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  • Writer's pictureSamina Ahmed


Updated: Sep 2, 2021

A year ago, I was sitting in Bishop, California with one of my best friends staring into a campfire. We talked a lot about what climbing means to us. Is it a lifestyle? A hobby? And then the word “identity” was raised and sat on the cool night air with a weight that felt hefty and right. Questions of identity lead to answers with no clear meaning. What does it mean to “be a rock climber”? Identity is a concept I have grappled with my entire life. My mother is a white American of mixed heritage and my father is Pakistani. I am Pakistani-American, second generation, with a name and a face that is foreign to rural America. I might not stand out as a climber in a crowd, but I sure do get asked where I’m from a lot. I don't feel different, but I know I am different. It is communicated to me daily in a million subtle ways. This knowing has led me to ask difficult questions, to stare into the void created by dislocation.

Photo credit: Jules Jimreivat

I once read that trauma is dislocation, but my father was the poster boy for second chances. With a fierce sense of optimism and bravado reminiscent of everything he does, he immigrated to Seattle when he was in his 20s to start a new life. Like many immigration stories, my family’s is obscured by time, distance, and shame. The Ahmeds were seeking, on the golden shores of America, religious asylum and freedom from persecution. Now that I am grown, I commend my father’s bravery. What would it be like to start over in a new country, with a new name (Tahir became TJ), a new life, a new culture, a new language? My father absolutely loved America. To know him was to be charmed by him. In true 80s fashion, he sported a thick handlebar mustache, drove a Monte Carlo, and partied his way through Seattle as if all the world belonged to him.

Photo credit: Jules Jimreivat

The Ahmeds are accustomed to arranging their children’s marriages. Of all the siblings in my father’s family, only two married Americans: my father, and his older brother. Consequently, there were only two Ahmeds to ever get divorced: my father, and his older brother. I am the product of that a doomed cross-cultural love affair.

When I was very small my parents purchased a large chunk of land nestled deep into the Olympic Peninsula in a rural town called Belfair. My childhood home was a uniquely built 19th century vertical log house presiding on a hill in a forest replete with streams and meadows. My two little brothers came along, and we never grew tired of chasing each other through the wooded fields. When I was eight, my parents’ marriage dissolved in a ruinous and violent dispute. My father, destroyed, left us and went back to Pakistan. In February of 2001, the Nisqually earthquake struck Washington. The foundation of my childhood home was compromised, and the house was condemned by the state. My family, in keeping with a now legacy of dislocation, became homeless. I had just turned 14 years old and was looking forward to my first year of high school. Instead of picking fights with my brothers or getting dropped off late for soccer practice, I spent my high school years moving from place to place. We lived with friends, in hotels, in a van, one time we even slept in a church - until we were locked out and told to leave.

I have moved more times than anybody I know. The pain of dislocation doesn't leave the body even after new roots take hold in the earth. It stays. When my father left Pakistan, and later when he left my family, he wrote a history of pain and suffering into the very network of my root system. Over the years, mine has transformed into a feeling of being totally untethered - a lost balloon flying away. I like to lay still at times and imagine what life would have been like in Pakistan, or what it would have been like if my family had stayed in the fairylike forests of Belfair.

Photo credit: Jules Jimreivat

I discovered rock climbing at a gym in France when I was 22 years old and followed my burgeoning interest back to Oregon. Naturally, I started climbing at Smith Rocks, the birthplace of American sport climbing. The state park is unassuming but the opportunity for rock climbing made itself clear to Alan Watts, a pioneering route developer who put up America’s first sport route here in the 80s. Despite the backlash - and there was plenty of it - Watts left permanent hardware in the rock in order to free climbs that previously were only deadly dreams. Watts started the tradition of using a drill to put bolts into steep cliffs. Climbers use these bolts to attach a rope to the cliff as they climb, preventing the possibility of ever making a ground fall. Despite how safe it is, climbing high off the ground above a bolt feels utterly terrifying - and this is the appeal. Pushing mental limits on the rock is just as satisfying as developing physical strength. The goal of sport climbing is to climb a route “clean” (without falling on the rope) from the ground to the bolted anchors at the top of the cliff. This is called redpointing, and the more difficult the climb, the more impressive the redpoint.

