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We’ve all heard of someone who harnessed the magical power of food poisoning or giardia to send. The stories originate in the usual places: El Paso taco shops, South African watering holes, Thai cafés. A climber spends a few days near death after contracting a food- or waterborne illness and, like Lazarus, arises to fire their project. Never mind the season’s worth of training they’d put in; they swear up and down that the five pounds of water weight they shed was the magic ingredient.
Recently, a friend traveling in Asia sent me a photo of a painting on a concrete wall near Railay Beach that advertised the “Tonsai Tummy: get that lean Tonsai look! Climb harder through rapid weight loss.” As insane as it may seem, not all cases of Tonsai Tummy are accidental—it is not unheard of for a visiting climber to intentionally drink the water in Thailand to drop weight. Enjoying perfect January conditions on the first day of my 2019 bouldering trip to Hueco Tanks, a few friends and I sat under Babyface (V7) on North Mountain. As we all took turns falling off, one friend who had already sent joked that his training regimen included deliberately inducing vomiting for a few days pre-season. Another friend laughed and said, “You know, they have a name for that!”
“The name for that” is bulimia nervosa, a life-threatening psychological disorder characterized by purging—usually through self-induced vomiting, over-exercising, and laxative abuse—to lose weight. Bulimia is defined in the DSM-5 as a Feeding and Eating Disorder, a family that includes binge-eating disorder, pica, and myriad other psychological maladies. This family also includes anorexia nervosa, which manifests as an extreme pursuit of thinness through the restriction of food intake. “Anorexia” is also a cliché route name for crimpy climbs.
While drinking well water in South Africa to excrete yourself into fighting weight for The Hatchling might not qualify you for a diagnosis, it certainly ranks as disordered eating. And in the climbing community, normalizing—and sometimes even lauding—these behaviors is frighteningly common. It’s also dangerous. With so much at stake, changing how we talk about bodies, weight, and food can make a huge impact. So, how do we shift the conversation?
I am intimately familiar with anorexia and bulimia. My battle with an eating disorder has run me into periods of starvation, binging, purging, and endless self-abuse through diet and exercise. After two stints at inpatient treatment centers, a whole lot of therapy, and more slipups than I care to mention, two years ago, at age 22, I finally reached what I’ll tentatively call a healthy relationship with food. I am still working on liking, much less loving, my body. Every day is difficult, and some are still knockdown, drag-out fights with my own mind.
Fortunately, climbing has become a respite. It is the one place where my body and I can communicate constructively. My first outdoor climbing experience in Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, sent me on a path that had me commuting from Indiana to the Red River Gorge nearly every weekend. Now, five years later, climbing has taken me all over the country, from Tucson, Arizona, to Lander, Wyoming, and most recently to northern Colorado where I work at a public library and spend my weekends exploring the endless granite playground that is the Front Range. Climbing has been a way out of the hell that was my disorder. Tackling new challenges gives me opportunities for healthy success, improving my climbing ability has given me a sense of self-worth, and I have found a community that supports me.
During a trip home to Bloomington, Indiana, I visited the local gym. It felt nice to sit down in front of a powerful V6, pull on, reach big up to an undercling, and … fall. I laughed, tried the move again, and then fell again.
Once I shuffled back to my spot along the wall, the man sitting next to me, with whom I’d been chatting earlier, suddenly turned and asked, “Why are you falling on the second move?” He had already sent the problem.
“I don’t know. I’m only 5’6”, and that move is at my full extension.”
A classic excuse—I’m sort of short, or at least shorter than him.
“With problems like that, I feel my weight is working against me. Losing a few pounds or even skipping dinner makes a huge difference,” he hypothesized. “Maybe try that.”
I don’t know what I said; I probably muttered “Yeah” and laughed. My ears rang. Did I need to lose weight? Was he implying that I was fat? Is that really how you get better at climbing? I wish I’d told him how much his words hurt me, as the survivor of an eating disorder. Instead, I packed up and left.
