In Memory of Towyn Williams (1926 – 2016)
I associate much of my childhood with a little white farmhouse in the Welsh countryside. My roots are firmly planted there. Planted between the rows of strawberries and the tunnels of raspberry bushes.
by Rhiannon Williams
My feet are planted in the red carpet, right in front of the fireplace where we gathered for tea or telly. I can picture my grandma balancing out a huge tray filled to the gold brim with dainty porcelain cups, announcing “Teeeeea-tiiiime” in a corralling singsong, and like the chickens at feed time, we’d all come running to the beckon of her call.
After tea, my grandpa would sit in his armchair and watch the news, patiently allowing one or more of my three sisters and I to sit in his lap or decorate him with sparkly plastic hair barrets. I was usually the one climbing up his sturdy frame like it was a jungle gym. Grandma would set to work on a crossword puzzle, inking the daily newspaper with rounded lettering, persevering until every square was filled. I often sat in the window that jutted out of the house turning it into a sauna-type space. Dead flies and butterflies lined the bottom of the window. I used to look at them curiously, and Grandma would collect the butterflies and pin them onto a framed board, preserving their legacies behind the glass. Now, I’m back in that living room on an unexpected deviation of my ’round-the-world climbing trip; the red carpet has faded several shades. My grandpa is in a hospital bed in front of the same window.
The trip I’m on is technically a climbing trip but has transformed into a quest to explore my roots, both physically and metaphorically. I’ve had time to explore what drives me and time to figure out what’s important to me, but it’s a quest that’s evolving with no tangible answer, and I’ve come to terms with that. This “climbing” trip has molded into a thing of its own, a thing that questions and pokes and prods and gnaws, a thing that gives me a glimpse into the scale of things. A scale beyond my comprehension, which makes me take a step back and laugh at how seriously I take things like climbing sometimes. I’ve found expansion and rhythm by stepping back versus forward. When my friend Amy and I planned this trip, I saw it linearly. Yet, this trip has been anything but linear. I’ve looped around, tying in loose threads along the way. Synapses are connecting, and bigger pictures are transcending. Frayed, unfinished ends of past memories and experiences are weaving together. And now I’ve found myself on the farm where I learned to love and play and climb. Where my story started. But this story started high up on the granite walls of Yosemite.
On an exposed pitch near the top of East Buttress of El Capitan, I have a moment of panic as I get to an awkward move on a flaring groove. I am distrustful of my gear in the slippery flare and am scared to commit to the next move, not knowing if I can complete it without falling through vapid space. I eventually go for the tricky maneuver and pull through with shaky legs and over-gripped forearms, glancing back at the ghastly fall I would have taken if I hadn’t been successful. In that precarious moment, I pulled from a confidence that has often been out of grasp for me.
I want to ground it before it flies away, and so, building off the buzz we’ve cultivated on this climbing trip, Amy and I start talking about planning something bigger. It starts with some hypothetical words put out there into the space between us. Not yet a fully fledged idea. Not quite literal. But once the words are out, they linger in the air, hanging in dead space, and then gaining momentum, they edge into conversations more frequently: first as a joke, then as a question, and then metamorphosed into a real plan, actualized with the clicking of a rectangular button with the word BUY. We quit our jobs and are going to go on a trip, starting in Spain with no real plans for destinations or end dates.
The span between buy and fly soars past in a kaleidoscope of memories, and I try to grasp the dry-desert sunsets and late-night roommate chats. I hold on to the translucent moments where my sisters and I let down our barriers and cry and laugh in raw honesty. And then the kaleidoscope comes full circle, and I’m in New York with Amy and her family, preparing to fly to Spain. A day before we leave, we run around a bitterly cold New York, frantically buying things we think we need and playing the in-and-out game with gear and garments. While our packs are only sixty liters, they are almost splitting at the seams and grow tall above our heads, creating a slightly crooked profile. I feel comforted by the idea of travel; this is to be my second long-term trip. The first I took was several years earlier where I grew more than I knew was possible at the time. Transitioning out of a long-term relationship, I had turned to surfing as a way to process my thoughts and insecurities. What started as a surfing trip in Indonesia, ended as a climbing trip in Thailand. Climbing is different than surfing but is the same in the way that it simultaneously challenges and connects me. It has taught some of the biggest lessons in my life.
After a long flight, we are picked up at the Barcelona airport by Amy’s friend Jonny, a charming Brit with rosy cheeks and an infectious spirit. He inaugurates us to the best climbing areas in Spain, and we travel around Catalunya for the next month, exploring steep limestone walls and little Spanish towns. We sample tapas, take over eighties nights at seedy clubs in off-kilter towns, and practice paragliding in ground school while we watch our friends soar off cliffs into the blue sky that ends where it meets the indiscriminate ocean line. And we climb. We climb with heart. I climb until my arms are solid. I can almost see the lactic acid swirling around my forearms, angry but satisfied.
