Sanni McCandless: A Force of Nature by Joy Martin

Oct 24 • Locations • 2988 Views • No Comments on Sanni McCandless: A Force of Nature by Joy Martin

Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you in better living conditions.

—Hafiz

I’ve always been a sucker for men with incredible strength-to-weight ratios. My husband, a wiry 5´11˝, coming in at 139 pounds on a good day, has the most gorgeous, well-defined arms I’ve ever laid eyes on. They’re not huge, but they’re capable of amazing feats. One of my favorite things in the world is watching him climb or build stuff, those biceps fully engaged, forearms pumped. It’s like he becomes this force of nature, one with whatever he’s doing, master of his universe. It’s beauty in motion.

by Joy Martin (this piece is printed in Volume 11, “Choss, Solos, and Reflection” Get your copy, or subscribe HERE) Banner photo of Sanni climbing in Wild Iris, Wyoming by Ted Hesser

When we first started hanging out seven years ago, I was into “soft” adventures, like hiking and world travel. He, on the other hand, was way more hardcore in outdoor endeavors, an avid climber, mountain biker, skier. I ached for his arms to learn these things too and was grateful he wanted me to join.

On our initial outings, scrambling through slot canyons or across chossy ridgelines, I often found myself in the uber-attractive beached-whale position, struggling mightily to not look like a total amateur. But I pressed on, laughing at myself as I maneuvered the learning curves, because I knew the reward was always worth the awkward effort. Thankfully, even though you can barely see them, my muscles grew to fit my ambition, and my maladroit moments are now fewer and farther between.

Those early days weren’t all conquering summits and recapping perfect sun-soaked days. Rather (more than I care to admit) I would get super frustrated with my weaknesses, embarrassed that I couldn’t do this or that, fearful he wouldn’t like me when I failed. In these psycho-hosebeast moods, I would bring up girls stronger, faster, better than me. I called the collective her “Gnar Chick.”

“Wouldn’t you rather be with Gnar Chick?” I’d prod my strong-armed man.

At first, he’d lovingly explain that it was me he wanted, not a more adept skier, climber, biker. But I couldn’t let it go. Finally, his typical cool, calm demeanor snapped, and a deserved tirade unleashed about how I had to stop pushing him toward this fictitious character and just embrace wherever I was on my athletic journey. So I dropped Gnar Chick talk, and our adventures got way more fun.

Thank goodness I got (mostly) over this comparison syndrome before Instagram. Now I can just be inspired by Gnar Chick, grateful for coming into my own version of the collective her. These days, I even have a few Gnar Chick crushes, like Taylor Freesolo Rees and this other badass I’m about to introduce you to.

Last year, I was flipping through Instagram when I saw that Alex Honnold, one of my strength-to-weight crushes (I have a lot of crushes), had a girlfriend. I’d read that Alex was a little shy and socially awkward. He’s darn likeable for these reasons, so I was really excited that he had found someone to share the good times with. Social media’s weird like that, like, how you can be genuinely happy for a complete stranger.

I thought, damn, Alex’s girlfriend must be a Gnar Chick, but when I checked her photos, I quickly saw that she was, in fact, NOT the typical Gnar Chick. In lieu of BASE jumping and sponsorships was the sweetest creature ever. Though there were climbing photos and majestic mountain scenes scattered throughout her feed, Sanni McCandless was really this all American girl next door adorned with a soul-melting smile and dimples. She looked so fun and carefree.

The author (right) with lean, mean Nick Martin. Photo: Joy Martin Collection

There was a link to her blog, Thirty Fives Degrees West. Turns out she’s a great writer too. Her heart-on-sleeve prose and self-deprecating sense of humor reveal a girl who wrestles with improving both her skill and attitude in the great outdoors—just like me—while trying to live her biggest, boldest life. Her blog introduction captures her essence well:

“When I was a sophomore in high school, I was sitting in Spanish class, mindlessly tapping my pencil in front of me, when it suddenly slipped from my fingers and flew up and over the front of my tiny wooden desk. Without a second thought, I hurled myself forward, swinging onto the front legs of my chair as I attempted to catch it in mid-air. I missed by a long shot, flailing my arms and teetering precariously for a brief second before crashing face-first into the ground. Still in the seated position, I hung over the front of my desk with my face on the floor and my ass in the air, looking at my pencil, questioning my life choices up to this point. It was at this moment that I realized life is not clean or pretty or perfect, but actually a string of sometimes wonderful and sometimes mortifying events that give you a weird, but overall engaging sense of character. It is, in fact, hilarious.”

Sanni exposes bits of her “engaging sense of character” through welcoming narratives following this intro, so I pieced together her story, filling in the blanks after a recent phone conversation we shared.