I was nine years old when I started my first diet, eating only a granola bar at lunch and throwing away the rest of my brown bag. As a young girl dealing with the emotional impacts of sexual assault at the hands of a neighbor boy, I was desperate to find a way to make my body disappear. If I were small enough, maybe I could be a child again; maybe I could have my innocence back. I would sneak upstairs to weigh myself on my parents’ bathroom scale; when I was 12, I hid it under my bed for constant access. At age 13, I began hiding food in my room, only to spit it out after chewing it for the flavor. My junior year of high school, I’d cut down my daily intake to 600 calories, and couldn’t find a prom dress small enough to fit my emaciated frame.
As a rebound effect from starvation, I began to binge eat, my body so desperate for calories that I’d lose control. I returned to a normal weight and, to an untrained eye, looked healthy, but I had a nasty habit that was consuming my brain and destroying my gastrointestinal system. In 2013, my freshman year of college, I purged for the first time. I made a regular habit of consuming and then vomiting in excess of 10,000 calories a day, vacillating between insatiable hunger and desperation to undo my mistake. I woke up each day wanting to die; I remember the hundreds of dinners I skipped and the hundreds more that I threw up with tears streaming down my face.
Why would someone I barely knew feel comfortable suggesting that I lose weight? Obviously, this climber had no way of knowing I was recovering from an eating disorder, but still, his words sent me spiraling down.
Perhaps if his comment had been an isolated incident, I wouldn’t be writing this, but it wasn’t. In my five years in the sport, I’ve received more weight-loss advice from the climbing community than from anywhere else (apart from pro-eating-disorder chat rooms), all unsolicited. Weight talk amongst climbers is pervasive. At any given gym or crag, it’s common to hear a climber exclaim that they are fat after falling, or poke fun at a friend’s weight. Given my history, I sometimes wonder if I’ve chosen the wrong sport. And I wonder, is it even possible to be a climber with ambitions of improving without nursing an unhealthy obsession with weight?
Whether we admit it or not, eating disorders are a big part of American culture. A study published in Biological Psychiatry in 2018 showed that just under 2 percent of Americans will suffer from anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge-eating disorder in their lifetime—a not unsizeable percentage of the population. Meanwhile, athletes are far more prone, especially in sports that emphasize leanness. According to a 2012 study by University of Colorado School of Nursing exercise physiologist Catherine Jankowski, published in the Yearbook of Sports Medicine, 41.5 percent of female high school athletes in aesthetic sports (sports in which leanness is encouraged) reported disordered eating, while those who engaged in these behaviors were eight times more likely to suffer from an injury.
At the International Rock Climbing Research Congress in Chamonix in July 2018, Lanae Joubert, a climber, dietician, and professor of nutrition at Northern Michigan University, presented her survey showing a higher prevalence of eating disorders among climbers than in the general population, especially at the upper end of the sport. Some 604 climbers completed the survey, which was based on EAT-26, a series of questions used to help identify disordered attitudes toward food. Focusing on the 498 sport climbers, Joubert found the general prevalence of eating-disorder symptoms to be 9 percent, with females exhibiting a 17-percent prevalence. Notably, 43 percent of female climbers climbing 5.13b and above showed signs of an eating disorder. This study and others like it are imperfect, and my own anecdotal experiences are similarly incomplete, but there’s enough evidence here to show that eating disorders are entrenched in our climbing culture.
So why do we have such a bipolar attitude? On the one hand, we indirectly celebrate disorders by lauding the accomplishments of climbers who are clearly malnourished, while on the other hand we almost pretend they don’t exist, save when the occasional famous, pro climber like Angie Payne, Kai Lightner, Beth Rodden, or Sasha DiGiulian talks publicly about eating or body-image issues. Clearly, we’ve been conflicted for a long time. One famous article, Christian Griffith’s “Learning to Crawl” in the February 1988 edition of Climbing, describes painstaking efforts at weight loss by minimizing food and fluid intake, which the author and Dale Goddard used to send hard in Buoux, France, at the dawn of sport climbing. The top French climber JB Tribout called Griffith, a healthy 6’2”, 163 pounds, overweight and instructed him to lose seven pounds if he was ever to climb hard. Upon considering this advice and the wealth of French food surrounding him, Griffith wrote, “I had only one question—how to say bulimia in French?” When Griffith was asked about the article, he claimed to have not written that line, but regardless the message was clear: In order to climb hard, you need to be skinny. It’s a truism we’ve had trouble distancing ourselves from:
“Of course she can do that move. She weighs, like, five pounds!”
