In the land of sugar maples and Carolina silverbells, snails and lungless salamanders, a young girl clung to the rock as if her life depended on it. She wasn’t scared of falling, just determined to grip every ounce of joy from that five hundred million-year-old Appalachian gneiss.
by Joy Martin, Senior Contributor
After months of learning how to climb indoors, Melise Edwards was finally outside, sending the crux of her high school senior project: a study about the psychological effects of extreme sports. The now twenty-seven-year-old remembers her debut multi-pitch in the Pisgah National Forest as “one of the most beautiful and challenging experiences” she’s ever had.
“Climbing is a sport that I shouldn’t love,” says Melise, who abhors heights. “It is not in my nature to willingly chase adventurous or scary moments, but through climbing, I have unexpectedly understood and cherished how to deal with fear and failure.”
Since that formative high school assignment nearly ten years ago, Melise has moved from her home amongst the oak-choked forests of Boone, North Carolina, to the dripping evergreens of the Pacific Northwest. Along the way, she’s had her share of fearful and failing moments, learning financial realities the hard way and not always holding glamorous jobs. Like most young Americans seeking independence, Melise struggled through bouts of depression that kept her humble and fighting to “cherish” the adversity, fodder she used for climbing harder.
Like most dirtbags at heart, Melise has created her own dirtbag style. Not that dirtbags can’t be hot, but she’s absolutely stunning, with smooth, brown skin, wild, curly black hair, almond eyes and teeth whiter than the chalk on her hands.
And not that dirtbags can’t be geniuses, Melise is also wicked smart. A scientist by trade, she puts just as much spirit into understanding the workings of the brain as she does into exploring crags and crannies. She pulls overtime as a lab technician at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, and in her spare time, she’s the chick reading chemistry textbooks or Michael Gazzaniga’s autobiography about his work with split-brain patients. One of her many life goals is to earn a master’s in cognitive neuroscience.
“I used to think that science was something too ‘big’ for me,” says Melise. “I never had a supreme amount of confidence in the field, and still really don’t, but I love it more than anything. I think something that generates that much happiness and excitement is a good place to start.”
Like a classic dirtbag’s tale goes, most of Melise’s life decisions spring from her thirst for happiness and excitement. Only instead of possessing a ‘Freedom Mobile’ or ‘Gertrude’-personified vehicle to chase those intangibles, Melise doesn’t own a car at all. Rather, she relies on the bus for commuting to work and her friends and boyfriend for rides to the crag.
This lack of such a first-world token has deepened her appreciation and awareness of the privilege it takes to be a climber. “Not everyone can afford to pursue a hobby that spends so much money on gear and transportation,” she notes.
“This year, I’ve had many conversations with people who seem to think that everyone has equal opportunities to reach the outdoors. One man even told me that iconic climbers in the 1940s and ’50s were doing iconic feats because they were bold, dedicated and badass—not because they possessed a certain amount of privilege to be unemployed, drive their paid-off vehicles to the mountains, and climb for extended periods of time with absolute freedom from discrimination based on the color of their skin. I think they were bold, dedicated, and privileged.”
Even still in the twenty-first century, the same rings true for anyone who can afford the time, energy, and finances to pursue outdoor adventures, says Melise. It’s a luxury to recreate in this land of plenty and one that Melise refuses to take for granted.
Maybe this fierce resolve stems from genetics, for behind her slightly Southern accent is a semi-fluent French speaker, a language she picked up from her mother and grandmother, a native of St. Etienne. These matriarchs instilled more than un amour pour le français in Melise; they taught her about grace in strength, a tenet Melise carries to the rock, along with her crash pad and homemade strawberry-Nutella cupcakes—stellar crag food, she says, and totally acceptable calories, even in a sport that highlights trim physique almost to a fault.
When she first got into climbing, Melise noticed climbing media focused on skinny as a positive attribute for both female and male climbers, so she craved to be pencil-thin like those body types the magazines touted. She fell for the allure but soon realized that success in climbing springs from overall health, technique, and strength—not thinness.
“Being thin should not be equated with beauty, betterment, or health. Yes, shedding pounds can make climbing easier, but it does not make you a stronger, smarter, or better climber,” she says. “Strong is definitely the new skinny.”
Melise is also quick to acknowledge that women often face unique challenges in their climbing experiences, but she thinks that being a woman is still an amazing asset in climbing.
“Women possess an immense amount of power in climbing,” she says. “We have such an intuitive style…so much ambition and determination. Having to be more creative and dynamic are seemingly our biggest challenges, and those can be remedied through training, experience, and forcing ourselves out of our comfort zones.”
