Dark Shadows

July 29th, 2015

I leave for Chicago in three days.

I like to do yoga. I can balance all day on my right foot. Tree, half moon, dancer, you name it. On my right side, I rock out with my cock out. But my left side is different. I’m wobbly. My yoga teacher, Jen, told our class once that it doesn’t matter where you are, just find your edge, and work there.

I think about this advice when I go rock climbing. My climbing friends are true badasses. When I met Gina and Tracy, the Pixie Titans, they were making 5.12s look easy, even though they are only, like, five feet tall. I figured they were way too cool to be my friends, as I was stuck on 5.10s. This was stupid, or course, and we’ve been friends for years.

(To the uninitiated, all free climbs are rated from 5.1 to 5.14. A rating of 5.1 to 5.4 is dead easy, 5.5 to 5.7 is still easy, 5.8 to 5.10 is moderate, 5.11 to 5.12 is hard, 5.13 to 5.14 is in the realm of professional climbers and a few of my friends.)

I’ve come to learn this: it doesn’t matter how hard I climb. The people I climb with are my friends, and we have fun together. As long as I can find my edge and work there, I’ll find the joy. I have to let my ego go. Some days, my edge is 5.7. Fine. I like 5.7s. They’re fun. If I don’t want my MS to stop me altogether, then I have to accept my edge for what it is.

Last year, I set up a climbing trip to Red Rocks near Vegas with the gang. I figure my edge is 5.8 trad. (Here’s a little more explaining, trad [or traditional] climbing is a type of climbing where you use ropes and gear to catch you if you fall. You place gear in the rocks as you go, clip your rope to it, and climb using the rocks. [Pulling on gear is a different kind of climbing, and is considered bad form in trad climbing.] If you fall, you will fall to your last piece of gear and then that distance again. Well, this is true if your gear is good. If your gear is bad, your piece will blow, and you will fall to your next piece. And if that piece is bad, well, you will fall a long way. I try to only set good gear, because moving off a piece you know is bad will mess with your head when you climb.)

I decide I want to do a mulit-pitch climb in Red Rocks. I need a short hike in because I don’t want my leg to go dead before I get there. I choose a 4-star 5.8 called Dark Shadows. The book says it has a casual 40-minute hike in. It’s 4 pitches: the first is 5.5 & 70 feet, the second is 5.6 & 75 feet, the third is 5.8 & 120 feet, and the fourth is 5.8 & 73 feet.

Here’s the map and the picture of the climb from the guidebook. The climb is #9. You’ll see I’ve circled something on the map. I’ll get to that later. But first, I need to pick a partner who knows about my leg, is willing and capable of bailing me out if I need it, and who will swing leads with me, which means I want her to lead the first two easy pitches, then I will lead the long third pitch, and she will lead the forth. I pick Krista. To the horror of my friends, I tear the map out of my guidebook and stick it in the pocket of my climbing pants. It’s my book. I don’t want to carry it, and I need the map.

photo 1

We get up early that morning. On the drive there, I decide that the worst thing I can do is back down. If it is too hard, I should still try it and take the fall. In my mind, if I back down, then that means MS has won. I’m the winner here.

.photo 3This is the picture of the climb in the guidebook. Looks fun.

IMG_3731The hike takes us two hours. The mountains are confusing, and it’s hard to find the right path. There’s a climbing party ahead of us, which is lucky because it forces us to wait while my leg recovers, and I don’t have to ask to wait, which I am bad at. My heart is in my throat, though, and I wonder why I decided that my edge is 5.8. Maybe my edge is 5.7.

When it’s our turn, Krista climbs the first two pitches in one go, and I meet her on the ledge. She gives me encouragement, but I don’t remember what she said. Something like, “You got this.” I start up the climb, place some gear, but I’m finding it really hard. What have I started?

“Is the crux at the bottom?” I ask. (The crux is the hardest part of the climb.)

Krista doesn’t know. I put in some gear and fish the map out of my pocket. The instructions for this pitch are as follows: “Climb the huge corner to a small ledge on the left. The crux is at the bottom, after which perfect holds appear whenever things start to get difficult.” That’s just the kind of magic I like. Perfect holds. I put the map back in my pocket. I’m at the crux. I figure I will do the crux, then the rest will be easy.