“They need a featherweight category for guys like him. It’s unfair.”
“It’s easier to get lighter than to get stronger!”
Beyond discounting the hundreds of other aspects that go into becoming a great climber (technique, power, endurance, focus, etc.), statements like these reinforce the idea that the only good climber is a skinny climber. Conversely, the cumulative effect of a constant association of “fatness” with failure leads to a collective negative body image within the sport. In a progression-obsessed sport like ours, it then becomes tempting to take these ideas to the extreme.
Claire Bukowski, 22, a professional climber and full-time student from Tucson, Arizona, who developed an eating disorder as a teenager, points to comments like the ones above as having helped fuel her initial desire to lose weight. “It’s just really easy for a kid to misconstrue ideas,” she recalls. “It didn’t really start as, ‘Oh, I want to lose weight to be better at climbing.’ It was more, ‘I don’t want to gain weight and get bad at climbing.’”
The tumble from dieting to disorder can be rapid. For me, counting calories became a way to structure my life. Day after day, I would nudge the number smaller and smaller. Bukowski describes a similar experience. What started at age 14 as a simple desire to maintain fitness became an obsession that left her eating a mere 1,000 calories a day while attempting to reach a daily 1,000-calorie exercise deficit. “I would get really tired and I would come in here [The BLOC gym in Tucson] and be super shaky … It would just be so hard to climb,” Bukowski says. She was also unhappy: “I let all of my friendships go by the wayside and was so grouchy all the time.”
Calorie deficits like these, according to the climber and nutritionist Neely Quinn, who consults with climbers through her website TrainingBeta.com, cause your body to go into a stressed state in which it’s recruiting all resources toward survival. Quinn says that dips in blood-sugar levels directly impact the brain, which requires sugar to function: “Your low blood sugar throws you into high anxiety, and you’re basically running off stress hormones.”
Something clicked for Bukowski when she realized that not only was she climbing poorly, but her extreme caloric restriction was making her miserable. She’d envisioned herself surrounded by friends, succeeding in climbing, and finally happy with her body, but instead she was isolated, exhausted, and anxious.
“We have this twisted idea that your body weight will directly correlate to your quality of life, and it’s completely made up,” Bukowski says. As she learned, weight loss is not some magic bullet, and when we treat it like one, we set ourselves up for catastrophe. In fact, neglecting the body’s needs can have serious consequences.
For many athletes, climbers included, the desire to lose weight starts as an attempt to realize performance gains. In climbing, the strength-to-weight ratio has become something of an idée fixe: The lighter you are, the harder you pull. Many sports, such as cycling, gymnastics, and running, use weight control as a shortcut to gains and have, like climbing, been associated with dangerous dieting.
Maintaining and even losing weight can improve performance, but beyond a certain point, losing weight degrades your ability to climb well. Far more importantly, extremely low body weight has negative health effects that long outlast the fleeting joy of sending (see sidebar below). My own purging cost me hundreds of dollars in dental work and has left me with complex gastrointestinal issues. My esophageal flap became so accustomed to opening after eating that I still often experience intense acid reflux after meals, which has made relearning enjoyment in eating doubly difficult.
According to Dr. Kate Bennett, a Denver-based sports psychologist and eating-disorder specialist who has worked with climbers, it is not uncommon for athletes to use abnormal eating behaviors, such as over-exercising and periodic restricting, to cut weight. Bennett warns that concern should be raised when food rules become unbending, including red flags like the inability to share food with friends or attend food-based events like BBQs. “What they’re putting in their body is more important than the connections they’ve built,” Bennett says. “If they’re not able to handle changes in structure, changes in regimen, and have emotional outbursts … that is a concern.”
Five years ago, Dylan Barks, 25, a professional climber and a routesetter and coach at The Riveter just outside Asheville, North Carolina, became entrenched in a world of food rules that turned his life upside down. In summer 2015, Barks started engaging in disordered eating. He had just graduated high school, and during this time of uncertainty and change, a rigid diet became a means of controlling the chaos.
Today, he acknowledges that his “perfectionist tendencies,” which manifested in his wanting to become a better climber, were a large part of his disorder. The sport had long been a cornerstone of his life, and Barks had been competing since age 12. After participating in four youth World Championships, he had developed an identity in climbing. It gave him confidence, and a way to spend quality time with his dad on weekend trips to the Red River Gorge.
Barks began dieting heavily at age 18, counting calories and cutting off food groups while continuing to climb and train, running on fumes. Six months in, Barks was hospitalized after his extremely low blood-sugar level led to a seizure. He took a full year off rock climbing to focus on recovery, a time that he calls the unhappiest of his life: “I didn’t quite realize how hard it was to not do the one thing that I loved so much,” Barks reflects. He wanted to climb, but he had to learn how to feed himself first.
After his seizure, Barks and his family decided he needed to address his eating disorder at a residential treatment facility. He spent six months at Castlewood in St. Louis, working toward recovery. Living in a treatment center is not pleasant—leaving your life behind, surrendering freedom over food and exercise choices, being monitored, and having to engage in intensive therapy. The reward, however, of reclaiming your life is so worth it, as it was for Barks, who is doing much better today and has resumed climbing.
In some ways, recovery from an eating disorder is like recovering from any addiction, with the huge exception that you must face your “drug” at least three times a day. Breaking free from an eating disorder requires relearning the beliefs held about food and the emotional connections to them. For athletes, our relationship to food becomes more complicated, because it’s also entangled with performance.
Performance as Catalyst
According to Dr. Bennett, the characteristics that make top athletes so skilled—discipline, drive, and determination—are often the same ones that foment dangerous dieting. “The biggest challenge when treating an athlete is the threat to their athletic identity,” Bennett says. “Their athletic identity is typically built on strength and resilience and confidence, and we’re saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got a weakness!’”
In climbing, it’s hard to say which is the chicken versus the egg. Does our sport attract people already prone to anorexia or bulimia, or does the disordered eating happen later as a result of toxic messages like “Light is right”? In either case, climbers with eating disorders will almost inevitably see a performance decline, the exact opposite of the intended effect. Based on his own observations, the climbing coach and training podcaster Kris Hampton has noticed that climbers operating at energy deficits reach a breaking point at which “your training levels are going to suffer, your strength is going to suffer, and ultimately your health is going to suffer.”
“For my money, stronger is better,” he says—not just lighter.
“Unfortunately, in the very short term, if a climber becomes lighter, I think they will notice a performance jump,” says Barks. And it’s true: Watching one’s weight and eating strategically are not inherently problematic. Many climbers lose a few pounds for a big trip, redpoint project, or competition. And periodic weight loss can be a natural result of increased activity—say, during the summer—and a concerted focus on healthful eating. However, continues Barks, “Your weight is never your limiting factor. It’s always how strong you are, how much power you have. And that’s something you can’t get if you’re not fueling. My perspective now is, food is fuel.”
This outlook has worked well for Barks. In the three years following his treatment, he climbed the 5.14d Southern Smoke Direct in the Red River Gorge, took fifth in the 2019 Bouldering Open Nationals, and competed in the 2019 World Cup in Munich. Barks recognizes that he has made a huge comeback, both physically and mentally. “I’m a more aware and mature individual,” he says. “That doesn’t come quickly. It’s a very long process, but the light at the end of the tunnel is that anybody can come through dealing with something like [an eating disorder] and be better off.”
However, unlike Barks, most of us are recreational climbers. And so, while our career is not tied to our performance, our self-worth often is. Despite the inarguable fact that no one climbs well every day, we often feel an inexorable pressure—whether internal or external—to improve. Eating disorders and disordered eating become a manifestation of a deep-seated desire for control, perfection, improvement, lightness, and so on. (Interestingly, Quinn says that most of her male clients with eating disorders have a focus on weight as it relates to performance, while many women also have concerns over looks and control.)
Megan Carr, 24, of Indianapolis, a former youth speed climber with two Open Youth Nationals speed wins, has always strived to be the best version of herself. From a young age, she identified maintaining a low weight as a marker of success. Throughout her youth, Carr dieted, but it was not until she sustained a labrum tear in 2014 after falling off a bike that she began taking extreme measures.
