Tired of Sucking It Up as a Climber, I’ve Embraced a Softer Strength

I don’t know what time it was when my husband at the time, the rock climber Tommy Caldwell, finally scrambled over the summit. The sun had risen sometime during the first part of the climb and had set again hours later. I squinted up at him, tired eyes burning as I watched his shadow moving in the beam of my headlight. He had just completed the second free ascent of the Direct Route on the northwest face of Half Dome, a 2,000-foot climb in Yosemite National Park.

We were elite professional climbers, and this was what we did best. Sometimes we made history together; other times I supported him in his feats, belaying and carrying all the gear. Either way, the days were long and hard.

The climber Todd Skinner spent 61 days in 1993 working to establish the Direct Route, then considered the most difficult big wall climb in the world, before reaching the top. On our climb in 2007, our 2 a.m. wake-up, more than 24 hours earlier, hadn’t even felt all that early to me. Sleeping in past midnight? That meant what I was getting up for wasn’t that rad, that hard core. Tommy made it to the top in a day, adding a move that made the climb more difficult than the one Mr. Skinner had pioneered. It felt routine.

Hanging in the middle of Half Dome was an ordinary thing. Ascending ropes with bloody knuckles and a heavy pack thousands of feet off the ground was as conventional to me as grabbing the bananas and apples in the produce section: just part of my day. Climbers pride themselves on being better than normal people. Not just in the “I climbed a mountain and you didn’t” type of way, but in the fabric of how we approach life. How we eat, where we sleep, the stories we walk away with: It’s all better.

By the time I was in my mid-20s, I was a walking archetype of how to succeed in that world because of the belief system I followed: suck it up, persevere, win. I was used to pushing the level of climbing further, used to doing things that no other women had done — and even, a couple of times, things that no guys had done.

I specialized in free climbing, a particular (and particularly challenging) discipline that requires a climber to rely on her gear only for protection from a fall, not for any assistance in moving up the rock. I had free-climbed Yosemite’s El Capitan three times, by three independent routes. Elsewhere in Yosemite, I had established a new route in 2008, Meltdown, that was widely viewed then as the hardest traditional climb in the world, not repeated until 2018. (“Traditional” meaning I depended on a rope suspended by gear I placed myself, rather than on bolts permanently installed in the rock.) For a decade, I had appeared in climbing films and on the pages of climbing magazines. Pushing through the pain, sacrificing my body, shoving my fear away: It’s all what made me better than the rest. I liked being better than the rest.

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