Mind you, her biggest concern is not in a woman’s ability or potential.
“It’s in the subtle cultural notions others carry that lead to women feeling unsafe, heavily critiqued, or unsupported in their climbing.”
These days, her petite frame ripples with muscles she’s worked hard to build. Her training secret is no secret: she prioritizes exercises that help her climb better and not just build strength. Her regime involves two to three hours a day at the gym doing fitness drills, hangboarding, moonboard climbing, weighted pull-ups, free weights, one-arm work, campusing, and cardio. Rest days are spent trail running or reading in bed—science books, of course.
With this recipe, she’s comfortable sending V9s, has found success on V10, and this year aspires to send The Practitioner, a V11 in Leavenworth, Washington.
“As a woman, I often feel we get placed in this box of only trying the climbs with small holds or moves, so it’s always been a priority of mine to try climbs that are tall or have dynamic movement. If I know I have a severe weakness in one area, the fun for me is in diminishing that weakness and making it a strength.”
For example, when people comment on her tiny fingers helping her crimp better, she uses the critique to fuel her training.
“I don’t accept excuses people offer for me and my successes,” she says. “But I do see value in taking notes from criticism. I don’t see the point in having a mentality that suggests that ‘anyone who criticizes me is wrong or just jealous.’ That strips away all responsibility and safeguards us from differing opinions that may hold some truth.
“Acceptance of another’s thoughts can actually benefit someone immensely in their climbing or life…something that rings true in this political climate, as well,” says Melise.
In regards to being a minority in climbing, Melise says that it’s hard to feel completely at ease in a predominantly white community that (with few exceptions) generally promotes white climbers in media.
“Neither race nor gender hold me back in my personal climbing, but race will absolutely be a massive hurdle the climbing community as a whole will have to overcome,” she says. “I would hope that all different colors, body types, backgrounds, and cities would be represented in the near future.”
Melise walks the talk of promoting diversity in a predominantly white, economically sound sport by spending time volunteering with Vertical Generation, a group that strives to get underserved, low-income youth into climbing. In short, the Seattle-based nonprofit strives to reduce welfare dependence and create a supportive community that keeps kids curiosity “high for life.”
Their hope is to “eliminate as many barriers as possible to provide access to climbing” while inspiring future generations to develop problem-solving skills, confidence, and self-determination. Engaging minorities in climbing isn’t the sole focus, but some VG groups that partake in the mentoring program reveal the lack of diversity to be stark.
“Maybe it’s overstepping my boundaries or the extent of my knowledge on the subject, but it seems that history is fresh with regards to oppression of minorities and women,” says Melise. “I would assume that there is some catching up to do before climbing isn’t seen to some as a hobby for a privileged majority.”
Although it’s been a source of peace, support, and joy for Melise, “the climbing community is not a magical bubble void of widespread societal issues,” she shares. These cultural pressures range from socioeconomic status to body, gender, and race matters. It might be the vertical world, but it’s still of this world.
In this time of flagrant Tweeting and disheartening politics, Melise chooses to focus not on the negative but on her role as a positive, rousing voice for equality in an empowering sport. Her blog is rife with stories of women in science and climbing, delicious recipes, and random tidbits about snakes and other curious wildlife, highlighting that, in her short time on Earth, Melise has already grown into a true Renaissance woman. She’s a breath of fresh air in each of her circles, from the climbing and science communities to kindred spirits with a sweet tooth.
“I want to have a contagiously positive attitude at the crag, whether I climb well or not,” she says of her biggest goal this year. “I respect someone for their character and the way they make you feel over their climbing ability. I value humility, kindness, compassion, and an ability to laugh at oneself. It would be a great achievement if I could consistently do the same.”
For the young girl that launched into womanhood on a slab of rock in the Appalachian Mountains nearly a decade ago, the effects of climbing ended up reaching beyond the psychological, shape-shifting her body and overarching purpose. Leaders and followers alike would be wise to heed her insights.
“Never allow someone to define what your hobby—your source of joy—should be for you,” she says. “Your approach is your own; your goals and aspirations are your own…and chocolate chip cookies are a life staple.”
Basecamped in Durango, Colorado, Joy Martin survives as a freelance writer who occasionally guides, ski instructs, delivers flowers, and whatever else it takes to maximize time outside. She’s partial to road trips, alpenglow, Nick Martin, and Jameson on the rocks. More about Joy on www.joydotdot.com.
Dig the words? Keep the dream alive by subscribing to The Climbing Zine.
About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle.
We have also published five books: Graduating From College Me, American Climber, The Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .