We pulled up to the Russian farmhouse, our home for the next month. A cluster of well-fed, smiling faces greeted us: the three members of the Гражулис family. It was the second stop of our 2013 Lead Now Tour, in which Jon Glassberg and I spent nine months traveling to climb and raise money for community-oriented nonprofits. The Гражулисs had fixed up an off-the-grid rental cabin, our home base as we climbed at nearby Triangular Lake, a granite bouldering and cragging area near the Finnish border. I had my eye on one of the forest’s few sport routes: Catharsis (5.14c), a powerful overhang that culminated in a sideways dyno. The family didn’t speak a word of English; we didn’t speak a word of Russian. My stomach churned with nerves, but hugs and hand gestures formed a shared, calming sign language.
As we sat down to breakfast the following morning, Babushka (“Grandmother”) set out a large plate of pickles. She then brought a mountain of fried potatoes, dripping in oil. Not what I had in mind, but Babushka ran the kitchen, and you ate what Babushka served. As the family chowed down, I hesitantly took a bite. I could feel the oil coat my mouth, throat, and stomach.
After a full day of climbing, we were greeted with a hearty recovery dinner: pickles and potatoes. Again. And again. And again. To be polite, I forced myself to eat this same fare twice a day for the next 30 days. As I fought my hardest to send Catharsis, I could feel the heavy, starchy diet weighing me down. Babushka seemed to think that this skinny climber girl needed to be fattened up, and it was working.
In the end, Babushka won. On my best burn, I leapt for the final dyno and missed. She also convinced me that maybe—just maybe—I might like pickles, but only if they’re prepared fresh from the garden by a stout Russian grandmother. And please, not for breakfast.