Women in the Winds

Originally posted on August 28, 2017

The last ten miles of dirt road had me holding onto the loose car stereo so that it wouldn’t fall out of the dashboard. The potholes and washboard rivets continued to wear on my van’s suspension, but I didn’t care. My grin was so wide while the aspen groves flew past me and the far off mountain skyline came into view. I pulled into the overflowing trailhead parking lot. “Holy Shit,” I said to myself. I had arrived at the entrance to the Wind River Range, and so had about 300 other people.

I was prepared for it to be busy. We were hiking into the Cirque of the Towers two days before the total solar eclipse, which was going to conveniently pass directly over us. I was excited to see this natural phenomenon that is only witnessed once or twice in a lifetime, but it didn’t compare to the excitement I had to finally embark on a week-long climbing expedition into the remote wilderness of the Winds.

My partner, Sara arrived ten minutes later in her turquoise 1999 Jeep Cherokee. We hugged and looked around wide eyed, trying to settle into the adventure we were about to embark on. We threw all of our gear on the ground and let out nervous laughter as we began to pack for six days. We consulted each other on how much gear we needed, what kind of layers was the other bringing, or whether we really needed that #4 cam. Sara giggled as I threw her some new baselayers, jackets, and a helmet that I wanted to photograph. We put together our packs for the rest of the evening and then said good night as we each crawled back into our vehicles and fell asleep.

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“Look! I think that’s Pingora!” Sara pointed at the tall sloping granite peak in the distance. I looked up under the weight of my 50lb pack and instead saw the two ridgelines between us and our final destination. Usually that distance wouldn’t give me dread, but I was carrying half my body weight in gear, food, and cameras, and all I wanted were the damn pack mules that our friends had offered to share with us for the hike in. They were going to a different area though, and Sara and I were keen on doing the entire trip self-supported and as “just the girls.” I hoisted my pack up higher on my back and trudged on.

I woke up to the pale shade of light hitting the top left side of our tent. Typically, I would’ve stayed in my sleeping bag for a few more hours, clinging to the warmth, but Sara and I had passed out at 8pm the night before and now I was wide awake with anticipation for the alpine glow that would no doubt be hitting the walls above us. I’m a light chaser by profession and I was equally excited about all the photos I would take as I was about the climbing. I grabbed my camera and stumbled out of the tent. I felt hung over from the 12-mile slog the day before and could barely summon the coordination to lift the viewfinder to my eye. I hadn’t put contacts in yet, but the blurry shadows of pink and gold were enough to guide my lens in the right direction. Click.

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As the light revealed more of the epic walls and remote wilderness that surrounded us, my mind began to come up with excuses for why we should just lay low for the day. We’re tired. What if we can’t find the route? It’s already late in the morning. The smart thing to do would be to rest and get mentally prepared to climb tomorrow.  I stretched out on our breakfast boulder hoping I looked cool and collected, but my insides had turned into a tight knot of anxiety and nerves. I knew the climbing would be easy, but my self-confidence had completely disappeared. I looked up at Sara and her gentle face scanned the route we were planning to do with ease and simplicity. This is why we came into the mountains, I thought to myself. To trust ourselves. To prove to ourselves that we are capable of this. I sat up and with a nervous grin said, “Fuck it. Let’s go.”

Four men watched as we scrambled up to the large belay ledge. It was a perfect blue bird day, which was fortunate as we quickly realized we would be third in line. Within five minutes, another party of dudes arrived at the scene. Sara and I sat quietly and waited as the first team pitched out the initial 200 ft of 5.6. Forty minutes later, his second started to follow. Thirty minutes after that, I racked my gear and tied in, eager to get going as the last party in front of us was finally off the ground.

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“That was fast.” The man from the party ahead of us looked down at me with surprise as he stood belaying his partner on a wide ledge. I smiled as I topped out and built a small anchor in the corner crack. “On belay, Sara!” I yelled from above. Ten minutes later my partner joined me up on our perch and together we glanced up at our next pitch. “I think the classic 5.8 is the left side of the K Crack…” I said. We were slightly confused though. Why was the party ahead of us on the weird looking crack to the right? “I don’t think we went the right way,” said the man belaying. “My partner said this crack is super flared and hard to protect.” We needed no further proof and with that, Sara jammed her way up a beautiful splitter to the summit.

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“I feel like we’re the only team of women out here.” Sara sat on our boulder back at camp and looked out across the meadow in front of us. Two male climbers were setting up camp a few hundred yards away. She was right. Apart from the one woman we encountered following her male partner up Pingora earlier that week, we were the only other girls we’d seen in the last four days. “Why is that?” I asked. “It's obviously not because we’re not good enough to be out here,” I said with a cheeky grin. We both laughed and figuratively brushed the dirt off our shoulders.  Of the three male parties we encountered on Pingora, we were by far the fastest and most efficient team. “Maybe it’s because we’re perfectionists and don’t want to try until we know we can succeed,” Sara added. “Yeah, or maybe it’s because we just lack confidence,” I said.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always relied on my male climbing partners to ensure that I reached the top of tall, technical, multi-pitch alpine routes. I’ve observed their tutorials but never put any of my knowledge into play since they were the ones navigating up the rock, building the anchors, or setting up the rappels. All these individual practices are pretty simple at a crag with your friends, but put it all together on varied terrain in the middle of nowhere with zero cell phone service and you can see how it may feel rather overwhelming to someone who has never had to rely on her own systems before. The anxiety I had felt that first morning was a product of years of being dependent on my climbing partner, usually male.

Sara and I summited every climb we set out to do and with very little trouble. Instead of pushing ourselves on hard terrain, we pushed each other to overcome the tendencies that we were nervous about as climbers.  We measured our success through the confidence we felt as a female team amongst a sea of men. Though we may have left the Cirque with just a few more easy multi-pitch routes under our belt, I think we also left with a clearer sense of self.

This is why we came into the mountains. To trust ourselves.  To prove to ourselves that we are capable.