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Vietnam

I'm coming home

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I'm coming home

In just under a week I'll be on a plane back to the U.S., ending one of the most incredible years of my life. Trying to sort out a year of memories and experiences is futile, but here are a few things I've already realized: 

The people were even better. I got to meet some of the most playful and generous people on this planet. In the midst of reading about all that is going on in Paris, Beirut, Nepal, and Syria, despite all of the horrific things that have happened, I am still convinced that this world is full of good people. People whose kindness and compassion blew me away. I was given the benefit of a doubt from Vietnamese who suffered in the war. I was invited into someone's home that was the size of my bedroom growing up. I was given couches, equipment, food, directions, hugs, and so much encouragement from strangers. People are incredible and I can only hope to pay it forward someday when I have a home. 

The adventures were way bigger. Last week I ran with (okay, away from) a bull with flaming horns in Spain. I will never forget what it felt like to trek with a 15 kilo pack to 5,416 meters, or to wake up on a mountain in the Austrian Alps the morning of my birthday. I got to climb the longest routes of my life in the Dolomites and Arco, care for 433 wild dogs in Thailand, swim in waterfalls in Laos, jump off a moving train in Prague, compete and actually place in a climbing competition in Kathmandu, trek in the Laotian jungle, the high Tatras, the Alps, and the Himalayas, and volunteer with the most inspiring organization I've seen in a long time in Nepal. 

And the hard times were worse than I imagined. I struggled with being developing country sick, injured, exhausted, more lonely than I've ever felt in my life, and injured again. I've had bed bugs, wiped out on my motorbike, almost drowned in a tunnel in Vietnam, fainted a few times, had a lung infection (maybe altitude sickness, actually?) at altitude, left my purse on a train, slept on the sidewalk, cried every time my tendinitis kept me from climbing, unknowingly hosted generations of lice in my hair for a month, and shit my pants in public...twice. 

Even though there are always going to be more places I want to explore, I couldn't be more ready to see my family and friends again. Truthfully, I can't wait to settle down and have things like a toothbrush cup, mugs, books, a dresser, a bike, a garden, and heaps of chipotle. America, you're beautiful. 

I don't know what's next or where's next yet and that scares me. So don't ask about that yet, just for now join me in saying, holy shit this happened. Thank you for believing that it would happen and for encouraging me along the way. Thank you, thank you, a million times, thank you.

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why I really love climbing

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why I really love climbing

"We can ask ourselves whether we failed or succeeded, [...]whether we’re tough climbers or weak girls…but at the end of the day, it felt hard as nails and yet we gave it everything we could and well, I think that’s enough." - Hazel Findlay, badass

"This is hard and scary." - me


Give it everything I can? Right, then. My chance to give it everything I could came on one of my last days in SE Asia, after months of climbing and experiencing the highs of (finaalllly) pushing grades and the lows of injuries. My friends and I piled into a boat and headed two hours east toward The Face, a crag that had been built up in my head for months, specifically because of how interesting the rock was and the huge falls people have taken on it. My friends Benny and Ross, two other Asia Outdoors staff, and I were wrapping up our time in Vietnam, so we were psyched to end our time by spending a day on this beautiful crag.

Beautiful indeed. When our boat rounded the corner, our lack of sleep and choppy boat ride (our Vietnamese boat driver, Chu Bien, made us wear lifejackets, which never happens) were quickly forgotten, because suddenly there it was. This stunning, sheer crag rising 45 meters out of the waters of Ha Long Bay was The Face. We get to climb this thing?! Uhhh, OKAY!! We started getting psyched, chatting, and taking photos.  

And then, the closer we drew, the quieter we became, taking in the sheer size of such an inspiring and beautiful rock. 


There are only two bolted climbs on The Face. On the left is License to Climb, an inspiring and sustained 7b (5.12b) with a difficult and chossy 7c (5.12d) extension. Yeahhh, one of those sound way more fun than the other.

And then on the right is THE FACE, the crag's namesake, a 7b+ (5.12c) that starts cruiser and keeps getting steeper and more technical the further you go up. It's about 30 meters tall and the last 5-8 are the most run out and (surprise!) the most difficult. Most of the talk I'd heard about The Face was centered around the top of this climb, that if you don't make it to the anchor you will take a BIG fall. 

