Name: Molly Mitchell
Location: Las Vegas, Nevada
Profession: Climber, Coach, & Writer
Years Climbing: 7
Flash Foxy: You recently wrote an article for Climbing Mag. You have a very specific type of climbing that you do. What is it that draws you to small, dangerous climbs that have never been done before?
Molly Mitchell: I spend a lot of time thinking about this. I believe that I enjoy the thin climbs with small holds mainly because it is a strength of mine. When I first started climbing, I remember looking at crimps and feeling how to hold them with my thumb closed. It felt so awkward and strange at first. I thought to myself, “this must be the hardest type of climbing.” It makes sense though. To non-climbers, they usually think that the smaller the hold, the harder it is to climb. I think I took this notion and ran with it, always finding a way to close-crimp my way through a sequence. This eventually led to looking at undone faces and thin cracks that just look heinous, and questioning them. It ignited a flame in me to try to create something of seemingly nothing.
As for the danger, I guess you could call that rebellious. I like feeling scared. But more specifically, I like feeling terrified and being able to still function. I have an obsession with the mental aspect of climbing, and to be able to conquer myself as well as the route in front of me: that to me is the ultimate form of climbing. It allows me to experience even more while on the route than I may have if it were safely bolted. I really get to take it all in – I’ll never forget exactly what I went through on each route, and only I will ever be able to relate to it. After sending some of my R and X rated routes, I feel as if I have just gone on a rollercoaster ride of emotions, feelings, thoughts that are so all over the board from “I feel good” to “I am going to fall and hit the ground.” And when I am done I feel as though I could puke or faint. Yet this experience on each route leaves me feeling more alive than ever before. It grows me, strengthens me, and allows me to feel more in tune with myself than ever before. It’s very personal.
FF: In the article you recently wrote in Climbing Mag, in regards to the FAs you pursue you said: “They capture what it means to create your own path”. Why do you think it’s so important to create your own path? What drives you to be the first to do something?
MM: In a sport that’s becoming more and more mainstreamed, which is awesome and great to see, it means a lot to me to be able to still experience what I’ve always seen climbing as… adventurous, creative, intimidating, and personal. To create my own path simply means to go in a direction that may be different or out of the norm, but feels right for me. It took a while to figure out what exactly I love about climbing. When I establish a hard, scary, and thin First Ascent, it represents everything that climbing means to me. I have always been inspired by my peers who are fearlessly themselves, forging into the unknown and never apologizing for climbing what they want and how they want to… people like Pamela Pack and Alex Honnold. I just feel like it’s so important to be real nowadays. With yourself and with everyone else. If you don’t think think you are on the right path in life, create your own. Mad Rock, in particular, has been super supportive of me going for it in my own unique way. They’ve produced several videos about some of my FAs and support me with my crazy adventure ideas.
FF: What do you think of all this FFA hullaballoo? Do you feel that the First Female Ascent undermines women’s ability to pursue First Ascents? Or do you think that there is a time and a place for the First Female Ascent?
MM: Honestly, I think it’s a personal choice. If you think that a First Female Ascent is worthy of reporting, then go for it. If you are proud of it, that’s awesome. If you don’t care to acknowledge it, that’s cool too. I have used it before in regard to a couple routes, and I think it actually helped me to see my own potential – especially with scarier routes. I don’t really like to play into that drama though. Say it or not, I’ll still think you’re a badass for achieving something important to you.
FF: Photographer John Evans claims you are missing the part of your brain that regards consequence. Do you agree? What do you think it is about you that has you drawn to such high-risk and challenging climbs?
MM: I love combining the fear factor with difficult physical movement. When I was 20, I developed thyroiditis, meaning my thyroid was fluctuating between hyper and hypo thyroid. I felt awful for a period of about 6 months, and my doctor said I would probably have to deal with it on and off my whole life because it runs in my family. It’s been a lot more manageable in the past year, but something I developed from this was severe anxiety.