Born in Seattle and raised in North Carolina, Cassandra “Sanni” McCandless is known for being eternally nice and bright beyond her years. When she was twenty-two, her older sister taught her how to climb, encouraging her to just try her best. It was a gentle start for the noncompetitive, self-proclaimed “half athletic dabbler.”

McCandless looking truth straight in the eye. Photo: Malena Harrang

After earning a psychology degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Sanni moved back to the Pacific Northwest. She was thriving in independence and a vibrant community—even her tomato plants were sprouting. Her climbing and friend group was mostly composed of strong, supportive, wildly entertaining women. One night in November 2015, she and one of these gals went to hear Alex Honnold on his book tour for Alone on the Wall.

Sanni perked up at his honest answers to audience questions. Single and weary of the complexities of online dating, she’d imposed a new life rule on herself to give her number to any men she thought were cute. Alex, she thought, was cute, so, when she and her girlfriend walked up to the table to have him sign their co-copy of his book, Sanni gave him her number, then bolted for the door.

As they were leaving, a guy in line ran after her and said that Alex was all geeked that a cute girl gave him her number. Flattered and giggling, Sanni and her girlfriend departed to Seattle’s lamplit streets. Three weeks later, when Alex returned to Seattle for the final night of his book tour, he texted Sanni for a dinner date. She picked him up from the climbing gym, and Cedar Wright climbed in the back seat.

“It seems fitting that Cedar was on our first date,” Sanni says, laughing.

So the trio had pizza before Alex’s talk, and then everyone met at Sanni’s house afterward for a bonfire. It occurred to Sanni later that inviting Alex to meet all of her amazing, beautiful, single girlfriends might have been a bad idea, but they didn’t seem to matter to the guy who couldn’t wipe the grin off his face. Six months later, Sanni had packed up her life in Seattle to join Alex for a climbing trip in Switzerland.

It was in the Alps that the former “half athletic dabbler” developed a curiosity of her own abilities. Sanni says Alex stirred her interest to try harder, set objectives, cultivate tenacity and a willingness to scrabble her way up holds. She discovered that small fingers were her greatest strength. But as her muscles strengthened, so did her fear.

“I was afraid to lead, afraid of getting my foot caught behind the rope, afraid to fall,” she says. “It became clear that getting better meant facing my fear of falling, learning to transform fearful energy into focused and controlled energy.”

Sanni and Alex. Photo: Sanni McCandless Collection

Alex was instrumental in pushing Sanni to not let her fear get the best of her on the wall. Acknowledge the anxious thoughts, and then move through them intentionally, he’d say.

“Often my fear on the wall occurs when I project anxiety into the future, even if everything is fine in the moment,” writes Sanni. “Yes, I can grab this hold, but what if I can’t grab the next one? What if it gets too hard? In my personal life, my plans are currently as flexible and moldable as my creativity allows, and I find myself engaged and inspired by the emptiness. What if I took this approach in my climbing? Instead of being afraid that I won’t be able to handle the move in front of me, I’m instead excited by the opportunity to figure it out—maybe on the first try, or maybe 450 attempts later.”

As Sanni’s climbing prowess escalated, so did her relationship with Alex. They traveled near and far, scaling walls, working on projects together and separately. Inspiring and not-so-inspiring climbing days came and went, and Sanni’s techniques for navigating stress triggers in the outdoors seemed to translate seamlessly into dealing with life’s inevitable trials.

“When I first started dating Alex, people would ask me about death,” she writes on her blog. “They wanted to know how I felt about his profession and the risk involved in soloing. But I wasn’t wondering if he would die; I was wondering if we even liked each other. Instead of deep contemplations on risk and consequence, I felt an intense curiosity to learn more about relationships in his world. I was drawn to partnerships that mimicked our own situation, half professional climber, half athletic dabbler.”

Nicole and Ueli Steck were one of these couples who Sanni saw as an example “of a possible future yet to come.” So when Ueli died earlier this year during a climbing accident on Everest, Sanni was forced to face the reality that people she loves live their lives “dangerously close to the edge.”

“Now, I suddenly feel the need to establish a new stance on death, not just because of Alex, but because I’m clearly growing up,” she writes. “It’s funny how even writing this, I feel like it’s inappropriate and morbid. I’m somehow breaking an unwritten code that death should be discussed quietly and privately. But I hate the unspoken. For my whole life I’ve said what I feel when I feel it. I don’t hold grudges or hang on to past offenses, instead I (sometimes awkwardly) bring up issues moments after they occur. I want death to be no different. No longer taboo, no longer off-limits.