I take huge, flighty whippers. It seems that I have adopted the habit of always taking that fall that you don’t want to take. You know, the one where you follow the line from the ground and think to yourself, I wouldn’t want to fall there—right at the generously spaced bolt, or the ghastly pendulum. It’s my new thing, I guess—hopefully, a passing trend. While I don’t necessarily love flailing through the air like an unwieldy grasshopper, I like what it stands for.
Women are often described as being calculated and calm in climbing, but women can also be bold and hearty. Like my grandma who, as a teenager, legendarily beat all the village boys in a sprint race, much to their disbelief and confusion. She didn’t hold back to fit a mold. Amy climbs with mastery. While she’s the stronger climber, I rarely notice because we see each other as equals. Climbing partnership isn’t about who’s the strongest, it’s about stepping in when the energy is dwindling and stepping back when there’s an opportunity that will empower your second. Partnership is about laughing the jitters off before you start on an intimidating multi-pitch and understanding that everyone gets hangry sometimes, especially when you forgot the food bag and are eight pitches up. That’s when you share the emergency granola bar that you stashed in your pocket so you can finish the climb together.
Before long, we find a rhythm. That’s one of my favorite parts of traveling, when all of a sudden you find yourself in a groove without knowing how exactly you got there. It’s like climbing in the Creek; at first, it’s awkward and painful, and then at some point, you’re chopping up cracks and hanging off jams with smooth rapport. The daily routine begins with morning yoga (and acro-yoga attempts) and is followed by copious amounts of French press coffee drinking and crepe making. The hikes to the walls are winding and gorgeous, often following rivers and always boasting stunning vistas. After pulling on pockets (or tufas) all day, we make pie. Mushroom pie, sweet potato pie, soft, flaky handmade crust (always adorned with a cute center cutout). We are pie-making machines. This too reminds me of making blackberry pie with my grandma. We’d scour the brambles for berries, staining our hands and lips a dark purple. Then we’d prepare the crust from scratch and follow her instructions: a pinch of this, a dash of that. In the interim between pie time and bedtime, we dedicate time to learning something new, knowing that life’s complexities reach far beyond our climbing microcosm. We read articles about social justice and politics, and then, if we have the luxury of Internet, we throw in a few cat videos for good measure.
We choose Margalef to spend the remainder of our time in Spain. It’s a town nestled among endless pocketed caves and cliffs. There’s a village store run by Anna, who always greets us warmly and kindly and entertains our attempts at Spanish. We adopt a pet that we name Silky Kitty, although she’s really half silky, a quarter muddy, and a quarter matted. She has a temperament on the unpredictable side, but she slowly lets us see her inner softie. The climbing style in Margalef is powerful and often requires dramatic gymnastic-like moves. At first, we’re completely destroyed after just a few turns on the endurance routes, but after a while, we notice we can hang on a little longer, and then just a little longer. I go through a grueling process of ego bashing, which I quickly learn to let go of in order to preserve my sanity. I climb with the intention to learn, and that is all. I let go of expectations, and my climbing improves. Through these subtle revelations, I realize that the great growth I desired at the beginning of this trip is transpiring in subtle and intricate ways, ways I could never have planned for. The lessons float to the surface and magnetize from somewhere deep in my psyche, revealing connections that were at the tip of my tongue.
On our last day in Margalef, Amy and I both get thrown off of our projects on the last move. Over and over again, we get rejected by the wall, and I imagine it grinning from ear to ear as it propels us into the air. I’m one move away from sending a grade that I didn’t know was even possible for me six months ago. While it’s frustrating, it’s also true to the style of this area, and it almost feels good…almost. Really, it just sets the hooks in deep, and I know I’ll be back. We hitchhike out of Margalef, getting picked up by some climbers who are kind enough to tolerate our massive bags engulfing the limited back seat space, squishing strangers together in an awkward tangle. We have a few days to play in Barcelona while preparing for the next leg of our trip, which is in the UK.
Of all places, climbing in Great Britain intimidates me the most. My opinion is based off of Internet videos featuring terrifyingly runout trad, exposed sea cliffs with finicky placements, tiny, slick footholds, and crazy Brits who somehow find the humor in it all. Climbing grades have names like “Hard Very Severe” and “Extremely Severe.” The descriptive names evoke grave mental images, but luckily, we come to find that the Brits like to exaggerate (just a little). As a child, I was oblivious to the looming sea crags and rich climbing history that surrounded me. Instead, I found trees and barns to satiate my desire to climb higher and higher. I later discovered that my dad used to scale the local quarries, boldly unroped. This doesn’t really surprise me since he was always the parent at the park that was precariously balancing along the top beams of the jungle gym frame while the rest watched in amusement from the safety of the benches. I am excited and nervous to explore my homeland in a new way.
We start by spending a week in Sheffield, a British climbing hub. We are lucky enough to have places to stay with people we have met along our adventure thus far. It rains, but we climb anyway. This seems to be the culture of climbing here. When it rains at a rate that even scares the Brits off the grit, I adopt one of Amy’s favorite pastimes, scouring thrift stores in search of the coziest and cheapest sweaters. In the constant gray drizzle, it turns out that a soft sweater and a cup of tea help you turn a blind eye to the weather. When the sun finds its way through the gloom, we climb at Stanage on the infamous velcro gritstone. We learn the twin-ropes system to account for the rope drag since the climbs are often longer sideways than they are tall. We tick off some classic routes and solo some easier ones. To call it soloing is a stretch though, since the height of the walls can’t be much taller than Buttermilk’s highballs.
