Baby Makes Three Dirtbags: A Family Climbing Trip, Part 3 of 4

Every year as the angle of the sun arcs lower in the sky, the air takes on a crisp quality, and the aspen leaves turn from green to golden fire, I start to feel a pull deep inside. An innate feeling that tells me its time to wrap up my loose ends, gather my gear, and head out on the road for the next climbing adventure before the winter season begins. For the past 14 years or so I’ve embarked on this rock climbing road trip—it has become an annual ritual of sorts. A time to send my personal projects and get some much-needed time climbing with my husband (who is my favorite climbing partner but equally as busy as I am guiding and working as a professional athlete for most of the year). This fall takes on even more significance, as my 13-month-old baby will be joining us on our annual pilgrimage.

Upon leaving the Eastern Sierras and entering into the heart of the Mojave Desert, I can’t help but observe the reality of the severe drought that California is currently in. One can see the effects of a low snowpack in the Bishop region, then downstream the results grow exponentially. I am hoping that the snow gods are good to the Sierras this coming winter.  Mojave Desert gives way to L.A. sprawl, equally as dry, but filled with pockets of man-made lawn and palm oases. We’re headed to LAX for a little flight detour on our climbing road trip. We’re flying into Atlanta to see my husband’s side of the family, and to test our finger strength and technique on the Southeast’s finest sandstone. 

K-Bear is humming a tune in a 14-month-old’s gibberish language as reggae and R&B waft through our radio. Traffic is ever present in this wild matrix of human populace.  Luxury cars with shiny wax finishes adjacent to us in this gridlock make our Subaru look frumpy. Our manual transmission doesn’t like the traffic either, clutch in, clutch out, brake, brake, quick go, gas-clutch, braaaaaake. Breathe. It kind of puts everything into perspective. I feel lucky to live my life in the fresh mountain air, have the freedom of the open road, and the ability to walk or ride my bike to work. It also reminds me that this earth cannot continue to sustain our population at our current rate of resource use. I vow to make changes in my everyday life to help change this course. My husband reminds me that we live a relatively environmentally friendly lifestyle, and that I should not be so hard on myself. However, the irony does not evade me as we pull into one of the busiest airports in America to catch our jet airplane back east.

We arrive in Atlanta to the splendor of yet another autumn array. Our climbing trip seems to be following the progression of the fall season across the U.S. The air is light and crisp, a beautiful time to be in the Southeast. We settle in at my in-laws’ and get treated to comfort food and lots of southern hospitality. K-Bear meets Cedar, my in-laws’ golden retriever, and they make instant best friends. Our plan is to take a couple days in the city, including climbing at one of America’s biggest indoor climbing gyms, Stone Summit, and then head to Tennessee to go bouldering on some of the “best boulders in the country,” according to my husband.

Stone Summit is one of the largest climbing gyms in the United States. It also has some of the tallest walls in the country, at over 60 feet. As soon as I walk through the doors, I’m intimidated by the enormity of this plastic climbing mecca.

I’m not a gym rat by any means, but I can see how this gym could keep you occupied daily. Today we’re headed into the bouldering cave while our little one plays on the soft mats. My husband and I take turns on our boulder problems while the other takes care of our baby girl and rests between problems. After a couple hours, I’m beat. I need to save some energy for the gym’s big walls.

Day two at Stone Summit, we leave little K-Bear at home with Grandma and Grandpa and head for the big lead routes on the main 60-foot inverted headwall. Talking to the owner, Daniel Luke, he says, “When we first opened this gym, no one would even touch the center big walls, but slowly over time, climbers started tackling the center overhanging walls, and then people got really strong.” It’s the climber’s version of field of dreams: If you build it, people will come, and then they will climb it!

On our turn, we tackle a 5.9 to start. I get so pumped I have to rest two-thirds of the way up the wall. Next, we go for a 5.10, steeply overhanging with some big, reachy moves. I am feeling more confident this time, and I make it to the top without letting go, but I’m completely gassed. Next, we go for a 5.11, but I can already feel the lactic acid stopping me from reaching the top “Falling!” I yell down, but alas, we’re in a busy climbing gym with music and people, and my belayer, aka ropegun-hubby, doesn’t hear me 50 feet above him. I take a huge whipper out into space, the kind that puts your heart in your throat. We climb a couple more routes, but try not to completely outdo ourselves because we’re heading to the real rock in a couple days, and I want to make sure I’m fresh for the sandstone bouldering I’ve been anticipating.

Stone Fort, aka “Little Rock City” is located on the Cumberland Plateau about 30 minutes north of Chattanooga. The rock is the renowned “capstone” sandstone, which is considered to be the best quality rock that runs through the region. We wind our way up a scenic road to the top of the plateau and enter onto a golf course. The balance between climber access and private property is an ongoing battle, especially in regions like the southeast where private property came along before public lands were set aside. However, Stone Fort is an access success story where the local climbing community has worked very hard to create a symbiotic relationship with the owners of the golf course upon which the Stone Fort boulders rest. We enter into the clubhouse and pay a daily fee to use the boulders for the day. The contrast between the golfer and the climber communities is a funny juxtaposition, but seems to be the natural way around here.

Bouldering pad and baby on our backs, we head into the forested trails that lead to the boulders.

We warm up on some classic V1 and V2 problems.

K-Bear also gets her bouldering on and sends a flawless slab route.

The stone is amazing! Grippy, with not one loose grain. It’s really so good. We venture deeper into the woods where we find gem after gem of incredible boulder routes. V6 traverses, V4 dynos, V2 sloper sit starts, V5 fingerlocks, V3 jugs, V1 mantles … endless climbing. I could spend a year here easily.

My husband nails Dragon Lady, while I struggle to reach up to the necessary hold to get over the roof.

K-Bear discovers a baby milksnake, “Ohhhhhh!” she exclaims, as I pull her away before she reaches for the snake.

We spend three days enjoying the superb bouldering before we return to Atlanta, fingers sore, and satisfied.

Tomorrow we head back to L.A. to pick up our trusted Subaru and head to our final climbing destination for the trip, our beloved Joshua Tree. Stay tuned…