Photo credit: Jules Jimreivat

From the moment I first laid eyes on Smith, I was in love. The search for a home and an identity ended. I knew I wanted to be a rock climber. I wanted to learn the language, to feel at home in my body, to understand weather systems and rock quality. Here at Smith, I am surrounded by cowboys and tumbleweeds. People wave at you when they drive by. The hillside is covered in juniper and sage, hawks screech overhead. So be it if I stick out like a sore thumb or if I have to explain, for the thousandth time, that I live here and how to spell my name. Like many who congregate here, I feel a magnetic pull toward Smith Rocks. I can feel the history and culture pulsing out of the rock, new language, an old magic. Stories about the next generation of climbers are biding their time, hidden in the dirt and choss, waiting to be written. I can feel the love every time I come here. This love culminates in the process of pushing my physical and mental limits on hard climbs - the more arduous the process, the more engaging. My goal is to be fully present, to feel fully alive.

Photo credit: Jules Jimreivat

A local old timer who taught me most everything I know about Smith Rocks once looked me in the eye and said, “Samina, you know how to find the next route to climb? Look for a feature in the rock that you are pulled toward and climb it. Climb the ones that call to you.” I took what he said to heart. Recently I set my sights on a route called The Product. It was put up in the 90s by a man named Tom Egan. It weaves its way up Juniper Spire, an eye-catching slab of salmon pink rock that stands out from the crumbling mud around it. The Product stands alone, without a warmup nearby. It is a great cold weather project with limited wind exposure and all-day sun, but the nearest crag and accessible warmups close in the winter for raptor nesting. Warming up on the route means climbing thirty feet of unprotected choss just to establish on solid rock. Every foot and handhold are liable to snap off. The man who bolted the line in 1992, Tom Egan, saw fit to reinforce the start holds with glue. The belay consists of twenty feet of broken gunmetal blue scree. When I tie in, I always say the same thing to my belayer, “If I fall up there, jump off the slab and run.” Climbing crumbling rock requires a technique all its own, and a little pixie dust. The Product calls my name, and even pronounces it correctly. As I write this, I can't help but laugh imagining Tom in the early 90s. I can see him working at the crag in his baby blue leggings, gluing bits of rubble and stone together while wars raged, and people fled, and catastrophe happened. Did he glance into the void? Did he peek into the darkness? Was he lucky enough to have a choice?

This glued-together hunk of volcanic tuff compels me toward it, singing to me, beckoning. The Product is a siren on a rock at sea. “Come here,” she she says. “Come here and be with me awhile.” I must be truly present with her, or I may never learn her song. Climbing requires me to fully live in my body, to feel every sensation, to analyze the most nuanced movements and the smallest sensations. If The Product is a siren, I am a dancer. I twirl and twist for her, dizzying contortions that take me away from the world, guiding me home to myself.

Photo credit: Jules Jimreivat

I am both at home here and still searching. Home is always one more spire, one more mountain away. One man’s totally forgettable warmup is one girl’s first 5.13. In earnest I have carefully brushed every hold on this route, learned the nuances of every move, every stance, every rest, every boulder problem. The Product is laced with hard moves connected by delicate transitions and made-up holds. It is a web, and the spider’s prey are v6 boulder problems connected by the thinnest silk. Every time I tie in, lace my shoes, chalk up, and check my belayers system, my heart pounds fiercely. The spire is intimidating, and exposed. The crux of the route requires grit and total presence of mind. In a world full of suffering, it seems unlikely that I could care so damn much about this hunk of rock. But isn’t that the point? Just like my forebears, I have become a disciple of movement. It makes me smile to think, here I am, telling my father’s story - not in words, but in redpoints. It goes something like this:

a woman you do not know, your daughter, builds castles in the sky out of mud and choss. On the front door of every single one of them, she writes your name.

Photo credit: Jules Jimreivat

This story was originally published in issue 04 of Hi Hey Hello magazine and can be purchased in print here:

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