When Blaken signed up for the Rock Climbing and Yoga Retreat with She Moves Mountains she had never rock climbed before, inside or outside. A transplant from Pennsylvania, Blaken was used to taking big leaps by herself. But as she drove the windy roads up from Redding, CA, Mt. Shasta's chakral glow looming as a protector on her five hour journey, she couldn't help but feel an overwhelming anxiety about what she had gotten herself into.
Originally she had talked another friend into doing it with her, but when her friend bailed, Blaken decided to attend the Yoga and Rock Climbing retreat alone.
"I spent the whole drive trying to talk myself into turning around", Blaken confessed. Instead of going directly to meet all the other ladies at the local Bunk and Brew hostel, where the event was just beginning, Blaken tried to beat her nerves out hiking to the summit of Pilot Butte. She worried that she wouldn't be good enough: that everyone else would have more experience and be stronger than her.
"What if no one else was a beginner like me?" she wondered. As she stood at the top of Pilot Butte overlooking a horizon decorated by a cascade of volcanoes, she asked the mountains to still her heart.
She showed up an hour late to a room full of women laughing and snacking. It was obvious that some women had more experience than her, throwing around words like "trad". "I didn't expect a group to stoop down to my level, but then I realized that they were terrified and inexperienced too". The women spent the weekend getting to know each other, supporting each other through fear, building a kind of community that is, as Blaken describes, "More of a movement and a family" than a click.
Shortly after the retreat, Blaken took a fall while bouldering, breaking one ankle and tearing a ligament in the other. She spent three "soul crushing" months in a wheelchair. "It really rocked my spirit," she admitted, "I learned so much about patience and compassion. I was able to stay positive knowing that I had a community that was eager to see me recover".
Five months later, Blaken accepted an invitation from her new community to hike and climb Indian Creek, a world class crack climbing destination just outside Moab, Utah. "I walked up as someone who had hardly any experience with two, recently healed broken ankles and literally made friends with everyone at the creek", Blaken said. But the trauma of her accident outlasted her physical recovery, and she arrived to the creek with a new fear to overcome: her fear of heights.
She arrived to the creek with a new fear to overcome: her fear of heights.
The group decided to climb South Six Shooter, a three pitch sandstone tower, chiseled with splitter cracks and blocks perfect for new climbers. Graded at 5.7, the route jostles up at a jovial pace to the top of a large block spire and overlooks the wind cut, high desert of Southeast Utah. They would set off in four teams of two, with She Moves Mountains instructors leading past clients (now friends) up the route. Ten feet below the lip of the summit Blaken sags in her harness, perplexed by the sequence of the next few moves. The rest of her party at the top encouraging her to try to "mantel" over the crux.
But Blaken has no idea what a "mantel" is. As she hangs over a 200ft cliff, she is overwhelmed with the exposure and her situation. She is stuck with no idea what to do with her body because it's a move she has never seen done, let alone done herself. With some patient instruction from above, she makes a few eager attempts, each time swinging back into the loft of the rope in frustration.
Frustration leads to anxiety, and anxiety leads to fear, and all of the emotions well up into wet eyes. And with the tears comes the more terrifying fear of falling, and the cycle of emotions repeats itself. Up on top, her belay partner calls to her, “would you like a boost?”. Of course, it is not always easy to accept help when we are struggling. But Blaken decided this was not just a moment for her personal triumph, it was a collective celebration in working together - one she was proud to be a part of.
The girls counted out in unison above, "3,2,1!", and she was hoisted up onto the summit!
"It was a real girl power moment!”, Blaken declares, “The girls brought me through this struggle". She plopped over the lip of the tower to join the music, dance, and smiles. "I've had a lot of great summit moments, but this is definitely top five".
Blaken now makes regular trips to see her growing female climbing community. She is looking forward to another weekend clinic this summer in Bend, OR where she hopes to welcome women new to climbing. "Thinking back on it,'' she says, "I am really glad I came to my first clinic alone. If my friend had come with me I don't think I would have branched out to build the relationships I have over the last year".