Friday Feat: Climbing Meets Aerial Silking
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Priscilla Mewborne discovered climbing in a small rec center at Cal State Fullerton. Following graduation, her passion for the sport prompted her to work in a hotel in Yosemite Valley. Climbing took precedence in her life. That is, until she found aerial silking. Now, she appreciates the harmony in doing both sports.
Gym Climber caught up with Mewborne and her partner, Ryan Sheridan—who helps with rigging—to learn more about what it takes to silk from big walls.
How did you get into aerial silks?
I began my aerial silk journey at a studio in Lake Tahoe. After seeing an aerialist dancing off a highline, I knew that was something I wanted to do. I took an intro-level class at Tahoe Flow Arts Studio, where I learned basic wraps, poses and how to be safe while practicing.
How do you train?
While living in Yosemite National Park, I have books and videos to reference, and I can easily hang my silks from one of the many big overhanging rocks. Recently, Ryan and I have been establishing new highlines, so most of my training has been in the air. I also practice yoga on the ground daily to help strengthen and prepare my body for when I am flying.
What made you want to try silking in Yosemite?
My first experience silking in exposure was in the Alcove of El Capitan. It was off the pitch one anchors of a wildly overhanging and intimidating route called South Seas. I was able to practice aid climbing, donning a hammer and placing pitons as I made my way to the bolts, which were 180 feet off the deck. It was the most wonderful first experience I could have ever imagined, and I knew immediately it was something I wanted to pursue further.
I began to experiment with different ways to silk with a leash and harness. It is not something most aerialists do, but is necessary if you want to take your art to these beautiful places. Shortly after the Alcove, I took my silks out for the first time on a highline. My friends had rigged the Rostrum, and after having some practice in exposure, I knew I was ready for this dream of mine to come true.
After the Rostrum, I had another idea to merge my passions for climbing and aerials even further—bringing aerial silks on a multi-day bigwall trip. With Ryan running support, we set off for four days on the Leaning Tower. I was leading every pitch and we had brought extra rations for a “silk day.” We summited the peak on day three, and then rappelled back down to our campsite, a hanging ledge 1,000 feet off the ground. Our last day we spent all morning stretching and silking above the Valley floor. It was so awesome spending this extra time on the wall, where all we really did was play and soak up every moment from that rare place.
How do you view the intersection between climbing and silking?
Climbing and silking provide great cross training for one another. They both require substantial amounts of hand, shoulder, and core strength. With silking, as you move between poses, you can enter a flow state similar to what you experience while climbing. As one practices aerials, you activate many of the same muscles as climbing, but in different ways. I typically find myself silking during my rest days, so my body never feels like it is getting overworked. Silking also gives the skin on your fingers a break after days of holding onto rough rock.
Any advice for other climbers trying to break into it?
Definitely give it a try! Be sure to seek out instruction first, though. Like climbing, aerials can be dangerous. It’s important to make sure you know how to climb the fabric safely and wrap your feet and body properly so you don’t get hurt. There is risk in getting tangled in the fabric, taking a gnarly fall or setting up the rig improperly. Luckily, there are studios all over the country and even teachers who instruct online. Practicing aerial silks really helped me push through my climbing grade plateaus.
Tell me about rigging—the challenges, logistics and things you think about when helping Priscilla choose a spot.
I have been living in Yosemite Valley for six years now and have been looking up at these huge peaks every day. There are places that just call to be climbed. A gap between two massive rocks, an untouched space, you imagine what it would be like to be a bird flying over the abyss. Our goal is to soak in these places, just to spend a small part of our day existing in the sky.
Our most recent project connecting Middle and Lower Cathedral Rocks was the first time these peaks have ever been connected. We used no bolts, and opted to continue with the rich traditional ethic of climbing in Yosemite. It has been a long journey getting to this level of confidence to establish new, natural (bolt free) lines. I studied engineering and physics before starting my big wall climbing career in Yosemite, and I still draw force diagrams before putting up a new rig. There is nothing quite like bounce testing the center of a new line. It is a full commitment to the underlying mathematics, a complete trust in your mentors and a radical expression of self confidence. I have to believe a system is so solid that I would bet my life on it, and then I do.
The mental and physical challenges drew me to this style of climbing, but the amazing crew with whom you achieve the “impossible” are the real reason we practice.