Chu Bien pulled the boat up onto a slabby rock and we all hopped off, scrambling up to the base of our warm up, License to Climb. What sort of fantasy world are we in that a 7b is our warm up? Nonetheless, bags were tossed on the deck, ropes were flaked, harnesses were put on and okay Liz you wanna go up first? Oh hell yes. 

My nerves gave way to sheer happiness as License to Climb was as beautiful as I imagined, 20ish meters of small two-finger pockets, side pulls and laybacks, underclings and high, high feet. I began to lose myself in the climb, engaging fully in it to the point that everything around me faded away; afterward I wouldn't remember anything about it. My body took over, the moves linking together naturally until I arrived at the first anchor with only one fall. I lowered off happy, psyched at how fluid it all felt. 

As the sun rose higher in the sky, giving way to higher temps, each person hopped on the route, leaving ample time for our favorite things: mainly eating, lazing in the shade, and watching each other climb. Thom (another Asia Outdoors staff member) and Ross had been here before and had already worked both climbs. But for the rest of us in the group, Benny, myself, and Alaskan couple Shasta (as in the freaking mountain!) and Kelsey, the rock was totally foreign, unlike anything we had ever done before. My friend Gavi described it perfectly - melted crayon, a solid wall full of small pinches and pockets.

The sun was high in the sky by the time we all finished License to Climb and it was getting hot, hot, hot. The day had been awesome but Benny and I were still antsy to try The Face. It was an intimidating lead, but we had to try it before leaving Vietnam. Benny went up first, hanging draws with the hot afternoon sun beating down on him. He looked strong, but since he had already gotten on License to Climb twice, he whipped off about halfway up, exhausted from a long day in the sun. 

...uhh, crap. my turn.

I started up The Face slowly, trying not to think about how much I had imagined this climb. I paced my breathing and took my time to explore holds, lying back to see where the line was going. Every hold looked good but it was easy to get lured off route and all the holds would disappear, leaving me to traverse or even less fun, down climb to get back onto the line. I kept moving up, up, up, the line growing more steep and the holds getting smaller and further apart. Keep breathing, relax, you can do this. 

One of the million reasons I love climbing is exactly this – there isn't anything else in my life that demands every part of me. There is no room for any thought or worry, stress or distraction. There just can't be. Breathe in, grab that side pull, breathe out, high foot. Breathe in, lay back, breathe out, pull up.

And then suddenly I was at the crux, clipping the last bolt and looking up at the anchor, still about 5-8 meters above me. I glanced down to see the rope swaying between my feet and about 100 feet below my feet were my friends, watching and yelling up encouragement.

Okay you have this, be brave. 

I took a deep breath and got my feet up high, using my height to my advantage as I levered my body up. And I landed in a blank spot, with technical and sustained hand holds and very thin foot holds. What the junk, where are the feet? I hesitated, adjusted, hesitated, adjusted. Try it. Just go for it. Come on.

I pulled down with my right hand, got my feet up high, reached up with my left hand and...slipped.

I fell about 10 meters, the biggest fall I have taken in years. Most falls are a blink and it's done, but this time I was able to process what was happening and the position my body was in. Apparently I let a few choice words fly, but I just remember hearing my breath go in and out on the way down. It was such a rush of adrenaline, scary and fun and incredible!

I lowered down to a psyched group, who didn’t even care that I didn’t clip the anchor; they were just happy I tried hard. It's days like this that I feel so grateful for this playful and supportive community of climbers I get to hang out with. Everyone wants each other to succeed, to push ourselves. It's not a competition, we’re friends that love the outdoors and being involved in something so pure and spiritual.

In the end, no one in our group sent The Face that day, but it didn't matter. Because climbing is just a medium to let me be outside, to push myself alongside badass people on inspiring rock in a beautiful bay. Climbing gives me a chance to try things that are hard and scary; to give it everything I can. And climbing lets me drink beers, and that, that is worth being grateful for.

