Emotional First Responder with WAC

I spent the weekend of March 11th cozied up from the rain, sitting on a couch at the Washington Alpine Club cabin, talking about grief. We talked about much more than grief, but it was grief, at the community scale, that started the ball rolling on the weekend course: Emotional First Responder. As a community dedicated to learning and improvement, we work each year to refresh our knots skills, throw ourselves down slopes to remember how to arrest, and knock the rust off of our z-pulleys. All of the physical skills are fundamental and required and important. But when Laurel Fan died last summer, doing this dangerous thing that we’re all practicing constantly, I found I was unprepared.

Jodie self-arrest

WAC instructor training – ice axe arrest

Grief is hard, and grieving with a community is hard. She was and is ours to grieve, but she is also more than just a member of WAC, and respecting that while watching a community shocked and saddened was and continues to be a hard thing. This is made even more difficult by the community members on the periphery – the men and women who knew her by name but not closely, yet were watching the men and women they respected and looked to for support be turned upside down.

Grief happens in circles. There is the person who dies and the inner circle of those most intimately touched. Then the circle outside of those people, and the circle outside of them, and the circle outside of them, and so on. Laurel was an incredible instructor and many of the more senior, experienced climbers were close to her. The newest members of the WAC, just knocking the glint off of their crampons, were suddenly the pillars of strength as their leaders sobbed. The structure of support inverted.

Mike Daly lectures

WAC lectures in the field

All this to say—grief is hard, and watching people you care about grieve is hard. And one is not harder than the other; they are different and both very real. If I could say anything, it’s that showing up is important. I didn’t know Laurel very well—but I still hate that I was out of town and unable to be THERE for her memorial, that I was unable to show up for my community. I sent in words and photographs to be included and I cried that night, underneath the sky in Montana, and I grieved for our loss.

We want to foster an environment of communication – where anyone in the WAC knows that he or she can say  “this is hard for me, I am scared and sad and broken hearted,” and they know there is someone listening. The course was the first of its kind. We are not claiming to be professionals, but we reminded ourselves how to approach the world with empathy and kindness, and I think that this matters.

The other work of the weekend was equally important—we reviewed active listening and techniques to unfreeze someone in a panic or near panic place. We revised our languages and we reminded ourselves to define those around is in specific terms (she is diagnosed with the state of pregnancy J) rather than general (she’s a mom).  It all sounds silly at first but it is the first step to conveying accurate information without judgement and labeling.

I hope that we don’t have to use any of the skills we learned this past weekend, but the reality is that people will continue to die—it’s sort of what we do. Whether it’s out in the mountains or in hospice care after a long life—death continues. This is one of the things that I found utterly shocking about my father’s death—suddenly I was experiencing something so incredibly unique and, at the same exact time, so completely universally human. I felt part of a larger story and fabric and it was strangely reassuring.

I don’t know that EFR training will grow much beyond our club, but I think it should. At the very outset Danelle, our leader for the weekend, said that around 85% of the adult population have experienced something traumatic. I count myself in that bucket. I know many around me do too. I don’t know what to do with that information except to move forward with an open heart.


Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing Festival recap

I had a very different trip report composed—one that went through the blow by blow of our planning and disaster, that covered our constant revision throughout the weekend and tried to capture our humor and joy—but it meandered several pages and didn’t really get to the heart of the festival. So here’s a second attempt at why the Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing Festival felt so essential to me.

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Bishop or bust!

I went to Bishop with two friends that I haven’t spent much time with over the past year. We loosely planned beforehand and then had to scrap most of our plan and figure out a new approach at the last minute. This last minute shuffle brought me to tears but reminded me of the joy in planning with friends—we rallied so quickly and with such good humor and strength that everything felt ok. We flew in to LA, rented a car, and drove in to Bishop with endless music playing and the California desert unfurling its beauty as the sun set.

Friday morning we wake to snowcapped mountains and a full day to climb.  We decide to head to Alabama Hills, about an hour outside of Bishop. We rack up for an easy route and I take the lead first. I get two bolts up and hesitate– it’s slabbier than I had expected and my brain just freezes. C takes over the lead next and works her way up to the 8th bolt. The route moves left off of the arête and it feels sketchy. She comes down and A gives it a shot but comes back down.