I fight through it, and I am golden. Also, I can sew this shit up. This giant crack eats gear, so I put in a piece about every body length. Even if I fall, I won’t fall far. I am capable and competent. I got this. I ROCK. La la la.

When I think I am almost at the top, I see the earlier party rappelling down about 50 feet away.

“Is the top just over that bulge?” I ask.

“No. You’re only about halfway there.”

Electricity shatters through me. I check out my rack of gear.

“I only have four pieces of gear left,” I say to the guy.

He looks down at my line and all the gear I’ve stuck in the crack below me. “If you’re strong enough to hang out and place all that gear, you’re strong enough to make it to the top.”

If you take another look at the map, you will see where I circled a black smudge. That’s a person-sized crack, and that’s where I was. I’m 60 feet from the anchors. Four pieces of gear.

photo 5

I stuff myself into the crack so I can panic. These were my thoughts: “Fuck. Shit…..Fuck. Fuck.” I’m pretty sure that’s all I thought for quite some time.

Krista calls up to me. “Everything alright?”

“I only have four pieces of gear left.”

“Run it out, baby,” she says.

I contemplate my options…this is a nice crack. I could stay here for awhile. I think I love this crack. It’s cozy. This is a forever crack. Just me and the cliff swallows….

Another climbing party comes up behind Krista. I can’t stay here. That would be rude. I could use my last pieces to build an anchor and back down. But I already made this all big in my head about not backing down. If I back down, then MS wins. Why am I a fucktard?

I remember that I’ve already done the crux. I pull the map out of my pocket again and re-read the instructions…“perfect holds appear whenever things start to get difficult.” I’m totally on board with this kind of magic. I pull myself out from the crack. Perfect holds. Let’s go.

I make it to the top and clip into the anchors. When Krista gets there, she takes this picture of me.

IMG_3734 2

This, my friends, is what joy looks like. This was my edge, and I worked it.

Later, when I am relaying this story to the Pixie Titans and Nick, who’s strong, young, fit, and looks  a tiny bit like Wolverine from the X-Men, Tracy says she doesn’t know if she would have kept going.

“Helicopters. I would have waited for Helicopters,” Nick says.

Fuck you, MS. I’m the winner here.

IMG_3741 IMG_3737

11 Responses to “Dark Shadows”

  1. lauraleepearson on July 30, 2015 9:43 am

    You are my hero, you badass clever woman.

  2. David Kwee on July 30, 2015 10:00 am

    Wow. That looks hard, even without MS.

    Hopefully, you won’t have to worry about MS stopping you. But you might miss it the tiniest bit. Sounds like you need a challenge. Maybe you’ll be hittin’ it with the 5.12’s in a year.

  3. Tim (aka: Mr. Pink) on July 30, 2015 10:11 am

    You rock Karen (yes, I know…).
    Is that some new technology in your picture at the anchors? It looks like you’ve clipped your helmet to the anchor. I know when I fall I usually lose my lid, but that might be different.
    Keep on kicking-ass.

  4. Mom on July 30, 2015 1:49 pm

    Wow! MS has a truly formidable foe in you! I cried when you made it. Go Karen!

  5. Pat on July 30, 2015 4:11 pm


  6. Laura on July 30, 2015 9:30 pm

    You are capable and competent and beautiful, with MS or without MS, no matter what you are a climber, and you will always climb to great heights! Go Karen! Love, Laura

  7. Laura on July 30, 2015 10:18 pm

    I wonder if there is an opportunity to share your blog with Dr. Burt. Seems like he and all doctors and nurses and researchers would appreciate your perspectives. Anyway…you are BadAss!

  8. Nathan on July 31, 2015 2:00 pm

    Way to go! Way to be! You’ve always been and always will be awesome!

  9. Janet AlJunaidi on July 31, 2015 11:29 pm

    Great stories Karen – and of course well told!
    You are amazing!

  10. Michelle on August 1, 2015 9:07 am

    I’m feeling like a mom all through this piece. “Don’t do it, Karen. Ask for help, please!” And then you set your mind and do it. Fuck MS. You’re a winner. Just one fear left to overcome. Asking for help when you need it. That may be the hardest, but I promise that you’re still a badass even when you ask. Maybe more.

  11. Melanie on August 3, 2015 2:35 pm

    Awesome sauce, Karen. You are so strong.

Comments are closed.