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My Worst Climbing Road Trip

Car trouble, an injury, a border police incident, and a pile of human excrement.


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Ingredients: 

-One or more unexpected happenings which irrevocably change the intended direction of otherwise very well-made plans.

-The main character’s desire to forge ahead, in spite of said happenings, no matter how obviously ill conceived the continued proceedings may be.

-Further unintended travails mitigable only if the main character had revised course.

-Sustenance, such as bread

Recipe:

My worst climbing road trip started off with a stale bagel. I should have recognized it as a bad omen. 

It was 2016. I was moving from Fort Collins, Colorado to Victoria, British Columbia—a 20ish hour drive, plus a quick ferry. My car was disappointingly small, a 2001 faded cobalt-blue Volkswagen Beetle that I named Ken. The AC was broken and bits of paneling were pieced together with sun-melted duct tape. For reasons I’ll never understand, Ken smelled like crayons. Its coming apart had been years in the making.

I mowed through the bagel—ending its two-week residency in my refrigerator—and confronted the packing job ahead of me. Fitting all my belongings inside the car involved a complicated game of triage and negotiation. Books. Clothes. Laundry basket. Ropes. Hardware. A poster of an oiled up Alex Honnold. The car moaned like a bloated animal as I managed to shut the last door. I left Fort Collins around 4 a.m.

I had just finished school at Colorado State University, or was close enough anyways. With 12 credits remaining to graduation, I decided it was time to leave and take the rest of my courses online. Cheaper that way, and I had been invited to live and train with a friend in Canada. It was my opportunity to have everything I ever wanted: top coaches and top facilities. I could become the best World Cup climber I could be, or so I thought. Hope is the parent of ignorance, or so I learned. But I was just thrilled to feel free.

Is it worth it? Let me work it

I put my thang down, flip it and reverse it

I cranked the music and rolled down the windows. Cold air blasted my face as I traced the hills and valleys of Northern Colorado, a verdant ocean in spite of the waning year.

Ti esrever dna ti pilf nwod gnaht ym tup i

Ti esrever dna ti pilf nwod gnaht ym tup i

The sun had yet to crest the horizon when my car suddenly lost power. The gas pedal did nothing, and as I pulled off onto the shoulder, my car came to a sinking halt. Ra-ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta, I said, turning the car off. This was not the first time this had happened. I turned the ignition and prayed for juice. No response. I tried again. Nada. 

AAA came an hour later. The driver had one of those full-sized tow trucks, which made my small and coming-apart car look like a pathetic child’s toy. He let me sit up front next to him, on a fuzzy bench that had peanuts stuck in the cracks of the cushion.

“Where to?” The driver asked.

“Can you take me to Seattle?” I said, only half-joking. 

He towed me the maximum amount that was still free for my membership. Nearly 200 miles later, we arrived at a dried up dirt town in Wyoming. A stray cat stood guard outside the peeling auto shop—the only in a 100-mile radius. The mechanic, wearing Crocs and a flannel, told me he could fix my bug in a few hours. But first I had to take all my stuff out. I complied and then sulked off to a nearby coffee shop, killing time doing homework for my online Speech and Communications course, which may well be the dumbest thing I’d ever paid for.

The car dilemma was, as you might have guessed, setback #1. This you could say was the part of the voyage where I ought to have rethought my timeline, which was supposed to be as follows:

  • Day one: Leave Fort Collins at 4 a.m. Drive for at least 12 hours, find a motel.
  • Day two: Drive to Seattle. Stay in a Monastery booked via Airbnb because a) it’scheap and b) what professional athlete doesn’t aspire to monastic simplicity? 
  • Day three: Compete in local bouldering comp, ideally winning, and therefore completing a celebratory return to comps after having taken a whole month off. (Prior to that, I had been competing in World Cups in Europe. Tired of so-so results, and just plain tired, I had returned home to Colorado for a needed break.) After the comp, I’d cross the border into Canada, get in the best shape of my life, and then become the World Cup hero I knew I was destined to be. There could be no turning back.

Four hours and $500 later the mechanic was done with my car. I repacked everything and again found myself on the road, this time in the filtered light of early evening. I stopped that night in an old motel that smelled like cigarette smoke, and I dreamt of podiums.

The author at the Northwest Bourlderfest in Seattle.

