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There and Back Again: Chapter One

The past two years I’ve either been pregnant or a new mom to our 14-month-old boy, Theo. Reflecting on There and Back Again (Alpinist 12, Autumn 2005) reminds me of a time where climbing and everything surrounding it was my sole focus in life. While part of me misses the newness of travel, being a beginner on the big walls and traveling with my heroes, I now can’t wait to have all those adventures with my son; to show him the world, see him discover his passions and be there to support him through them.–Beth Rodden, July 8, 2015

Rodden working To Bolt or Not to Be (5.14a), Smith Rock, Oregon, in 1998. Rodden redpointed the route at age 19, making her the youngest woman to redpoint a 5.14. Upon lowering from the redpoint, she was invited by Lynn Hill to join an expedition to Madagascar to establish a new big-wall route. At the time, her experience trad climbing was limited to a handful of moderate routes.

[Photo] Dan Patitucci

“Mada-where?” I remember thinking. Where had I just signed up to go?

“Great. So I’ll have Hayes get in contact with you about everything you’ll need for the trip: clothes, gear, travel arrangements, shots and vaccinations…,” Lynn Hill rattled off.

We were at the base of To Bolt or Not to Be, in Smith Rock, Oregon, and I had barely finished untying from the rope before Lynn started talking.

“Shots and vaccinations?” I stuttered.

“Yeah, the usual: hep A, malaria…. I don’t know if they have yellow fever there, but the doctor will. Not a big deal though. This is going to be so fun,” she beamed. “Nancy and I had been talking about who else should go on the trip. If you’re excited, this will be great.”

I nodded slowly, forcing a smile. An expedition to Madagascar with Lynn Hill and Nancy Feagin, for an hour-long NBC special…. I was always one to try anything, but did she really know whom she was asking, a skinny eighty-five-pound sport climber?

“How much traditional climbing have you done?” Lynn continued.

“Um….” I had led one 5.6; most of my pieces had popped out when I lowered. “A little bit.”

“Well, maybe try and do a bit more,” she said. “It’s not that hard, though–definitely not as hard as what you just did.”

“OK,” I mumbled. I thought she was crazy. To Bolt or Not To Be, my first 5.14 redpoint, seemed much less difficult than crack climbing, which was the most painful thing I had ever tried. Didn’t sticking human extremities into solid rock and hanging body weight on them go against everything moms teach you?

“And jumaring–you should learn how to do that too.”

Pretty soon the list of things I needed to learn was so long I stopped paying attention. Jumaring, placing gear, hauling, vaccinations–going home to sign up for fall semester classes at the University of California-Davis now seemed a little more appealing. Books, homework and finals were familiar and safe. I had a perfect record with mechanical pencils and injuries. I had promised my parents that if I could do To Bolt, I would be satisfied with climbing and would bury myself in college when I got home. That plan hadn’t lasted long. Two minutes after I touched ground, I had already agreed to go on my first expedition.

Growing up in Davis, California, was nice. Nice in the way that every car is clean and shiny, the bike lanes are as wide as the car lanes, ninety-nine percent of the children participate in club soccer and the overpass is the highest elevation in town. Having never played soccer, I was already somewhat of an outcast. I took to swimming and tennis instead, but my diminutive stature held me back from competing at a high level. Until I found climbing at the age of fourteen, I focused all my energy on performing my best in size-dependent sports and in school–but school always came first.

My older brother, David, set the bar high when it came to intelligence. He scored a 1580 on his SATs, missing two questions. He aced every test without studying and started taking college classes when he had barely hit puberty. I had one thing on him, though: determination. While David was out with his friends, I was studying. And it paid off: I never got less than an A.

Rodden in 1995 at the Roadcut, Donner Summit, California, on her first climbing trip outside.

[Photo] Dan Patitucci

My thirst for climbing started with my first trip to the Rocknasium, the local climbing gym. Climbing twenty-four feet off the ground was a touch of adventure that you rarely get in a town like Davis. I loved the gymnastic movement, loved supporting my body with the mere tips of my fingers, which made me feel as if I were cheating physics. Here was a form of rebellion I could make my own.

I spent a solid three hours at the gym on my first visit. The next morning in ninth-grade English class, I couldn’t hold my pencil. With every letter I wrote, my fingers cramped and my forearms ached. Each time I winced, I remembered the fun I had had the day before.

From that day forward, I immersed myself in climbing the same way I had in school. After I finished my homework, I stayed at the gym until I couldn’t lift my arms and the owners offered me rides home. I dropped out of my advanced placement courses and entered every climbing competition I could find. With each sport-climbing trip to Smith Rock and the Sierra, I fell more in love: with the crisp air that tickled my ears as I climbed; with the wide range of people, from doctors and lawyers to twenty-somethings living on five dollars a day, all of whom shared a passion for climbing. My once soft, sensitive fingertips became callused from the Sierra’s granite crystals and Smith Rock’s sharp crimpers. Against such temptations, college never had a chance.

“Hey dad, how’s it going?” I said when I got home.

“Great. How ’bout you? Did you do your climb?” he said. My dad had learned to climb in France, but with his newfound love of sea kayaking, I could hardly get him to climb anymore. Six months after his first trip in the water, he had built his own wooden kayak. Gray hairs outnumbered the black ones on his head, but he was still completely fit, and he still took great interest in my climbing.

“Yeah, first try today. I was psyched.” I was relieved he hadn’t asked about my classes.

My mom piped up.

“Did you get into Nutrition 10 like you wanted?” she said.

“Well… no.”

“Yeah, usually only sophomores and juniors get in.” She paused. “I think David was a sophomore.”

My mom’s voice always sounded youthful to me. Because of her tan, her sandy blonde hair and her exuberance, she still regularly got carded. She was three inches taller than I was, but we closely resembled each other– so much so that people told us it looked as if my dad had no part in my making. They also usually assumed that both of us were younger than our real ages.

“Actually,” I said, “I didn’t try to get into Nutrition 10… or any other classes.”

In the silence that followed, I wondered whether I should just bag the Madagascar trip. Then I realized: Was I crazy? Go back and sit in a muggy college room with a bunch of people who thought I was a really smart ten year old, stress about finals and pass up an all-expenses-paid trip with some of the most talented climbers in the world?

“How come?” my dad asked.

“Well, Lynn Hill was at the crag today….”

“You met Lynn Hill?” My dad’s eyes opened wide.

“Yeah. She took some photos of me on To Bolt,” I said. “And she invited me to go to Madagascar with her, Nancy Feagin and a bunch of other people.”

“Wow,” my parents said in unison. “When would that be?”

“In a month.”

“Isn’t that when the X Games are?”

“I guess.” I had forgotten all about the San Francisco X Games, for which I was supposed to be training.

“Well, this trip sounds too good to pass up,” my dad said. “You said yes, didn’t you?”

For a moment I was taken aback.

“Yeah, if that’s OK with you guys.”

“Beth, your passion is climbing. It’s becoming more and more about being outside and having adventures for you, not sitting in the classroom,” he continued. “Mom and I fully support what you’re doing.”

My dad had just told his little girl to go to a country halfway around the world. I waited for an answer from my mom. My dad gave her a little kick. She looked at him, then looked at me and nodded.

I definitely had some of the coolest parents out there.

We landed in Nairobi, Kenya, for a short layover. Excited to see a new continent, I peered out the window. Unfortunately, it was 10:30 p.m., and the sky was pitch black. We could have been in Bismarck.

“Did ya have a good sleep?” Kevin Thaw, the hired rigger for the camera crew, said in his watered-down British accent.

“Uh-huh,” I replied shyly.

“You know where we are, don’t ya?” Was that a smirk?

“Um… Kenya?”

“Yep. And you know what originated here, don’t ya?” Definitely a smirk.

“No.” Had I not paid enough attention in history class?

He leaned over and said, very slowly, “The Ebola virus.”

I half laughed. But as he pulled away, he gave a nod. His salt-and-pepper hair and his confident wink almost made me believe him.

“Your best defense is not to breathe in any air or anybody’s germs.”

“OK,” I said. I didn’t buy any of his claims. But soon I caught myself inhaling as slowly as I could. Whenever people walked down the isle, I sinked into my seat, pulling in any extremities that might touch them.

The cabin doors closed, and the plane began taxiing. Kevin leaned over to me again. My arms were clenched, and my legs were pulled in tightly to my body. “Well, we’ll know soon enough if we’re all doomed,” he said.

