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Outdoor rock climbing for the first time in Joshua Tree was the trust exercise I didn’t know I needed


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Photos: Savannah Cummins for The North Face

I’m about halfway up the face of a 100-foot rock and the only thing keeping me there is my (debatable) finger strength, the grippy rubber of my climbing shoes, and the woman back on the ground belaying my rope.

I’ve met her…maybe twice. She’s definitely not a professional climber, although she has done this before and seems to know what she’s doing. That should be reassuring, but this is my first time scaling an actual rock and I feel like one wrong move could send me plummeting to my death. My life is in her hands. Literally.

There’s a lot of fear involved in pulling yourself up a crag, and the entire sport of rock climbing is based on trust.

When I started climbing indoors about three months ago, what I didn’t realize was what an emotional challenge it would be. There’s a lot of fear involved in pulling yourself up a crag, and the entire sport of rock climbing is based on trust—not just in yourself, but in the person belaying you. In order to climb, you need a partner on the ground who holds your rope, picks up your slack, lowers you down—and is hyper-alert enough to catch you if you start to fall. Basically, you need someone who can save your life.

Rock climbing in Joshua Tree with powerful women

That kind of trust is tough to develop on a schedule, but I only had a few months to build it with about 15 other editors (some of whom I consider friends, others that I’ve recently starting working with, and a few I’ve never even met) before I’d be completing my first outdoor rock climb in Joshua Tree National Park with The North Face. The brand wanted to introduce more women to the increasingly popular (yet, male-dominated) sport—it’ll make its Olympic debut at the 2020 Games in Tokyo and 43 new gyms dedicated to the activity opened in the United States in 2017, a 10 percent increase from the year before. 

When I first strapped on my harness and talked to my belayer, I felt that prickly kind of fear that seems to spread from the inside out.

And finally, out in the desert in early May, we put our skills to work on a real crag. Not only was this the first time most of us would be climbing outdoors, but we were totally off the grid—no cell or internet service at our campsite or climbing spots. So when I first strapped on my harness and talked to my belayer, I felt that prickly kind of fear that seems to spread from the inside out. I could feel it wedge in my throat as I struggled to find handholds and bits of rock sturdy enough to put my weight on.

I thought relief would come once I reached the top, but I soon realized I had to sit back and let my belayer lower me down. Luckily, she did it without incident, and once the terror wore off, the adrenaline kicked in. “Again! Again!” my brain screamed.

Rock climbing in Joshua Tree with powerful women

We all scaled that rock and then some, and if I thought you couldn’t develop trust on a timeline beforehand, I now stand corrected. It was a bonding experience; one where abject fear forced the kind of trust and closeness I still don’t have after years of knowing certain friends.

Maybe it was just the thought of being near death, but after climbing, walls dropped. We spent the day talking about our fears, our goals, our relationships, our salaries—all the things women tiptoe around until they decide they know someone well enough to share their vulnerabilities. It was liberating and exhilarating; a literal exercise in strong women empowering other women.

Abject fear forced the kind of trust and closeness I still don’t have after years of knowing certain friends.

On our last day in the desert, we all crowded on top of a boulder (for the #latergram, obviously), cheering on our last climber, when we spotted a little girl watching us as she scrambled over smaller rocks. “Get it, girl!” someone yelled. “See this?” She pointed at our group surrounding her. “Women can do anything! You can do anything!”

I don’t know if that little girl even heard her, but we all did. And she was right—and that was what had brought us all there, to the top of that rock. Strong women literally lift other women up, whether it’s in their careers, in their personal lives, or to the top of a freaking cliff. We just have to trust each other to let it happen.

For some more female bonding, women’s retreats may be the getaway for you. And here’s everything you need to know about the Well+Good retreat in the Catskills this August.

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