The Importance of “No”

I see article after article telling people to embrace their fears, asking parents to allow their children to be brave and play outside, sharing stories of incredible women doing terrifying and awe-inspiring things. I’ve even written some. It’s pretty rad to be an outdoor lady right now. That said, very rarely do I see articles telling women that it’s ok to be scared, to acknowledge our limits, and to say “no” when we realize we can’t go any further. It’s a fine line, one that should be pushed, and often, but one that should also be recognized.

Generally speaking, I’m scared of everything, or at least that’s what it feels like. I’m a member of an outdoor industry where women are constantly pushing themselves to the next level, and here I am, crying because there’s an exposed section of third and fourth class unroped climbing on my route. Basically, a steep section of hiking, with adequate handholds and foot placements, but could result in serious injury should a fall occur. I just really like being alive and can only handle so much risk.

When I was a kid, my dad tried to get me to go roller skating, and I became so terrified–whether from the flashing disco lights or the speeding strangers on wheels, I have no idea–that I immediately began sobbing in the welcome area, and we had to leave. The only time I ever rode on a roller coaster was because there was a cute guy on it, and I can’t thank the popular girls of my middle school enough for holding my hands as I tried not to die on Disney’s Tower of Terror. Twice. In a row.


When I got into climbing and started talking to people who don’t climb about climbing, it was like someone had unfurled a banner over my head saying, “Look at this incredibly fearless human.” Which is great, but not something I’ve always believed about myself. That feeling, the one where you disagree with that “Bad to the Bone Wilderness Babe” banner, is not a great feeling. It leads to a lot of unhealthy competition, which usually only pushes me further into my negative feelings hole that’s filled with thoughts like “I’m not outdoorsy enough” or “I’m not brave enough.” That phrase, “ not enough,” when used as some sort of measuring device to decide just how outdoorsy you are, doesn’t help anyone and just makes me feel worse about myself, a feeling no one should experience but sadly we probably all do.


View from one of the belay ledges on Nutcracker.

I recently got back from a trip to Yosemite, the birthplace of American rock climbing and where one of my climbing idols, Lynn Hill, was the first person, male or female, to climb The Nose without aid. My trip was amazing. I teared up entering the park and was shocked at how much I loved the climbing style that I was exposed to (technical slab and crack climbing). Unfortunately I did not get to enjoy it to the fullest. On our first multi-pitch climb of the trip I managed to get my entire body stuck in a crack that I had tried to climb like it was a chimney, wedging myself in, only to realize I couldn’t breathe in it. I began to panic, tears forming in my eyes, as my boyfriend repeatedly told me, “You can do it!” and “You got this!” Of course, he couldn’t actually see what it was that I was doing, so his encouragement struck me as a bit hollow. The route I could do, but the silly technique I was attempting…no, I couldn’t do that, and no amount of encouraging shouting would make that happen. Eventually from across the way, one of our friends informed me that I need to lay-back, and I did. It was burly, and I had to take several deep breaths in order to collect myself, but I finished it.

Still smiling several pitches after wanting to give up. Photo by Devin Horgan.

Unfortunately, this uplifting moment of personal achievement didn’t save me from the following “climbing” day when I fell into two thorn bushes, we hiked in the wrong direction through large granite talus that scraped up my ankles, my knees wouldn’t stop hurting, and the last thing I had any remote desire to do was scramble up that aforementioned un-roped third class section of rock wall to get to the route we had been trying to find. I sat and cried on a boulder. I told my boyfriend that I wasn’t outdoorsy enough. He sat down next to me and tried to talk me through my emotions and convince me to press on, but I’d had enough. I was done. And I felt guilty as hell about it. And then I felt guilty about feeling guilty.

Feelings are complicated, and psychological fortitude is an exceptionally tricky beast to master (it feels like a never-ending battle I’ve just barely begun). My wonderful and insanely brave friend, Kathy Karlo, recently helped to establish a new route off the coast of Africa. Several weeks ago she posted a photo and wrote, “Today is not my favorite day. I felt frustrated and scared and tired and weak.[..] Today I just want to be on the ground.” She explained to me that she had been in several situations that could have resulted in her rope being severed while lowering off a climb, something far more frightening than my thorn bush struggles, and after spending the day alone on the wall decided that she would try again tomorrow. At the end of the day, she had had enough. While it is important to recognize when our fears are trivial (the thorn bushes did not kill me), it is also incredibly important to recognize when we need to stop, to accept that we’ve had enough, and to acknowledge the strength and courage it takes to back down when you aren’t ready. You are still a bad to the bone, hella outdoorsy, gorgeous, strong, and brave wilderness babe. You can try it again tomorrow.

Kathy Karlo still smiling despite her fear. Photo by Matthew Parent.


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