“Because no matter how much we like to avoid thinking about it, death is as much a part of living as life itself,” she continues. “In modern society, dying is something to be feared. Something to run away from at all costs. And while I would fight for my life to the very end, I also want to know that if I die, the people around me will look back on our time together fondly, not tinged with tragedy and devastation, but thankful for the time we had together. I would never want my death to take the joy of living from someone else.

“It’s natural and healthy to grieve, but maybe it’s also ok when the time is up. Not because we won’t miss the shit out of people we love, but because death is coming for us all. Out of respect, we should live life fully while we’re here, thankful that our loved ones did the same.”

With resolve to honor this awareness, Sanni kept pushing through plateaus, becoming more comfortable climbing 5.12s. Meanwhile, Alex focused on training for the holy grail of his climbing career: free soloing El Capitan, that three-thousand-foot granite face looming over Yosemite Valley.

In early June, the weather window appeared, so Alex picked a day. The couple agreed it’d be easiest if Sanni left Yosemite for the main event. She played it tough until after she kissed him good-bye and headed out of The Valley.

“When I drove away, I just let my brain go there,” she recalls. “It’s like when you’re home alone and you think of all of the worst case scenarios, like, I’m going to pull open the shower curtain, and there’s going to be a man there. You’re clearly not doing yourself any good to indulge the fear.”

The morning he chalked up and put rubber sole to rock, Sanni’s girlfriends distracted her with pancakes in a kitchen far away in Las Vegas. They put a broom in her hand and made her sweep—anything to keep the nerves at bay. As peace settled and laughter brought her out of reverie, Sanni realized that the day didn’t have to be the worst ever; it could end up being the best. Her hope proved true when she got the call that he’d successfully topped out in less than four hours. Proud, ecstatic relief flooded her soul.

In the beginning days of their relationship, Sanni often wondered why Alex didn’t want to date a more able climber, someone “way cooler and more poised and hilarious”—someone like Gnar Chick. He would just roll his eyes and smile, like good dudes do, reminding her that she was who he wanted to be with and that, above all, stoke for life makes up for any lack of gnar.

“You could be a 5.10 climber for the rest of your life,” he says. “It’s your attitude at the crag, your attitude every day, that counts.”

“The parallels between creating a fulfilling life and pushing myself in the outdoors continue to appear,” writes Sanni. “I’m always better off when I move toward the things I don’t understand because they give me the opportunity to learn more. I’m always stronger when I push myself to confront fear because I learn to trust and rely on my own body and mind. I’m a more open and receptive human when I don’t resist what the universe has put in front of me, but instead move gracefully toward it.”

The last year has roused Sanni to move gracefully toward launching a coaching platform so she can help others take control of their own stoke, their own happiness, and live courageous, intentional lives. Why?

“Because feeling powerless will never serve you,” writes Sanni. “And the longer you wallow, the harder it becomes to take action. When you live intentionally, you become a force of nature. You begin to create instead of react. Your energy shifts. Suddenly, there’s not only momentum in your life, but it’s moving in the direction you wanted to go. That doesn’t just serve you; it serves everyone around you. When you create a fulfilling life for yourself, you raise the bar on what success should look like—you demonstrate that it’s not just about functioning; it’s about thriving.”

As a transition coach for folks in the outdoor industry, Sanni encourages people of varied backgrounds, goals, and abilities to stop making fear-based decisions. She’s not a personal trainer, counselor, mentor, or therapist, she says. Her goal isn’t to advocate for everyone to avoid commitment and embrace van life but, instead, to find a lifestyle that works best for them, one that is fulfilling and passion driven.

“Life coaching has the propensity to come across as really douchey,” she says, laughing. “I’m not here to tell you how it’s done. I’m here to help you through a process because only you know what’s best for you. The goal is to feel fulfillment and balance, not to turn your back on everything that’s important.”

From making time to pursue a goal—outdoors, artistic, or otherwise—to learning how to find balance in relationships rooted in the outdoors, life’s too short for fear to steer. Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you’re Gnar Chick or Totally Rad Dude; you’re alive in this moment, breathing, reading Sanni’s words:

“The more I reflect on my experiences, the more apparent it is that I have a lot of anxiety about losing people in my life. And as a climber, I’m beginning to see just how closely to the line we all play. But, I want to open myself up to other ways of thinking about our mortality. I want to be honest with myself about the realities of life and death—they are both unavoidable, both natural, and both reasons to celebrate our brief time on this planet.”

For more info on Sanni’s life work or to schedule a complimentary session, check out sannimccandless.com. Her blog is thirtyfivedegreeswest.wordpress.com. For more on the other Gnar Chick, er, writer, who finds joy through alpenglow, Nick Martin, bicycles, and homemade ice cream, feel free to peruse joydotdot.com.

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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 four books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 

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