Widget Love, or How I Became a Trad Climber

7 08 2009

The more climbers I meet, the more I realize that my experience of climbing has been unusual. I feel lucky to have had the experiences I’ve had, because they’ve allowed me to have what not every 21-year-old female climber has – a passion for trad climbing. I love sticking my hands, fingers, and feet into cracks. I love the complexity and freedom of placing my own protection. And, of course, I love the incredulous look that boys give me when they see me racking up for a hard trad route. This is the story of the journey that’s got me here.

It all started during the summer, 8 years ago. I was 13 and on a summer camp trip – a little bit of outdoor climbing and some river rafting in Washington. We were climbing at Mt. Erie, a scenic beginner crag in Northern Washington, and this was my very first outdoor climbing experience. I was toproping one of the routes (nothing too hard – I doubt we did anything harder than 5.9) that had a crack in the top section with a small chockstone in it. I grabbed the chockstone, making my hand into what was probably something close to a fist jam. I had some tense moments when I thought my hand was stuck, but once I relaxed everything was good. So I guess to a certain extent, crack climbing was intuitive for me from the beginning of my climbing career.

Following Master Looney (5.11a) in Summer 2004

Fast forward several months to the next spring. I am 14 and heading to Joshua Tree with other students from my high school for “Project Week” – a week before spring break where students head out to have non-academic adventures – volunteering, art, outdoor adventures, etc. I was totally psyched to be going to such a classic climbing area and, having read about trad climbing in climbing magazines, was hoping to learn to place the widgets and maybe start leading. Although leading was too much to ask for this trip, I did learn how to place nuts and cams, both for leading and building anchors. Even better, I learned a lot more crack technique and loved every bit of it. I learned to hand jam on a vertical, perfect hand crack where there was no chance to cheat by using face holds or laybacking. It was magical, after trying the non-crack climbing options, like double gaston-ing the crack, to slot my hand in, drop my thumb down, and pull on a perfect hand jam. I came back from the trip utterly in love with trad climbing.

Over the next year, I went on as many climbing trips with my high school’s Outdoor Ed program as I could manage, snagging my first trad leads on the short crags of Leavenworth, WA. I even went on the trips for the middle school students as a “student leader”. My parents would only let me go climbing when guides were around, so I took every opportunity to have them critique my gear placement and tried to absorb every trick for anchor building, multi-pitching, etc.

Leading Karate Crack (5.10a) in Summer 2004.

The spring of my sophomore year, when I was 15, found me on a climbing Project Week again, this time to iconic Smith Rock in Oregon. Although I didn’t get to lead anything on this trip, I got to toprope plenty of excellent climbs, including the classic Karate Crack, and “mock-lead” some routes to have my gear critiqued more. I was learning the critical balance between moving efficiently and pausing at length to place perfect pieces.

Learning about rope management in the North Cascades.

The next few years saw me grow even more involved in participating in and leading Outdoor Ed trips, taking every opportunity to lead trad routes that I could get. I also had the amazing opportunity to go on climbing trips organized by the Northwest Mountain School, a small guiding company owned by my good friends John and Olivia. On these trips, I had the opportunity to climb at Smith Rock (both summers) and in the North Cascades (2nd summer). John and Olivia and the rest of their guides were very encouraging and gave me tons of opportunity to lead. On our 2nd Smith Rock trip, I onsighted Moonshine Dihedral (5.9), my first onsight of the grade, and redpointed Karate Crack (5.10a), my first 5.10 lead and a route I’d been in love with since I first toproped it. Climbing in the North Cascades taught me a ton of important skills for rope management, anchor building, etc. for multipitch trad climbing and I continued to refine my crack technique on gorgeous granite cracks.

Leading at Pearly Gates in Summer 2004.

During my senior year in high school, I organized and helped lead my final Project Week trip, this time back to Joshua Tree. I lead my first J-Tree 5.9s, a big step for me since the grades there tend to be a little stiff. I spent the summer afterward teaching climbing camps for kids (I got the 4-10 year old crowd, quite a challenge) and dreaming of all the climbing I would do in college in California. I lead Index 5.9s (another step up from Joshua Tree 5.9s) including Godzilla, Princely Ambitions, and Roger’s Corner, taking advantage of the freedom my parents had finally given me (at 17 years old) to go climbing without being accompanied by guides. I dreamed of long granite trad routes, perfect sandstone splitters, lovely basalt columns – I knew college was the time when many climbers really got serious.

But I had chosen to go to the California Institute of Technology, which is not exactly a “normal” college. Over the past 4 years, my schoolwork was intense and time-consuming, taking up much of the time and energy I’d hoped to devote to climbing. Nevertheless, the myriad of climbing areas within semi-reasonable driving distance of Los Angeles and the boundless enthusiasm of Luke have helped me bring my trad climbing to a whole other level, even though my progress has seemed frustratingly slow at times.

Psyched and tired after sending Even Stevens (5.11b) in August 2006.

My freshman year at college had less climbing than I had hoped, since I was busy getting used to the whole college thing. Nevertheless, I did get the chance to visit many of the classic not-too-distant climbing areas like J-Tree, Tahquitz, and Red Rocks. I started gaining more confidence, leading some 5.10s in J-Tree and getting a reputation among the Caltech Alpine Club for my relaxed, runout leads on Red Rocks multipitch routes like Johnny Vegas (5.7) and Black Orpheus (5.10a). I was still considering the possibility of guiding (I had done a lot of youth climbing trip leadership and was WFR certified at the time), so I spent the summer “working” for my friends John and Olivia – hoping to get some guiding experience in Leavenworth, WA. Although I didn’t end up guiding any clients (I was only 18 at the time), I had a great summer of climbing in Washington, often with Luke. I lead my first 5.11s, two trad routes at Index – Thin Fingers (5.11a) and Even Stevens (5.11b), had a great trip to Washington Pass with Luke, and took my first trip to Squamish (how dreamy!). By this point, I was figuring out how to rack my cams on my harness in a way that worked best for me (I, as many others, started off leading with the cams on a gear sling, but this doesn’t work so well for “hard” trad climbs. You want ’em on the gear loops in arranged in a way that it’s easy for you to find and remove the right one.)


Redpointing the classic Scarface (5.11-) in March 2008.

The next year, Luke and I managed to travel across the country many times to see each other and climb together, although it was not a particularly great year for my progress. I got overwhelmed with school and Ultimate Frisbee. However, in the Spring of 2005, Luke graduated from college and moved out to California. My school and climbing schedule changed entirely. I began working pretty much every waking hour during the week so I’d have my weekends free to climb with Luke. And I did this for my junior and senior years of college.


So psyched after onsighting the excellent Rump Roast II (5.11) in March 2009.

Although my fitness has been far from consistent during that time, I have definitely made some major improvements. I took time off trad to go bouldering and sport climbing with Luke and I’m sure the skills I’ve gained from these have really helped me a lot. In fact, I pushed my sport climbing to harder grades than my trad climbs (just barely, 11c vs. 11b) for the first time in my career and learned how much benefit I can gain from general fitness and endurance.

Setting out on my onsight of Sunshine Dihedral (5.11d) in June 2009.

I guess I’ve just started to really notice the payoff recently, since this summer has been going really well for me, in terms of sending. In Smith Rock, I floated On the Road (5.11a) on my first try. I had remembered this climb being tricky, but I hardly noticed pulling the “crux”. Then I did my hardest send to date, Sunshine Dihedral (5.11d), which was a huge accomplishment for me. I’ve been dreaming about this route since my first trip to Smith Rock and to have come to a place where I was capable of onsighting it felt awesome. Despite the fact that my sister and I were a little less motivated to send hard in Squamish the following week,  it felt good to walk up to the crag, rack up, and climb 5.10s –  relaxing even! Sending Crime of the Century (5.11c) and onsighting Yorkshire Gripper (5.11b) on the last day, I was feeling strong, loving the widgets.

Looking back, I feel lucky to have had such great opportunities to be mentored. I think trad climbing is probably the one discipline of rock climbing where one can gain huge benefits from learning the ropes from an experienced “mentor”. I guess there may also be a certain element to trad climbing that is intuitive – jamming has always felt resonably natural to me, as has climbing between stances. Progression has been understanding that a “stance” doesn’t have to be two huge footholds – it can be a solid finger- or hand-jam, a stem, even a solid foot-jam. Furthermore, the mental space for trad leading – thinking not only about moves and rests, but also about gear placement – is not something that you would easily develop when you start climbing in a gym (which I did not). But at the same time, I really believe most of this can be picked up if you invest enough time.

Sure, trad climbing isn’t for everyone. But for me, it is the most exciting, motivating, challenging form of climbing. I’m not sure I will ever be as psyched for anything else (as you may tell from the fact that the routes on my tick list are all trad routes).

Happy Widget-Placing!



One response

12 08 2009

Awesome post!

I’m motivated, inspired and jealous all at the same time! And just think, with so much accomplished already, you’ve still got your whole life ahead of you 🙂

PS. That Karate crack looks lovely!

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