Originally published in Rock and Ice, Issue 247.
Sweat dripped into my eyes, burning, until I couldn’t tell if I was wiping away sweat or tears.
Each heartbeat emphasized my doubt: I can’t. I can’t. I slumped in a borrowed harness, toes bursting the seams of worn out shoes, and a helmet low on my forehead. I didn’t belong here.
I was not a climber. I didn’t count pitches or grades, but I had spent the past five years counting calories to the point of obsession. I had never felt the sharp pressure of the rock beneath my hands this way, but I knew the intimate curve of my ribs.
I had measured control in the shrinking circumference of a measuring tape. Shrink was not muscle mass, but an empty stomach.
As I froze halfway up the wall 70 feet off the ground, the voice of my belayer penetrated the fog of fear.
“Keep moving,” he said. “Focus on where you need to go.”
One heartbeat. Two. I can’t. I can’t. One handhold. Then another.
“There you go. Just keep moving.”
As I reached the top of the pitch, due more to the faith of my belayer than my own strength, one thought crystallized: in my battle to become as weightless as possible, I had created a body incapable of doing the sport. But, God, how I wanted to climb.
I was hardly alone in my eating disorder. Thirty million Americans, roughly 10 percent of the population, suffer from anorexia or bulimia, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. Although the disorder is more commonly reported among women, men represent 25 percent of those diagnosed, as reported by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Given that the disease breeds secrecy, the numbers are no doubt underreported
An eating disorder can present itself in any number of ways: bingeing and purging, distorting your body image, exercising obsessively, ritually counting calories, creating disordered eating habits, and, in the more extreme cases, restricting diet to the point of starvation.
Through high school and college, I balanced on a high line. A week or two of a strict diet and obsessive exercise would give way two weeks of eating without restraints, until I was heavy, bogged down by my own body. The pattern would repeat. And repeat. Tipping ever closer to the edge.
I moved away from home. The years passed. I kayaked besides glaciers in Alaska, hiked peaks in Montana. Friends commented on how little food I could pack for extended trips. I didn’t mention the mental calculations and bargaining, the compulsive packing and repacking that had become my nightly ritual before any trip. My pack remained parred down to an acceptable amount of calories. Stripped to the bone.
I use these activities as a sign of my suppose of health, a talisman to hold on to when I felt control slipping away: if I truly had an eating disorder, hiking and biking would be impossible. I told myself the blurred vision after reaching a mountain peak was a side effect of the activity, not my diet.
I took inspiration from a world of extreme endurance athletes, hailed as the pinnacle of health and wellness. They were capable of pushing their bodies to the very limits. This was the same.
The Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine (2004, Volume 14) reported that 13.5 percent of athletes have a clinical eating disorder, and in a study a Division I athletes published by NEDA, over one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and behaviors that placed them at risk of anorexia.
In the past five years, endurance athletes have stepped forward with their own stories of eating disorders. The spectrum of sports is well represented: including the runners Lauren Fleshman and Lize Brittin, the cyclist Tyler Hamilton, the triathlete Jesse Thomas, to name just a few.
In a sport that rewards a conflicting combination of lightness and strength, where every pound means added drag, climbers are just as susceptible. Emily Harrington and Angie Payne, both professional climbers, have spoken out about their struggles with the disorder.
In a recent article with Outside, Payne said, “I’d come home from the gym and all I’d eat after climbing the whole night was a salad. No protein, nothing … Really, that was the beginning.”
Just “a salad” turned into a free-fall of destructive behavior. Payne kept climbing until those small habits and tics that had been training gold turned into an obsession. At less than 100 pounds on a 5-foot-8-inch frame, she hit bottom. Almost five years later, she would recover to become the first woman to climb V13.
It’s a story all too common for those familiar with eating disorders. The disease sneaked up on me like a bad fall, the realization hitting when I was halfway to the ground wondering when the rope would catch and pull me back to safety. Hiding behind hiking, running and biking as proof of health and strength, I deceived myself.
Until that first day on the rock. Shaking from fear and exhaustion, I felt my body give out. For the first time, the sense of strength I had stored up in the spaces between my ribs and the empty corners of my stomach felt nauseatingly like weakness.
On the approach, I had watched the climbers in awe. They flowed across the rock like water, their bodies, large and soft in places, strong and firm and others, propelled themselves higher and higher.
Call it what you will—adrenaline, salvation, therapy—climbing represented a form of gravity-defying strength that I lacked but craved.
I found my rope line.
Two years after that first climb I was back at Smith Rock.
One in jammed in a crack, a foot smeared 70 degrees to the left, the other foot arch downwards, like a question mark. I darted my free hand up.
My voice echoed through the canyon, bouncing down, down, down.
A moment of slack. The strength of my own body suspended me alongside the vertical rock face.
My first lead climb and my second time climbing outdoors was a simple 5.6 route that most 12-year old children could climb, a fact that became all too apparent as we reach the bottom and a little girl rushed up shouting, “I’m next.”
As the adrenaline faded, I felt a rush of power. Here was a sense of control and strength I had been searching for all those years. I was finding it in the growing muscles, in the pounds ticking upwards on the scale, in those moments of weightlessness clinging to the wall.
Control was feeling the drag of gravity pull my body to earth and knowing I had the strength to hold steady on the rock for a few more seconds. Just a few more seconds.