October 23, 2017
Halfway up the 1500m South Ridge of Serra Two in BC’s Waddington Range, I discovered I’m powerful. And I don’t mean physically powerful; I knew that a long time ago. What I mean is, I finally realized the internal strength and resilience I possess.
It was the summer of 2012 and two girlfriends and I had been dropped off at the head of the 22km-long Tiedemann Glacier by our pilot, Mike King. I’d never felt so small. From our perch rose Mount Combatant (3762m), Mount Tiedemann (3848m), Mount Asperity (3716m), and Serra’s One through Five. Each ridge-line from glacier to summit represented 1600m or more of technical rocky relief. As Mike navigated his Bell 204 helicopter away from us, we stood alone among giants.
A few days in, while on Serra Two’s south ridge, our climb wasn’t quite going according to plan. We began to notice low-hanging clouds around the summits, indicating a breakdown in the high-pressure system we’d been riding. We quietly discussed the deteriorating weather as we curled into our bivy. With 800m of complex low fifth-class terrain below us, retreating would be slower and more complicated than continuing upward. Darkness fell and we lay silently cocooned, ears straining for the sounds of worsening weather.
When we woke the next morning, we had to shake off a fresh layer of snow on our sleeping bags. The ridge we intended to climb was now encased in snow and ice and we were engulfed in a winter storm. With few words between the team, we knew that we were going to “fail to the top.” Over 14 hours, we navigated the ridge with gloved hands and aluminum crampons strapped to our approach shoes, each taking our block of leads to push the rope higher up the ridge. We made it to the top and back down safely, but what should have been an easy alpine rock adventure turned in to a tough three-day ascent.
As we made our way back home to Squamish, it became apparent to me that on Serra Two, I’d tapped into an inner strength I didn’t know I possessed to get through that storm. It took several more mountain adventures before I finally drew the connection between the internal strength and resilience I’d identified in myself through climbing, and how to translate that power to my life outside the mountains.
Several years after the Waddington Range climb, a challenging life experience forced my hand, so to speak, and I dug deep to tap into my personal strength – not to climb a mountain this time, but to navigate the valley of my present life circumstance. Despite the theoretical storm engulfing me – I watched helplessly at the life I’d built for myself crumble at my feet – I had never believed in myself so firmly.
Climbing is often referred to as a selfish sport, and I agree with that sentiment to a degree, but without climbing I don’t know if I would have arrived at the place where I believe so whole-heartedly in my ability to endure, thrive and put my head down to push through difficult times. For this reason, I have purposefully sought out ways to share with other women what climbing has taught me.
Over the last two years I’ve been afforded incredible opportunities to participate in the lives of women both inside and outside the climbing community. There was the MEC-sponsored “Send with Sarah” event at the 2016 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. On the final day of the festival, MEC brought together 16 women to participate in a climbing clinic, enjoy Sunday brunch at the festival venue, and attend a panel discussion featuring notable female adventurers. The purpose of the day couldn’t have been solidified any better when one of the most accomplished female rock climbers of the 21st century, Lynn Hill, made a surprise appearance during our clinic. Lynn imparted meaningful advice about surrounding ourselves with other women who can share in our passion for outdoor adventure.
More recently, I was asked to co-facilitate the Minerva Foundation for BC Women’s Learning to Lead™ program. Now in it’s seventh year, the program brings together fifty 16-year-old girls from across the province to develop and enhance their leadership skills both personally and within their respective communities. That weekend, I left exhausted from trying to keep up with 16 year olds, but also revitalized as I’d witnessed the transformation in these young women as they discovered their own internal power and resilience.
Finally, and a major aha moment for me, was volunteering with and then working for The Howe Sound Women’s Centre in my hometown of Squamish, BC. After living in Squamish for almost eight years, I’d never taken the time to connect with the community of women beyond my insulated circle of climbers. Squamish is full of women who’ve lived through their own personal challenges and demonstrated a resilience far beyond my own. And in some small ways, I’ve been given the chance to share with women in my home community the power I discovered in myself through climbing, but that I believe resides deep inside all of us.
As women and climbers, we have the unique ability to challenge ourselves mentally all the time and hone the skills of internal fortitude to achieve our climbing goals. But what do we do with these skills beyond just ticking off another project? I encourage you to explore ways to lift up other women and help them uncover just how powerful they are too. Feminism teaches us that women expand, learn and challenge themselves best in the company of other women. Take what climbing has taught you, and spread it to the community of women just outside your door.
Top photo by Rich Wheater.