Part I. Kelsey
I unfolded my Mad Rock crash pad beneath the boulder problem, Beautiful People. Fall surrounded me in golden light. Being a Tuesday afternoon, it was quiet save for squirrel conversation. I was by myself. This was my time to be a beginner, shamelessly.
I had tried the V3 the weekend prior when I had come out here with my boyfriend and his roommates. It was my first “project,” a word I had learned climbing with them. They had all scampered up the problem as I had struggled with the opening sequence.
Taking off his shoes, my friend had said, “Well, I guess we all can’t be Beautiful People.” I had frowned at the joke. “Kidding, kidding,” he had added quickly. “Don’t take this too seriously.”
Having warmed up, they had moved on to harder problems as I stayed behind to continue working the climb. Still stumped, I had left to join them and watched as they moved with power and grace I could not yet fathom for myself. They were guys. They were muscle and might, strength and stoke. I was like them but not. It seemed they were fearless, while I sometimes cried on high top-outs. They launched themselves between holds, while I often had to find hidden feet to help move me upward. They offered beta and guidance with good intentions, yet I sometimes felt like there was something wrong with me because I struggled to implement their advice.
With no classes on Tuesdays, I had come back out to try Beautiful People. I fell, again and again. At last, just as my skin threatened to split where a jug’s edge cut in, I stuck the crux move. Surprised, I glanced at the crash pad below. It was too small to cover the fall zone if I moved upward.
I went for it, beach-whaling a top out that was essentially a ladder. I wore Carhart pants for this very purpose. Atop the boulder, I released a shout that sliced the silence. This feeling—exhilaration—lodged itself in my life as a north star. I would spend the next decade pursuing it. And yet there was something missing that I did not know how to name. I felt it at the edge of my experience as I packed up my crash pad and walked alone back to the car.
Part II. Claire
I walked into the gym and scanned in with the back of my phone. A while ago I had decided that logging into the Spire app to check-in was too much work, and I didn't need a keychain yet, so I cut out my scan card and glued it to the back of my phone case. This move got a lot of questions from non-Spire members, and each time someone asked about it, I would explain rather sheepishly its purpose.
I headed upstairs, waving hello to another local on the way. My favorite spot, the hangboard in the tucked-away corner, was taken so I reluctantly set my stuff by one of the hangboards in the middle of the workout space. The blue tape lacing its way around both my shoulders was comforting as I picked up the hot pink three-pounders. At least people will know I’m injured, I thought. Then I chided myself: Claire, that’s just your ego talking. It shouldn’t matter what weights you’re using.
I talk to myself a lot while I’m at Spire. Imaginary conversations where I rehearse what I want to say to the cool local who I’m just a little bit scared of, reassurances to myself, and sometimes, shaming insults. Each boulder set, I find my favorite climbs to warm-up on. I love perfecting these climbs, moving as gracefully as possible up the plastic holds. This particular set, my favorite warm-up, was a red problem on the prow. The moves were dynamic, but in a flowy way.
I would cut my feet for one move but could always place them perfectly on the next chip. I saved that climb for the last of my warm-ups, and when I finished, I jumped off, psyched for the 4 by 4 to come. Plopping down on the cushy blue mats, I half pulled off my shoes and took a sip of my water. “That was actually so good. I love watching you climb that one.” I looked up to see Adam. Setting my water bottle down, I tried to gather my panicking thoughts. I hadn’t seen his car in the parking lot… he must’ve just gotten here… but I thought he had class right now? “Thanks,” I lied. “You have to come outside with me again soon,” he said. “Sends indoors don’t count.” I answered with something vague and noncommittal and then finished our conversation with a laugh. That’s what I always did: laughed it off.
I turned to grab my chalk bag, picking out my four climbs in the meantime. Walking up to the first one, I could feel Adam’s eyes on me as I pulled onto the start holds. I finished that first set quickly, too quickly. I should’ve chosen harder climbs, but instead I had selected easy ones, well within my reach.
I didn’t want Adam to see me trying hard or climbing at my limit. Because what if that limit was lower than he thought it was? He might not want to be friends anymore. I left the gym early that day, as I often do when I run into Adam, blasting the music to try and erase the gross, heavy feeling in my gut.
