Guest Author: Nikki Tate-Stratton
Nobody can accuse me of having a brilliant or early start to a stellar climbing career. I vaguely recall one afternoon of rock climbing when I was ten years old and a bit of gym climbing when I was in my early 30s. After that, there was a very busy gap that lasted more than twenty years. I raised a child, published a bunch of books, did some traveling, and started a small organic farm. There was no time for climbing. But after I handed the reins of my farm over to some much younger farmers at the beginning of 2015, I found myself at the local climbing gym, tentatively trying a few easy boulder problems. Not long after that, I took a top-rope class and joined a weekly women’s climbing group and was delighted to find that the core members were, like me, all comfortably over 50.
I learned the basics of straight arms and quiet feet and over the next few months I top-roped my way up 5.7’s, then 5.8’s and, on days when I was feeling particularly good, the occasional 5.9. Outside, boulders and low-angle scrambles became mini-climbing challenges. Nothing hard, but the feel of real rock was intoxicating in a way that plastic holds weren’t. I became determined to climb outside. Real routes. With real, outdoorsy climbers.
While on a road trip through British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, I stopped at Skaha Bluffs. Naively, I wandered into the popular climbing area and asked various parties if they would mind if I climbed with them the following day. Not surprisingly, the climbers didn’t exactly jump up and down with excitement at the prospect of hauling an ancient newbie up her first crag.
The last group of climbers I passed on my disheartened way back to the parking lot looked too intimidating to even approach. I was about to turn away and keep walking back to the car when the belayer called out a friendly, “Hey – how’s your day going?”
I almost smiled, said, “Great, thanks…” and kept going. But instead, that determined-to- climb little voice inside insisted, Go over there. Talk to him. He seems friendly enough.
One final time I explained I was only in the area for one more day, had mostly climbed in the gym, but was eager to try my hand at rock and could I, maybe, join them? I had barely asked the question and Fabio, who turns out to be one of the friendliest climbers you could ever bump into, was already coordinating the next morning’s rendezvous at the parking lot.
The next day found me at the base of a climb that, frankly, scared me witless. Fabio, I later learned, had misunderstood me when I said that I had last climbed on rock when I was ten. He thought that I had last climbed ten years earlier. Having climbed the Raven and the Bear many times, he was confident that someone who could climb 5.9 at the gym could easily handle the 10a route, which is easy and slabby at the bottom and only has one or two legitimately terrifying moves near the top. Terrifying, that is, if you have no idea what you are doing and are faced for the first time with a whiff of actual exposure.
Fabio set off, trailing a second rope. With trembling hands, I managed to fumble my way through a figure-eight knot and secure myself to the end. Belaying from the top, Fabio couldn’t see what I was up to so I asked another member of our party for pointers, though I wanted to say, “You might want to stand back a bit as I think I am highly likely to pee my pants before I get very far.”
With comments like, “You’re doing great!” and “Keep your feet under you!” following me, I inched my way up, absolutely determined not to let my big chance to climb outside come to a premature end. As the route got steeper and closer to the edge and a BIG drop-off, my heart rate soared. Quivering legs, sweaty hands, a sudden inability to swallow, to think, to see straight all conspired to send me into a full-body panic. As I neared the crux at the top and realized I was going to somehow have to step out and around what appeared to be the end of the world, my inner monologue went something like this:
What the fuck were you thinking????? Look at all that air! What if the rope snaps? You could die. Right here. Now. You are too old for this. You have lost your mind. You can’t climb this.
Then, I got mad. Don’t be a wimp! You aren’t even going to try to make the last two moves? It didn’t do much good. I was paralyzed, my face pressed against the rock. I switched to cajoling. Fabio is right there. Look up. See? What a great smile he has. How patient he is.
Then, I got realistic. He’d better be patient. You can’t climb anything this hard. What part of this is fun? And then, My God, I really, really, really need to pee. And maybe puke.
And then I looked behind me and at how far up I had climbed and my inner voice said, You’ve got this. Two more moves. You’re strong. You wanted to climb. So climb.
So I climbed. It wasn’t elegant: I walrus-flopped up and over the final edge and landed, laughing on a wide shelf where I collected myself and turned to take in the view of the valley, the lake, the intense blue sky.
“Well done,” Fabio said. “How’d you like that?”
I could barely get the words out, I was grinning so hard. “That was amazing.”
That was the first climb of many that long, exhausting day. By the end I could hardly move, but I was exhilarated. And falling in love. With a sport. And, with Fabio.
Exactly a year later, after having done hundreds of climbs together in Squamish, the Rockies, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Nevada, Fabio and I revisited The Raven and the Bear. I climbed it easily. It’s a brilliant climb. I’ve since moved from the West Coast to Canmore, in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta. Every day I think how easy it would have been to have given up and not spoken to that friendly belayer. How, when I approached that intimidating crux I could have said, “Nope. This is too much for me.” It’s not often that we can so clearly see the moments that define a fork in the road. And it’s not that often that making yourself take one path over another means confronting a terror so huge it shakes you to the core.
When I think back on that first real climb, I still can’t believe I had the nerve to even make the first move off the ground. But more than that, I am deeply grateful that I forced myself to keep going. The friendships I’ve made, the challenges I’ve since faced, and the sense of accomplishment I feel as I start thinking of myself as a ‘real, outdoorsy climber’ have reshaped my life in a way that I wouldn’t have thought possible so late in the going. Instead of thinking, as I approach retirement age, that I am nearly done, it’s more like, I’m just getting going. I can’t wait to see what adventures lie around the next bend.
Nikki Tate-Stratton is a writer based in Canmore, Alberta. She has her trifocals focused on scaling a 5.12 climb before advanced old age grounds her for good.