The Inevitable Making of a Rock Climbing Girl

Everything considered, I should be well into my rock climbing obsession.

I started climbing when I turned 18 and aside from a few years break for life and higher education, I have been climbing ever since. I have toured several rock climbing locations around the Northwest. I own all the necessary equipment to sport climb and have recently entertained a dangerous affair with traditional climbing. I own my first set of nuts and know how to build a multi-pitch anchor. All my friends are rock climbers. I work at a rock climbing gym. Everything considered, I should be an avid rock climber and yet, I never considered myself in love with the sport… until my first day at the Pearly Gates in Leavenworth.

The trip started out to a rough start. More often than I would like to admit, I find myself late and packing last minute Friday afternoons. This particular Friday afternoon was no exception. My friend sat watching me struggle against forgetting essentials like my harness and shoes, contact solution and toothbrush, and my breakfast of instant oatmeal. Sara is amazingly patient and sat instructing me on things I needed to contribute or items I could leave at home in an effort to pack light. Our goal was a four person carpool to Leavenworth in a rather smallish station wagon. The leave-non-essentials-behind-and-make-due-with-the-things-that-get-packed philosophy was in play. Ten minutes of throwing things into a bag and shuttling weekend possessions out to the car and we are on our way.

Or so we thought.

My house was rendezvous point number one. Rendezvous point made, trip running 30 minutes late. Point number two was the county office on Bainbridge Island to pick up the Don. Don’s car is present, the Don is not. Sara and I wander the building for several minutes before happen chance running into the Don in the parking lot. Rendezvous point two made, trip running 1 hour late, catch ferry to Seattle. Well… miss one ferry to Seattle, sit in the sun and talk about climbing while choking on exhaust, catch the next ferry 45 minutes later. Ferry caught, trip running 1.75 hours late. Drive fast to rendezvous point number three, Monroe Albertson’s. Pick up Kari, get food and head to Leavenworth. The sun has set, our car is packed, Kari and Sara are talking gibberish, and our trip toward Leavenworth continues, one and a half hours later than we originally planned.

Our group arrives in Leavenworth just before 10:00pm to find no available campsites. It is a screaming clear night and the stars are yelling down showers of sparkles. We unanimously decide to sleep illegally and tentless under the night sky, so we throw out our sleeping bags and dig into two six packs of Pete’s Wicked Strawberry Blond beer and two bags of Pepperidge Farm cookies. By 11:30 we are all but passed out. As I fall into a slightly buzzed slumber, I notice strange flashing on the nearby hills but pass it off as the leagues of tourists taking pictures… of the whole valley… at night.

By 12:30, the flashing has revealed itself not as the aforementioned groups of tourist, but lightning, thunder, and rain. Should we get up and pitch the tent? Should we somehow safe guard ourselves and belongings against the falling water? Three beers yelled “NO!”, so I roll over and convince myself the rain will stop soon. It doesn’t and a half hour later, someone retrieves a tarp to throw over our crew, now fairly wet and smashed close together. Unfortunate for myself and the Don, who happen to be sleeping on the ends of our group, our tarp only covers three people. Unfortunate for Sara and Kari, who are located inside our group, our tarp is moldy and humid. Our night continues as a repeat of the following sequence of events: Rain starts, Kari pulls tarp over her head and Katie, Don gets wet, rain stops, Sara and Kari pull tarp down to breath, rain starts, Sara pulls tarp over her head and Don, Katie gets wet, rain stops, Sara and Kari pull tarp down to breath, repeat.

By 5:00am, Sara decides she has had enough and begins packing things away. This is an even better and earlier start than we had hoped. I’m wet and sticking to the nylon in my bag as well as sleeping in puddles of water, so I put off getting up until the Don and Kari find their way awake and moving. As the four of us look at each other, we realize that we are covered in blue specks and look, as Sara puts it in her trip report, like the observers of a brutal Smurf massacre.

Apparently, our tarp was in the process of losing the battle to its mildew enemy. As the rain fell throughout the night, each droplet of water hit the tarp and sprinkled through smallish mildew holes, bringing with it flakes of blue. No exposed skin escaped the flecks and we, again unanimously, decide to eat waffles and clean up in bathrooms with warm running water and flush toilets. If the boy scouts had a merit badge for blue tarp camping, the four of us would have earned that badge hands down.<

The rest of the day is fairly uneventful. We get on some rock and climb a bit, we find an established campsite, we play with placing traditional gear and we go back into Leavenworth to eat some hamburgers. While we are waiting for a table, we flip through the guide book to decide where we would like to spend the next morning. At some point, Kari and Sara disappear, leaving Don and me waiting for a table. Don and I have a difficult time talking with each other. It’s not that we don’t like each other or that we are inherently boring people, but for some reason we can never talk about anything but climbing. After several awkward moments of silence, we default to talk about climbing and decide our tomorrow destination is an area known as the Pearly Gates.

Relatively new, the Pearly Gates were not discovered until a fire burned the surrounding forest and exposed the smooth granite faces of the climbing area. Now exposed, the walls stand out perfect white against an autumn colored hillside. I could pick the walls out of the scenery from the road and was a little stunned when faced with granite like I had never seen. The Pearly Gates awaited us as the end of a slightly rigorous, half-hour hike and I was excited to see how the climbing faired against their remarkable beauty.

Our crew decided to do a multi-pitch variation at the far end of the walls. From my first hold and foot placement, I was in heaven. The texture of the granite was such that any foot hold could support my weight, regardless of the size. For the first time in my climbing career, I didn’t worry about my feet cutting out from under me. As I climbed, I would gaze down at the pure white surfaces and wonder after the crystalline structures reflecting sparkles of light back at me. With every new move and hold, my hands fell increasingly in love. Their purpose of existence was realized in the flakes, bumps and cracks of this pristine surface. My body, from my hands to my feet, was created to climb white granite. Each breath of wind coming off the Pearly Gates intoxicated me and turned me into the climber girl that I didn’t know existed.

We did several climbs on the gates, including a second pitch 5.9 that now tops my list of favorite climbs ever. While I was leading, my hands caressed the rock looking for the next hold, anxious and giddy to discover if that hold was a flake, a crimp, a crack or a sloper. At no point was I afraid of falling as my hands and feet seemed to bond with the granite in ways I had never experienced. We ran several laps on the 5.9 and I decided that climbing areas like the Pearly Gates are the single reason that people train for climbing. I couldn’t stop smiling and Sara mentioned that she had never seen me so happy while climbing.

We climbed until the sun cast a golden hue on our pearly white granite before packing up and heading for the car. I continued smiling the whole car ride home. For days after my trip I could feel the granite in the calluses, blisters, scrapes and scratches of my hands and wrists. The inevitable had happened despite my attempts to keep climbing recreational. I was finally, heart, soul and body, a climbing girl.