Impossible Dreams

I remember sitting on the couch with my old Dell laptop, scrolling through the lengthy AMGA prerequisites on their website back in my college apartment in Bellingham, WA in 2009. I knew I could get through their ski discipline with some work, but glancing at the rock discipline made me unsure whether this was a possibility for me. To complete the discipline, one needs to have completed over 130 prerequisite climbs (plus countless more training climbs to reach those), 26 days of course and examination, guide routes up to grade V, and be confident leading 5.10+/A2 (sport and trad). 

On my first multi-pitch climb back in 2004. Les Calanques, France. Photo: Chad VanderHam

My first multi pitch climb was in 2004 during my first winter in La Grave when I was seventeen. During a high pressure in February, my roommate Chad asked if I wanted to join for a climbing trip down to Les Calanques. The thought of seeing the sea drew me in, so I said yes even though I wasn't much of a climber back then. We packed up our friend Mathieu’s tiny little maroon Renault car and hit the road. That trip was filled with sunny limestone rock climbing, amazing dinners we cooked over a camping stove in the one bedroom hotel room the four of us were sharing, icy jumps into the Mediterranean, and memories that will stay with me forever. 

I had been given advice before I left for La Grave, before living alone abroad for the first time. My high school friend told me “try to always say ‘yes,’ even when it might be a bit out of your comfort zone.” My friend had studied abroad in Paris, so I am pretty sure he meant the advice for social situations like always going to dinner parties, and hanging out in different environments. In La Grave however, that advice had me skiing big lines with new friends, dancing in ski boots, and yes, the occasional dinner party. With that advice in the clutches of my hands, I was extremely lucky I survived that seventeenth year of my life I spent ski bumming in La Grave, but it also gave me a strong appreciation for life and adventure that has become part of who I am today. 

Twelve years later now, I try to make decisions with more than an impulsive “yes.” I consider my abilities, the risk versus the reward, possible outcomes, and whether its worth it. And yet, even with the growth and development of my decision making process, the advice from my seventeen year old self still lingers. 

The day before my AMGA Rock Exam we were sent the list of climbs that we were going to be guiding. My group had Fiddler on the Roof to Sour Mash, Risky Business to Dark Shadows, Epinephrine, sport climbing day, and then a TBD day. There is was: Risky Business. This climb has a reputation for being runout, with a possibility of a high ground fall on the first pitch. The previous season while prepping, I had said to myself “I will say no if they ask me to lead that — its not worth the risk.” It's reputation had me scared.

There was still a chance that my partner would get the lead though. Day one came and our fates lay with a single game of rock-paper-scissor for the first lead. My partner won meaning he would start out, which gave me the first lead the following day—Risky Business. That night I called my friends who had climbed it before to get a better idea of how “bad” it really was. There were two main sections of concern: getting to the first bolt, then above the second bolt to your next piece of gear. Blowing either could result in a serious ground fall.

Starting out on Risky Business. Photo: Brian Biega

I made my time plans, had a handful of backup plans, and decided I could only make my decision once actually looking up at it myself. The base is one of my favorite spots in Red Rocks. Its a beautiful oasis of ponds with small waterfalls running at the base of the beautiful black varnished wall of Dark Shadows above. I looked up at the moves getting to the first bolt. They looked well within my grade so I decided to go for it. I set myself up for success by catapillering the rope (only trailing one, not both), and set-up to haul my pack. Delicate and technical climbing is one of my strengths, in addition to challenging mental leads. I might not like them initially, but I have found that I do well under their pressure. When I reached the anchor I smiled out of disbelief. I had said “yes” and put myself in an uncomfortable position, and succeeded. I still had 3 more hard pitches ahead, and more climbing and descending under examination after that so the concentration continued. Now that the ground fall potential was gone, the climbing felt easier, even though the grade got harder. The moves were uncharacteristically varied for Red Rocks, there were delicate slab moves with the tiniest finger slots to balance with on the black varnish, which would turn into a sporty undercling to reach a mini jug on quality rock, and the last pitch even finished with a comforting hand jam. The gear was sparse throughout, but just enough. A challenging lead to be sure, but surprisingly smooth. It made my mind work into a complete meditation, and allowed me to break through my fear and believe in my climbing abilities. 

Erin Smart on Risky Business. Photo: Brian Biega

My examiner called the day after the exam was complete to congratulate me on passing. I still can barely believe it. Did I really just do all that?

This began as an impossible goal. I pushed beyond my own disbelief almost every step of the way. Learning how to ignore the part of myself that didn't believe was a powerful tool in making this a reality. 

Now that I’ve reached this goal, I can’t wait to dream up my next impossibly.