“It’s funny how every time I finally get around to accomplishing one of those big life goals, it stops feeling so big. There’s something inherent in climbing that makes me always want to push a little harder. I guess once you realize one seemingly impossible objective, it opens doors to more grand ideas that might at first feel out of reach. There’s always a way to your limits! The process has taught me that there’s no such thing as impossible – in climbing or life. The limit that I’m always pushing is my mind.” -Josie McKee
I’ll never forget the time I saw Josie in her element. My friend Gwen and I made the unwise choice to do Matthes Crest. It was unwise because it would be Gwen’s ninth day on climbing in the East Sierras, and she wasn’t at 100% to begin with as she was recovering from a very serious back surgery. I knew we were in trouble when it took us like three hours to just get up to the ridge itself–I was feeling the altitude, and Gwen was in pain. As we simul-climbed like snails across the narrow and radical razor blade ridge, I caught something in the corner of my eye. We stopped to rest, and suddenly…there was another person, two people, behind us. Where did they come from? In our sad state, I remember feeling sort of unnerved. And then this form in front said, “Hey you guys!” I looked up, squinting into the sun. It was Josie! She was beaming, a rope slung across her shoulder casually in an alpine coil. She looked so…happy, and alive. I felt like I was dying. She sort of skipped past us–she and her partner were clearly in a hurry–asked us how we were doing (obviously, we had been better), and then, they were gone as quickly as they had appeared. We bailed shortly after.
Josie and I grew up in a very small, very intimate climbing community in a beachside town in California called Santa Cruz. We were some of the few kids in town who competed on plastic: we were part of a new generation of climbers who had coaches, and traveled in minivans around the state to regional (and then, if you were good enough, national) competitions under YCL and then JCCA (which soon after became USA Climbing).
My shot memory doesn’t hold on to much, but I remember that Josie always tried harder than anyone else. Climbing was handed to me, it was always there–I had inherited it from my dad, so sometimes I took it for granted. I was really motivated by competition as a teenager, but was too distracted by the popularity contest that was high school to care about going on real outdoor adventures. Josie was a different story. She got a taste for alpine and big-wall climbing young and took off. Every time I saw her in town she had traveled somewhere new–Southeast Asia, Mexico, South America. Then it was YOSAR, Fitz Roy. This year she did the Nose solo in a push. I’m in awe of this woman, and can’t wait to see what she does next. I also hope that someday she can teach me some of her mad skills. -Sasha Turrentine
Totally exhausted, hr ~24, solo on the Nose
Age: I’ll be 30 on Monday
Profession: I teach wilderness EMS and high angle rescue courses
Current Location: Mariposa, CA (about 45 mins from Yosemite)
Sasha Turrentine: How long have you been climbing?
Josie McKee: It’s been about 20 years since I first stepped foot in Pacific Edge – gosh, that makes me feel old! And I was climbing trees about as soon as I could walk.
ST: We grew up climbing plastic together. What inspired you to move from gym climbing to adventure/alpine/trad? How did you learn what you know?
JMK: Well, I was fortunate to have some good mentors – Justin Vitcov taught me the basics of trad and multi-pitch climbing and Richie introduced me to the finer points of big wall climbing. I think most of what I do now in climbing can be traced to two formative experiences from my teenage years. While I was training for Nationals, Justin and I went on a sport climbing trip to the “Eastside” (the eastern Sierra). Yep, there was a time when I trained for plastic by climbing on real rock! We stopped along the way in Yosemite to check out the sights (I hadn’t been since I was maybe 5 and didn’t remember a thing!) Arriving late at night, we pulled in to El Cap meadow and watched the full moon rise. As the silvery light brightened the giant granite cliffs, I watched headlamps flicker on here and there across the Captain. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. In that moment it became my goal to spend the night on that wall. The following summer, Justin took me up the North Ridge of Mount Conness – my first peak. The freedom of scrambling along the sweeping ridge, the 360 view from the summit, the exposure…I was hooked.