In recovery from shoulder surgery, Carr began restricting food as a coping mechanism for her inability to train. She says, “I had this identity in climbing and I thought I was losing it. And I thought, ‘When I come back, I want to be better, I want to get stronger,’ and that [weight loss] was the only way I knew.” It isn’t surprising that Carr viewed weight loss as a way to improve performance. Growing up in the competition circuit, talk about weight was the norm, and Carr remembers informal weigh-ins in the girls’ bathroom at training camps and that the stigma around size was pervasive.
Carr shrunk to an unhealthy weight, cutting calories to the point of starvation, convincing herself that she hadn’t exercised enough and therefore didn’t deserve to eat. Her restriction didn’t stop, however, when she returned to climbing after a 1.5-year hiatus. Carr also took on an intense training load. Quickly, she reinjured herself and took a hard look at her health. With the help of a nutritionist, Carr realized she was severely malnourished.
As Carr had learned, eating disorders can lead to increased incidence of injury, especially in female athletes. When a woman is malnourished, she can lose her menstrual cycle, a condition called amenorrhea that, according to Dr. Bennett, can compromise bone health. Both Bennett and Quinn point to Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports (RED-S), a consensus statement published in 2014 by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). According to this model, when an athlete is operating without enough energy (during times of disordered eating), his or her muscle strength, glycogen stores, and training response are decreased, while injury risk goes up—the body is exposed to greater risk of disrepair without the resources to mend itself efficiently, as Carr thinks happened with her.
The Good News
Looking at a climbing magazine, scrolling through Instagram, or surveying your local crag, you will notice that the climbers look healthier than they did 30 years ago. Hampton recalls that climbing magazines in the 1980s were full of malnourished bodies, and that there are more body-positive role models within the professional sphere today than ever—“climbers who are muscular, bigger, thicker, [and] stronger.” In fact, climbing, with its many disciplines, styles, and challenges, provides a platform for individuals of radically different heights, weights, ages, and genders to succeed. While weight distribution does tend to impact an individual’s climbing style, it is not an absolute predictor of strength, ability, or success.
Carr likewise points to the increasing number of strong, healthy female role models. She notes that when watching USAC competitions, climbers have their weights and heights listed, and most of the competitors fall into a healthy weight range, which she finds encouraging. “I hope the people who are really influential know that … people look up to them, and little girls will follow them down that road,” Carr asserts. “Because I was that little girl.”
It is important to note that the three climbers profiled here are currently living healthy lives. Today, Bukowski works part-time as a baker and describes her relationship with food as much more positive, including the flexibility to eat broken cookies at work or enjoy a big meal with friends. “There was a time [when] I started to realize that being thin was not the most important thing,” Bukowski says. “That wasn’t the thing that was going to make me the happiest.” Says Barks, who is climbing harder than ever and making his living in the industry again (setting, coaching), “Sometimes old thoughts pop up. And having that maturity and having gone through those things, I’m able to say, ‘Oh, that’s not a healthy thought.’ It’s how you react to those thoughts. It’s what you do with them.” Meanwhile, Carr finished her master’s degree in accounting at Indiana University while also coaching a youth team in Bloomington. Though she’s stepped away from competitive climbing, she has resumed the sport, this time with a focus on proper fuel and nutrition. She recently moved to Denver and is enjoying easier access to nearby bouldering and sport climbing.
For years of my climbing life, I was actively using eating-disorder behaviors—I began climbing as a sick person and had to take time off from the sport to heal. When I was deep in my disorder, my life revolved around appeasing the voice in my head that told me to starve myself. It became difficult to care for myself on a basic level. I could hardly stay awake in class, I couldn’t climb without seeing stars, and grocery shopping often elicited a panic attack. I was missing out on life because I was too busy hating my body. However, in the past two years of recovery, I’ve fallen in love with climbing and the person it has helped me become. Having full use of my brain and having energy has allowed me to make massive leaps in my climbing, and in my life at large. I have become far more resilient, and I now have the experience to know that I can persevere through challenges. I have come to know true happiness and purpose.
