Surviving When It All Comes Crashing Down

Helen Sinclair Tuolumne Meadows 1

Post by Helen Sinclair

Last year I was working my second season on the Yosemite Search and Rescue team living to climb in the high country utopia, Tuolumne Meadows. My job was to help people and I was living the way humans are supposed to live – in a community without screens where evening entertainment is around a camp fire sharing good food and stories. I was healthy and happy and climbed hard, notably; Positivity a 5.13 naturally protected pitch of technical crack and crimpers. High on altitude induced fitness I ran up the mountains effortlessly. At the end of the season I was heading back to Colorado to start my dream job and enter into the next chapter of my life. But first, as would be the natural response of any die-hard climber about to enter into a full time career, I went on a massive climbing bender, climbing 59 pitches in less than a week. I drove out of Yosemite Valley, sore and scratched, sad to be moving on, but excited for the future. Then my life, along with American politics came crashing down around me.


Helen Sinclair Tuolumne Meadows 2


The climbing bender started with a lap up Astroman with a fantastic partner Roby, who was keen to do the Rostroman after a day of rest. The Rostroman consists of climbing two classic Yosemite free climbs, The Rostrum (8 pitches) and Astroman (11 pitches) of mostly 5.11 climbing in one day.  It’s a basic Yosemite benchmark for free climbing link-ups. It had been a goal of mine for a couple of seasons, so I was excited to get an opportunity for the tick.  It rained that day, and the rock was slick, friction at an all time low. I fell once out of the Harding slot, which was frustrating because I had freed it last season, and just one day earlier. We ran the decent, and while I was bounding down the steep rock gully I slammed my knee full speed into an unforgiving rock. Gritting my teeth I limped back to the car downed some Ibuprofen, ate a few bars I scrounged from my glove box (after discovering I had forgotten my carefully prepared lunch), and hobbled down to the start of the Rostrum. Despite the knee and rain and the dark on the last few pitches we topped out around 9pm. We finished both the routes in 14 hours.

Helen Sinclair Yosemite El Cap Nose 1Two days later I was climbing again with another awesome partner, Lauren. We were on the Nose in a Day (NIAD) and I was feeling the burn, climbing the free pitches on the first half of the famous route I felt tired and slow. We topped out on El Cap at about 18 hours several hours less than the first time I had climbed it in a day. Despite being sore and tired I felt amazing. Lauren and I had only just met a few days earlier and never climbed together before. While there was a lot we could improve on through the 31 pitches the whole day was super fun and we just kept moving and encouraging and supporting each other. I can’t wait to climb with Lauren again.

Quick side note; I used Misty’s Cadillac big wall harness for these goals. At the risk of sounding like an over inflated advert; it is truly the best harness for the job. There are two rows of gear loops that help keep everything organized. The Cadillac is a little heavier as far as harnesses go, but it has this wide support waist that provides tones of comfort in a hanging belay or when a heavier climber takes a whip, and when the gear is heavy and waiting the harness on your hips. Also it’s the only big wall harness I have found that fits my small waist. When short fixing and running the pitches out I place a double rack over 3-4 pitches (the real speed climbers do it over 10 pitches, no way am I that bold!). It can be hours between meeting up with your climbing partner face to face, so all gear for those hours, water bottles, clothing, shoes, etc also has to be clipped onto the harness, none of this switching the pack every pitch. Lauren and I split the Nose into two, I did the first pitches and we swung leads at Eagle Ledge after the King Swing.

Then things got really hard. I failed a selection test after 9 weeks of fire academy, a job I had worked hard for three years trying to get. I can’t say right now about the things I experienced during my time in the academy because the reasons why I was failed are still being looked into. At times I was not treated fairly. Prior to being employed I went through a lengthy application and interview process, I was tested physically, medically, academically, took drug tests, psychological evaluations, had an integrity interview, and polygraph (lie detector) test. I passed them all by being honest and genuine. The fire department wanted people who held integrity in the highest regard; they wanted people whose prime motivation was to help people at all costs. They wanted people who spoke and acted like moral and just members of the community. Then once they hired us the put us into a highly abusive training environment where mistakes (even when learning something for the very first time) were not tolerated.

During my time in the academy I also experienced some of the worst luck imaginable. A young woman stole my mail and started writing herself checks faking my signature and withdrawing all the money I had in my account. My car got crashed into and ended up being taken to the wreckers. I suffered a terrible illness during one of my external testing weeks; I was taking Zofran by day and throwing up by night. As I said before I can’t go into specifics, but after this experience I was crushed. The results of the USA election compounded the situation. For a recent immigrant to the USA the brute that a small percentage of Americans voted for is a horrifying, terrifying future. I went home to New Zealand.

In tough times I climb. I match myself, or sometimes bash myself against the rock.  I suffer and strive, and pull down and fly. I feel the burn, I feel the warm tingling sensation of trying as hard as I can, and I top out and scream into the wind, “I will SURVIVE!” and I heal.

Usually unemployment for me and fellow climbers is a joyous time. I can live off next-to-nothing, and really just want to be climbing rather than working anyway. But I was injured. I obtained a shoulder injury while on the job at fire academy. I have damage to my labrum and possibly need surgery. I can’t climb. Actually I can’t even lift the 2 pound container of laundry detergent off the high shelf to put into the washer. I got informed that my injury will not be covered by the employer where the injury occurred. I will have to cover all of the medical expenses through my own insurance, which somehow means a minimum of several thousand out of pocket expenditure as well as insurance paying the rest of the inflated medical costs that are simply baffling to your average New Zealander.

People kept saying to me, just be positive. Things could be worse. I do understand this, I do still have my health (more or less), I have a loving husband, a family all over the world who are very supportive, and the climbing community. I am not out on the streets, I do have my limbs still intact, and I will recover from this injury. I can even go home to New Zealand if and when things get really crazy here in the USA. But the most helpful thing that anyone has said to me through this was, “I don’t know what to say, it just sucks Helen.”  Yes it can always be worse, I understand that. But right now I feel totally worthless, I lost my job  through unfair circumstances, I am injured, I have been robbed of all my money and my car got totaled. My self confidence is at an all time low. Sometimes the acknowledgement of that can be truly healing.

So the climbing community opened their arms to me, and took me in. I am very lucky that my family and the climbing community are one and the same. I went back to New Zealand and travelled with my brother, always the rock in my life, and who I first climbed El Cap with. We went mountaineering, spear fishing, kayaking and snorkeling.


Helen Sinclair Kayaking New Zealand 1
Helen kayaking in New Zealand.


Helen Sinclair Kayaking New Zealand 2
Helen kayaking in New Zealand.


Helen Sinclair Spear Fishing 1
Helen spear fishing.


I am back coaching at the Spot Climbing Gym in Boulder. The young athletes I coach there force me to look forward and not dwell on the things that could have been.  It felt like I had left to look for a new family, failed and returned the ever faithful dedicated and loyal climbing community. No matter where I am in the world this group of people have been there for me. Misty contacted me during this time asking for my story, asking what I needed from them. I was dismayed, I can’t climb I thought. But I have to tell myself that just because I can’t send 5.13 crack right now doesn’t mean I am not a climber.

“It’s not about how many times you fall down; it’s about how many times you get back up.” That sounds a lot like bouldering, and bouldering is fun.