I woke to the golden granite of the Tsaranaro Massif soaring above our tents. Overhanging faces and arches, streaked with black and bright green lichen, stretched on for almost a mile. The few dirt roads made the Tsaranaro Valley appear nearly untouched. The walls seemed ominous and empty. Tufts of grass clung to vast expanses of blank, colorful rock. There were no obvious crack systems.

Slowly my hard night’s sleep faded and my heartbeat began to speed up. The eight of us–Lynn, Nancy, me and Kath Pyke, the four climbers; Kevin; and Michael Brown, Greg Epperson and Rob Raker, the camera-men–had touched down in the Madagascar capital, Antananarivo, the morning before. At first, on the daylong bus ride to our camp, I had missed the shiny cars, wide bike lanes and predictability of Davis. But now a feeling of excitement rushed through my body.

“Your tent didn’t fall down,” Nancy smiled to me as we ate breakfast. I had had trouble setting up my new tent in the dark without my dad’s supervision.

I had known Nancy from climbing competitions before the trip. Slightly taller than I and completely ripped, she was one of the best all-around climbers in the country, but her inviting demeanor made her approachable.

The entire group finished breakfast and began the arduous task of organizing gear and deciding our line. Little did I know, the process would become a multi-day affair. Gone were the familiar rituals of packing shoes, a harness, a chalk bag and a rope. Instead, miles of rope–static, dynamic, skinny and thick–were mixed with gear of all types. Everyone was busy laying out a rainbow of cams, nuts, bolts, pitons (about which I had just learned thirty minutes prior), shoes, harnesses, packs and drills. I felt somewhat embarrassed even being there. My five years of gym climbing, laps at Smith Rock and three or four 5.6 trad climbs gave me no qualification among the present company. But I wasn’t going to give up the chance to gain from their knowledge.

I soaked up information. I learned the sizes of cams and nuts and (thanks to Kevin) how to place a piton. With only eighty-five pounds of force behind each hammer blow, it took me twice as long as anyone else to pound the wedge of metal into a crack. “My grandmother could pound in a piton faster than you,” Kevin said.

I equalized anchors and tied super-eight knots. When I tied my first clove hitch, I put the wrong loop of rope in front of the other. Nancy laughed and showed me again.

As I went back to the tent that evening, the stars lit the night sky brighter than I had ever seen. I could hear the sounds from the dinner table: the low laughs of the men and the high voices of the women complemented each other to form a melody. When I crawled into my warm sleeping bag, the cool air made my nose run. A shiver ran across me, not from the temperature, but from thrill and nervousness. The immense walls above my tent were intimidating. I was a sport climber, not a rough-and-tough mountain girl. My arm was still shaking from hammering a piton earlier in the day.

Images of knots and anchors raced through my mind, mixed with visions of the vibrant locals: the laughter of the little girls, the white teeth of their smiles. The unfamiliar rhythm of their words came to me now in a sing-song cadence. “Ahuuumbey,” I had sounded out–the Malagasy word for lemur. A beautiful young girl coached me while her friends giggled ten feet back. They were no older than I was, but they were our cooks and guides.

I began to wonder what I would have been doing had I not come on this trip. I would likely be in Davis, grabbing hold after plastic hold, training for the X Games and getting ready for another semester of college. Instead, I was learning wall climbing from Nancy, Lynn, Kath and Kevin, and teaching the word carabiner to villagers. Here I was, in my late teens, thinking it was a great accomplishment to set up my own tent. They were slaughtering animals. I had never been more than a day’s drive away from my parents. Here, little girls my age were raising their own children. This was already a larger world than the one I had left behind.

Nancy and I headed up early the next morning to the wall. The dawn’s golden light magnified the crystal-covered black boulders and the glistening grass. The lemurs jumped and danced around the bottom of the cliff. Nancy gazed at them as she waited for me to catch up. “Local climbing talent,” she laughed. Her patience was comforting.

“Do you want to lead this pitch?” she asked as she pulled cams from her pack.

“I think I’ll let you have it. I just want to watch.”

Instead of the ten quickdraws I needed to get up a sport climb, my harness was weighed down with jumars, daisy chains, runners, belay devices, climbing shoes and more carabiners than I knew what to do with.

Rodden on top of the Tsaranoro Massif, July 1999. Obligations to a sponsor forced her to depart before the route was completed. On this day, she jumared the photographers’ ropes to reach the summit.

