Words and photos courtesy of Alison Criscitiello
2016 has been an icy whirlwind thus far, and my favorite kind – ping ponging between polar ice core projects and oxygen-depleted climbing objectives…
Words and photos courtesy of Alison Criscitiello
2016 has been an icy whirlwind thus far, and my favorite kind – ping ponging between polar ice core projects and oxygen-depleted climbing objectives…
“She’s way too thin!”
“She needs to wear more clothes. She only does that for attention.”
“You don’t fit the image we’re looking for.”
“That tattoo is a tramp stamp.”
“I can’t believe she’s wearing so much makeup for a race.”
“How do you run so fast weighing so much?”
Truthfully, I wish I’ve never had gotten the idea for this article or that I was making up the above quotes. While the stories I’m about to share will make for an interesting and possibly emotional read, the idea for this only came about because there have been female climbers that were the targets of negative comments. It’s not exactly a fun process to read the stories of inspiring women who have witnessed firsthand the downsides of being a female athlete. Yet, I believe this topic has to be further discussed and the following stories need to be shared.
Cloud Tower is one of the quintessential climbs in the Red Rocks area, and the crux pitch goes at traditionally protected 11D. My good friend Em was climbing in the area with three other friends. Em is a pleasure to climb with; she’s kind, funny, strong, and supportive. The four friends arranged to climb Cloud Tower together as two parties of two. Emily onsighted the previously mentioned 11D pitch as part of the first pair of climbers. She brought up her partner, and they began to converse with the party below them. Em then had the pleasure of watching the next party struggle up the pitch, after having insinuated that the pitch couldn’t be that difficult since she had done so well with it.
A few springs ago, I was climbing in Skaha Bluffs with my good friend Jeremy. We began at a moderate crag, full of climbers. After a warm up climb or two, Jeremy set his sights on a 10A on the left hand side. It was occupied by a group of three, who were stuck at the crux of the route. Jeremy and I made our way over and asked if they were willing to let us try the route when they were finished. After the party failed many times to pull the roof maneuver, they relinquished the route to Jeremy. Jeremy fell many times at the roof, and admitted defeat. The man who had previously been incapable of climbing this roof sighed and reached for an old carabiner to leave behind, without giving any consideration to me, as a small blonde woman, and my ability or even desire to try.
Years ago, I dated a talented, ambitious, and renowned alpinist. I was reluctant at best to climb with him, despite the fact it is a driving passion in both of our lives. I was unwilling to allow my individual reputation to become entwined with his. He was a more prominent member of our community than I at the time, and I knew that anything we accomplished together would be ascribed to him. In fact, years later in 2015, we worked on a new route together in the Bugaboos, and people would consistently refer to to it, in my presence, as ‘Jonny’s route’.
Climbing has once offered me a community that made me feel accepted and supported, but experience has ended my honeymoon period. I now understand that my ambitions come from my personal motivation, and in order to work for myself, I need to do what I want, when I want to, and not be influenced by outside judgements of my abilities or goals. That’s freedom.
As I prepared to write this article I asked a number of women if they think that women get more harshly critiqued than men. The unanimous answer was yes. Our bodies get critiqued like objects, we have to present the right image in addition to being the right age, too much makeup is a bad thing but not enough clothes and a tattoo makes you a tramp, and we may even get judged for a silly thing we say on top of a mountain above 10,000ft.
One thing I’ve heard multiple times within the past few years is that how a woman’s looks can attract or turn away sponsors. Being fast doesn’t always cut it. A little after winning Western States 100, Pam Smith approached a certain company about a sponsorship. After getting no response from the team manager she asked a friend at the company if he knew anything. The response, “You didn’t fit the image they were looking for.” Pam said she isn’t “sure what that means- “young, fast, hot?”, but she wasn’t it.
As I discussed clothes, or lack there of, with a friend, she brought up the point that while women may get comments like “she only does that for attention” it’s a different story for men. “I’ve never heard anyone say the same thing about male runners who run half-naked. Have you ever heard someone say that Tony (Krupicka) does it “for the ladies”.. Really, it’s no one’s damn business how much or little clothes anyone wears or why they do or don’t dress in the way they do.” I couldn’t agree more.
