“Keep dreamin’, stay hungry, and remember that there is no finish line.”
This quote by Todd Skinner in the opening pages of the book Hangdog Days by Jeff Smoot gave me chills the first time I read it. In the pages that followed, I felt history come to life as I read tale after tale about what I had always imagined climbing to be at its very best: an epic adventure full of impossible dreams that somehow became reality through pure passion and sheer determination.
Note: this is an excerpt from Brittany Goris’s essay, published in Volume 21. Banner photo of the author on City Park, Index Washington by Truc Nguyen Allen
At the forefront of these adventures were Skinner and his frequent climbing partner Paul Piana. I had started reading the book because there was a chapter in it about Skinner establishing City Park, a route I had recently climbed. I kept reading it because Todd’s life on the road, dedicated to the pursuit of climbing, looked exactly like how I wanted to live my own.
I immediately adopted the “stay hungry” line as a personal mantra, making subtle nods in my photo captions and blog posts, and not-so-subtle ones by writing it on decorations all over my van. It was something I wanted to embody—this idea that there was always a bigger dream if my imagination could conceive it and that I could always continue to grow and evolve as a person in its pursuit.
Todd Skinner became my hero because, as a climber, he was always looking to the future: trying to find the next desperate crack, difficult sport climb, or other way to advance the sport. Not only that, but, like myself, he cared deeply about the climbing community, held genuine interest for the climbing of others, and eventually established the International Climbers’ Festival to bring climbers together.
As much as I loved reading about City Park in Hangdog Days, I came across another story that caught my attention even more: the first free ascent of the Salathé Wall on El Capitan in 1988. Not only was the Salathé the first route up El Cap to ever go free but also it was done in a death-defying adventure of passion, effort, and pure survival when rockfall nearly ended the lives of both climbers. It showed the world what was possible, and of course the ones who did it could be none other than Skinner and Piana.
At the time, I didn’t think I would ever be capable of climbing a big wall myself, but after reading that story, I couldn’t help but think that if I did, it would have to be the Salathé. As if that alone weren’t enough, Royal Robbins himself called the route the best rock climb in the world when he established it as the second route up the mountain in 1961 with Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt as yet another grand move on the Yosemite chessboard battle between Robbins and Warren Harding, setting a new standard by climbing it as the first route up El Cap not done with siege-style tactics. Despite nearly eighty years of evolution in the sport, the title “Best in the World” still holds weight today.
I had always been intimidated about even going to Yosemite, let alone climbing walls. It remained one of those things that just seemed too unknown, too big, and so I kept it on the back burner for some time in the future when I might eventually be more ready somehow.
Over the winter of 2021 however, things had been changing. After I accomplished one of my lifelong dreams of climbing 5.14 on gear with my early January ascent of East Coast Fist Bump in Sedona, Arizona, I was faced with the same question that appears after the completion of any major milestone in one’s life: what’s next? When you somehow manage to accomplish the things you barely even dared to dream, how do you go even bigger? Right as I was asking myself these questions, my path serendipitously crossed with Harrison’s.
Harrison was a seasoned and unbelievably talented multipitch climber, and I watched in amazement over the next few weeks as he projected and eventually dispatched first a climb called Dickel’s Delight in Sedona with three back-to-back pitches of 5.13 and then Dreefee in Red Rocks, which had 5 pitches that were even harder at 5.13+. I knew very little about working hard multipitch climbs myself, but I couldn’t help but envy the passion with which he had climbed, because it was something that I hadn’t been able to find for myself ever since Fist Bump. Inspired by Harrison’s dedicated pursuit of his goals, I began to wonder if these longer types of climbs might be where I should look for my own next big thing.
My soul ached for a new challenge, maybe even bigger than I’d ever tackled before. I yearned to be entrenched in a project, to be inspired by history, and beauty, and movement, while pushed to my limit and able to be my best self. How long had it been since I had felt a calling? That all-consuming passion of chasing an impossible dream? By the end of winter, I knew in my heart there was only one place I was going to find it: The Proving Grounds. The Center of the Universe. Yosemite Valley.
Harrison and I started dating and quickly agreed that by spring we would be sharing a portaledge on the side of El Capitan. As the time got closer, a scene from Valley Uprising often started playing in my head on repeat: Lynn Hill, one of the great stone masters whom I deeply admired, reciting inspiring lines with palpable affection: “People come [to Yosemite] to make a statement about what’s possible with passion, and vision, and heart.” I wanted to know what was possible for me—what my statement was going to be. Could I hope to stand in the shoes of the legends that had come before me, who had crafted the sport of climbing into what I have dedicated my life to?
As spring drew ever closer, Yosemite became synonymous with climbing big walls, and big walls became synonymous with the one big wall that stood above the rest in my mind: the Salathé. Still, despite a relatively impressive single-pitch climbing résumé, I was about as technically unprepared for big walling as could be possible. I’d never redpointed a 5.13 more than one pitch off the ground. I’d never hauled. I’d never slept on a wall. I had only ever backpacked twice in my life, both of which were miserable experiences. I rarely hiked more than thirty minutes to go climbing, and even on short Indian Creek approaches, I always made sure I didn’t carry both a rope and a rack because my pack would be too heavy. I barely knew how to jumar, I didn’t know how to tie a Munter knot, and I almost always got the rope tangled no matter how nicely I stacked it at multipitch belays. Still, I told myself over and over again to “stay hungry,” because if I wanted a dream I’d never had before, I’d have to be willing to do things I’d never done to achieve it. It was time to kiss my comfort zone goodbye.