Learning to Fall Up

Twelve snot nosed girl scouts are lined up on a wooded path, deep in the north woods of Maine. The low hum of black flies almost drowns out the high pitched whine of fussy pre teens. A weary, under paid and overworked camp counselor ignores the chatter and takes the worn end of a rope in one hand. She begins to climb up a massive boulder. No shoes, no spotter - she simply claws her way up the humidity soaked granite until she reaches the (single) ancient glue in bolt at the peak. She haphazardly threads one end of the rope through the bolt, and down climbs the rock until she she's back on the soft earth, an end of the rope in each hand. 

'LADIES,' she shouts, 'WHO'S FIRST?'

 The Camp Natarswi climbing rock - it's totally safe, because rug. Photo by Emily 'Switchback' Zimmerman.

The Camp Natarswi climbing rock - it's totally safe, because rug. Photo by Emily 'Switchback' Zimmerman.


FOR EVERY STORY OF A GIRL BORN INTO MOUNTAINS that has the luck and romanticism of climbing from an early age, there are thousands like mine: a first climbing experience on some shit pile rock with old gear and questionable safety practices. I come from a moderately outdoorsy family - we hiked a few times a year, did the obligatory all-American car camping trips, and spent a lot of time attempting to boat with engines that sometimes worked and canoes that sometimes didn't sink. 

It wasn't until I shipped off to girl scout camp that I was exposed to high mileage backpacking and speed hikes. We'd look at a Baxter State Park trail map, trace how many peaks we could link in a loop in a day, and set off before sun up to do a ridiculous trek of insane elevation and mileage. 20 mile days were lazy days and after 17 ascents of Mt Katahdin, we all had our favorite above tree line poop spots picked out. 

 I don't share poop beta, sorry. Mt Katahadin from Natarswi.

I don't share poop beta, sorry. Mt Katahadin from Natarswi.

Of all the new activities I was exposed to at a summer camp, climbing is the one that stuck with me. I could be writing this blog about archery, near drowning on sunfishes, or extreme basket weaving but I'm not - it's the climbing that cut to my core and became a deep part of who I am today. At 12 years old, I tried a random sport one hot, humid afternoon and walked away with a nagging feeling of 'That was something. Really something.'

 It doesn't get more circa 1998 than a shell necklace, baggy cargo pants, and 'rock climbing' behind the county jail. 

It doesn't get more circa 1998 than a shell necklace, baggy cargo pants, and 'rock climbing' behind the county jail. 

It took a while to materialize, but by high school I was begging my (super broke) parents to get me guided trips in Acadia. I was looking at colleges close to good climbing, and even started getting my friends to join me on some gnarly first ascents behind the county jail - well documented with our disposable cameras. Of course it was easy fourth class scrambling, with the greatest hazards being the shattered beer bottles and the still lit cigarettes that would fly down from the prison exercise yard above (you guys, I wish I was kidding - I'm not.) It didn't matter though, we were outside touching rock and it was glorious. 

We didn't know there were such things as climbing gyms. The U Maine Orono campus might have had a dinky one, and if you wanted to drive 3.5 hours to the big city of Portland there was one, but with the backdrop of the pink granite of Acadia and the cool grey setting of Clifton - why bother? Besides, you had to PAY to go to a climbing gym. I wouldn't spend $12 on a climbing pass, not when that's how much a new Backstreet Boys CD or two jars of Manic Panic would cost me. In the summers during high school, I lived at the foot of Mt Katahdin and began exploring climbs that were actual climbs, not just big hikes. 

In college the bug bit hard. I'd skip class on good climbing days, cash in empties from the dorm trash bins to get gas money for trips to the crag. I'd drive horrible distances for a single day in a good New England weather window if it meant the possibility of a few solid pitches (Rumney day trips, I'm looking at you). When I realized I could get paid and get college credit for climbing, I began working at the UVM Climbing wall, leading outing club climbing trips, and babysitting rich kids from Jersey that came to the Adirondaks for a wilderness experience. Like any passion that's really a hobby, over the years it would take a back seat to LIFE, but it always managed to sneak its way back in.

 Bringing up one of my students at the classic Beer Wall, Adirondaks, 2008.

Bringing up one of my students at the classic Beer Wall, Adirondaks, 2008.

Looking back, I'm glad I wasn't born into a family of climbers, or skiiers, or flyfishers, or any of the activities I do that define 'me'. I'm glad that I didn't grow up at the foot of some fantastic world class climbing area that you read about in magazines. I'm not sure I would love it the way I do. I think that there is value to be had in choosing your passions, rather than being born into them. I don't think I'd have the hunger for it, nor be able to  stomach the stupid things we all do for the sake of whatever it is we call our 'thing'. I'm still as much a poser now as I was in middle school, thinking I was like-totally-the-coolest-thing-evar flailing on junky rock - but I also love it now as much as I did then.

Here's to many more mis adventures in poor form, style, getting in over our heads, and butt shots.