While the sports fan in me is frustrated of the damage that the negative comments and critiquing of women has on women’s sports as a whole, the most harm is often directly done to the women on the receiving end of the judgement. It’s easy to get caught up in the climbing world and think that it’s a huge community, but the truth is that it’s pretty darn small. When a comment is specifically made about someone, there’s a good chance that person is going to see it. As much as I would like to believe that hurtful words don’t mean much, most of us know that it’s often the hurtful comments that stick with us the longest.
I was once told that the comments we make about people aren’t actually a reflection of them, but instead a reflection of us. While I feel that is true, the last thing I want to do is make someone feel guilty for having previously made an insensitive comment. After all, to be human is to make mistakes and sometimes say some really idiotic things. I’ve been there and it’s been immediately followed by a guilt hangover, but I acknowledged it and I’d like to think I’m a better person now. I think we’d all rather be the person who makes someone feel good by our comments instead of being the person who hurts someone’s feelings, or as Kaci mentioned, starts that “downward spiral” for someone.
There’s at least one person out there is thinking “these women just need thicker skin.” While I truly admire people who are unscathed by harsh comments, I’ve witnessed first hand that being sensitive can be a strength and huge asset to the world. For instance, because the women mentioned in this article know how horrible it feels to be hurt by people’s comments, they actively seek to make other people feel good while building a stronger sense of support and community for women. In a way, for women not born with thick skin, I think choosing to stay sensitive is part of what makes them so brave. It would be easy to simply think “People can be real jerks sometimes!” and then build up a defensive wall. However, it often takes a lot more courage to stay true to being a sensitive person. The realization that kindness and empathy can stem from that sensitivity, can actually be a huge asset to the world.
Asking for a climbing community where all women feel safe, supported, and encouraged is a tall order. Some may even say it’s idealistic. Maybe it is, but isn’t it worth a shot? All of us know how climbing in the beauty of nature has changed our lives for the better, so don’t we want more women to experience that? Can climbing be that sport where women learn to feel truly comfortable in their own skin? What if for every negative comment, there were ten positive comments? Could that make people think twice before saying something hurtful? I sure would have liked for that guy who asked, “How do you run so fast weighing so much?” to have been immediately confronted by 10 women. He’d never say anything like that again! So call me a dreamer, but there is one thing I’m sure of…there’s nothing more powerful than a group of women, along with supportive men, that come together for a common cause.
How easy is it to imagine living life on the road, in a whimsical van/truck/camper setup? Moving from one five-star climbing destination to another, forever.
I know it is very easy for me.
I love what I do, and I’ve worked hard to create a life that allows me to do it. Now, I’m the first to admit that there isn’t a lot of compromise to me. I have my goals, I have my schedule, I have my friends. I have what I want. I think.
As I write this, I’m scamming wifi from what used to be the Ahwahnee hotel in Yosemite Valley, where I’ll be for the next week until the alpine clears up in the Sierra. I’ve come straight from Indian Creek and the California Needles, where I was surrounded at all times by a diverse group of intelligent, driven, funny, and motivated climbers.
I’ve been coaxed into missions I shouldn’t have been on. I’ve led adventures I’ve been exceptionally proud of. I’ve seen sunset, sunrise, and storm cycles in so many beautiful places I can’t count them anymore.
I’ve decided I hate people who don’t understand the use of the oxford comma – but that’s not particularly relevant, I suppose.
What I am beginning to learn, however, is that there is one relationship I do want to build which I can’t from here (operatively, wherever I happen to be). I haven’t always wanted this, in fact, it’s been a long time since I have. Putting this particular desire (attached to a particular person) into the mix is changing things for me. And I am processing.
This mobile life has come to mean so so much to me. Maybe it even defines me in some ways, I’m not sure.
See, I feel things now that I haven’t, and I think it might be starting to change the game. I’m struggling to admit it. I sit here on my rest days, siphoning through memories and photos, counting days until I might get to see my partner again, and sometimes it makes me sad. Often it makes me happy. Always it makes me wonder about the choices I have made, which used to just be second nature.
