Rebecca Madore & Katie Mills will be presenting on their experience climbing the Moose's Tooth in Alaska during Portland Alpine Fest. Tuesday, Nov. 14, come out to Ham & Eggs at the Mazama Mountaineering Center. Get tickets today!
by Maureen O’Hagan
Rebecca Schob Madore and Brad Farra were the first recipients of the Bob Wilson Expedition Grant, which provided $10,000* to help them make a big trip to Patagonia to climb Cerro Torre. They trained hard, did their homework, and arrived in El Chaltén in December of 2015 very well-prepared. Unfortunately, the realities of climbing in Patagonia got in their way. They spent much of the time waiting for a weather window. When one finally arrived, they set out on their journey but were forced to turn back.
It was demoralizing for both of them, and they struggled to adjust to these feelings when they returned home. Madore threw herself into non-climbing projects, as well as examining the thoughts and emotions that had bubbled up since the trip.
She and I sat down in May 2017 to catch up on what’s happened over the past year. One of her goals was to take on more leadership roles, and in that she succeeded, becoming a Mazama climb leader, among other accomplishments. She also talked about an event she and Mazama Valerie Uskoski held last year at Arc’teryx in Portland in which they invited women interested in climbing—whatever their experience or ability level—to come to listen, learn, and connect with one another. The event was called “Define Feminine: Unveiling the Mystique,” and the idea was to create a space for sharing and mutual support. The event was a huge success. “A room full of amazing energy!” is what Madore called it.
As we continued talking about her efforts to support women climbers, the conversation veered in an unexpected direction. At this point, she told yet another story that will ring true to many climbers. It’s a story of stress and fear—and ultimately finding her way back home.
How did you pitch the Arc’teryx event?I just thought about what we deal with as climbers, and as female climbers. I was reaching out to climbers of all kinds—mom climbers, gym climbers, alpine climbers, women who had accidents or lost their lead head or just wanted to climb harder.
It was mostly just a series of questions that I posed, saying if you want to talk about these things, come on down. Over 120 people showed up.
No. I actually loved it because there was this sense of community and support. And my take on it was there’s no difference between me being up here speaking and you being out there listening. We all have fears, we’re all facing our fears, and we’re all one and the same. I think there’s more opportunity for this in our community.
Wow. Was it hard talking to a group that big?
Last summer I spent time climbing with women that had all had injuries from climbing and were trying to get back their lead head. That was where I put my energy. It was kind of recognizing a need in the community—people that wanted to get into AR (Advanced Rock) or get their lead head back or needed some technique in terms of crack climbing.
Tell me about what you’ve been climbing since then.
Did your experience in Patagonia help you be more supportive to these women?Well, I realized I was dealing with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) about climbing events that had occurred before Patagonia. By “dealing with it,” I mean climbing well below my ability in order to feel safe and to manage the stress associated with climbing.
A particular event doesn’t matter. It can be anything, really. It got to the point that I was going to quit climbing. At that point, I read Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine. And I got some help. Essentially, one session of EMDR treatment (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) changed my negative thoughts from constant stress, fight-or-flight to hopeful excitement. I had this renewed sense of my own personal power as a climber. I got back in touch with why I loved it and why I was good at it, and what good it brought to my life and how amazing ice climbing, in particular, felt in my body.
PTSD? Was there a particular event?
So you went on the trip to Patagonia not really understanding you were dealing with PTSD?Excitement and fear are enmeshed. They’re the same neural centers of our brain. There’s a good, healthy amount of fear in climbing. This was not that.
Can you talk any more about the PTSD? So may people have probably been in similar situations.When you climb, Mother Nature doesn’t give a damn who you are. At some point, you’re going to see something that is jarring, whether it’s rockfall that freaks you out or somebody has an accident or you’re part of a rescue. Maybe the well-being of somebody you care about is being threatened, or maybe it’s your own well-being. And that’s enough. That’s a traumatic event. Nobody asks to be put in that situation. You think, I’ll just be able to muscle my way through this. But the mental muscle takes a different kind of treatment. It was a matter of me being able to step into the role of somebody that needed help.
You had lost the joy of climbing?Sadly, yes. I was constantly vigilant. I was constantly thinking about the what ifs and what would go wrong instead of what would go right. When I came home (from Patagonia) it was not enjoyable to climb and I had to recognize there was this bigger bump in the road.
I had one (EMDR) session and the sun came out again. I had already done my own personal work, too, but I didn’t know that I couldn’t handle it on my own—which is a big type A personality pitfall. EMDR is the gold-standard for PTSD. I want people to know there are some really helpful services out there.
What are your goals now?In November of 2016 my goal was just to have fun climbing again on top rope. And then I was like, I want to lead ice again. That was goal 2. Goal 3 was that Katie (Mills, a fellow Mazama and recipient of the second Bob Wilson Grant) and I had a grant proposal to the Expedition Committee to climb Ham and Eggs in Alaska. It was a super classic alpine line, in super thin conditions. I led crux pitches. In November, I didn’t know if I was going to lead ice again and here I am in May succeeding on this for-real alpine climb. And I’m with another female climber. It allowed me to really own our success in a way that was different than the climbing experience I had with others in the past.
We successfully did it in a weekend, less than 48 hours. We watched the weather from Portland. We bought our tickets on Tuesday, flew to Anchorage, flew onto the Root Canal Friday morning, climbed, and flew back to Portland Sunday morning. I went to work on Monday. It feels like quite an accomplishment. I learned how to read the weather from John Frieh. I learned how to put the whole system together from my experience with Brad (Farra). We had done a similar type of climb three years ago. Katie had been to Alaska three times before. There aren’t many people you can ask to pick up and haul out to Alaska on a weekend!
Has your climbing mentality changed?I’d say it just feels like I had quite a lot of experience pretty rapidly in my short climbing career and the perspective that it offers is that I don’t have to climb everything now. It’s important to have fun and do what you enjoy and be with people that you care about. So essentially it’s helped me to chill out.
I like to build on many small successes before I take the next big jump. I’ve followed my own path in climbing, and it’s been incredibly great and rewarding.
And I am very thankful for the contributions of the people that have taught me on the way and the Mazamas Expedition Committee which has supported me in doing these things that I would have never been able to do without their support and their belief.
It’s really something when (the organization) just hands you (a check) and says go ahead and give it a try, tell us about it when you get back.
Have fun. Climb with friends, climb with people I care about. I’m planning to climb Denali with my husband next year.
What are your future goals?
Do you feel like you have to have big goals at this point?I like having something to work towards. I like the process of seeing something that seems out of reach or really challenging and then breaking it down into all its component parts to get there. It keeps me invigorated. I can enjoy chilling out now in a totally different way than I did before. It’s much easier to take a slower pace and to be thankful for what you get. It’s really about the time I’m with people and I’m doing something that I love rather than having to prove something to myself.
*Note: Grant recipients are required to pay taxes on their awards based on their specific tax bracket.
The Mazamas provides a service for Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) to any climber who asks for it. Just call and leave a message asking for a critical incident debriefing and trained volunteers will get back to you.