I looked down at my Gri-Gri as a salty tear rolled off my cheek into a thousand feet of space and granite. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand, black with sweat and dirt, and moved my ascender up the rope again.
“I can’t believe I wanted to do this,” I thought to myself as I gained another couple feet of fixed rope.
by Becca Skinner
This piece was originally published in The Climbing Zine, Volume 7: dirtbags, hyenas, and free solos. It was republished in The Climbing Zine Book, now available.
Banner photo: a self portrait in front of El Capitan by the author.
I was on the side of El Capitan, with the destination of Heart Ledges only two hundred feet above me. The tears were a mix of fear and acceptance that I would never be a professional climber; a career that had, up until that point, been a goal.
I grew up in a family of adventurers. As a kid, I used to beg my Dad to tell stories of his attempt to climb Everest. Photographs of my grandfather climbing in the early 1950’s were my motivational posters. Then there was my uncle, Todd Skinner, a pioneer of free climbing who put up first ascents all over the world. Adventure has always been laced into my bones as if from an inherited chromosome, a genetic source of heavy restlessness and the desire to explore.
Climbing was never forced upon us, but in high school I fell into the sport with a full, fiery passion. I spent most afternoons at the gym and planned vacations around the best weather-windows in Hueco, Bishop and Joe’s Valley. I was immersed in what I knew was going to be a lifestyle that would shape the rest of my days.
In the summer of 2006, I was belaying my Uncle Todd when I mentioned I wanted to climb Devil’s Tower. He enthusiastically agreed and we decided to plan a trip that would provide me with my first taste of big, multipitch climbing. Those are my last memories of him: hanging in midair, cleaning a hold with a toothbrush while I was anchored to a sagebrush, dreaming about our upcoming adventure.
In October 2006, my uncle’s harness snapped while he was working a new route on the Leaning Tower in Yosemite. It was a devastating loss for our family and the community. To me, he had been invincible. Most of his stories involved him talking his way out of situations and narrowly escaping death. Hundreds of people attended his memorial service from all around the world and we celebrated what would have been his 48th year with a teary-eyed rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ around a fire.
His death seemed to sever my life into two chapters: Before and After. I tossed the rope underneath my bed along with the shoes and chalk bag. I swore I would never climb again. However, six months after the accident, I was drawn back to the rocks. It also felt like a personal responsibility to keep our family history alive and to follow in my uncle’s footsteps.
At about the same time, I picked up a camera. Telling stories through images started to become a career I was more interested in, but I kept climbing seriously, even when the obsession started to fade. I was fighting an internal battle to stay in the climbing industry out of fear that as time went on, my uncle and his memory might become lost.
“It’s in my blood,” I would tell myself, “The psych will come back.”
I thought I needed something more, a big goal, to restart my motivation. So I set my eyes on Washington Column in Yosemite with my friend, Jess. I had gotten a job at the photo department at Patagonia, and living in Ventura put me close enough to make a weekend trip out of it.
But as time grew closer to our mission, I knew I didn’t want to climb. Dreams about falling had become consistent, and though I knew it was unlikely, I couldn’t shake the fear. It didn’t help that I didn’t know how to aid climb and had only jugged twice in my life. I admitted to Jess that I didn’t want to go, and she gave me an alternative: we could ascend the first seven pitches on El Capitan to sleep on Heart Ledges, over a thousand feet above the valley floor.
I hesitantly agreed, wanting to shoot photos instead, a desire that was becoming a consistent thread in my life. But I had already bailed on our initial goal and my pride was hesitant to let me do it again.
I could have run a marathon fueled by my nervous energy. When we got to the base of the Captain, Jess and her boyfriend started to jug like they had extra arms. My friend Jon would jug a pitch behind me to make sure everything was going okay.
As I jugged and struggled with the ladders attached to my ascenders, the whole thing felt much messier than it did in practice sessions. It was humbling and frustrating that I wasn’t automatically good. Beads of sweat ran down the back of my neck, and I knew I was going slowly. Every pull up on the rope, I cursed my pride, knowing that my passion for climbing had faded out seven years ago. I felt more at home with a camera in my hand.
I paused, leaned my head against the rope and let the tears come. It was almost dark and I knew I wouldn’t make to Heart Ledges before the sun went down. I turned around to face Leaning Tower behind me. I missed my Uncle but became immediately conscious that I was actually, here, on the side of a giant that I had only stared up at from the meadows below.
I took the headlamp out of my backpack and continued on, thinking about how there were probably people down in the meadows below, pointing up at me, the moving light, slowly progressing up the wall.
It was dark by the time I reached the Heart. The four of us sat together and made dinner while stars started to appear. I was drifting to sleep when my phone buzzed with a text message. It was from my friend Ann, wishing me a happy 25th anniversary of the first free ascent of the Salathe, a route that my uncle and Paul Piana had done 25 years ago, the route that I was now about to sleep under.
I fell asleep with a grin on my face and sore muscles.
Climbing will always be a part of who I am. It’s rooted in the depths of my soul and my last name. But I will never be my uncle, nor should I be, he is irreplaceable. Photographing is how I will translate other people’s legacies, and how I will preserve the stories of their adventures for their future generations.
Becca Skinner is a freelance photographer and writer based in Bozeman, Montana. Check out her beautiful work at www.beccaskinnerphotography.com. Her Instagram feed is worth a follow as well: www.instagram.com/beccaskinner