The sharp end of rock climbing – A bird’s eye view and the pursuit of balance

I made it on the cover!

I made it on the cover!

Some of you know that I’ve been rock climbing for half of my lifetime, which is a really long time.

Pre-ride warmup!

Pre-ride warmup!

Others have only seen me pedalling furiously at races vying for a spot on the podium.  As one cyclist stated after discovering that my biceps came from rock climbing, he responded, “hell honey, whatcha wanna do a crazy sport like that for?  You have a death wish?”  That coming from a road racer, to me, is somewhat ironic.  I’ve never felt more at risk than in road racing…but let’s get back to rock climbing.

Coming into the feed zone!

Coming into the feed zone!

Since I’ve started this blog, I haven’t mentioned my previous life of scaling walls and such, primarily because wearing lycra and riding a bicycle through beautiful forests was a wonderful change and focus in my life.  I had a health and cancer mission and I was bent on proving that anything can be accomplished after cancer.   Since my spectacular racing year (2012) and achieving many of my goals, I have found myself, once again, out of health reasons and seeking some balance, I was going back to explore what I was once, fairly accomplished at…rock climbing.


Greece Limestone

For those non-climbers out there,  you’ve probably envisioned rock climbing as the death defying moves done by Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible.  Although spectacular looking and death defying, the majority were exactly that and also impossible.  I have had the privilege of climbing in the same area though and I know the stunt double for Tom.  Or you have the vision of Sylvester Stallone in Cliff Hanger, jet propelling his body through the air only to catch a chunk of rock covered in ice with his bare hands.  Well, it’s Stallone, it’s Hollywood and that too is impossible. However, I have been ‘ice climbing’ which requires sharp tools to penetrate the ice and more than a tank top for warmth.  There is also the misconception that if you sport climb, well you must be training for Everest.  That’s kind of like comparing motocross to road riding.  Both are two-wheeled but they are entirely different.


Anniversary Gift to Greece

You may have also watched documentaries on climbing Mount Everest. Well, I have done some ‘mountaineering’ but decided I didn’t enjoy freezing my butt off ascending areas covered in snow that require sharp tools (possible weaponry according to the US border patrol) and crampons (devices attached to your boots equipped with ‘Jaws-like’ metal teeth) and I’m not a fan of frostbite!  Sport climbing…you scale a wall with prefixed gear, you can remain scantily clad at times, falling is relatively safe and controlled and it’s just plain ol’ fun!  Some of my pictures will explain the rest.  I’ve spent many of my years putting my energy into the types of climbing that are realistic (non-Hollywood), doable by most and relatively safe…sport climbing and bouldering.


Steven on Yosemite rock


Yosemite view

For many years rock climbing was my first passion.  I was actually pretty good at it and well…it’s really addictive.  All things cycling/racing were a filler for the times that I needed a change of pace from scaling vertical walls.  Steven shared the same addiction and we spent years travelling and exploring all the places that were filled with rock and seeking out the bird’s eye view.

Sprint to the finish

Sprint to the finish

Then came cancer and chemo. After I went through chemo, I needed cycling to get my heart and health back on track.  My heart was damaged from the treatments and my lungs were just sad.  As it is with all things Jany, I didn’t just pick riding to get fit, I added racing to ensure that my mission to fitness would be filled with adventure.

IMG_5637Amidst my cycling recovery back to health and only months after chemo was complete, my husband gave me a trip to Greece for our 20th wedding anniversary (which he couldn’t join in on).  I got a chance to be reminded of my life before cancer by sport climbing with great friends on limestone tufas with views of the sea.  It wasn’t quite the same without him but I was incredibly thankful to have a husband that gave me such a selfless gift and a little bit of my old life back.


Post Chemo, Bishop California


Bishop, CA – Photographer Dennis Barnes

Now back to my climbing history…even then I was into competitions.  There were the indoor competitions for route climbing and then came bouldering.  I managed to get ranked 2nd in Canada for route climbing in the 1990’s and then route climbing competition in North America became a thing of the past.  In came the new sport, bouldering…scaling a wall of shorter distance with no ropes that required gymnastic movements with a guarantee to hit the ground each time you failed to reach the top.  I loved it!  Satisfaction or failure occurred in less than a minute.  I had to explore what it was like to climb with the young bucks in bouldering competitions and perhaps show a few young ones how the old chicks do it!  I was pretty good at that too and it was making me stronger…something every climber wants to be!

