The Life of a Mountain Climber

In a sport with a lot of risk, there is a reason rock climbers keep coming back.
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Rutherford leading a climb at Boxer Rebellion in Nevada

 

IT’S 9:55 A.M. on June 20 last year and I am crouched in the gully of Cloudripper, a summit on Bishop Pass, an hour south of Mammoth Lakes. The steep gully is the width of a school bus, and the granite walls on either side are the height of a five-story building. Maybe I am screaming; I don’t remember. I am shaking and hyperventilating and tears are flowing. I think I am in shock but not ready to admit it yet. There have been two rockfall events within five minutes and the thundering boulders have come within inches of my body. I remember whimpering and screaming as my climbing partner dragged me over the rocks to the safer side of the chute. I remember quoting a mantra in my head for five hours on the silent hike back out, probably to keep from going crazy. In many ways, this should have stopped me from ever climbing again. However, there is both risk and reward in climbing and it’s that chance of reward that keeps me crawling back.

 

Marin Magazine Climbers Alex Wong El Capitan fTaft Point in Yosemite National Park.

Climber Alex Wong looks at El Capitan from Taft Point in Yosemite National Park. Photo by Miguel Elias.

 

I am a 21-year-old San Rafael girl who skipped college to work full time so that I can climb part time. In my dream world, I would live out of a van, with a dog, climbing and doing photography and videography for a living. Raised in Marin, I had parents who were always dragging me on hikes and camping trips. Despite this, climbing was not on my radar until age 14. Being an insecure teenager who was too shy to join the soccer team, I was intrigued when a co-worker suggested rock climbing as an alternative to team sports. After taking an introductory belay lesson at Planet Granite, I was hooked. I’m not sure when the first person looked up at a rock face and decided it was a good idea to try to climb it. However, there is record of a few like George Anderson, who in the late 1800s made the first recorded ascent of Half Dome in Yosemite. John Muir was credited with the first ascent of Cathedral Peak in Tuolumne Meadows even earlier. In the early to mid-1900s, new advances in gear allowed more climbers like Warren Harding and John Salathé to take on even bigger Yosemite challenges like El Capitan and Lost Arrow Spire.

It wasn’t long before climbing started to become a recognized sport, and the ethics shifted. Climbing no longer required hammering pitons (small chisel-like pieces of gear) into cracks, damaging the rock. Those were replaced with removable camming devices and other gear still used today. Over the last decade, climbing has become an even more popular pastime; recently, the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, about world-class climber Alex Honnold’s rope-free ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite, turned a bright light on the sport and the question of why climbers risk it all for such a seemingly simple reward.

 

Marin Magazine Climbing

Climber Mark Westerberg balancing on crimps in Yosemite. Photo by Sophi Rutherford.

BREAKING BARRIERS

I can’t speak for all climbers, but I can say that my goal is to push my physical limits, which often means going for the hardest grade possible; each ascent is given a grade of difficulty that differentiates between a hike, a scramble and a climb requiring gear and rope.

I remember finishing my first difficult climb in Yosemite, at Generator Crack. My climbing partner Brenton Bostwick and I had run into a group of three at the base of the ascent and we decided to work the problem together. It was not only the grade but the style that was challenging. It took me almost two hours to inch up the burly crack, which varied in size from being able to fit a fist to fitting my entire body. There were tears, laughs, grimaces and fear. But the feeling of pulling over that lip was one I had never felt before. I was free and open and every bad feeling that was lingering in my body and mind had dissolved. This is why I keep going back.

 

Elias practicing thin crack climbing. Photo by Sophi Rutherford.

 

There is the obvious reality that not everyone makes it home from a climb. Over the past few years, I have lost too many friends and acquaintances to the sport. Remembering these friends is often overwhelming, and I would be lying if I said those thoughts didn’t affect my climbing — participating in a high-risk sport takes a toll. These thoughts make it hard to climb at times and working through that is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

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Rutherford finds the grip in Yosemite. Photo by Miguel Elias.

 

THE POWER OF MENTORSHIP

To me, climbing was never a sport learned through YouTube or books, but one learned through mentors. It is the people in my life and in climbing who influence me to look beyond the initial surface of what we do. If we were to only chase the summits and big projects, climbing would be a selfish pursuit. But it is when we bring others into our world that we excel as climbers, and as humans.

Brenton has been my climbing partner and a mentor to me since 2016. While I taught him about climbing, he showed me the value of being a selfless climbing partner. Another, unlikely climbing mentor was David Wells, my boss at 101 Surf Sports. He showed me that leading by example is a strong yet quiet way to live as well as teach. Through the sport I have learned that helping other climbers can be far more important than any physical feat.

In early 2017, I met my other climbing partner, Miguel Elias. Soon after we started climbing together, I realized it was my turn to be a mentor. Beginning on his first day of climbing, I made it my priority to make sure he learned about etiquette, ethics and safety. Over time, I have set Miguel up with a spreadsheet of climbing goals, gear lists and an education wish list. We have driven hours for specific climbs I knew he would enjoy. After a few trips with him I started carrying an extra blanket, an extra pair of wool socks and spare coffee, things I’d learned could make or break his day.

 

Marin Magaziene Climbing

Rutherford at Bishop Pass. Photo by Miguel Elias.

 

Throughout my climbing career I have seen many good climbers who went to great lengths to teach others all they know. Over the past few years I have seen less of this. Still, the good climbers are not just the ones who are sponsored and pushing grades, but the ones who invest themselves in others’ success.

I have these fleeting moments during a climb, maybe during a hard move or taking in a magical moment, where I get this rush, maybe even a high. These moments keep me tied in, always searching for more.

We all have different reasons for re-taping bleeding skin back together and trying again. That day on Cloudripper challenged my reasons for climbing. It also showed me why I go back and fight the crippling anxiety. To this day I still jump at loud noises and look away from friends when I encounter loose rock. Maybe I still climb as a way to try and understand why I am here, or maybe to bring back what was once lost. We search for these moments because when we reach our highest level of human potential, we feel most alive.

 

This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “On the Edge”.

 

Categories: Feature Story, Travel+Outdoors