We wind all over Wales, following jagged coastline in our friend’s white VW van. We spend a week climbing the limestone cliffs in Pembroke during one of the hottest weeks of the year. The rock is sweaty in the sun, and it makes the climbing much more precarious, almost soapy. Armed with a mishmash of wires scrounged up by our friends, it takes time and patience to master the placements, fishing the wires into awkward openings and slotting them down, hoping they won’t wiggle through the undulating rock, as they often do. Yank it once well, then once more just in case. It’s a game of patience. A process that can’t be rushed. The ocean is fantastically blue, rushing in and out of the rocks below. I struggle with moments of panic when I become frustrated with the gear, whispering to myself to stay calm, relax your grip, find a solution, and there always is a solution. I learn to trust my gear more than I have before, growing confident in my capabilities. It feels so satisfying to get out of my comfort zone and to be encouraged to do so by the people I surround myself with. In the past, others have discouraged me to climb bold or scary routes. I question whether this would have happened if I were of the opposite gender. We deep-water solo over the freezing waters. At one point, I look down to see the biggest pink jellyfish I’ve ever seen, bobbing calmly below. Its ethereal tentacles flow in and out of the glassy water, making me smile; we are both in our element.
I take time off from climbing to visit with my grandpa, who has been struggling. It’s the moment in the trip that catches me off guard and wrenches me backward, reversing that linear plane in which I understood the world to work in. I’m back in front of the window in the living room with the red carpet. I spend time sitting with my grandpa, just holding his hand to let him know that I’m there. His hands are softer than I remember. They used to be weathered, slightly swollen, and patterned with abrasions. I used to stare at them, intrigued. These days, my hands look like that. I have the hands of a farmer. The hands of someone who isn’t afraid to get dirty or work hard. In college, my hands didn’t fit in with the manicured, lotioned hands of my Florida friends, but I didn’t mind, because I knew that a person’s hands tell a story, and I wanted mine to be unabashed and weighty.
Being back home floods my senses with images and smells. The house is still smoky, like an incense you can’t decide whether you like. I decide now that I like it. Picture collages on the walls are gathering dust: my family in matching gold-and-white striped sweat suits, my sister and I with matching bowl cuts, festive Christmas days filled with tinsel and smiles, and my parents on their wedding day, yellow roses in my mom’s red hair.
Wandering into the garden, I spy my favorite tree, which is rotten now, just a few nails evidencing the old fort my sisters and I built. We thought we were so clever when we made a pulley system between the branches, sending notes back and forth, then pails of “food” (different concoctions of flowers and sticks and sap). Eventually, we figured out how to pull ourselves up to the highest branches by attaching a milk crate to a rope and hoisting ourselves all the way up to the tippy top. Once, I fell out of the tree, hard onto my back. Wheezing for air that refused to fill my lungs as it should, I thought I might die. As I reflect on my dirt-crusted, tree-climbing self, I can trace the evolution of my growth in climbing and my need to explore and adventure.
Moving on from Wales is difficult. I’m not sure when I’ll be back. I’m not sure if I’ll see Whitehall farm. I somehow know that this will be the last time that I see my grandpa. Driving down the bumpy farm road away from the white house, I hold back tears, remembering when I was twelve, and we left to move to Florida. My sisters and I cried a chorus of blubbers and wails as we looked out of the back window of the car and waved at my grandparents, who were slowly shrinking from our vision. Dust from the road masked their melancholy faces. I wrestle thoughts in my head to try to make sense of everything. There was a lot of love at Whitehall farm. It’s a sense of love that doesn’t leave when everyone else does. I find it in the quiet moments bivvying under sky of stars or wandering around the woods. I find it when I talk with my parents and sisters, noting how they’ve absorbed the gentleness of my grandpa and the vivaciousness of my grandma into their own identities. Those years on the farm have affected my family in immense ways, and we’ve inadvertently integrated and preserved their legacy in complex ways. For me, climbing has been a way to connect back to the spirit of the farm and the lessons from my grandparents. But while climbing is a central part of the itinerary, it’s not the most important part of this trip. I climb. But that’s not who I am. Instead, climbing is a catalyst for exploration. It helps me to see the important stuff: How I treat others. How I treat myself. How to love myself. How do I love myself? It pushes me to chase the scary stuff because I know what falling and failing and trying again give me. And it reminds me of myself as a six year old, dressed up in my very best party dress, only to sit in the deepest puddle I could find, blissfully unaware of the beautiful contradictions that I was making.
As a kid, Rhiannon Williams was an out-of-control tornado child whose immense energy made her parents shudder. Luckily, she’s figured out how to harness this energy into climbing, art, and yoga! You can see more of her art at www.rhiannonklee.com.
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