For me, it’s the sharp edges of a crimp biting back at my fingers as I move to the next hold. It’s the scream of lactic acid and the beauty of well-won summits and coiling the rope as the sun sets. It’s poring over topos on a Tuesday when I should be working and poring over the same topos on a Saturday when I realize I’m off-route. It’s another goddamn hanging belay. It’s going sport cragging all day, shooting the shit with friends, and eating pizza at Miguel’s on a crisp October evening. It’s chalk-smudged pants and wind-whipped hair. It’s long approaches to alpine boulders, which make me thankful for my muscular legs. It’s sharing a bag of Haribo gummy bears with my partner and too many shots of espresso after a begrudging alpine start. It’s the disappointment of not sending, and the emotional rollercoaster of projecting. It’s cheering on my best friend when she’s going a muerte, and it’s cheering just as hard for a total stranger doing the same. It’s the sheer amazement of finally sticking a move that I’ve fallen on time and time again. It’s feeling at home in my body in the most unlikely of circumstances.
Recently, that stranger at the gym told me I should skip dinner in order to send a boulder problem. It crushed me. I went home and posted about it on Instagram, and received a flood of responses from fellow-climbers telling me that he was wrong and that I was great the way I was. People expressed outrage, offered to get dinner with me to spite him, and reminded me of my value. The climber’s comment had knocked me down, but the outreach from my community picked me back up, dusted me off, and reminded me of the simple facts: I am enough just the way I am, a stranger’s opinion does not define me, and I didn’t need to skip dinner to climb hard. In fact, I returned to send that V6 another day, and the secret wasn’t eating less. No, it was much simpler—I just needed to turn my hip in.
The health effects of eating disorders
Disordered eating and eating disorders share DNA, but the primary difference is in psychological perspective. Disordered eating is the use of irregular eating patterns, some of which may be disruptive, without enough frequency to warrant a diagnosis. Meanwhile, in an eating disorder, you may be using more extreme behaviors like bingeing, over-exercising, self-induced vomiting, and severe caloric restriction to control weight. Likewise, says the sports psychologist Dr. Kate Bennett, someone with a disorder is “psychologically attached to [behaviors], so they cannot relax and stop using those behaviors during an off-season or after they’ve achieved the goal.” Neely Quinn of TrainingBeta.com believes that food myths and irrational thoughts can contribute to this stringency—for example, her client who believed it was possible to gain 20 pounds in a day. Overcoming these deeply ingrained rules and paranoias is difficult. Meanwhile, the body continues to deteriorate as a result of stress wrought by the disorder.
Common side effects of disordered eating behaviors include gastrointestinal distress, low blood pressure, artificially low heart rate, amenorrhea, endocrine issues, slowing of the metabolism, and loss of bone density. Purging can corrode tooth enamel, and overuse of laxatives can lead to intestinal damage. Bulimics are often chronically dehydrated because of purging and can have dangerous potassium deficiencies and kidney damage. Side effects like the growth of lanugo (soft, downy hair typically found on newborn babies) or constant and unshakeable coldness often manifest in the later stages of anorexia. Dr. Bennett notes that anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, though other eating disorders can also be fatal. In 2014, someone in the United States died every 62 minutes as a direct result of an eating disorder, according to statistics provided by the Eating Disorders Coalition for Research, Policy & Action.
Meanwhile, though reinforcing good physical health is crucial to fighting eating disorders, talking about mental health is just as important. Co-occurring diagnoses like depression, anxiety, PTSD, self-harm, and addiction are often intertwined with eating disorders. By destigmatizing these disorders we create space for discussion.
Five Positive Ways To Counter Eating Disorders
While we may accept that weight management is a part of our sport, we should not consider eating disorders a necessary evil, and we certainly should not advocate for or make light of them. Here are a few small, simple, actions to take to make the climbing community friendlier to people who have or are trying to recover from an eating disorder:
- Refrain from making weight-related comments or jokes, especially jokes about eating disorders. For example, no “How much do you weigh?” when lowering a heavier partner.
- Promote healthy eating choices and avoid discussing specific numbers like calories or carb counts.
- Speak openly and honestly about the things you’ve struggled with, to the extent to which you are comfortable. Be supportive of others who are brave enough to share their experiences.
- Encourage your climbing partners. Positive affirmations lead to increased self-worth. Instead of talking about their physique, focus compliments on their other points of value. Practice positive talk on yourself as well.
- If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, do not minimize it. Eating disorders are life threatening, and they deserve medical attention.
Caroline Wickes is a climber from rural Indiana who is currently living in Greeley, Colorado, with her three-legged dog, Sky.