I stand in a dusty belay area, squinting up at the jagged quartzite of the Salt Lake Slips, nervously chalking and re-chalking my hands. After six months of joyful, obsessive indoor climbing, today will be my first outdoor lead climb. I high-five my belay partner, she checks my knot, and I take a few measured breaths and start climbing. I move slowly, cautiously, fanning my hands out in search of the best possible hold, clipping each quickdraw with a satisfying, metallic click. I feel fear, but it’s background noise— I can manage it. At the chains, I let out a whoop of excitement. This is the beginning of something big.
From the first time I pulled on a pair of rental shoes, climbing blew my mind. I started in a cinderblock warehouse just off the highway, rubber-marked plywood walls and Kendrick Lamar on the stereo, puffs of chalk somehow permanently suspended in the cold air. I had never been much of an athlete, but I was having so much fun— and then suddenly, I was strong, something entirely new for me. I did things that scared me until they didn’t scare me anymore, discovered that previously impossible problems were now somehow within reach.
When I’m excited about something, I make plans and I do research. So I crafted color-coded training schedules, skimmed endless articles, followed climbers on Instagram. I read Brendan Leonard’s Sixty Meters to Anywhere in a tent in the public park in Lander, Wyoming, and Steph Davis’s High Infatuation on city nights after driving home from the climbing gym. As my obsession deepened, I watched the friends I started this journey with begin to fall away. Busy schedules and a little less stoke meant my gym buddies faded into the background, our after-work bouldering dates canceled, the enthusiastically-captioned climbing videos I emailed sitting unwatched in their inboxes.
So I made new friends to climb with indoors, and started following my younger brother (suddenly my mentor) up Little Cottonwood Canyon to scrabble up featureless granite cracks. I’d groan through the crux, miserable with frustration, and then share a Snickers bar at the hanging belay, thrilled to be out in the sunshine and a hundred feet off the ground. One blistering summer day, we climbed a 9-pitch sport route in Provo’s Rock Canyon, and I found myself laughing out loud halfway up the fourth pitch, grit in my teeth and blood on my scraped knees, beside myself with terror and joy.
I love climbing, feel electrified by the possibility of it. I meet climbers, at the gym and up the canyons, who move with a liquid grace that makes every motion effortless. I talk to them, and they tell me they’ve been climbing for eight years, ten years, twenty. In moments of weakness, I feel overcome by the fact that I’m still not very good at this— my achievements feel incremental, pale compared to the epic alpine conquests of my peers. But most of the time, it’s thrilling to know I’ll never run out of space to grow in this universe of vertical mileage, that my 18-or-so months of climbing experience are the foundation of a practice that can carry me through the rest of my life.
At the same time, the writers whose voices compel me, the photographers whose climbing adventures inspire me— these people are making choices that I just can’t imagine for myself. I don’t want to live in my car. I don’t want to be a dirtbag. Even as I watch my passion for climbing distance me from the friends I used to surround myself with, much of what brings me joy is decidedly domestic. I like having a kitchen with an oven and a stand mixer, and a bed with clean sheets to come home to after a few nights or weeks in the wild. No matter how hard I try, I can’t muster any enthusiasm for the kind of uprooted, bed-of-your-truck lifestyle that seems like The Climber’s Dream, the one I’m supposed to be grasping for. I love climbing, but I’m looking for a balance point, some way to create a long-term version of this life.
Emily Stifler Wolfe is a serious climber. But she’s other things, too—a skier, a writer, a friend of a friend. I met Emily while volunteering for a citizen science project in the Uinta Mountains. She’s generous with her time and quick to smile, and the former coworker of one of my best friends. Emily has a big, goofy laugh, and in the shade of a yellowing aspen tree at the end of our weekend in the backcountry together, she revealed to us that she was pregnant. I follow Emily on social media, and I watched as her pictures of big wall expeditions and deep wilderness adventures transitioned to family days at the crag, plump Eloise smiling in a fleece onesie, a long list of thank-yous to the friends and family who helped keep climbing possible as her daughter grew.
Emily is doing something I’m curious about— she is balancing a family with her life and identity as a climber. I like her, and although I can’t imagine having a child, I can relate to her choices. I email her and ask if she wouldn’t mind being interviewed for an essay. She’d be doing me a favor. She says yes.
When I call, Emily is in the car with her friend Anne Gilbert Chase, and they’re eating pizza and driving to parts unknown for a few days in the vertical world. The call cuts in and out and our voices are reduced to warm blurs of static. I feel scattered and a little awe-struck. Anne, a Patagonia climbing ambassador, popped up in my Instagram feed that morning, a brightly colored speck traversing a glacier in the Canadian Rockies. But Anne and Emily are gracious and opinionated, and in ridiculously good spirits as they pilot themselves off into the mountains.
Emily talks first, about mentorship. “A lot of people early in their climbing careers have this romantic idea that they’re going to have a mentor. Like, they’re going to show me the way! Take me to my first big wall, and teach me everything!” She laughs as the call fades into a patch of static.
“I didn’t really have a mentor. You climb with someone who knows a little more than you, who shows you a trick, or you climb with someone who knows less than you, and you show them a couple tricks.”
The first two times she climbed El Cap, she says, big walls were new to her climbing partners. “We were just teaching ourselves.”
Anne, a nurse and professional climber, chimes in with her perspective on finding balance. “There are really hard outdoor athletes who have a normal job and a family, but still find time to push their limits.” She says that for her and Emily, “Climbing is one of the top three things we would never give up in our lives. Family, climbing, and happiness. So you make it work, just like you make raising a family or whatever it is work.”
Eventually, the cell phone signal deteriorates and Anne and Emily cruise off into the darkness, towards some secret place. Emily doesn’t tell me where they’re headed; when I pry for detail, she says simply “we like to seek out places that are... not busy.”
Emily said something else, on the phone. She said, “Teaching yourself is how you learn climbing. When you’re up there leading, it’s just you and the rock and the ropes, and whatever wild animals are out there. You’re up there figuring it out by yourself.“
It’s easy to get distracted by other people— by the noise of the internet, by climbers crushing way harder than you, or by friends whose passions may have drifted elsewhere. But in the end, climbing is like life— we’re all just figuring it out for ourselves, one day and one pitch at a time. Our lives as climbers are under constant evolution, a subtle and endless rebalancing of passions and priorities. But at its core, climbing is simple. It’s you and the rock, the sound of your breath and the grit of granite, the deep wild clarity as you look out at the ridgeline, ever closer, and think of nothing but going up.