Out On a Ledge: What's It Worth?

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Out on a Ledge Katie Lambert Rock Climbing

Katie Lambert climbs Sierra de Cazorla (7b+/5.12c) at Rumenes during her Spanish limestone tour. Photo: Ben Ditto

For the 30th time, I grabbed the crux holds on Picos Pardos, an 8b/8b+ (5.13d/14a) in Oliana, Spain. It had become my three-week project. My left hand grabbed the small, polished pinch, and I threw hard out right to latch the tufa, and fell. That’s when my head hit the tray table, jarring me out of my dream. As my vision came back into focus, I watched the flight attendant pass out customs forms. Our five-month trip to explore the Spanish limestone of Picos de Europa, La Hermida, Rodellar, and Oliana had finally ended, and we were making the 12-hour flight home to California.

Adjusting to reality, I felt a bit of solace to be on the plane heading home rather than dangling at the end of my rope again, but the disappointment of not checking another box on the tick list irritated me. My husband dozed in the seat next to me. Two days before we boarded our plane, he had redpointed Fish Eye (5.14b), a 55-meter overhanging route in Oliana and his hardest sport climb to date. In addition to that new personal record, he had also ticked off three other 5.14s. While this was a big deal for him, no one else on the plane could possibly understand what it meant.

Redpointing routes, especially ones at your limit, can be an emotional rollercoaster, and it is always a learning process for both of us. Watching him sleep, I imagined he felt content with his efforts. He kept his nose to the grindstone and did the work, despite doubts or uncertainties.

“I’m just punching the clock on this route,” he would say. “Put in the time and one day it might all come together.” Climbing for Ben isn’t just about “sending the gnar.” It’s a process of self-mastery, of controlling the negative chatter of the mind, which allows him the opportunity to try hard. His determination and endless positivity is in stark contrast to my own insecurities and self-doubt. Feeling inadequate and unworthy is a direct result of trying certain routes or grades for me—as if I shouldn’t even be allowed to because I’m just a gal from the South who stumbled on climbing by accident, as if those routes were reserved for “better” climbers.

Five hours into the flight, the smell of a pre-packaged chicken and rice dinner wafted up from the rear of the plane as I pondered my achievements and misses. On this trip I had climbed 60 routes from 5.12b to 5.14a, a climbing season not to scoff at, but for some reason I still felt disappointed. We had been in Oliana for close to two months and I had sent plenty of other routes, including my first 14a, but instead of having fun on the thousands of other lines available, I had chosen to spend the last three weeks of our trip falling on a single 10-foot section of rock. Why had I spent so much time and effort trying Picos Pardos only to leave empty-handed, having fallen time and time again in the exact same spot? And if all I cared about was not sending one route (and not relishing the routes I did send) then what did sending even mean to me? What was I doing with my life? The door leading to an existential crisis creaked open.

“Climbing is like martial arts, is like yoga, is like sword making,” my husband told me once after a particularly emotional battle, echoing the words I had spoken to him years before. It requires time and dedication, and the more time and dedication you give to it, the more it becomes a way of life and less a pastime. This commitment doesn’t come easy; it takes practice and sacrifice to let go of the things you don’t need physically, mentally, and emotionally. Being dedicated to climbing means that 100 percent of what you do is structured around trying to succeed. It means missing out on family time because your schedule is based on good conditions and perfect temps, not cultural or familial traditions. It means giving up creature comforts because you live in a van, ready to pick up and leave at the first sign of inspiration or a promising weather forecast. It means strained relationships with the non-climbers in your life because it’s inconvenient to spend time with anyone who would rather go to happy hour than meet you at the gym for a training session. It means endless days of exhausting your body and then avoiding everything else in the name of recovery.

The sun and wind deepen the lines on my face with each passing day. What was a hobby in my teenage years has turned into my whole life 20 years later. Spending days in the alpine of the Northwest Territories, on the monoliths of Yosemite, atop the sandstone towers in Utah, at the sketchy crags in Mexico, and on the impeccable rock throughout Europe has added up to missed holidays, birthdays, and other occasions that most people center their lives around. In those hours on the plane, I thought about how much I miss my grandmother’s hands, my mom’s voice, my dad’s jokes, my family’s traditional Lebanese food, and each of their slow Southern accents. It had been close to a year since I had been home, and the nostalgia was overpowering.

RK, my best friend in California, has devoted his whole life to climbing. His 40-year career was spent establishing big walls, free routes, and boulder problems, climbing peaks in Pakistan, ticking numerous 5.14s, and traveling throughout Europe. A respected climber, he now works organizing youth programs and community outreach, but he is single, lives alone, and his extended family is spread out across the country. It seemed that he had indirectly isolated himself by having chosen climbing. It trumped every other aspect of his life—was it worth it?

When we returned from Spain, I asked him if he had sacrificed everything for climbing and what it meant to him.

“Climbing is a way to advance yourself,” he told me. “The lessons learned in climbing stay with you forever. It’s a foundation you can build yourself on as a human [that] provides a unique way to express yourself.” Climbing had been much more than an athletic endeavor for him; it had forged his connection to the world in a profound way, and in turn, allowed him to help others find themselves through time in nature.

As I stared at the customs form 30,000 feet above the Atlantic, I came to an understanding. I had dedicated my entire existence to climbing, from work to pleasure. I enjoyed the uncomfortable bivvies, the pre-dawn wake-ups, the chores of travel, the fast-changing conditions, the required strategy, the dirt, the smell, the physical and mental effort. I loved the partnerships, the failed attempts, the laughs, and the high-fives of success. My own climbing heroes had committed their lives to climbing, and I realized that I had taken much more from them than purely physical inspiration. I had learned how to be a follower of the practice.

Physical prowess and ability will change with time; the grip will loosen, and the desires will shift. Injuries may come and go, while some might stay, and the possibility of dying while climbing is always there. But the experiences of time with partners, the places visited, and the emotions felt will stay with us forever. We tell ourselves “I can do it” because we have to convince ourselves it’s possible despite all the odds against us—gravity, reach, conditions—despite every other external factor in the world, because we want to see what’s possible and what it takes to make the dream a reality.

For me, climbing means more than numbers and summits. It has given me a sense of self. Always being challenged means facing my own mind and ego and figuring out what I’m made of. What I’ve learned is that most of the time the greatest hindrance is exactly what I have the most control over—me. The harmony of body and mind that usually happens on hard redpoints is something we strive for in climbing and in life. The feeling of lightness and heightened awareness—similar to a fine piece of music or art—is as close to perfection as we can get. Face fears and develop minds in climbing, then call on those strengths when challenged in our daily lives. Climbing provides the opportunity for this growth, and it’s a thousand times more valuable than another tick on the list.

Katie Lambert is a professional climber based out of a van in California’s Sierra Nevada with her husband and photographer, Ben Ditto. Lambert has climbed for more than 20 years on everything from boulders to big walls.