Up In The Clouds: How Climbing Changed My Life

Summit of Fisher Towers

“Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion…I go to them as humans go to worship. From their lofty summits I view my past, dream of the future and, with an unusual acuity, am allowed to experience the present moment…my vision cleared, my strength renewed. In the mountains I celebrate creation. On each journey I am reborn.” – Anatoli Boukreev

I was exhausted.

I had been trapped under this overhang for twenty minutes now. My scratched fingers reached for the smooth top of this boulder but I couldn’t find anything solid to grab on to. Sitting back into the harness, I let go of the dusty red wall and sat there hanging, 250 feet up, and the dry rusty rock spires of the Utah desert sprawled out for miles beneath my feet.

I had just wedged my way up the chimney pitch of Fisher Towers. A chimney is a trench inside a wall, usually only a few feet wide. Climbing it took placing my hands on either side and slowly lifting myself up. The top of the chimney was covered by a large boulder, the overhang. Smooth on top and sharp and pointy under, I barely had the strength to pull myself up.

The Chimney Pitch on Fisher Towers

Isolation set in. With the wind coming up the chimney pounding my ears, I couldn’t hear my partner who had already set himself up on the ledge above, much less yelling to him, impossible from this boulder on top of me.

Sweat rolled down the side of my cheek. Actually, I wasn’t sure if it was sweat or tears. My first true outdoor climb felt like it was about to end halfway up. My aching fingers embraced both sides of the boulder, my blue climbing shoes hooked into the dirty brown rock, and with a groan, my entire body strained to pull itself up.

Then suddenly, the solution presented itself.

My first introduction to climbing came when I was 12. Growing up in Miami is the last place on Earth you’d expect to breed someone who dreams of hanging from cliffs 500 feet in the clouds. My mother took me to see the film Everest. The film was a documentary on a giant IMAX screen about the successful 1996 climb of Mt. Everest in a season that took the lives of 11 climbers. The scene where the climbers use ladders to traverse the treacherous Khumbu crevasses didn’t scare me, it fueled my curiosity. I was hooked.

In the summer of 1999 while going to summer camp in North Carolina, I couldn’t stay away from the climbing wall, I wanted to be there constantly. Even with everyone away on kayaks or swimming in the lake, I just wanted to climb. I learned my figure 8 knot, how to hook myself into a harness, and how to read a route.   But the boy who came from a state whose maximum elevation was a 345 foot hill, couldn’t compete with the ones from Colorado, California, and even Georgia who had miles of land to train and learn on.

Going home I lost my interest, there was just no way that I would ever have my opportunities. Yet for nearly a decade it was always on my mind. I followed expeditions in the Himalaya’s, I read any climbing book I could get my hands on, I felt like I belonged in a higher place, both figuratively and literally.

Reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, awakened the same feelings I had felt in that movie theater so many years before. A story of courage and triumph on the worlds highest point, it was up there that I should be proving myself.

In the midst of the high Himalayas I pushed my body to limits I never knew possible. Five days of hiking to Everest Base Camp had given me an elevation lift of over two thousand feet in four days. On the morning of day five, we set out for the summit of Kala Patthar, the black mountain adjacent to Mt. Everest and a prime location for my first foray into mountaineering.

Everest Base Camp before the climb up Kala Patthar

We started for the summit at five AM with a fresh coating of snow from the night before. I lurched into the darkness following only the beam of my headlights and listening to the heavy crunch of my guide’s boots in the snow. The clear sky was filled with stars and the wispy cloud of the milky way traversing across the deep blue expanse. In the night I could make out the hulking shadows of the worlds highest mountains. As we crossed the glacial moraine, the trail suddenly ended and the true uphill began.

At above 16,000, my head was constantly pounding, my chest was tight, I was gasping for breath and every step felt like it was enough to kill me. My boots dug deep into the ice the chill was so cold that everywhere I placed my hands felt like a thousand tiny daggers.