The next day was white lines and yellow dashes. Fields of grass undulating beneath a falling gray sky. It was much colder than the day before, so I kept the windows up. I switched from podcasts to music and back to podcasts until finally, in late evening, Seattle’s space needle came into view, a metallic blip smudged into the unfurling urban landscape. Amber halos exhaled from street lights and cars while people seeped out of restaurants like water from a broken faucet. Suddenly, the sink was turned off: The nightlife that had bustled around blurred out, and I found myself in a bad part of town. 

You have arrived at your destination. I clicked off my GPS and double checked the address. Yep, this was it. Outside my car, a man without shoes and wrapped in an old blanket staggered by, a brown bag furled tight in his fist. He ducked into an alley, and then I was alone on an empty street. I gathered a toothbrush and bag with some extra clothes. All my belongings remained in my bug all a little too obvious. My bike, a cheap black Schwinn, was strapped to the trunk, unlocked and barely hanging on. With one last glance back, I made my way across the block and to the entrance to the Monastery. 

On the doormat, a pile of human shit sat like dropped ice cream. A monk in a traditional saffron robe greeted me inside. He led me to the interior of the chapel, adorned with gold paint and cheap plastic relics. A bare cot laid stretched out in the center of the room beneath a window with steel security bars. A beam of light painted the floor and danced across the worn-out belly of a laughing Buddha, who watched me through the deepening night. 

At the comp there was no getting around it: I was tired. My body felt inflamed and puffy from lack of sleep and movement. But goddammit, this was my fun re-introduction to comps, the launching point of my amazing ascent to good—no, great—results. My state of being did not matter. I smiled. I bouldered with friends. I shook on the wall like a bag of beans.

This is the part in the recipe where I should have taken greater precautions. Ra-ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta…

I landed wrong. My ankle quickly swelled to the size of a softball. Is it broken? I wasn’t sure. My head swished and my eyes watered. I bit back tears while someone carried me to a chair. “Want to go to an ER?” someone asked. I thought about it. “No,” I said, because an X-ray would be cheaper in Canada. Someone gave me an ice pack and I found myself once again prepping for a multiple choice online test about speech and communications. 

The author at the Northwest Bourlderfest, post injury.

Later, between qualifiers and finals, a few Canadian friends drove me to CVS where I bought a cheap pair of crutches. The padding was thin and cracked and they dug into my armpits. We went to a diner and grabbed coffee and food and made plans to cross the border together that night. 

Music blared, lights danced, finals commenced. I watched until I couldn’t take it anymore—my ankle taking on a pulse of its own. I hobbled to a corner of the gym until it was time to go. When finals ended, my friends helped me out to the car, and we drove the two hours to the border.

Can you guess? This is the part in the story where all my belongings in my car looked suspicious. The officers searched my car. They took my phone. They took my laptop. I waited under the yellow-white gaze of fluorescent strips and watched flies rub their tiny hands on a sticky linoleum table beside me. An hour later, at 1 a.m., an officer called my name. 

“We’re surry,” she said, “But we can’t let you through without sufficient evidence that you can support yourself and you’re not going to work illegally. You can try again tomorrow with bank statements.” She smiled. I couldn’t help it—I laughed out loud to her face. Then she handed me my stuff and walked away. I bid my friends goodbye with a shrug. “I’ll find a motel for the night,” I said, and then I was alone and on the road again. 

The motel was just a few miles away. A bruise continued to germinate across my ankle, the skin taut and waxy. The motel attendant, a pudgy teenager with plug earrings, took pity on me and gave me a ground-level room. Tired, hungry, and in pain, I hobbled across the courtyard and into the room. I locked the door and drew the pink paisley curtains. 

Later that night, the doorknob jingled but didn’t fully turn. I saw the shadow of someone stand momentarily outside my window before carrying on.

A bad pic of Seattle, taken by the author on her crappy phone.

There’s a parable by Franz Kafka titled The Rescue Will Begin in its Own Time. The story is about will and its ability to persist. In one segment of the story, a farmer attempts to cut bread for his children. When he is unable to do it, he says to his kids, “Why should you be surprised? Isn’t it more surprising if something succeeds than if it fails?” Kafka, of course, is using the slicing of bread to symbolize life’s most mundane and quotidian of tasks. The bread has its will, and we have ours. The father resolves not to give up, saying “I’ll try again tonight. I won’t let a loaf of bread make a monkey out of me. It’s bound to let itself be cut in the end; of course it’s allowed to resist, so it’s resisting.”

The next morning I decided to test my omens yet again. I found a bagel shop before heading back for the border to try again.

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