Within the next few years, I began working seasonally as a climbing/backpacking instructor and living on the road. I went from one climbing destination to the next – around the western US, southeast Asia, Mexico, south America. In all my travels, three places always hold a place in my heart: The high Sierra, Patagonia and Yosemite valley. I think more than anywhere I find the most joy and freedom climbing in the high Sierra. It’s just plain fun!
The Rainbow Wall, Red Rocks. Photo: Richard Shore
ST: Do you have a preferred style/sub-discipline in climbing?
JMK: I think I already eluded to the fact that I have an affinity for big routes. My two favorite things are alpine climbing and big wall speed climbing. Alpine – for the views, the adventure, the freedom of covering lots of different terrain. Big wall speed climbing – because there are no rules! You move on rock when the terrain is easy enough, you grab gear when it gets harder. There’s an art to knowing which will be more efficient.
ST: You’ve got to have some pretty good epics. Does any one stand out?
JMK: Hah! I have to choose just one? Ok, one of my favorite stories is on this Tuolumne triathlon event that I schemed up: I was gonna ride my bike up and over Tioga Pass (~ 10,000’: about 10 miles and a couple thousand feet of elevation gain) to the trailhead for Mt. Conness, climb up the west ridge to the summit (~12,500’) then down the north ridge, wind up on the far side of Saddlebag lake, swim the lake back (about 1.5 miles) to my bike and bike back over the pass.
The day started off on the wrong foot as I realized that my bike had a flat and my dry bag had a hole. I got my things in working order, but started out a little later than I’d hoped. By the time I was at the base of the west ridge there were clouds building. I’d done the ridge a couple of times before and was confident I could get up the peak before the storm hit. Which I did. At the summit (one of the highest points around) I reassessed: the clouds had turned dark and ominous, I heard a distant rumble of thunder. I debated bailing down the walk-off, but again, having done the north ridge a couple of times, I figured I could cruise it before the storm hit. Which, again, I did. Mostly. What I hadn’t thought about was the fact that even once you’re done with the technical terrain on the ridge, you’re still really exposed. By the time I hit the boulder field the thunder was rumbling from multiple directions. I saw a flash. I started running. It felt like I was being chased by an angry beast. As the rain began dumping out of the sky, I realized that though the lightning might not strike me, a trip and fall would certainly break, or kill me. So I slowed down. A simultaneous flash and bang came with an onslaught of marble-sized hail. Soaked and cold, I squatted under the first boulder I could find that lent some level of shelter. There was no escape – I just had to wait it out. Within a few minutes I was shivering violently. It occurred to me that the one thing I had in my backpack worth anything was the thin wetsuit I’d brought for the swim across the 40 degree alpine lake. I put it on and hunkered under the boulder. I sat praying I wouldn’t get struck by lightning for about 45 minutes while the storm raged around me. Looking back, I wish I had a photo or that someone had come upon me. It must’ve been a hilarious sight!
Car to car push (~36hrs) on the Evolution Traverse outside of Bishop, CA – 25 miles of hiking, 9 13,000′ peaks, 8 miles of climbing (the traverse continues across the distant skyline in the back of the photo). Photo: Drew Smith
ST: You worked for (still work for?) YOSAR, right? What’s it like as a woman working in YOSAR?
JMK: I’m taking this season off and may or may not go back. YOSAR is definitely male-dominant. There was one other woman (2 of us out of 8) during the time I was on the team. The climbing scene in the valley as a whole is pretty male-dominant. It’s a bit of a double edged sword – there aren’t as many women in the Yosemite scene, but the ones that do stick around are mostly really rad, talented, inspirational women, so that helps – it pushes me and keeps me motivated. One of the reasons I didn’t go back this season was that I was getting tired of the scene – everybody eats, sleeps, breaths climbing. I love climbing, but there is more to life.
I think one of the things that I’ve become aware of within the gender imbalance is that I feel the need to prove myself. It never seemed enough to be as good as the dudes–it’s almost as if I had to be better than them to feel worthy. I have a number of memories of sitting around listening to guys make plans to climb bigger, badder stuff – stuff that I was plenty capable of doing, but I wan’t getting invited because “most girls” don’t climb those things. I don’t know if it was just in my head or if I really had to do extra to prove myself. I do know that I always kinda felt like I wanted to be one of the dudes, just casually making plans to do whatever – but it just isn’t the case.