I wonder how I got lucky enough to find a person who loves me for me, with all the crazy included. He loves and appreciates my independence, my drive, and my discomfort with ‘home’. But we both understand that he doesn’t want this to go on forever, and that I need to give serious consideration to how long I intend to do this for and why.
I love someone, for real now, and half of me wants to build something with him, to have a life to share for a little while. Love is rare and special, and I think it might be a worthwhile gamble. But I feel drawn, as always, to this itinerant lifestyle which I designed.
I have a choice to make, and I’m struggling with it.
A good girlfriend and I were in the Bugaboos for Canada long weekend of 2013. As July 1 is still early season for the Bugs, we were the only ones at Applebee campground aside from Matt Segal, who was moving in for that season’s attempt on the Tom Eagan. On our second day, my friend and I went to climb Paddle Flake, a classic 5.10- on Crescent Spire.
Now, I’ve learnt a lot since then, and I hope you won’t judge me too harshly for my stubbornness and stupidity. It had been one hell of a spring, and I seemed to have been working through all my stress by climbing. I was climbing harder than I ever have, before or since, and I was still new enough to this game that I didn’t have the tools to make good choices. I’d gotten away with all of it, until that day.
It took about half of the first pitch for me to start feeling confident, but once it started flowing – well, you know how it is.. I’d brought a single rack to three, which I thought was plenty sufficient, based on the grades I would be climbing with my friend and the grades I was sending at that point. By the beginning of pitch three, I was feeling great. I set the belay on a good ledge, to climbers left of the namesake ‘paddleflake’, and set out up the left hand side of the feature.
Before committing to the squeeze chimney, I confidently glanced back at my partner.
‘I can’t protect this’, I said, looking at the chimney above me, ‘but I’m okay, if you’re okay.’
She responded affirmatively, and I set off. Climbing squeeze chimneys, especially granite ones, is mostly about body tension between the walls. I buried a number three cam shortly after leaving the ledge (wouldn’t want to factor two the belay) and continued to scum my body upwards. I had no more placements fro the remainder of the pitch. It seemed to take hours and require all the tenacity I had to move up micro-inch by micro-inch. I have since heard wide climbing described as ‘move an inch, hyperventilate for 5 minutes, move another inch’, and I really think that’s pretty apt.
Eventually, I reached the top of the pitch, and containing my inner celebration, I placed both hands on the rounded upper edge of the chimney. My relief was palpable, and maybe too great as I relaxed in the final moments thinking it was over. With that momentary relaxation, my body tension released from the rock and I realized, with horror, what was happening.
There is always a brief second when you know that you’ve fallen, but you’re still touching the rock.. My mind whirred, and I remember running through my options:
-ricochet down the chimney and break my legs on the ledge.
-jump and take my chances. It’ll be worse or it’ll be better.
I am told I came hurtling back from the wall, arms still outstretched from shoving off. I am also told that you could hear my scream from Applebee. I recall the entire incident pretty clearly, aside from the impact with the ledge. There’s a small 10 second blank in my memory – maybe it’s my subconscious telling me that I can’t handle it.
It was a 15 metre fall to the ledge, which I hit with the left side of my torso, and I had continued to tumble to below my belayer for another 10 metres or so, in the process acquiring a fair bit of road rash.
I began to orient myself, realizing that I was down and to climbers right of the belay. Through communication with my partner, it became clear that she was panicked. I groggily began to build myself an anchor where I was, and eventually managed to create something I was confident enough in to tie myself off and unweight the rope. I was in too much pain to safely manage my own rappel, so my partner lowered me each time. We began our slow descent after a rescue had been radioed.
As an aside, there is nothing more painful that sitting in a harness on a vertical wall with a broken pelvis. Unless it’s being lowered in the same situation.
Upon reaching the base of the spire, we were met by the other party in the near vicinity, who had come by after hearing my singular scream. I was helped down the steep portion of the glacier to an area in which it would be easy for the helicopter to land.
With some time, I have learnt a lot from this day. The most singular self-reflection I have had relates to my violent desire to live. I was unaware that I had the capacity to so singularly and viciously forge a path. There was no flexibility in my mind, simply an unflinching drive to do everything in my minimal power to survive. There is nothing I wouldn’t have done, or have had someone else do in order to achieve that.