Climbing and cycling…at the same time!  Best of both worlds!  Crested Butte, Colorado

Climbing and cycling…at the same time! Best of both worlds! Crested Butte, Colorado

Climbing, like cycling I’ve had a love/hate relationship with.  Too much climbing, like cycling eventually creates an imbalance in life and perspective…to some known as burnout!  As a result, there have been many times over the years that with improvement there is constant expectation to always have a ‘good day’ which even professional athletes can’t achieve! When performance wanes, frustration and anger arise and the real reason to do the sport is lost in the cloud of want.   I’ve stopped climbing numerous times in the past, for months at a time, out of the necessity to do something different, due to muscular injuries and after having been a first responder to climbing accidents (trad climbing…yet another type of climbing) which resulted in death.

IMG_5694The majority of the time though, climbing has taken me to my happy place particularly when that happy place has been harder to find.  With a recent tough go with health issues and another cancer scare that induced another round of assessment on how I want to spend whatever time I may have left of this life, I decided to get back to my roots, so to speak.  Some people pick yoga to find inner peace and clarity, some pick hiking, others run…I rock climb!

Hanging in California with one of my best friends, Kaska!

Hanging in California with one of my best friends, Kaska!

In order to get ready for rock climbing outdoors, Steven and I went to our indoor climbing gym called ‘Climber’s Rock.’ Indoor climbing has a lot of benefits like keeping you fit, climate control, a great social scene and easy access to hard workouts.  Indoors does lack the adventure (see immediate photo!), the smell and sounds of nature, the natural movement of real rock and the feeling of oneness with yourself that only happens when your skin makes contact with  hard stone.  I was searching for a feeling of balance in my life that cycling was not fulfilling, so I got back to scaling some artificial walls to prep for ascending some beautiful stone, climbing with great friends and seeing a view that very few get to see.

Leah…crag day!

Leah…crag day!

The day came recently when friends, Leah and Aaron, were heading to a cliff line…a place I hadn’t visited in over ten years.  Sorting through my gear the night before that hasn’t seen daylight for years still made my hands glisten with sweat.  Excitement and nervousness turned my stomach and I wasn’t even at the cliff yet. Memories of climbing days gone by flooded my mind.  I’d lost a lot of memory from chemo and it was great to know that not all was lost. It seemed like forever since I felt the magical feeling when a climber touches real rock.  I wasn’t sure how my body would hold up either but I’m living one day at a time.

It's always a good day! Photographer - Dennis Barnes

It’s always a good day! Photographer – Dennis Barnes

Plagued by pain and the fear of having to undergo another round of chemo if the results showed my cancer was back,  I was going to take the pain because the joy that I would feel would be the best pain killer ever and I would never get the time back!

Up before my alarm, I couldn’t get to the crag soon enough.  I was jittery without the caffeine. After a casual drive, it wasn’t long before we hiked in and the beauty of pristine rock towered over me.  I stumbled along the path, tripping over objects unseen as my eyes remained fixed above me in awe of the solid limestone…a rare treat in Ontario.  It was incredible to see how much had developed in the area and what I had been missing for so many years.

Many years of climbing meant many climbing friends and it didn’t take long to run into some highly accomplished ones like Leslie Timms and Kyle who run “On the Rocks” climbing instruction.  The absence of my mountain bike drew a confused face from Leslie but a “welcome back,” was a statement that warmed my heart.  There was also Brian, Laurent, Gary and Chris.

good days with friends

good days with friends

It was a step back in time.  I instantly felt at home and their comments made me feel missed.  It was the Cheers Bar….’everyone knows your name’ at the crag, without the alcohol of course, and it made me feel special or old…maybe both!

Rock Brail…where is that hold again.  Fun in Nova Scotia!

Rock Brail…where is that hold again. Fun in Nova Scotia!