ST: You’ve really pushed your limits…I admire that a lot and I know I’m not the only one who will feel that way. Do you struggle with self-doubt or confidence or have any inner demons that you’ve had to ignore/tame/work with? Have you had to work past fear (of falling/of exposure/of height/of elements) If so, what are your tactics?
JMK: I just listened to an Enormocast with Vertical Mind author Don McGrath because I’ve been trying to deal with some serious inner demons. He says that most climbers are afraid – with newer climbers it’s usually a fear of falling, with more experienced climbers its usually a fear of failure. I certainly think the fear of failure keeps me from trying things – or when I know that it’s just a silly fear I’ll go for it anyway, but will still be literally sick to my stomach with fear. Then there are of course the very real fears – mostly of loose rock in the alpine, or big runouts, or rappelling – rappelling terrifies me, I hate it! Mostly because a number of very experienced climbers have fallen to their death in rappelling accidents.
I’ve done a lot of work with visualization before big climbs. That helps. Doing it in your head beforehand makes it easier to deal with the more real objective hazards. Then breathing – before and during a climb. Constantly returning to the breath and that rhythm really calms me. Another thing that my boyfriend recently told me (he said he got this from Ron Kauk) is to enjoy every move. This not only calms me down, but it actually helps make hard moves easier.
Building a flat bivy high on the Minaret Traverse outside of Mammoth Lakes, CA. Photo: Elliot Bernhagen
ST: Did you have any “oh shit” moments when you were soloing the Nose this year?
JMK: God, the whole thing was oh shit! From when I woke up in the morning I remember saying “why the hell am I doing this?” Then I was in the great roof pitch, in the dark, maybe hour 16. I had a quickdraw that I thought was clipped to my aider. I usually toss my aiders off to the side when I move to keep them from getting tangled. I tossed the draw and a second later heard it clink clink down the ledges below me. It wasn’t clipped to anything. That’s when I realized that I was hitting a wall. What was the next thing I’d just toss off the cliff or accidentally unclip? And there’s still more than a 1000′ after the great roof! I decided I should take a nap at camp 5.
Aguja de l’S, Patagonia on a blustery day. Photo: Richard Shore
ST: You said, “The climbing scene in the valley as a whole is pretty male dominant. It’s a bit of a double edged sword – there aren’t as many women in the Yosemite scene, but the ones that do stick around are mostly really rad, talented, inspirational women, so that helps.” Why do you think it’s important for there to be other women around? Some of it seems simple, but everyone articulates it differently and I love hearing the variety of reflections on this. What is special and important about having female mentors? In our sport and beyond?
JMK: I was raised to think that there really is no difference between men and women, that if you set your mind to it you can do anything. I still think it’s true that if we work hard enough we can do anything. But we really are wired differently! Physically, most women are smaller, have less muscle mass, etc., but I don’t think that’s the main thing that holds us back. I think it’s more psychological. I watched a TED talk a while back, I think it was Jean Kilbourne – she talks about how girls from an early age are treated differently. Boys wipe out and they’re told suck it up. Girls have the same wipe out and they are coddled. Of course this isn’t always true, but I think it has a tendency to make women mentally less capable of dealing with physical struggles. So I think it’s important to have women to look up to, to show us what’s possible, to show us how to push ourselves.
Starry bivy on the Minaret Traverse. Photo: Elliot Bernhagen
ST: You have alluded to there being more to life than climbing…any things/goals/aspirations on the horizon for you outside of the vertical world?
JMK: I’ve been doing a bit of writing – I want to get it out there more, maybe write a book, but I’m busy and then there’s that damn fear of failure! I’m also really enjoying the teaching that I’m doing and I’d love to start leading some seminars to teach people some of the life skills that I’ve gained (mostly from climbing!) about motivation, mindfulness, mental fortitude, etc. That’s a dream!