Once the helicopter arrived, I finally let my survival pass from my responsibility to someone else’s. The other climbers were taking care of my partner, who was clearly deeply distressed, and would now be responsible for packing up our camp and getting out by herself. We said our goodbyes before I was loaded into the chopper, and I lapsed into semi-consciousness.
I landed in Invermere, BC and was eventually ground transferred to Cranbrook, BC. As my stretcher was pulled from the heli, my medic leaned over and whispered ‘the pain control that they give you will be based on the pain they think you’re in. Now is a good time to start crying’. Like flipping a switch, the last ounce of control freak was gone and I cried. I cried until I reached Cranbrook and was sedated for my first surgery.
Once I was capable of using the phone in a semi-coherent way, I called my mother and my boss. I promised my boss that, though I wouldn’t make it into the office the next day, I was certain I would be in by at least Thursday.
I woke from my morpheine induced haze to find my mother beside my bed, arm crossed. She made eye contact, leaned in close and whispered ‘You are my stupidest child’. With my pelvis still in tatters, it hurt to laugh, but I couldn’t contain myself that time.
I remained in the hospital for 8 days, until my mother decided that she had had enough of Cranbrook and it was time to take me home. As we drove, my entire body began to swell. I have since learnt that this is a normal physical reaction to trauma, but as first-timer, this was disconcerting.
4 days later, I had yet to take my first shit, and I was getting concerned, not to mention uncomfortable. When that moment finally arrived I was overjoyed like never before about bowel movements.
I had biweekly check ups with my orthopod for the next 3 months. I began climbing on toprope, gently, after about three weeks. It would take until the end of the three months before I was given the all-clear to return to normal life. Until then, I toproped, road biked and drank a lot of cider. I also knit all my christmas presents and learnt to murder simple songs on my banjo.
I’d love to tell you that my return to doing the things I love to do was glorious and easy and enjoyable. But it absolutely wasn’t. It took a lot of energy to go through the rehab process well and responsibly – not my usual.
Alison’s FAT bike whirs along beside me, as we ride down the golf course road to the classic ‘Professor Falls’.
It’s our first outing together, and hopefully there are a lot more adventures to come for us before the big one. I hadn’t been up this route since I was a new ice climber (using leashed tools – that should tell you something..). It’s been cemented in my memory as frigid, and epic.
Things are different now, I guess. There’s been a lot of learning between then and now. Some lessons have come cheaply, and some haven’t. I’ve married and divorced, nearly killed myself a couple of times, gotten stronger, gotten smarter, gotten bolder, gotten stupider.
I’ve gotten happier.
I’m still working at my confidence, I suppose, but I think it’s coming. I feel, sometimes, as if someone started a rumour a long time ago that I could climb things, and now I’m just trying not to prove them wrong. I’ve learnt to just take pleasure in the things I do, in the challenges I get rise up for. We’re so lucky to have these mountainous playgrounds at our fingertips and to have opportunities to enjoy them in great style and company.
Because, like it or not, no one pays me to do these things – I do them because I enjoy them. So I should enjoy doing them.
And this day is seriously enjoyable. Ali has an all-encompassing sense of humour, which really lends itself to great times in the hood.
p.s. descent bourbon for the motherfucking WIN!
Things have been really beautiful and confusing and full of love and sad and adventurous and scary and hilarious. You know, the usual.
But wow. That was one hell of a year.
Back in October, Yosemite-bound after a few weeks back in Canada, I drove along its the winding road. The full moon doused the granite and the pines in her silver hue. The light looked dense and heavy. It was so bright, I wasn’t sure what good my headlights were doing. I gulped down as much of it as I could.
I thought about how much this year changed me. The desire for this experience and its eventual manifestation, came in like a wildfire, hot and crackling, and burned everything that wasn’t real. To be honest, the desire for it was scary and painful and I questioned it a thousand times. I was aware of what was happening, and I knew what I was being asked to do, but I clung to it all for the longest time. I was afraid of what I would be left with, or more likely, what I would not be left with.