I started seeing a psychiatrist and learning how to deal with my mind. It actually ended up being the best thing for me. All of the things I learned to confront my anxiety directly translated to climbing. I think seeing myself overcome something so mentally challenging gave me a new appreciation for the power of the mind. When I got into trad climbing, things just clicked. It was an exact representation of how I would deal with my mind in everyday anxiety prone situations, but it was amplified and physical. What I had deemed to be a weakness about me–my anxiety–actually ended up strengthening me immensely. It just felt like the natural progression to keep testing myself on harder and scarier climbs. Now, I think I am the absolute most focused when I am terrified.
Call me crazy, but I get the biggest therapy from completing a scary climb. It’s a mental exercise. When I am in the moment and trying hard, I’m completely aware of the risk being taken. But being able to execute moves while runout or over sketchy gear is one of the most beautiful, poignant things. I tend to scream a lot when I am trying hard and know my gear might rip if I fall. They are emotional–my way of acknowledging to myself that I’m scared out of my mind, yet I am still here and able to execute.
FF: Did you take a lot of risks as a kid? Were you always drawn to adrenaline-inducing activities before you found rock climbing?
MM: Honestly, no I did not. I did gymnastics for a while until moving to Atlanta when I was 12. However, I have always felt as though I didn’t really fit into a category while growing up. I was never a popular kid, I was sort of nerdy. I didn’t date too much, and had only a few really good friends. Getting into rock climbing made me a super weirdo. No one in my high school ever understood, but that didn’t really bother me. I think it was actually really good for me. I never saw myself under one label, so I eventually created my own.
FF: How did you get into rock climbing?
MM: After my trip to Yosemite with my dad when I was 10, I really wanted to get into climbing. However, where we lived in Fort Worth, Texas, there was no climbing gym nearby. Even when we moved to Atlanta, the closest gym was about an hour away. My parents didn’t really want to drop me off at the climbing gym after school during rush hour when it was so far away. So, I held onto the idea of climbing for years, and when I turned 16, I asked my parents if I could go to a summer camp at Fox Mountain Guides in North Carolina. With a lot of persuasion, they let me go. I was hooked after that. I joined a climbing gym and started driving myself there on the weekends. Eventually I convinced my parents to let me go during the week too.
FF: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself more often scared, and enjoying the fear much less than I used to. Have you had any moments where you’re like, “What the hell am I doing, this is insanity?”
MM: Oh yeah totally. But I think that’s completely normal. The key things I’ve learned from my anxiety are how to defuse from thoughts, make room for feelings, and let emotions come and go. I have had that “What am I doing?” moment on a climb though – I was climbing the First Ascent of a route I put up in Eldorado Canyon that I called, “Element X,” 5.13a, X. The route honestly was more like a free solo… its about 45 feet tall and the only protection I could find were two of the smallest ball nuts in a fractured flake and a .4 cam shallowly placed in a flared undercling. None of the pieces would have held probably, but it was comforting to clip the rope to something anyway. All of those pieces are placed about 1/3 way up the route. There’s no gear after that. After I placed the pieces and moved past them a little, there was a sort of committing move around a corner to pull onto the blank face. I was about 20 feet up and this is where I had my panic moment. I started shaking out on the worst holds. My belayer, Pete Takeda, said later he had no idea what I was doing. It was like an out of body experience where I realized what exactly I was doing and how risky it was. A moment later I snapped back into it by telling myself, “the longer you hesitate, the less chance you’ll have of sticking the next hold.” I let out the most primitive, guttural scream while I made the next move and continued up the face to the anchors. Pete and I were shaking the rest of the day. It’s all about acknowledging how you’re feeling, what you’re experiencing, what you’re thinking, and then once you’ve given those parts of you the attention they so desperately desire, refocusing. It’s also about not putting a label on feelings as “good” or “bad.” They are just feelings. Things start to go south when you fight with these feelings and thoughts instead of allowing them to exist and refocusing on what’s in front of you.
