What fundamental traits make for a successful rock climber? Many veterans of the sport would say leadership, adaptability, strength, confidence, patience, and composure, to name a few. None of which are traits that I would consider to be strengths of my own. I, on the other hand, am cautious and introverted. I meticulously analyze every decision and tirelessly plan for any scenario I might find myself in. I cringe at being the center of attention or when I am tasked with leading. In my recent years I’ve resented that about myself so I’ve begun making a conscious effort to step out of my comfort zone. Learning to trust myself and gain confidence were two things I hoped to accomplish with a trip to Red Rocks in Nevada for a weekend of rock climbing with Chicks.
My name is Chelsea Cordes and I am a Registered Dietitian in Memphis, TN. Dietitians are notoriously type A, we do not like surprises, we thrive in environments conducive to organization and which warrant endless hours of planning. We are, to be blunt, obnoxiously diligent and effective employees, but terribly uncomfortable with uncertainty or anything out of our control.
I mention this because outdoor recreational activities aren’t exactly environments which allow you to have much control. In the wilderness, mother nature is the boss. So you can see how I would naturally have an aversion to anything remotely unpredictable like rock climbing. Learning to trust was going to be a challenge for me.
But, as a person who also has a deep love for being active, solving puzzles, connecting with nature, and challenging myself, I fell in love with the sport, or at least the very controlled and comfortable version which I had been exposed to.
Close to six months ago a friend invited me to try it for the first time. It was with wide eyes that I walked in to find a 30-foot tall wall speckled with bright fluorescent climbing holds, and from the moment I tried it, I loved it.
So for months I would climb on that little wall every chance I had, and I would try to glean as much from the more experienced climbers as possible. For months I waited to be invited to go climbing outside, and, luckily for me, it eventually happened. I got a taste of what it’s like to climb on real limestone where I could soak up the beautiful views surrounding me and feel the sharp edge of rock dig into my hands. I loved it.
I wanted to go every weekend, and every weekend I didn’t get invited I was disappointed. Until one day when it occurred that I was being too passive. If I really wanted to grow, I needed to push myself instead of relying on others. So I turned to Google. “Okay Google, tell me where I can find some badass women that rock climb who can teach me everything I need to know.”
Chicks Climbing & Skiing popped up. After reviewing each option in thorough detail (true to form), I booked my trip to travel with Chicks to Red Rock, Nevada at the end of March 2017. It was in no time that I was making my way to the airport, climbing gear in tow and eager to begin my journey. When I arrived at the house in Las Vegas I was greeted by smiling women hauling loads of generously donated demo equipment.
Helmets, backpacks, shoes, harnesses, you name it, all at our disposal to be tested for the remainder of the week. It was a gear junkie’s dream. And it didn’t take long for me to notice shiny blue Patagonia travel cases carefully spaced on the dining room table, one for each of us bursting with goodies. When the time finally came for us to open them, I felt nostalgic, like a kid on Christmas morning picking through my stocking all over again. The contents included everything from Petzl Spirit Screwlock carabiner to an Osprey Pack 6L dry sack. I was pleasantly surprised.
The house wasn’t bad either. And by not bad I mean very well decorated, clean, and spacious. I was fully expecting to be slumming it for four days but what I got instead was a very relaxing retreat after each day of adventure. I had a room to myself, a queen bed to lounge on, and five pillows to doze with. Awww yeah!
As more women began to filter into the house I introduced myself and quickly learned my guides for the trip were Dawn Glanc and Elaina Arenz. It didn’t take long for their high level of expertise and climbing knowledge to be evidently clear.
Our first night in the house the ladies called a meeting among appetizers to go over the general plan for the trip. At this time both Dawn and Elaina gave us a little history and a background into their climbing experience. They also tasked us each with determining a measurable goal for our trip which they promised to help us achieve.
As I sat and listened to each of the women at the table divulge a little about themselves and their personal goals, I couldn’t help but feel inspired. Some of us had less experience than others *cough* me *cough*, some of us were mothers, some of us had worked in Antarctica and some of us were recovering from serious disabling injuries and were looking for a climbing rebirth.
At the end of the night, each of us decided on a goal.
My goal was a bit broad-I wanted more confidence. Confidence to feel like I could take others out to climb rather than relying on being invited, which meant learning to lead and learning to trust myself.
Leading to me at this point was the big scary monster lurking under my bed. I had been climbing outdoors before, but I had only ever top roped with the exception of one very low graded route which I “lead” on.
The idea of falling above my anchor on a sheer face of rock terrified me. The dietitian in me wanted to prepare and train as best I could before even attempting to lead to eliminate the risk of falling altogether. I quickly learned that would not be possible.
Over the course of three days our guides were very diligent about answering our questions, keeping us safe, and guaranteeing us fun. Dawn was particularly good at teaching the technical aspects of climbing and did an exceptional job of explaining the ‘why’ portion of everything we were doing. Not to mention, Dawn is an excellent cook (as a person who chose to center her career around food, I would know.)