6:00 AM. The white Khumbu glacier was now awash in a faint orange glow. I looked out to the majestic Ama Dablam in the east, her emerald slopes were turning a bright pink. In the distance I could hear other climbers on the route, the trail was getting steeper and my steps became more labored.

The Himalayan view across the glacial moraine

6:45 AM. The sky was now a shade of orange and pink and the wind had died down. Slowly moving our way across the final ridge, I could see brightly colored prayer flags leading into the distance, and a collection of orange and blue jackets fluttering in the cold Himalayan air. With motivation and the final steps to the summit ahead, I pushed forward. My guide and I zigzagged through the unmarked trail and it was a short steep road to the summit. At 7:05, with dawn breaking across Mt. Everest’s south face we stood on the summit of Kala Patthar and a total height of 18,500 feet. The ubiquitous prayer flags danced back and forth while the sun touched the peaks one by one, illuminating them separately and giving each a moment to reveal their magnificence. My first true summit.

In the weeks since coming home, I knew where my heart lay. It was that same summer that I set myself up with the climbing gym. Those days from summer camp had been reawakened and I found myself once again pushing myself to a limit I didn’t know I had. By the spring of 2011, climbing had become a second nature. Each move was natural, I felt like I was driven by instinct rather than luck, and i’d even found myself teaching others and sharing the same drive that I had.

Training for greater heights

However I craved more, I wanted to be outside among the cliffs. I had to go west. That was when the high desert of southeastern Utah revealed itself to me.

My rope had been caught. I couldn’t see past the boulder and I hadn’t realized that somewhere along the way it had jammed itself into the cracks. As my body strained to pull myself over the lip of the overhang, I felt a comforting slack. The torsion around my harness no longer dug into my belly and I felt my foot grab the smooth surface on top. I lunged for the wall and pulled myself up. Sweating and smiling I sat down on top of the boulder, I could see the my guide’s blue jacket 50 feet above me. As I sat there, an osprey soared just under the boulder. The canyons and red rocks went on nearly for endless miles. As I turned to finish the pitch to the summit, I took a moment to reflect. That overhang seemed to symbolically represent every obstacle i’d dealt with. Every struggle, every bit that blocked my way was in that brown rock. For most experienced climbers it would have been a simple jump, for me it was surmounting obstacles. My scratched hands grabbed the wall, and I worked my way to the summit.

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11 thoughts on “Up In The Clouds: How Climbing Changed My Life

  1. Inspiring 🙂 I do not get a chance to climb nearly as much as my heart desires. I am currently working on a backpacking trip but love to climb in a gym…haven’t yet gotten around outside sadly (no one to climb with). I’m always inspired by rock faces on my hiking trips and one day want to do a trip where I do both 🙂 Great read 🙂

    1. Thank you! I’m glad i’ve inspired you! Coming from the great “climbing state” of Florida, i’m pretty much bound to the gyms and a couple bouldering sites but nothing too heavy. Yet when I get the opportunity to take a climbing trip, I usually go out and hire local guides who know the routes, bring their own equipment etc, and send me to the best climbs around. They’re pretty affordable too. Just check what kind of companies or services are in the area. Climbing is definitely liberating 🙂 Where are you backpacking to?

      1. Thanks for checking out the blog 🙂 The group is currently preparing for a 5 day trip in Yosemite. Exciting 🙂 I’m gonna look at El Capitan with wonder and dream!

        To prepare, we go out on overnights locally in Arizona every other weekend to test our gear, figure out how far and how fast we can hike during the day…just all around test ourselves. 🙂

        Thanks for the local guides idea…never really thought of that. I know there are “classes” that I can take to teach me how to get out of the gym and was gonna do that back in March but got caught up in the Yosemite adventure.

      2. Thats so cool! I’m dying to go back to Yosemite! Especially dying to climb there! I like the preparation you guys are doing out there. I love the southwest and the desert, but Yosemite is like nothing else 🙂 I’d like to do the John Muir trail eventually.

      3. We were actually thinking of doing John Muir next year if we can swing it…at least I would love to anyways 🙂 And the desert is amazing and so different from what people usually think of it.

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