Confessions of a Jetsetter™

Confessions of a Jetsetter w/ Caroline Dignes

“I started rock climbing about two years ago at the rock gym with my partner. Climbing in the gym feels very comfortable – the ceilings aren’t incredibly high, the gym associates do a belay check on you and your partner, the climbing path is clearly marked by following a set of matching colored plastic rocks to the top, and there’s an ocean of pleasant blue foam padding covering the floor. I am slightly afraid of heights, and that blue ocean is like a smiling friend. I didn’t join the rock gym with expert climber ambitions, I joined because climbing is a fusion of a social hour and fitness. At the end of a session, I had the added benefit of a completed workout. 

The first time I climbed outdoors was unpleasant. I went climbing at Smith Rock State Park in Central Oregon. The rock there is volcanic tuff, a porous rock formed by the consolidation of volcanic ash. It looks like a black solidified sea sponge, but the tips of the air bubbles are prickly spines instead of a soft luffa. It was hard to hold on, it was so different from the smooth plastic at the gym. Instead of following a line of fuchsia bubbles to the top, the rock was all the same color, mottled black and red and tan, and any way was the right way, as long as you got to the top. It was confusing and painful, but I made it. After this initial outdoor experience, each ensuing outdoor climbing experience got better as my partner encouraged me to climb more outdoors and my hands got tougher. I began to enjoy outdoor climbing for the scenery and the challenge. 

I remember seeing a commercial for a credit card company, where a girl spoke to the camera about her upcoming engagement, and the credit card gave her the choice to pick out “her rock” of choice. The camera panned out, and showed her and her fiance summiting a free standing rock spire somewhere in the desert of the Southwest, standing victoriously on the spire miles above the desert floor. I had always stared dumbfound at the commercial, thinking “who in their right minds would ever do something like that? That girl is nuts!” In all of my own outdoor climbing experience, I had never climbed that high or seen that kind of exposure, and felt certain I did not want to put myself in that kind of a situation. 

A year ago I spent the summer working in Santa Fe, New Mexico. On the weekends, I went out on day trips with my good friend Aimee, an excellent climber and avid outdoorsman. She invited me to join in on a multi-pitch climb in the Sandia Mountains. In rock climbing a ‘pitch’ refers to a climb that is one length of a rope. A multi-pitch climb involves multiple pitches with a group of climbers, where each partner takes turns climbing, leading a pitch, belaying the next person, and hauling the rope. The girl in the credit card commercial had completed a multi-pitch climb to the top of her spire. I had only ever done single pitch climbing, but I felt that I had enough outdoor climbing experience and I trusted Aimee’s climbing knowledge and agreed to go with her on the trip. We met at four in the morning on Sunday morning, Father’s day in June, and drove to the Einstein Brother’s Bagels in Albuquerque to meet her climbing partner. In the parking lot, bagels in hand, the three of us organized and consolidated our climbing gear and set out for the Sandias. 

After a short hike to the top of the cliff face that we would climb, we set our backpacks in the trees and hiked down a steep ravine to the bottom. The plan was for me to climb in the middle. The leader, Aimee, would climb, I would belay her while she climbed. At the top of her climb, she would “tie in” to a secure belay spot on the wall, and belay me. At the end of my climb, I would also tie in to the wall, and wait as her partner climbed up last. The process was completed four times for each pitch, until we reached the top to climb out and over the cliff face, back to our gear and backpacks. I climbed the first two pitches comfortably. The belay spot at the end of the third pitch was a small ledge on the rock face above the tree line, a bicycle seat made out of light grey rock. I perched on this ledge, my feet dangling below me, my harness clipped by webbing to the wall behind me. For the first time I could see the view, flat and expansive out to the Southwest, with Albuquerque laid flat in the center of the valley in a small dusty grid. I thought of that girl on the rock spire in the desert, and laughed as I realized I was that girl.” 

– Caroline Dignes 


085/100 of #100DaysofConfessions Instagram Project

Photo Credit: Isaac Lane Koval