And Elaina had a very calming and therapeutic energy which made scary situations incredibly more manageable. At the end of the trip I felt like asking her to be my full time psychologist.
The first incident when it was abundantly clear that I could trust my guides was day one about 10 minutes into the trip when we hiked to our crag under wind advisory. It was surprisingly very cold for being late March in the midday desert, and I needed cold weather gear, something I had questioned about the packing list I had received prior to leaving. I later learned that trust would be a recurrent force of momentum for the remainder of my little adventure.
Day one we went over the basics of climbing. Day two we got a more technical experience building anchors and learning to lead belay with a Grigri. I’ll admit, I had my reservations about the Grigri starting the trip but that later changed. There’s that recurring theme of needing to trust my guides again.
But what was most beneficial to me on day two was the practice we did mock leading and falling. That’s right, intentionally falling… but in small incremental steps. Dawn volunteered me to go first. She had me climb up the route and bounce around a bit to get comfortable, then the more intimidating instruction came.
“Just climb up to that third bolt, step up like you are reaching for a hold and fall back into a seated chair position,” she said nonchalantly.
“Oh you want me to climb all the way up there … Okay?” I replied with obvious trepidation. And while I was nervous about it and apparently frightened, the voice in my head reminded me to trust my guides.
I climbed to the third bolt, took three deep breaths, and on the third exhalation, I let myself sit back. Just like that it was over with and to my surprise it was actually pretty fun. We did it again, and again, and again, until the fear vanished completely.
Whohoo! I felt so relieved. One small step for beginner climber, one giant leap for overbearing, controlling, and paranoid personality types womankind. Until day three.
On day three Elaina challenged our group with the final test. We were to do everything-put the rope up, belay one another, clean the route, everything. Elaina picked the first route, and when I saw what we would be leading, the fear started trickling back in.
Looking out into the vast open space of desert below it became apparently clear that I was not in Memphis. The routes were easily twice the height of what I was climbing back home not to mention they were up on a legitimate mountain. The only other routes I had climbed outside were little bluffs which you could easily see the anchor on.
People were clambering up and down the path along the wall, bounding across boulders with excitement and conversing about which routes to select. I began to feel like my inexperience was palpable.
And so the two other women in my group lead our first route before me, each of which sent it with relative ease. Then it was my turn. With my confidence dwindling I asked to mock lead it first and did it relatively well, with no slips or hesitation at least. Next it was time for the real deal and Elaina had offered to belay me.
I climbed past the first bolt and up to the second no issues. Gazing up above me I spotted the crux of the climb and the fear came rushing in. Nothing had changed about the route, it was the exact same one I climbed mere moments before with no problems. Why was I suddenly afraid?
As I let the fear wash over me it began to be visibly obvious in my hands and legs. People walking up the path were probably unsure if it was me or Elvis climbing the way my legs were shaking uncontrollably.
“Breathe” I heard from Elaina below.
“Oh yeah! Duh! You have to breath Chels” I thought to myself.
So I took some controlled breaths and a back step, looked around at my options and came up with a plan. I began to climb again only to get to the same spot I had stopped before. Fondling the rock in hopes a magical jug would appear from nowhere, the doubt and fear crept in again.
So I took a back step and some more controlled breaths, and the same sequence occurred for several minutes over and over again. And in the midsts of being coached and encouraged through the problem I had an epiphany.
I need to simply trust, trust my feet as I had been told several times, trust my belayer and guide, trust myself that I could do this.
And with that momentum I stepped up on my right foot to reach for the next hold, all doubt and fear aside, only relying on trust, and…. I fell. And not only did I fall once, but I fell at that same spot at least three more times.
I know, that was a bit anticlimactic and is not how these stories are supposed to go, but that was the most influential and valuable detail of my whole experience with Chicks.
The falling was a little scary but nothing like the horrific event I had pictured in my mind. And I was perfectly fine, not a scratch on me. Eventually I figured out a way to get past that move and finish the route.
But falling on a lead unplanned did so much more for me than sending the route with ease. It removed some of that crippling fear I had of anticipating my first fall. It reminded me that it is okay that I’m still a brand new climber with a lot to learn. And, it allowed Elaina to personally coach me through my greatest challenge which turned out not to be physical or technical at all, it was all in my head.
The strategies I learned to deal with that mental challenge will be essential for me far beyond the sport of rock climbing. They’re concepts which will help me to be a less controlling, anxious, and doubtful person in general.
At the end of the day, nobody waltzes up to a wall and climbs it perfectly every time regardless of whatever inherent characteristics you possess. It’s more about growing in confidence and trust in knowing that you are equipped to figure out what the answer is to your next big project, that’s ultimately what it means to be a successful rock climber.
Ironically, I think I left the trip feeling more proud of myself for falling on a lead than I would have if I sent it with no problems. I sure as hell learned a lot more about myself which is exactly what I was looking for.
The amazing thing about the guides with Chicks is, they will help you safely and effectively navigate the space between comfort and discomfort, and within that very narrow space is where the learning and growing happens.
No matter what your goal is big or small, or whether you realize it at all, Chicks can help you achieve it.