“Breathe. Breathe. Just breathe,” I say to myself in a reassuring loop as I get frustrated and scared trying to place an orange number 3 cam in the crack, my legs shaking and tired. “Breathe.” My breath is one of those simple things I constantly take for granted when I’m at dirt level. “Breathe.” I let my body relax, soften my focus, slow down, and gently arrange the cam back to its happy place. I am on the second pitch of the West Face Variation on the Monkey Face and this is the first time I have ever lead a trad climb in it’s entirety from ground to summit. That orange cam I was freaking out over was a good placement before I started messing with it and shaking myself silly. I’m still learning.
I make it to Bohn Street and belay my boyfriend Mike up to me. He’s one of my favorite climbing partners. Mike knows when to shout encouragement, when to keep his lips zipped, and makes me feel strong and powerful on the sharp end. When he reaches me at the belay station, he gives me a positive critique on my pieces, and takes a seat next to me in the bright spring sun. It’s empowering to switch roles. Normally I’m following Mike up the harder trad pitches, or we will swing leads on sport climbs, but this is new territory for both of us.
The next two pitches are challenging for different reasons. The aid ladder that leaves Bohn Street and finishes in the Monkey’s mouth is an exhausting cluster of webbing, draws, beaners and cursing topped off with a not-so-graceful flop to the anchors. The next pitch, aptly named “panic point,” is a highly-exposed, airy sport-pitch to the nose block of the Monkey. This is where breathing comes in handy again. The climbing isn’t difficult, but the obvious 170-foot drop to the ground out the Monkey’s mouth instantly puts my head in check. My breath and I keep our composure, though, and are blinded by the sun as we met the Monkey’s nose. One more little pitch to the summit and I had successfully lead my boyfriend up a classic route of trad, sport, and aid climbing.
At the summit, Mike laughed at me, blissed out and vibrating with joy as we soaked up my victory in the sunshine. Before we rappelled down, I had to do a handstand on top to seal the celebration. Once our soles were joined with the dirt again, I stared back up at the Monkey. I just climbed that! I lead every pitch--all of it! I placed my own gear, got scared, took my time, trusted my pieces, and belayed up my second. I stood on the summit, was blinded by the sun, the skyline, and soaked in the warmth of my achievement. With the exception of borrowing my boyfriend’s rack, that was all me, and it felt exceptional.
I have felt empowered at other points in my life: When I sent my first highball, when I went through security at PDX to start my solo travels around the world, and when I cursed at a man in perfect Italian who had been harassing me for an hour. I think everyone wants to feel powerful. I think everyone needs that sense of invincibility with just the right dose of reality. I find that sense of empowerment by challenging gender norms, challenging cultural expectations of what I “should do,” and of course, challenging my perceptions of what I think I can do. This process of seeking empowerment is not always a smooth one. But, when I get scared, frustrated, or start to shake, all I have to do is remind myself to breathe.