The Hike That Changed My Life

9 minute read
Rodden is a professional climber and the author of the memoir, A Light Through the Cracks

Even before I became a climber, my dad was always my rock. He was always willing to teach me how to throw a baseball or shoot a basket, or just to listen when I needed him to. No matter what, he was quiet but supportive, wise but with open ears.

It was my dad who first took me and a friend to the local climbing gym one Sunday afternoon, when I was 14, and from that first taste, I became obsessed. I jumped in head first, and my dad was with me all the way. He and my mom would cater to my growing list of superstitions at each competition I entered: always eating at the Olive Garden the night before, always renting a Mercury Mystique from Hertz, always flying Delta. Within a year, I competed in my first junior world cup, in France.

I was still a teenager when I became a professional rock climber, and the world opened up to me. When I was a green 19 year old, I was invited on an all-female expedition (unheard of back in 1999) to the near virgin valley of the Tsaranaro Massif in southern Madagascar. A year later, I found myself in the remote Kara Su valley in Kyrgyzstan—a trip that resulted in a violent kidnapping and a dramatic escape that made headlines around the world. Even after that, travel was part of the fabric of being a professional climber: almost a requirement. I sought out destinations that were better known, more tame, after being held hostage, but my goals didn’t change. I wanted to push the sport forward, climb the hardest lines I could find, and always challenge myself to do better. Norway, Europe, Thailand, China, Northern Canada—it seemed almost every year I was on at least one international trip to justify the paychecks and magazine covers I received and sought.

But in 2005, I did something that felt out of step, if not slightly reckless, for my career: I went to a world class climbing destination with zero intention of climbing. Instead, as we sat around the table for Thanksgiving, I invited my dad to go hiking with me in Patagonia while my husband at the time, also a professional climber, went climbing with mutual friends.

I usually don’t think of positive things associated with being held hostage, but the one good thing that I keep coming back to was my renewed appreciation for family. At the time when people tend to push away from their parents to gain autonomy, I learned that perhaps my parents and family were truly the only thing that mattered.

We were held hostage for six days and during that time I never once thought about climbing. What I did think about was food and family—my parents, my grandparents, even my older brother, who had mostly driven me crazy when we were kids. Shivering in caves and starving each day, I wished for nothing more than to sit around the kitchen table and eat warm food with them all. Five years after the kidnapping, I had thrown myself back into professional climbing with an unhealthy velocity that left little room for anything else. But I still always showed up for Thanksgiving and Christmas, with my dad always carving the turkey and ham.

Patagonia is famous among climbers. It makes Yosemite Valley, our mecca, seem like child's play. And yet, after Kyrgyzstan, I had no appetite for the added dangers that were required in Patagonia: dealing with snow and ice and massive storms. Throwing those into the mix just seemed reckless. I had never been there before, and a part of me didn’t want to miss out entirely, didn’t want to just see those beautiful mountains in pictures. I wanted to be able to see with my own eyes the famous snow mushrooms precariously sitting on top of the huge granite walls and towers that make the Fitz Roy range world famous. I wanted to walk to the turquoise glacial melt lakes and see the grandeur that I’d heard about for years from hardcore old alpinists.

But the thought of doing that alone felt lonely and hollow. I wanted to have someone who appreciated the beauty of places without achievement. My dad was always the one with the wildflower book and the bird guide. The one who found awe and wonder in the simplest things. Who better to appreciate the smaller objectives than the person who first started taking me to the mountains in the first place?

As my dad and I flew down to Patagonia, I had a small, deep fear that I would regret not packing my climbing gear. That I was going with my dad, instead of some big-name alpinist. I left my harness, helmet, and everything essential for climbing in my gear room at home. I’m sure I still could have borrowed something and climbed with my husband and friends, but it would have been like trying to ski in the Olympics on a pair of rentals.

As we all sat in the bus as it drove the famous bumpy road (it wasn’t paved back then) from Calafate to El Chalten, the remarkable skyline started to emerge. I immediately recognized Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, and they were even more impressive than I had imagined. But as we got closer, I started to notice a bit of calm in the place that I worried my regret would bubble from. I saw these mountains that we all have seen in pictures, and instead of disappointment for not being there to climb them, I felt an ease and happiness that I didn’t have to climb them. That instead, I got to experience this place without any sense of pressure to achieve or perform or survive.

My dad seemed to have his arms wide open to the new experience. He researched hike options, and we stopped along the trails to look at birds and plants—all things that would have been a waste of my time normally. In those moments, I was reminded to not only look up for inspiration, but to look down as well.

Rodden and her dad hiking in Patagonia.Courtesy of Beth Rodden

A camping trip in Patagonia with my dad was quite different than just with climber friends. Instead of roasting marshmallows and listening to my dad tell stories on childhood camping trips, my dad and I now sat around the camp stove and listened to climbers talk about being stoned, bad-mouthing other classes of society for being less than we were, and of course, the weather. So much talk about the weather. I’d be lying if I said it was an easy transition, but at the same time it felt like a progression—we were being adults, together, rather than father and daughter.

Dad and I camped for two weeks and during that time we would take day hikes from our camp to scenic points in the park. Sometimes that would mean up to 14 miles to see the vibrant blue waters of an alpine lake, or across the foothills to see the wonders of Cerro Torre. I honestly cannot remember what we talked about during those days. I don’t know if it was about his job or my brother or what Granny and Grandad used to do for family vacations. But I do remember as each day passed, I could feel some of the angst that always seemed to bubble up in my mid-20s start to fade. That need to go faster, to re-hike a hill three times while my dad hiked it once, to run to the top and do push-ups and sit-ups on the side of the trail while I waited for him, started to lessen. Each day that we were there, I appreciated more and more the novelty of what I did have, instead of what I didn’t.

Looking back now, I’m quite amazed with my dad. He survived near-fatal cancer in his early 20s and only has one working lung. He trained on my mom’s treadmill carrying a pack full of heavy water bottles to be prepared for this trip. And as time has passed, I realize how meaningful this trip was for me.

I haven’t traveled internationally with my dad since, nor have I taken a trip just the two of us closer to home. Work, health issues, and life have all gotten in the way. My dad is in his mid 70’s now and I can say with certainty that we wouldn’t be able to recreate this trip now, which brings both gratitude and sadness to my heart.

The two weeks I got in Patagonia with my dad, doing something neither of us had done before in a place that was new to both of us, has meant so much to me. It helped me remember to slow down, and look for joy and wonder in the simplest ways. This trip helped plant the seed that there was more to life and travel and exploration than just on top of a wall or peak. We talked about everything and nothing, and saw the most immense and incredible mountains in the world. We camped where we would now rent a house. We ate camp stove meals and bathed in the freezing glacial melt rivers. I always think it’s cliché to tell someone “don’t put off tomorrow what you can do today," but in this case, I’m so glad I did.

I don’t remember all the climbs I’ve done or the names of the walls I’ve climbed. But I do remember how much my dad loved the Argentinian steak.

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