FF: That is something you hear a lot, especially from elite athletes pushing themselves at their limit. I have experienced this too–in and outside of climbing. Moments of my body responding perfectly while my mind sits by, mortified. A true “survival instinct”. Have you ever had your body go haywire on you, or your mind/emotional state spiral out of control and had to lower off? Or is it the inability to lower off that forces you to overcome your anxiety?
MM: On scarier routes what keeps me going is the idea that I can’t always just say “take” and give up. I usually try to break a route up into sections by highlighting the “no fall” zones and knowing that once I get there I have no choice. It kind of makes it better for me because I know that no matter what thoughts, feelings, or emotions I experience, I have to accept them and move on. Like I touched on before, the moment I start feeling like I “shouldn’t be feeling like this” or “should be being more positive” is when things start spiraling. Fighting with my mind never works, and I’ve had to learn this the hard way through many years of anxiety. I hate the word “should/shouldn’t” in climbing. All it really does is resist what is actually happening and cause unnecessary stress. It’s OK to be negative sometimes. Seriously. I know everyone nowadays is all about being positive all the time, but that is completely unrealistic to me. Just as long as you’re not throwing tantrums and being immature, a bit of negative thinking is fine with me. Accepting negative thoughts and acknowledging them as simply “thoughts” helps me a lot to move past them. Fighting with myself every time I have a bad thought only makes it worse.
FF: What other ways do you address your anxiety, other than by doing heinously thin, really dangerous rock climbs?
MM: I make myself re-read parts of two books whenever I am feeling like my anxiety is high. The books are, “The Happiness Trap,” by Russ Harris, and “Body Mind Mastery,” by Dan Millman. A lot of what I have learned to deal with my anxiety comes from these two books, especially the former. My psychiatrist told me to read the first one, and my former coach, Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou, gave me the second. Both have absolutely nothing to do with climbing, but you can take anything out of both books and apply it to climbing easily. And they help with everyday life things as well. Anyone who has anxiety will greatly benefit from these books.
FF: What sorts of projects and trips are on the horizon for you?
MM: I don’t have any trips planned as of right now. I’m going to focus the rest of this year on exploring and climbing around the Vegas area since I just moved here. I am currently coaching at Origin Climbing & Fitness, and fellow Adidas Outdoor athlete, Andy Raether, has been training me quite a bit. He also suggested a few scary trad lines for me to repeat, and there may be some more FAs in the near future as well 😉
FF: Your approach to climbing is like a form of active meditation. Anxiety and fear is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in climbing, and we are all looking for pointers. Can you talk to us a little bit more about your philosophy, and what your FAs mean to you?
When we are scared, it seems natural for us to immediately label that as a “bad” thing. The physical aspects of being scared we label as “limiting.” Yet I think these labels have hindered us more than the actual event happening. I think recognizing that we are scared is awesome. It can be empowering. It’s when we label and then fight the fear that things go wrong. When I say I like being scared, I mean it. The more willing you are to feel a feeling, the less overall impact it will have. The more willing you are to experience a bad thought, the easier it is detach from it. The more you allow emotions to come, the less they will resist leaving. It’s a weird process of accepting lack of control, in order to take control of it. It’s how I deal with my everyday anxiety.
Someone once asked me, “doesn’t it bother you that not many, if anyone at all, will want to repeat your routes and see firsthand how much effort you put into figuring out and establishing these FAs?” I responded instantly, “not one bit.” I think that’s what is so cool about these climbs I’ve done – no one may ever know the epiphany moments or nitty gritty details that went on during the process except for me. A line may never be quite as beautiful to others as it is to me. The scare factor may limit large amounts of traffic, but people still have been able to see a little of what I experience through the Mad Rock videos released.
I’ve mentioned before that the biggest hardships in my life have created the best path for me, my own one. These routes are a tribute to that. They are a tribute to the good, the bad, and the ugly. They are imperfect and yet complete. It’s a reflection of my life thus far.