Flappers and Frustration in the Desert

by Alma Baste, @almabclimbing

I haven’t always loved the desert.

When I first worked at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, I wanted nothing more than to be back home in my southeastern woods, surrounded by thick pines, oaks, and whatever else grows there.

But a climbing trip to Utah’s Indian Creek, now a part of Bears Ears National Monument, changed my opinion. The desert is beautiful, with its towering red canyon walls, cacti of all kinds, and some of the best people I’ve ever met.

So when spring break rolled around this year, I knew I had to return to those spectacular red rocks.

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As I pondered a desert adventure, my boyfriend told me about a trip he was planning to Red Rock National Conservation Area near Las Vegas, Nevada.  The area is a popular destination for bouldering, a type of rock climbing where the climbing routes are on detached boulders and are shorter and often harder than traditional climbing.  Bouldering doesn’t involve climbing ropes and harnesses-– instead, heavy foam crash pads provide protection from falls.

I was sold.  All I needed was a plane ticket and someone to go with me. I ran through my list of women climbers, but no one could make the trip.

I eventually thought of Brandon, a friend from the gym.  Aside from a few parties and hanging out with friends writing letters to congressmen, our friendship consisted of waving and cool guy head nods, but I knew he loved bouldering.  I reached out to him, he said yes, and we bought our plane tickets.  I hoped he wouldn’t abandon me in the desert to run off and join Cirque du Soleil or whatever it is people do in Vegas.

I was intimidated at my first real bouldering trip, nervous that my ego would get in the way of simply having fun. And frankly, I was nervous going with someone I didn’t climb with very often.

I’ll grudgingly admit that I am a controlling person, and before the trip I was nervous about the many variables outside of my control. But after saying goodbye to my boyfriend at the Atlanta airport, I decided I wouldn’t let my discomfort stop me from enjoying the trip and a week with a new adventure partner.

Brandon and I arrived in Las Vegas early Monday morning, like 2am early. We borrowed crash pads from a friend, and, after stopping for food, drove straight to Red Rock. I was on a mission. Before this trip I had seen an Instagram image of a crack called Born to Bleed, and knew I had to find it.

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I scrambled all over a mountain hunting for that A-frame boulder, with its collection of yucca plants underneath and a burly offwidth leading to the top of the boulder.  An offwidth crack is not only much more difficult than small cracks you can jam your hand into, but also more difficult than big cracks you can fit your whole body into.  

When I finally found it, I sat underneath staring up at the crack, realizing I had no idea what I was doing.  

I tried wedging my hand in, trying to touch my thumb to my pinky finger. Then a fist. Then a combination of the two. Then tried to get both my feet in the crack. Then none of my feet in the crack.

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Everything felt insecure, like I would slip at any moment. I did the top out, falling once off a poorly placed foot. Eventually I discovered a small hold on the opposing side of the crack. I could finally do three moves, then fall. I did this repeatedly- trying various adjustments to foot placements and hand holds. I did moves I didn’t think I was capable of doing, but I could not send this boulder. Over and over, I reached a point where I was unable to go further, one move away from easier terrain, and fell to the ground.  I was frustrated with the boulder for not giving me any useful insight and myself for not being able to magically stick to the rocks.

Eventually I began to lose skin. Two flappers (raw, open finger blisters) the first day, two blisters on my foot the second, raw spots on both palms.  I lost a chunk from the side of my right hand and gained a bruise on my thumb.

I wasn’t ready to walk away. I’ve never gotten so frustratingly close to sending something, only to leave feeling utterly defeated. Sure, I’ve walked away from projects before, but usually only when I was far from finishing. Born to Bleed was a different beast. I got close. I fought, tooth and nail. I got angry.

There was no finishing Born to Bleed. However something happened despite it. I got empowered.

Feeling empowered after getting chewed up by a boulder was the last thing I expected, but I can’t think of another way to describe how I felt leaving that gruesome crack behind.

It taught me something. Maybe I like when I have to suffer a little I find I’m a whole lot stronger than I give myself credit for. We all have ups and downs in life, and the important part for me is acknowledge my successes, give myself a high-five for my hard work, and tell myself to try the hard things again.

And maybe I’ve finally figured out this whole climbing-for-fun thing.

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