But at some point, and I’m not sure when, freedom’s flames were so hot and breathing with such a power that I had no choice. They engulfed me entirely and I had to let go, I had to surrender, I had to give up control. So I did, and things are a whole lot better now. But wow. There was some crazy shit.
Here is what I learned:
To hell with anything that doesn’t bring me joy. To hell with people who are reckless with my heart. To hell with anything that isn’t honest. To hell with the haters. To hell with being afraid of speaking my mind. To hell with staying small, trying to fit in, feeling shame about anything at all, not being weird, and talking shit to myself. To hell with not eating cinnamon rolls. To hell with not drinking wine and mega fuck tonnes of coffee. To hell with being all like, oh I really wanna do that but I shouldn’t because that’s not what “good” climbers/women do. To hell with turning down my music at a stoplight. To hell with not standing in my power.
To hell with forgetting that I own who I am.
And all of that sounds like, well yeah, of course you should do ‘to hell with all of that’, but acting on and implementing that attitude has been pretty hard. It’s scary. We’re all just so conditioned. We’re puppets to our judgements and habits. And that shit runs deep, deeper than bones. Breaking and burning these things is hard work, but it’s important work, and it’s good work.
And then, as one does, I turned 30. If you would have asked me at 21 what I thought I would be doing at 30, my answer would be something like: probably married, putting a down payment on a house, thinking about kids, going to brunch on Sundays. Jesus. I don’t know why I set such low expectations for myself. And don’t get me wrong, I think that a lot of people can do all of that at my age and it’s good and life-affirming and healthy for them, but that isn’t me. And it never has been. Sometimes I am jealous of those people because their lives appear less complicated, more steady. But that probably isn’t true at all. We’re all just winging it and life is crazy no matter what.
And it’s awesome because the way I thought I might like living is turning out to be pretty goshdarn great.
For the entirety of the year, I felt like one of those flowers on the Discovery channel, blooming in high speed. It was wild in every sense of the word. And now that work is here, I can feel things starting to slow down. I’m thankful for that because I’m pretty tired –really filled up to the brim with truth and goodness – but tired. The darkening of the days is really comforting.
The moon stayed by my side for the entire drive back to Yosemite. Her full face was beaming with nothing short of holiness. One last night of setting everything on fire before she starts to grow dark again. There was a magic to this year that felt so real and tangible that I can’t help but know that everything that happened was okay. That I am going to be okay. This is a wild life. This is a good life. I’ve been broken a thousand times and walked with darkness up to my eyes but I still know that love never fails. I mean, come on. Of course it doesn’t. There is a lot of fun to be had here. To hell with anything not rooted in truth. Give me all of it. I’m not afraid anymore.
Jason met me at Castle Junction at 6am.
I hadn’t been to the Headwall yet this season, and as always, was horrified at the idea that I’d just volunteered for it again. Today, we were looking to climb Suffer Machine, which (like everything on the Headwall) is visually compelling. Jason’s headlamp malfunctioned on the approach, but we’re still gifted with the easiest Headwall approach I’ve ever done. It’s the most donkey.ish track I’ve ever followed in there.
Jason saddled up for the first pitch (M7), and was well on his way to the send, when he popped off above the crux. Unfortunately for both of us, he dropped a tool during the fall, and came down to retrieve it.
Let the yo-yos begin. I racked up and headed out.
Being a fairly shameless individual, I took Jason’s toprope as far as it went. The remainder of the pitch was scratchy and not simple to read. No showstopper moves on there, though. I reached the lower angle section of the wall, and belayed Jason from there. He then went on up the second pitch and took us around the corner on some real tenuous maneuvers to reach the ice.
Seconding the pitch, I had many moments of ‘Oh I’m so fucking glad YOU led this!’. As it was our first outing, Jason has yet to learn the difference between the grunt that means ‘ohshitshitshit’ and the grunt that means ‘found it!!’ He’ll get there. It’s a difficult distinction at first.
The next two pitches are straight up ice, and I thought the final portion was honest at WI5. The last pitch was exhausting and over 70m long. Just went on forever..
We were on the ground shortly before dark, and walking out along the donkey trail safely and in reasonable time. A great route, with a really great new partner. Not a bad last hurrah.
I also thought it was apt that my final route before returning to work was called Suffer Machine.