I spent the first part of the day trying to get used to reading the rock again.  A form of braille on limestone.  There are no orange, blue or green holds like indoors, to show you the way…only your ability to understand the cracks, edges and blips of the rock and how to use them.  Each route I did on top rope (the safest way to enjoy a climb) then took the sharp end (leading it) the second time around.  Taking the sharp end was a quick reminder that getting some air time was a reality if my superman strength was hit by kryptonite anywhere above my last piece of protection.  There were also the moments that as climbers, we say, “Elvis has entered the building!”  It’s when your leg begins to shake like ‘Elvis’  and at very inopportune times.  Sometimes induced by hard effort, mostly because of fear.  Well Elvis was in the building and was putting on a full R-rated show when I was on the wall.  I almost vibrated myself off into the abyss and could only come up with remarks like I needed to change my underwear or “holy shitballs!”  Yeh, I know, a strange remark but it makes me feel better when I say it!  I managed not to fall despite Elvis and felt the elation of having made it to the top.

Aaron  bouldering hard at Joe's Valley, Utah

Aaron bouldering hard at Joe’s Valley, Utah

When I wasn’t climbing, I was watching the magic happen for those on the wall.  The gracefulness and flow that some can demonstrate is like watching an artist create a masterpiece before you.  When others were on climbs that pushed their every limit, the sheer determination to succeed when the odds were working against them is incredible to see.  If you’ve ever felt desperation in anything, certain you wouldn’t succeed but somehow you manage to hang on and it happened to work after all…this is what climbers do on a regular basis. As I sat there listening to the grunts and groans of hard effort, getting eaten by mosquitoes, hearing the clang of climbing gear and uncurling my toes from the binding rubber monsters we call climbing shoes…I felt pure happiness.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have felt an incredible amount of happiness in cycling and in racing.  However, there are some moments that stand out and leave a mark…this was one of those moments. I had just been given the opportunity to reconnect with just another little piece of myself, something I thought I had lost, and it only took a few awesome friends and a day out at a cliff to find it!

DSCF7001The next step to finding more of myself was taking the sharp end on something at my physical limit.  Red Bull might give you wings but only the sharp end can make you fly!  Taking the sharp end on a climb that I had never been on before and was about to test me in every way possible was a guarantee that I was probably going to fly if my ability to read the cryptic limestone was unsuccessful. I was facing my fear of taking whippers full on.  Was I psyched about it…hell no…I’ve logged many air miles on a rope over the years and have yet to feel joy about it other than that I was still alive!  I was usually bummed because it meant I didn’t do the climb flawlessly and would have to repeat the attempt. It was, however, a necessary step if I wanted to be able to continue climbing well, safely and pushing my limits in the future.

Steep, three dimensional climbing in Kalymnos, Greece.

Steep, three dimensional climbing in Kalymnos, Greece.

My heart was pounding when I started up the climb.  Feeling my way through the cryptic handholds, I used my repertoire of movements to make things work. It wasn’t long before I discovered this thing was stout and I was a marshmallow.  Making it part way up the wall, I had reached a section of confusion.  My hands were over gripping and suddenly felt like they were covered with slimy dish soap…sweating is a casualty of nerves and not suitable for holds that seemed to be facing the wrong direction.  My feet were struggling to smear on what felt like oil covered marble.  I was essentially dog paddling and had reached the point of no return.  It was the point where there was no ability to down climb to my last piece of gear.

What air time means!

What air time means!

I stared down at this rope of life connected to my harness which now seemed like the thickness of dental floss.  I had hoped that the sheer terror of my 135 lbs being caught by dental floss disintegrated the kryptonite that filled my arms.  I wanted my superman strength to magically reappear and I could fly, weightlessly to the top of the climb.  Oh hell no, there was nothing to dissolve the kryptonite.  I watched as my hands melted off the holds and I screamed like a little girl when I flew through the air.  My forearms resembled Popeye’s and veins were bulging from every place visible.  Stopping halfway down the wall, I had to take a deep breath and I think my heart skipped a beat. Then I giggled after I said, “holy sh*tballs, that was scary!”  I didn’t miss the sensation of falling and feeling the wind through my hair but I appreciated it was a necessary evil.