The next week, I was sitting in the passenger's seat of Adam’s car, listening to his strange music as we drove to some bouldering spot I didn’t know the name of. His friend was in the backseat, and they were joking around. I tried to laugh and join into the conversation when I could, reminding myself that this was supposed to be fun.
Once out of the car the two of them raced up the steep hillside while I tried my best to pick over the fallen logs and twisted roots hidden under the thin layer of snow. A bunny had recently been in the woods before us, leaving a maze of tracks behind. The tracks were entertaining to follow as they crossed over themselves and paused at random intervals, until a heavy footstep crushed the delicate paw print through the snow and into the muddy ground. I looked up, disappointed, and saw Adam and his friend looking at one of the nearby boulders. They called to me, and I hurried over, sad to leave my bunny trail behind.
Part III. Together
They met at the trailhead. Claire clipped her keychain on the handle loop of the pack. Her Spire pass is still taped to her phone, the edges worn. It scans all the same the three days of week she has practice. It had been six months since Claire climbed outside with Adam. During their weekly writing sessions through a local school program, Kelsey and Claire often chatted about climbing. They had made plans at the end of the school year to get out on some real rock during the summer. While Claire had climbed outside with her dad a couple of times, today was the first time she had climbed outside with another woman.
Kelsey pulls her seven-foot stick clip out from her car. “Meet Mr. Longarm,” she jokes. “I’m Mrs. Longarm.” They laugh and begin hiking up toward the sandstone cliffs. The conversation is easy-going. Having spent a day a week together throughout eight school years now, the two had grown comfortable in their relationship. “There’s a 12+ we can try up here,” Kelsey says. “I’ve never been on it.” She looks around for the trail, remembering the time six years earlier she led Claire and her family the wrong way. Though she often went outside around Bozeman during her fifteen-year climbing career, she hadn’t spent much time at their destination, a sandstone sport crag in Bear Canyon. She wanted to make sure Claire had a great day outside, and she knew this crag would offer them a wide range of options to get comfortable lead climbing on real rock.
They arrive at the base of the cliff, and Claire looks up at the route, excited nerves shooting up through her chest. Stick clipping the second bolt, Kelsey says, “You never know when a hold will break. I’d rather risk someone thinking I’m lame than a broken ankle.”
Kelsey offers the first lead to Claire, and Claire decides to wait for the next route. After lowering Kelsey, Claire practices clipping the rope into a pre-hung draw. Claire’s surprised by how intuitive the tool is to use. She easily figures it out. “I did it!” Claire says, smiling. She ties in and climbs the rock with grace. Kelsey is impressed. When she was first learning to lead climb outside, there were a lot of Elvis Presley legs, desperate clips–fears of a hard catch. She remembers the first sport climbing trip she took with a girlfriend, where they each had to get the rope up. There was no dude around to hang a toprope. The experience had been transformative for her, and she wanted Claire to have a similar break-through in realizing she was capable. We, women, are capable.
They warm up on another easier route before moving on to an 11a that shares the anchors with the 12+ they’re going to try later. After Claire climbs the 11, Kelsey takes off her harness. “I gotta pee.” She pulls out of her pack a toiletry kit. “I also have the lovely pleasure of my period right now. This kit has tampons, dog poop bags, and hand sanitizer. It’s a great thing to include in your climbing pack when you’re bleeding.”
They are both making a point not to make the conversation about dealing with menses in the outdoors awkward. When Kelsey returns, she ties in with the rope pre-hung. “I sometimes like to top rope hard routes so I don’t associate the climb with fear. I find I can send things faster this way.”
The opening sequence is a powerful boulder problem involving monos and big reaches. Together they figure out ways to pull off the bad holds and use technique to make the bigger moves more efficient. Shocked, Claire remarks about how easy it is to fall around Kelsey. And it was wild, that difference. Before, she had always been scared to move wrong or say something wrong. Now, climbing with Kelsey, Claire felt free to experiment. She tried to stack a mono, and when failing, she and Kelsey just laughed it off and tried out the next option.
They are two female climbers, working a route together. The moves are the only thing hard about it.