I live in Moab, Utah, a busy town of 5000 surrounded by miles of open space. I also sometimes live in a Sprinter van, in a tent, or in an off-the-grid octagonal cabin that my husband Mario and I built together on 20 acres of land near Indian Creek.
Mao is a small black cat who appeared one day, announced his name and decided to stay. Mao does whatever he wants and is entirely self-sufficient though he likes a lot of petting and will accept food when provided. Cajun seems to be a border collie/heeler/Australian shepherd/wild jackal mix who was dumped out by a cell tower on the Navajo Reservation when she was small and apparently survived for a while on cow manure. Despite her early starvation experience, Cajun has a mystifying lack of interest in food but loves everything else, especially things that involve running and balls. My husband, partner and dearest friend Mario died on a wingsuit jump we were making together off a mountain in Italy in 2013. The animals and I have to keep on now without him.
I started climbing when I was a freshman at the University of Maryland in 1991. Though I made it through a Master’s degree in literature and one week of law school, the next thing I did was move into my grandma’s hand-me-down Oldsmobile, waitressing in Moab to save money for expeditions and climbing trips. Climbing is my anchor and my passion. It’s as much a part of me as eating or walking. For me, living half tamed feels right. I love high places, seeing the world from above. Living in wild places is what makes me feel most alive, the most myself. If I got to choose, I would be a bird. Or Mao.
I started skydiving and base jumping seven years ago—which is how I met Mario. Everyone has their own reasons for doing the things they do, their own style for exploring the world. I was lucky to have a short piece of life with someone who shared my vision of the wild life completely—a quest to learn, discover, experience and do it with love, joy, curiosity and respect. I somehow thought it would be forever, until the end of our time, but that perfect gift is reserved for only the luckiest few.
I’ve learned that climbing really is a metaphor for life in many ways. You have to do what feels right, what lights you up. Do your best always. Conserve. Never waste anything. You can only have what you can carry—choose it carefully, make it last, take care of it. Appreciate what you have for as long as you have it. Be ready to do without it. No matter what happens, deal with it. Adapt, instantly when necessary. Take care of yourself. Try to help. A lot of times you fail, sometimes you succeed. Either way, you’re never the whole reason for it. It’s easy to confuse intense emotion with fear. Intensity is what you came for; don’t irrationally try to run away from it. You never know what’s going to happen, even in the next second. Every decision you’ve made was the best one you could have made at the time: remember that when bad things happen. Things will not stop changing. No matter what, the only thing you can count on is yourself.
Writing, photography and cooking are my other loves. I’ve been vegan since 2003. At first I was trying to find the best nutritional system for climbing, so I tried several different diets. Ten years ago veganism was not very popular, and especially not among climbers. Everyone told me going vegan was a ridiculous idea and would be horrible for climbing performance. It was the best thing I ever did for climbing. After I turned vegan I freed El Cap in a day, freed the Salathe Wall, climbed Torre Egger in a day, free soloed the Longs Peak Diamond four times, and free soloed the North Face of Castleton and jumped off it. It wasn’t long before I learned about factory farming and what is done to animals before they are killed. After that it didn’t even matter if I climbed better or not—I know it’s wrong to hurt innocent creatures. I consider it my duty as a human to cast my vote against that cruel system by withholding my consumer dollars from it. I know that’s how it works in our society. If everyone did that, things would change. Being vegan also happens to be the most effective eating system for performance and health, as far as I can see after 12 years, so that’s pretty lucky. I love cooking and baking and experimenting with vegan recipes—my favorites are here on this site.
People are often curious about how I support myself in such an unconventional lifestyle, climbing and jumping all the time. I’ve made my living primarily as a sponsored climber since 1996. I feel very fortunate in my sponsors: people and companies I consider good friends and who share my ideas of what climbing and life are about and what really matters. I do my best to represent them, and they make it possible for me to continue climbing, jumping, traveling and sharing it all with others. I’ve also written two books, I run this website and work as a speaker. And finally, Mario and I started a business called Moab Base Adventures in 2011 to guide and train base jumpers, do occasional stuntwork, and host climbing clinics at Indian Creek. Between all these different endeavors, my annual income would be a joke to a pro golfer or surfer. I have what I need: a free and simple life in the places I love.
As a master’s student at Colorado State University in 1994-5, I had a teaching assistantship, my first salaried position. My tuition was covered, and I was paid $800/month each semester to teach freshman writing, which seemed like a fortune. On $200 a week during the school year, I was able to rent a room, put gas in an old motorcycle, eat, and most importantly, save money for summer climbing trips. After that, as a waitress and climbing guide, I was able to save enough money to make expeditions to Patagonia, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Baffin Island simply by choosing to live in my car and spend almost nothing on anything that wasn’t gas, food or car/health insurance. I feared debt like a coyote fears a cage. I still do. As an alpinist and big wall climber, I understood the difference between essential and excess, and developed an abiding suspicion of luxury. Light is right. The secret to wealth is living not within your means, but beneath them, and liking it.
What makes me happiest is simplicity, because simplicity is freedom. My first home after college was a used car, my second was a used truck and my third was a decrepit doublewide in a modest Moab neighborhood that I’ve gradually rebuilt into a peaceful living space with no debt and minimal expenses. It gives me absolute security and absolute freedom. I don’t have a TV or a stereo. I’ve never had a new car—I wouldn’t want one. Most of my essentials are in fact luxuries: quietness, cleanliness, open space, sunrises and sunsets and time to watch them, firewood. At the octabin, my “second home,” there’s no water, no electricity, eight windows to watch sunrises from, and acres of dead pinyon pine I can walk around and chop up for the wood stove, which means I am rich 🙂
It’s a beautiful world. Each day is a gift, actually each second is. Thank you for coming to share it with me.