[Photo] Beth Rodden collection

“You can never have enough carabiners on a wall,” Nancy reminded me. “Everything needs to be clipped in up there. If you want to take off your jacket, you can’t just throw it on the ground.”

Nancy moved with delicate confidence. She did not race up the pitches, but danced; each move appeared choreographed. The sweat on her brow belied her ease. She sang and joked, completely poised as she weighted each crumbly edge. She made it seem more as if we were in the Dihedrals at Smith Rock than many pitches up a virgin African wall.

Slowly I began to get used to seeing the ground from a thousand feet up. Invigorated by my new surroundings, I concentrated harder on the climbing. By narrowing my focus, I was able to block out some of the fears of being so high. The treetops looked like dimes, the trail no more than an ant’s path. Occasionally I would notice that I could scarcely see our tents, but I quickly focused on grabbing the next hold to get my mind back on climbing.

I felt like an elephant with all the gear. As I grabbed each sharp granite edge, I expected to be able to lock off to my knees, but I could barely haul myself up. My fingers opened the moment I started to bend my arm. Footholds that I would normally be camping out on made my big toe throb. This was 5.10?

It felt like hours before I finally reached Nancy at the belay.

“It adds up, doesn’t it?” she said. “All of the fiddling at belays, jumaring, and then climbing–it’s not like climbing in the gym.”

“Nope,” I panted. “This stuff is hard! I always wondered why no one else had freed the Nose if it was only 13b. Now I get it.”

With each pitch up the wall, my climbing gradually sped up. Instead of shaking out on each hold, my arms and legs began to move in unison. At a belay I drilled my first bolt. The drill seemed to weigh as much as I did. I could barely hold it in place long enough to scar the rock. Our three-bolt belay took an hour and fifteen minutes to set up; an hour of that was for my bolt. My hands tingled and swelled from the drill, and my ears rang. I breathed in when blowing the dust out of the bolt hole, resulting in a mouthful of dry, grainy granite. Wall climbing required a lot more than strong fingers. “I think I need to go work construction for a few months,” I said to Nancy. “I bet I’d be a better wall climber then.”

She just laughed. “I’d like to see that–you carrying a full sheet of plywood.”

After a few hours the light began to fade. We rapped and headed back to camp by way of headlamp. My right arm ached from my bolt placement. Ordinarily, my arms only cramped after a six-hour session in the gym. Now, they seemed to tighten with every swing.

I have always loved feeling tired and sore, even in school sports. Today I had gotten worked simply by being on the wall. Organizing the twenty-pound rack, coiling and uncoiling 11-mil static ropes, jumaring pitch after pitch with a pack on, climbing with all of that crap clipped to my harness: there was no need to do a tenth gym lap. Here, at last, was a much easier way of getting the level of exhaustion that I craved.

“Hey Beth, can you make sure the bag comes off the belay all right?” Lynn shouted down from the top of Pitch 8. We had been working on the route in teams of two up to this point–Lynn and Kath, and Nancy and I. The camera crew would go up with one of the teams and film from fixed ropes above, or catch side angles from the various blackened cliffs around us. But the process was taking far too long. Now, we all started climbing together.

By the second week, the entire climb was fixed: 2,000 feet of white and black static line stretched from the slabby bottom to the vertical summit. This wasn’t your typical wall climb.

I was familiar with the commercial aspect of the climb. When I competed in the X Games and World Cups, cameras had always been present. By the beginning of the trip, we were all accustomed to the large, black Sony lens pointing in our faces.

“OK!” I yelled back to Lynn. Nancy and I unclipped the monstrous haulbag, big enough to fit Lynn and me in it at once, from the anchor and watched in awe as Lynn moved it inch by inch up the coarse golden granite.

Lynn probably weighed less than 100 pounds, yet somehow she was hauling this behemoth. Every five seconds her body would explode off the belay, arms and legs spread-eagled and completely tensed. As the rope caught her, she repeated the movement, over and over again. Later, when I tried to haul, it felt like trying to move a bag of cement.

I had watched Lynn’s Free Climbing the Nose video more than a dozen times. I had been awestruck by the scenes of her moving up the famous Yosemite granite with ease. Now, climbing with her, I saw first hand her determination and tenacity.

