Never, ever! Well, maybe… I love it!

By: Jill Cai

People would not describe me as an early adopter; it took me three years to give up an antiquated blackberry for an iPhone. Once converted though, I never look back. One would think after 25 years of life, I would be more capable of predicting my own behavior, but every god damned time, the cycle remains the same:

  1. I remain stubbornly adamant for years that “something” (an iPhone / cheese / trad climbing, ice climbing, etc.) is entirely unnecessary in my life.
  2. Hesitantly, I begin to give in. A lot of peer pressure is involved at this stage. I start to say, “Okay, maybe I’ll try it, but just once…”
  3. I try it.
  4. BAM! Game over, I’m in love. We’re talking all-consuming, butterflies in the stomach, can’t stop thinking or talking about it, life altering type of love.

I first started climbing in late 2006 after being bored to death on a treadmill at the Palladium gym. Palladium, one of NYU’s most sought-after dorms, was aptly named after taking over the historical space of the once famous Palladium night club (now Trader Joe’s resides in there). The bouldering area tops out at approximately 12 feet, and there are five top ropes at a whopping 30 feet. As small and unimpressive as the gym may seem, it changed me.

I climbed and worked part-time at Palladium for nearly 2.5 years before realizing just how expansive climbing is. Various people (mostly boys) taught me the basics of climbing: Cameron and Alex shamed me through my first weak pull up, Brad drilled me on knee dropping, and Jon got me out to the Gunks for the first time. Andy, Brett and Guillaume all inspired me to go outside and to climb better and harder. I never thought much of the fact that this was a boy dominated sport until I started to see it change.

Heel hooking was a fast acquired skill

Heel hooking was a fast acquired skill

In 2009, Brooklyn Boulders (BKB) opened. Say what you will about BKB but I personally believe they were integral in connecting and nourishing the climbing community in NYC the past few years. The majority of my closest friends in NY I’ve met, at least tangentially, through BKB. BKB is where a few friends first taught me how to lead climb. Shaking and laughing after taking my first whipper off the arch (after boldly deciding to try leading a 5.10 on the roof), I knew leading was the new game for me. BKB is also where I watched the NYC climbing community begin to evolve. Over the years, I watched many familiar faces get stronger but what was even more exciting is that it wasn’t just the boys that were getting stronger- the girls at BKB were crushing it!

Kelly and Rana, crushing it per usual at BKB

Kelly and Rana, crushing it per usual at BKB

At this point, I was getting outside more. There were trips to Looking Glass, Red River Gorge, New River Gorge, Rumney and Red Rocks… Of course, I had been to the Gunks numerous times, but with little regularity. I cheerfully belayed, followed and cleaned with no urge to ever place my own gear. I attributed this to having taken a bad indoor bouldering fall inside in 2008 that shook my nerves and fractured my spine. At BKB I met girls like Caitlin, Rana, Kathy and Shelma, who were leading trad outside and loving it. The pressure to lead trad was building, especially because so many similarly statured girls were also doing it. Clipping bolts was exciting enough for me, but I began to wonder if maybe I was missing out. This was only enhanced by watching these women that I look up to do what I feared. Still, I swore up and down to everyone who tried to convince me otherwise- “No, I’ll never lead trad.”

New River Gorge, my first sport climbing trip.

New River Gorge, my first sport climbing trip.

The past few years of my life have been fairly tumultuous for various personal reasons and it’s clearly affected my climbing. I decided to take this year for myself by chasing happiness: do what I want, when I want. It began with all the cliché things — like say yes to everything, make friends with strangers (sorry, mom), travel and skinny dip in the ocean. Before my impromptu lone surfing trip to Puerto Rico this winter, where I was planning to sleep in my rental car, Kathy put me in touch with Scott. After a week of texting, Scott, a Jesus-resembling climbing/surfing bum, picked me up at the Aguadilla airport and we crashed in a tent in his friend’s backyard (sorry again, mom) for the next week. Thankfully, he wasn’t a serial killer and we became fast surfing homies. He added to the peer pressure to lead trad and finally, I broke. Sure, why the hell not!? It’s the Year of Jill- I’ll try it.

Scott coached me on some gear placement and I was off, cautiously linking both pitches of Horseman, a classic 5.5, in the Gunks. It wasn’t nearly as terrifying as I thought it would be! In fact, it was exhilarating. When I wasn’t working towards another bolt and I knew I could place gear wherever I wanted, I found myself less focused on the fear of not making it to the next point (bolt) on the wall. Placing gear was a fun puzzle. I seemed to have at least soaked up some knowledge by following and cleaning gear for my friends for years because I felt pretty confident and didn’t fuss too much with placements. When I was lowered to the ground with a big smile on my face, I understood. As soon as I got back down to the ground, I texted the girls my exciting news, which was received with much love and pride.

Smiling all the way up Horseman!

Smiling all the way up Horseman!

I have a tick list of climbs to send by this fall, curated with much input from the girls who have been doing this before me. My second lead was Classic, the third, Jackie. I learned a brutal lesson about rope drag when I stitched both pitches of Disneyland together. I’ve ramped it up a bit and climbed Easter Time Too, MF, and many classics like Ken’s Crack, P1 of Strictly’s and the roof of Shockley’s (naked, mind you). Modern Times taught me to not get too cocky too quickly, especially after taking my first gear fall. I was paralyzed until an extremely strong German guy from the High E ledge watching me yelled “if you just hold on, and don’t let go, you’ll make it!”

Just like Dick Williams’ FA of Shockley’s Ceiling.

I just dropped $1,000+ on a new rack this past week and am anxiously awaiting the arrival of my new gear. What’s next on my Gunks list? Ant’s Line, Feast of Fools, Apoplexy, High E.  What’s next on my life list? Matthe’s Crest in Tuolumne, Squamish, and the Rocklands in South Africa. Not ice climbing though, definitely no ice climbing. Well, maybe…

Screen Shot 2014-06-12 at 3.13.21 PMJILL Everyone struggles to understand why I live in NYC (9 years now!). The corporate world funds my adventures with my dear foxes, who don’t blink an eye at my chalk-covered silk dresses or the worn out Miuras clipped to my Celine purse.

Through the past 6 years, I’ve transitioned from a gym rat to bolt-clipping lover and am now beginning to appreciate the thrill of leading trad.

 

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