Since flexible timing, finding the right route and a good level of physical challenge was a big allure here, I was happy when they connected me with advanced female climbers from Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. (JHMG)

57hours.com mission of adventure

I’d only met Aimee Barnes and Lisa Van Sciver the morning before our ascent but we’d already had plenty of contact on organization, gear lists, waivers and a personalized phone call to discuss my climbing goals. I’d requested a female guide not because I was self-conscious or nervous but because of the normal camaraderie climbing with women. Lisa took the lead and Aimee came along for the love of the sport as the Southern Utah JHMG Manager. I spent the day in what felt like a climbing workshop paired with an outing with the girls. With more than few decades of climbing experience behind them, I listened to everything my guides said (while being distracted by the unbelievable backdrop) taking in essential skills in a deadly serious sport. No shortcuts, no work arounds —- just real life scenarios. As a newer climber I didn’t need to be around sponsored pros or swap lingo, I just wanted to be part of the climbing community – if even for a day – learning safety techniques and have good conversation. Mission accomplished.

We started our hike through sandstone talus and desert brush on the Colorado Plateau Sunday morning at 8.30 a.m. Swapping adventures on the way up, I found that Lisa worked with an avalanche forecast team in the winter, and had no plans to retire anytime soon from her love of climbing. Even in her time off she seeks out big granite faces and dirty sandstone towers.  We continue at a good pace and I catch a glimpse of the Colorado River over my shoulder, its pistachio hues dwindling in the distance. As we arrive at the base of our route, a 300 foot sandstone cliff in an area called Utopia, I take a moment to breathe it all in. My guide, Lisa prepares the rope, a large task in itself, and runs through the importance of communication on belay, redundancies we’ll use for safety and the gear I’ll clean on my ascent. Lisa steps up and effortlessly scales the route. She had already threaded the ropes, waiting on a ledge above for our change over. “On belay” I yell upwards, my voice getting lost in the wind. I hear her clear communication returned and press into the rock. It feels good, applying what I remember from a previous climbing class, a bit of yoga and a natural instinct to steady myself. This was not my climbing gym this was a trad route up ancient seabed walls and my only focus was on the rock in front of me. Sizeable cumulus clouds undulated above, the sun kissed our backs and 50 mph gusts swept around our bodies against the cliff. “Looking good” I hear Aimee’s words of encouragement from below. I secure myself in a comfortable position, unclip the draw, lock it into my harness, and keep moving. This is being a good climbing partner I’m told, and ensuring no gear gets left behind.

Ascending Terma Route, Moab Utah

We regroup at the top, snap a group photo, and Lisa is back on rope duty setting up belays for our rappel. The strong winds seem to be taking a farcical poke at us as it tries to braid our ropes together. Lisa continues unruffled by the gusts, and I slide over the cliff onto the ledge beside her. She descends and now Aimee walks me through locking, unlocking, and the backup fireman belay that helps eliminate mistakes and falls. I sit back into the harness and feel like I’m floating down.

The supporting words and steady focus of each element of the climb ensure I feel safe. I ultimately was trusting my life to these ladies and I fully believed in them. But we weren’t done yet. Over lunch I listen to more climbing experiences. “I like clients who are there on their own terms.” Aimee says “Its fulfilling when people have a goal and you can help them achieve it.” She’s been climbing since 1980, and seen the industries up’s and downs. Both of my guides had felt hugely supported in their work, and had felt minimal barriers especially with themselves and their attitude towards the sport. “Enthusiasm is needed, a good attitude goes a long way, particularly when the climbing becomes hard.” Lisa shares.

In the mid 90’s Aimee, who’d also been a long time Jackson Hole ski guide, worked for Doug and Emily Coombs ( a well-known couple who’d been a catalyst for the industry) and their support “Showed me it was possible to work year round as a guide” and she’s been doing it ever since.  No wonder Lisa lists Aimee as someone who inspired her in the industry, among others like, Steve Quinlan, Paul Horton, and Andy Carson.

“I like clients who are there on their own terms.” -Aimee Barnes

Lunch is over and our eyes turn to the Spear of Destiny, a 90 foot multi-pitch spire adjacent to the Terma route, and our next climb.  My excitement buzzed as I looked up at what would be my first tower. I watch both Lisa and Aimee’s smooth ascents, and note body positioning for my own. I start with my back against the wall and begin to chimney my way up. The body bridges, and star fish positions feel unnatural at first, but I feel comfortable taking my time, and asking questions for assistance on the way up. I’m encouraged to rest in bridge and breathe. Here I am, wedged between the mocha and brass swirled sandstone walls of the Spear of Destiny’s Jurassic rock. Breathe in, breathe out. I look out from the tower hidden in plain sight off the Colorado River’s Scenic Byway, its hues bending into the ancient backdrop. Virtually unnoticeable to someone gazing safely from the road. It felt like being on the side of a skyscraper playing my own part in the next Mission Impossible and I was already addicted.  I continue ascending, and where it feels as if the position will be impossible, I reach for it and hold. It begins to feel a bit more natural and I finish, touching the rim with a dazzling view. Lisa glides me to the ground.

On Belay on Spear of Destiny, Scenic Byway 128, Moab Utah

Among smiles and chatter, we begin to pack up. I didn’t feel out of place, I felt more proficient and content and I would keep these skills with me. Finding the right guides can make all the difference in a day’s climb and both of mine were certain of their abilities, so I was confident in mine. The 5.8 routes provided a challenge I loved, and a bonus tower sealed the experience. Booking through 57 Hours sweetened the deal even more: everything was arranged through the app and taken care of on the backend, so I could focus on the sport and the prep. A win for freelance guides, tour companies and adventure seekers.

Our day ended winding down the talus once again, a layer of microscopic sandstone silt dusting each part of us. We said our good byes at the road and I turned onto byway 128 towards Moab. It was 3:30 p.m. but felt like only a couple hours passed. Lost in adventure the day passed quickly immersed in multi-pitch climbs, boundary pushing rappels and camaraderie in an awe-inspiring desert landscape. Aimee and Lisa were about to host a climbing clinic for young women to inspire more generations of climbers in a mostly male dominated sport. “Working women’s clinics and industry trips are really fun.” Says Aimee “These kinds of events have a vibrant pulse in the community and it is fun to share knowledge — with strong women who want to be more independent, better climbers.” I agree, more experience means more competency, and that’s something we can all take with us in the outdoors.

“These kinds of events have a vibrant pulse in the community and it is fun to share knowledge — with strong women who want to be more independent, better climbers.” – Aimee Barnes

As I drive I think about the other recommended climbs like Wall Street on Pot Ash RD, River Road, and Kane Creek and am already doing a mental check on where to fit it into my schedule.  We’d accomplished a lot for a day, and though miniscule in the industry I can understand the obsession of climbing and the gains that continue to be made. As more women are climbing as hard as men, it seems the gender gaps are lessening and support is growing, though there are exceptions.  As women, we climb in our own way, but in the end whatever our gender, we face the rock, a place that is there for everyone, equally.

Find out more about online bookings and finding adventure at 57Hours.com where their mission is keeping us young, healthy and happy through adventure sports.

If you want to get more involved in growing your personal outdoor skills contact: 57Hours, Mountain Project, JHMG.com/Location/Moab, and Chicks with Picks.

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