Two weeks into the trip, I jumared the camera crew’s fixed ropes to the top. Even though we hadn’t completed the route, I wanted to see the summit and be thousands of feet off the ground. No one was with me. Nancy and Kath had filmed earlier that day and jumared to the top, and Lynn and Rob were down in camp.

As I jugged each pitch, I looked over the featured slabs. Chalk highlighted the small handholds, and tickmarks indicated hidden crevices. I remembered watching Lynn scale some of the hardest pitches after days of work–her mouth parched and dry, her lips cracked, her fingertips dotted with blood.

With each pitch I jumared, the rhythm seemed more like walking. I no longer thought about the dime-sized trees, and my hips had toughened from all the gear clipped to my harness, which was now as organized as a filing cabinet.

On the second-to-last fixed rope, I stopped to look across the valley at the opposing mountain range. Gentle brown slopes turned into jagged rocky tops. The dusty gray clouds of an incoming storm hovered over the peaks. Cold, damp air flowed over my skin like water. A ruby-red sunset followed me to the summit along with the songs of local birds.

Kevin and Nancy greeted me when I pulled over the top. “You’re looking a little gaunt,” Kevin grinned as I took off my harness.

“Maybe you caught malaria from the locals.”

“Shut up, Kevin. I feel fine. Your teeth are looking a little brown, though. Oh wait, I forgot–you’re British.” A few weeks of fending for myself had hardened my edges. The past month had introduced me to people who needed the same sort of adventure I did. I was surprised how such hilarious, complex, tough people could come together over a single shared longing. The cliques of my school were incomprehensible here. One fluke incident at Smith Rock and I no longer dreamed of hard sport climbs; instead, I wanted pain in my feet, blistered hands and eyelids heavy from day after day of work.

I was scheduled to do a competition and poster signing for my sponsor a week before everyone else’s departure. There were still five more pitches to climb before the route was completed. Not that I was doing any of the leading, but I felt bad that I couldn’t help finish the route.

A feeling of guilt crept over me as I left. Kevin was leaving as well; he would chaperone me to Paris and then head back to his home in Los Angeles while I continued to Texas for the competition.

I was tired and exhausted, and in some ways I looked forward to familiar food, soft beds and warm showers. But I knew that I would miss the villagers dressed in their hand-me-down clothes, the jumping lemurs with their black-and-white ringed tails, the golden brown hills and the dazzling green trees of the Tsaranaro valley. I had discovered something on this trip: a love for new sensations, for the feeling of exposure far above the ground. At a point in my life that now seemed unimaginable, I had been one of the people in El Cap Meadow looking up at the climbers, thinking they were crazy. Little did I know then that they had the best view in the Valley.

I landed in Austin, Texas. Huge SUVs consumed the roads. People hurried past with cell phones, shiny sunglasses and large sodas. The Malagasy locals with calluses on their feet thicker than running shoes seemed a lifetime away.

The thought of a climbing gym felt ridiculous. Usually, a sense of anxious excitement overcame me each night before a comp. But now, I couldn’t justify climbing a forty-foot wall festooned with plastic climbing holds, inside a building with no windows, in front of an audience of a hundred people.

Nancy had warned me that the competition might feel hard. “Big-wall climbing makes your arms strong and fingers weak,” she had said.

As I lowered from the finals route, my forearms throbbed and my breath was jagged. “Congratulations–you won!” a woman told me when I touched ground. I had just climbed higher than anyone on the route, but the climbing had felt tedious. The plastic holds felt slick and insubstantial. The usual enjoyment was gone.

Some of the competitors were hoping to make the US Junior Team; now they bunched around me, asking if I was going to try to win the Junior Worlds. Once I had shared their exhilaration, yet now I longed for the coarse granite of Madagascar, the smell of the wildflowers and the constant sound of the wind. I wanted to go somewhere new, to see the earth again from high above.

Lynn’s determination had been contagious: I wanted to climb El Cap.

“No, I’m think I’m going to Yosemite,” I replied.

I had only ever bouldered in Yosemite, but six months later, as I drove into the Valley, I fell into a sense of awe. I had forgotten how the walls loomed above the earth and how the countless cracks went on forever. After my experiences in Madagascar, the walls took on new meaning. Instead of just an intriguing view, they became my goal.