Julia, The Southwest Desert
“Climbing is when I feel alive. I kind of go through the motions during the week, but I live for being outside and pushing myself and ideally being surrounded by cool people. It’s the adrenaline of it, and when you find those climbs that work for you and you’re able to execute.”
Julia and I first met as coworkers for the Philly Water Dept, where we spent more time than we probably should have talking about past and future climbing trips. Outside work, she’d tell me about her plan to quit the office grind in order to get on the road full-time and climb to her heart’s content. However there was always something in the way for her; it’s a big jump to let go of security and a steady income.
Julia’s probably the most fearless person I know when it comes to climbing, and she seems to have an endless reserve of energy. Her limbs and joints can’t seem to catch up; before and after climbing sessions you’ll find her getting engrossed in her physical therapy routine with all different kinds of contraptions. It got to the point where she’d continue to climb at a gym with a rehabilitation boot on her bad foot while I belayed her.
Julia flew to Vegas last November to join me and a friend for a packed weekend of multi-pitch rock climbing in Red Rock Canyon. Our trip was short, but each day was packed to make the most of the short amount of sunlight. We started early and found ourselves hiking back to my van in the dark, as the mountains behind us started to sparkle with distant climbers’ headlamps.
On our last night together, I asked her why climbing is meaningful to her, her scary experiences in the backcountry, and what she loves about the outdoors. Since then, we’ve met up to climb at Indian Creek and I’m sure we’ll meet on the road again in the future. A couple weeks ago, I was happy to hear that she finally put in her notice at work to pursue her dream of hitting the road in her converted minivan.
When would you say you first had a connection to the outdoors?
I grew up with a lot of camping. I kind of lost that for a while, and then I went to New Zealand to study abroad; that reinvigorated appreciation for being outside and in remote areas—being away from society and the busyness. I went to New Zealand wanting to backpack, I had never done it before and didn’t know what I was doing at all, but a lot of the people in my program were like heavy duty and had a lot of experience; they taught me the ropes. Having that community of people who were psyched on doing stuff outside was super inspiring. That was my first taste of adrenaline of being up high, and fully immersed in a mountain range, and pushing myself physically.
Did rock climbing become an important part of your life after that?
I got more into the Outdoors Club once I got back from New Zealand. My senior year I finally had time to go to the rock wall without spending all my time with classes. I could actually get better and enjoy it and not just do two climbs and feel pumped out.
I was always thoroughly weak from a strength perspective—like a pull-up was something I could never do. So to be able to develop that and have muscles, still is exciting. I definitely like that aspect of feeling strong—kind of transforming your body and seeing things that you’re able to do.
After graduating, [my boyfriend and I] travelled for two months; it was planned to be a mixture of backpacking and climbing, and by the end I wanted to climb so much more. It eventually became an obsession.
What is it about climbing that makes it special to you?
You’re always able to push yourself and ideally achieve something. Any session there could be achievements of getting a little bit further or trying a little bit harder, figuring out some sequence. There’s always problem solving, it’s definitely what I like about outdoor climbing.
Climbing is when I feel alive. I kind of go through the motions during the week, but I live for being outside and pushing myself and ideally being surrounded by cool people. It’s the adrenaline of it, and when you find those climbs that work for you and you’re able to execute.
I’m always impressed with your ability to go into a climb 100%, only falling when you can’t hold on rather than asking your belayer for tension. Do you always have that mindset?
The mindset’s not always there. Some days you aren’t able to push yourself. I have to actively make the decision and go in like ‘I’m trying to send this’ and just turn off the fear. It’s the hesitation; you just have to keep going and not think about it. The climbs that are most memorable and feel the best is when you achieve the ‘flow state’ that people talk about and you’re not actively thinking; you’re just moving—you don’t overthink anything, and your body just goes.
Do you have a favorite outdoor area?
We backpacked through the Tetons, which was three days of pretty intense backpacking. You’re going over these crazy traverses in the middle of this mountain range, and looking up at the Grand the whole time. It’s pretty spectacular just to look at, with super luscious wildflower meadows that you’d never expect in this mountain range. That was pretty remote, there was elk and moose and you gotta carry bear spray. It felt legit, like really in the backcountry—things could happen.
Have you had any scary experiences with animals there or anywhere else?
We’ve had bears around us twice in the Adirondacks. One approached us and got pretty close and we had to scare it away, and one night we were pretty sure we had one circling around our tent. Both times I just froze. Like I say we scared the bear away, but everyone else did; I just stood there. I did not carry the bear spray, because I was not trusted to be able to react to use it. [Laughs]
Do you think you’ll eventually move into your minivan and travel the country to climb more?
I’ve kinda wanted to hit the road for a long time, but I’ve either been injured or hesitant for the unknowns for how it would go.
Last question: what do you love about the outdoors?
The openness, the peacefulness, being away from all the noise and the hustle and bustle. Not having a defined schedule and all these worries—you’re just trying to have a good time, and appreciate the natural wonders the world has to offer.
This interview has been trimmed and edited to fit this format. If you would like to access the unedited interview audio and unposted photography, see my Patreon page.