This is the first time I have climbed with a group of women that are so equally matched–there isn’t a rope gun among us and there is a shocking lack of ego. This is the moment the festival clicks in. We are shaking off travel and dust, we are working through injuries, and we are doing it together.

I head back up and the first part feels much easier than it did before. The move goes and I finish the climb and come down happy, though I honestly can’t tell you if it’s because I finished the climb or because we all were part of the process.

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Photo op on our way out of Alabama Hills

Back in Bishop we check in for the festival at The Rambler. There are lights strung up and as we get our name tags and tote bags we watch another beautiful sunset. Shelma Jun, the festival organizer, is standing near the tables and talking to everyone. In the line for beer the women behind us say hello and introduce themselves, and everywhere you can hear the same conversation and introductions. We mingle and talk and meet new friends and see familiar faces. We are a sea of beanies and puffy jackets, our new tote bags over our shoulders, and everyone feels approachable.

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Sunset and check in at The Rambler

The next day the festival starts with breakfast at the fairgrounds. As each woman fills her hands with bagels and coffee we sit, but instead of the usual clusters of two or three friends, we form open circles with strangers joining each other and waving over other new friends. I’ve never seen anything like this.

Shelma leads a panel discussion, broadly about being a woman in a sport that is still dominated by men. The discussion moves in to issues of access and privilege and is over before anyone is able to dig too deeply in to any one topic, but it’s time to meet for our workshops.

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Shelma Jun introducing the Women in Climbing panel

Going in to this weekend, I was nervous but excited about the workshop I signed up for—Managing Fear with Nina Williams. Bouldering is not my top choice when it comes to climbing style and falling off of a problem is still a very frightening thing for me. Nina is kind and open and we go around the circle and make introductions and then head to the Buttermilks.

On our hike to our first boulder, Nina points to a large formation and says, “That’s Ambrosia.” A few days before she made the first female ascent and the climb is high, dangerous, and stunning.


Nina Williams and our Managing Fear workshop (Photo credit: Trish Ang @feesh)

As we climb Nina asks us to pay attention to our fear—she asks us what our physical reaction is and what it feels like in our bodies. She describes her own fear as a ball of light in her chest. She challenges new women to place the pads carefully at each new boulder and she cheers us on as we try and fail or try and succeed on each problem. As we wrap up at each spot she jumps on and moves easily through the sequences and it is beautiful to watch.


Trying to warm up in the sun. Photo credit: Trish Ang (@feesh)

Throughout the workshop each woman cheers and climbs and spots and laughs. We share snacks and chase each other’s hats when the wind gusts tear them off of our heads. Did we climb? Yes. But I’ve been climbing before. I haven’t felt this kind of complete support where failure was simply part of the process.

Back at the fairgrounds we have dinner and find seats for the film fest. Two thirds of the way through the films we take a break to raffle off prizes and Shelma pauses to talk to the crowd. She starts to try to talk but gets choked up. Pretty soon everyone is on their feet, clapping and cheering, and when I look around everyone looks about ready to cry. This is space is so important. I can’t say it enough—the space to simply be together, without judgement, without ego—it sounds new agey to call it a gift, but that’s what it felt like.

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Group shot!

The last day of the festival starts with breakfast again and a group photo, and then we break in to groups to climb or work on stewardship projects. My friends and I decide to join the crew working at The Pit. When we arrive the clouds are dark and moody and the wind is gusting. We grab bags and shovels and go campsite to campsite cleaning out fire pits, taking care of random garbage. The other half of our group pulls out Russian Thistle. As we finish the rain starts and, for us, the festival is over.

There were other things that happened of course— we encountered more kindness then I can mention here. We made jokes that played across the entire weekend and we all got overwhelmed by socializing constantly. We battled wind and laughed about puppets and soup. We had a very LA day and then we flew home and we tumbled out of our Lyft happy to be back in our own beds. I would do it all again in a heartbeat.