A Climber Girl’s Soul

In celebration of my partner’s 40th birthday this week, I’m reposting two posts that she inspired. The following post was originally published this summer on Mar 30, 2015.

I got a valuable window into a rock climber girl’s soul this week. I secretly keep a picture of my high school sweetheart. She’s this wiry, wild girl I didn’t know at the time. In fact, I’m 7 years her senior. But had I known her then, I’m pretty sure I’d have had a crush on her. At her age in the picture, she was the #1 competitive climber nationally among juniors, #11 among adult climbers. I didn’t meet her until ten years later, but I did fall in love with her. Still am.

We were visiting Pittsburgh, PA, the first time since 10 years ago, pre-kids. For her it was an opportunity to return to her hometown with our children to see old friends, old haunts, and the contexts that shaped her life, pre me.

We coasted behind the North Allegheny Senior HS football stadium to a door that opened into a 2×4 and 3/4-inch plywood world central to her teenage life. The space of about 3 walk-in closets with twenty-something foot ceilings, punctuated by molded plastic holds, draped with 9.5 millimeter ropes, carpeted with old pads with the poly coating peeling away. A dozen lanky students were belaying or wall crawling.

This was same HS rock gym where she first learned to climb. It was where she hid from the adolescent gristmill of hormonal politics and domestic tensions. Together with the student club that coordinated trips to places like the Grand Teton NP, this gym both grounded her and gave her freedom from the ground.

Forty five minutes north, we walked along the Slippery Rock Creek in McConnells Mill State Park. Ferns and snow drift laced the spaces between huge boulders where, as a teenager she used to scramble from one rock to another. For her, ‘bouldering’ was a means to an end: getting somewhere she could sit quietly, contemplative, overlooking the scene.

Now the scene included our kids, aged 3, 6 and 8, climbing these same boulders, braving the height, taking the falls, exploring the dark recesses beneath.

Between these two places, outside Fombell, PA is the YMCA Camp Kon-O-Kwee Spencer. Spread across 500 acres from hill to hill either side the Connoquenessing Creek are 45 seasonal cabins and 27 lodges for seven- to 17-year-olds. An alumni and counselor, when the camp found out about her passion for climbing, they hired her as a teenager to run the rock wall and high ropes course for camp.

Working with children to take on these challenges, increasing their confidence and self-esteem was part of what led her on to a college degree in early childhood development, serve 3 years in Peace Corps Kenya, complete her doctorate in medical anthropology.

This week, one of her best friends from those years told her that she was always willing to take risks. Mmhm. That’s one of the things I love about her, as I write this, rolling down the highway toward our future. And as I look behind us in the car, at three of the four kids we’ve brought into the world, I love how she’s taught them to take risks. I think of other young women and men learning to reach out, grab the next step upward and outward that’s available and lift their own lives beyond what limits them.

My mother wisely told me once, right before we married, that if I continue to feed her soul, I’ll never lack her love.

I only just figured out, this week, that to feed this girl’s soul, I need to keep her on belay.


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