With all this talk of falling, risks and yes, I mentioned death…I can see how some think climbers have a death wish.  That is so far from reality…it is actually a life wish!  All climbers are out there to live life to the fullest, feeling but not surrendering to many fears and embracing so much that the world and nature has to offer.  Yes, it does involve risk to do it as do so many other ways of life.  There are. certainly, types of climbing that have a greater risk of death than others, like trying to summit Everest (which is actually ‘mountaineering’) where the mortality rate is approximately 40%.  These folks do not want to die either, but they do go into it knowing there is always a possibility they may not make it home.  This forces many to put value into every day.  Risk of death is possible in many of the things we do, ie., driving on the highway, going for a swim etc.  Any day we wake up is a day we may not make it home.  Even general patterns of life are not seen as hazardous…only what is perceived as an extreme sport, which is only extreme to many because it is not understood.  Well enough about that, sport climbing (which I’m talking about today) is relatively low risk providing a number of factors are taken into account.

Me, getting spit of the Pearl at Kraft Boulders near Vegas

Me, getting spit of the Pearl at Kraft Boulders near Vegas

So I kept trying my hardest and this climb kept spitting me off like a tennis ball out of a ball machine!  Over and over I was ejected into the air only to stop halfway down the wall. Exhausted from my efforts and the fact that I haven’t rock climbed more than 20 vertical feet in years, I came down and watched a friend make it beyond my high point.  I was tired and in pain but I didn’t care, I was so happy to see what I couldn’t complete, get done with ease.

I finished up the day with a beautiful hike out with my great friend Leah, whom I met when she was 14 and new to climbing. I’ve had the privilege over the last 14 years of watching her mature into an incredible woman and climber and marry our dear friend Aaron.

Nom nom

Nom nom

We shared a beer sitting by the car waiting for the rest of the crew to return.  Our chat consisted of climbing days gone by, great memories and hopes and dreams for the future.  I sat there soaking in the conversation, appreciating the privilege of having this time with her, feeling cautiously optimistic that I will have many more days to come to watch her dreams come true and make some of my own happen.


Keith and Kaska – great friends, great climbing partners and part of the Motley crew!

Some of us went for Jamaican food after climbing.  Food and  beer excursions are a mainstay of post climbing days.  As I sat there, inhaling a beer relieving the grumblings of my ravenous stomach…I felt like I had finally made it home.

Dennis and Cassandra - incredible friends from day one.

Dennis and Cassandra – incredible friends from day one.

Some of my best memories are from climbing and where most of my greatest friends have originated.

The Motley crew…it doesn't get any better! Incredible times in Joe's Valley, Utah

The Motley crew…it doesn’t get any better! Incredible times in Joe’s Valley, Utah

My life is an awesome one and no matter the time that I have, this day reminded me of what an incredible time I’ve been privileged to have and of what may come should I continue to ‘never surrender.’


A day in the life of mountain biking in Crested Butte, Colorado

Will I stop cycling…hell no.  I love to ride, especially on the trails and I will continue to race because I love the community and trying to make myself puke!  Besides, I’m on one of the best teams, ‘Erace Cancer Cycling Team’ doing something valuable for Camp Oochigeas.  That in itself is a great reason to race. Road racing…hmmm….well sport climbing and falling on dental floss is way less scary…I might do more of that instead!  Maybe I’ll add bouldering competitions back into the equation just so I can show the young ones you can still climb when you’re older!  I know I can’t excel at racing and climbing at the same time…these days I can’t even do one to the standards I once enjoyed.  However, I have to pay attention to what my body and my soul needs and surrender my ego. Besides, athletics are, at any level, a privilege these days.  I’m OK if my skills in both are not what they once were, as long as I am trying my best and I am building and leaving positive memories for whatever length of life I continue to have!

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1 Response to The sharp end of rock climbing – A bird’s eye view and the pursuit of balance

  1. Stephanie says:

    Reblogged this on CLimb Like A Girl and commented:
    Thanks JJ for your incredible story… and for being the biggest badass I know! You never cease to be a source of inspiration and motivation.

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