Most (okay, ALL) of the photos on this post were taken by Kelsey Gray, a talented Alaskan professional photographer who just got himself, and his sweet girlfriend Shasta, a bunch of house guests for being so cool (see you two soon)! Check out more of this talented mofo here

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Loving Nam

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Loving Nam

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The stuff you don't share on Facebook

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The stuff you don't share on Facebook

The only sunburn I’ve gotten in SE Asia...on my lips. Apparently I didn’t put enough sunscreen on them and they swelled to twice their size. My celeb status just rose to B list. 

The only sunburn I’ve gotten in SE Asia...on my lips. Apparently I didn’t put enough sunscreen on them and they swelled to twice their size. My celeb status just rose to B list. 

"What's your name, where are you from, how long are you traveling? Over and over again. Hostels blasting house music, clichéd graffiti on the walls, drunk travelers trying to out-gypsy each other. Am I really doing five more months of this until I see a familiar face?" 

Its my last night in Bangkok and I'm having dinner with Scott, an old friend and one of the most experienced travelers I know. I admitted to him I was starting to get weary of this lifestyle, tired of Lonely Planet checklists, people 'doing' an entire country, having the same conversations with 20 year olds on their gap year. Scott laughed and told me I was hitting the four-month mark and it was normal. People start to look and sound the same. I’ve met you before, he would think. Slow down, find a place you like, it will get better.

I headed to Cambodia, thinking a change in scenery would help, but the next few days were filled with insane heat and bad luck. My heat rash had spread and with it came a new rash that turned out to be bed bugs. I got the worst sunburn I've gotten in SE Asia...on my lips. I looked like an off-brand Kardashian, but eating spicy food with sunburned lips isn't so sexy. The power was out in Siam Reap so I cooled off throughout the night by hosing myself down with a bum gun (exactly what it sounds like). 

That night as the power came back on, the reports of the earthquake in Nepal came with it. My heart sank as I thought about my two good friends there, Kristen volunteering in Kathmandu and Josh trekking on the Annapurna Circuit. I had a ticket to join them in just a few weeks and had planned on spending five months in Nepal, the longest I was to spend anywhere. As news stories started to gather more information and first hand accounts, the death toll started rising. I began to really panic. The earthquake had been one of the worst in a long time and it had triggered an avalanche on Everest. I reached out to my two friends, our mutual friends, and some family members. I hopped online. Refresh page, refresh page, refresh page. I tried to distract myself by going to the night market in Siam Reap, but was met with the stomach churning mix of drunk, white tourists and Cambodian kids begging for food and something to drink. 

I hopped on a bus and headed south, hoping a sleepy river town would provide the quiet and natural beauty I needed to relax. Why was I here? Traveling for the sake of traveling had lost its novelty. I felt like I was stumbling from city to city, meeting the same people in each hostel, crossing things off a list that I didn’t make or care about. I hate small talk and I found myself repeating the same conversation with everyone I met. Was I going to have these same conversations for the next five months, like some sort of endless networking event?

More than that though, the earthquake in Nepal was a poignant reminder of how short life is – so what was I doing? I have an incredible community at home, so many amazing friends and family that I am so proud to call mine. Did I leave them for a bunch of pretty photos? 

I missed community. Once I realized it, I felt relieved. Of course I missed community. That's what Scott had been saying. And if I get to pick, why not go with one of my favorite types: climbers. Instead of motorbiking my way up the coast of Vietnam like I had planned, I flew all the way to my final destination in the north of Vietnam: Cat Ba Island. I emailed Asia Outdoors, the biggest adventure tourism company on the island, and asked about volunteering as a climbing guide. 

It has been over a month since I showed up here and it has been exactly the antidote I needed to feel like myself again. There is something beautiful and warm about being known. We share rooms, clothes, gear, watch Game of Thrones, push each other on hard sport climbs, sketch out on scary trad, eat, and get drunk together. It's messy and imperfect and just so freaking normal. This was all too good to leave so I renewed my visa and decided to spend a few months here on Cat Ba Island. 

I know I am missing seeing most of the sights I'm supposed to see in Vietnam, but I don't care, because this trip is nothing without community. 

 

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Vietnam, 40 years after the war

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Vietnam, 40 years after the war

This post is five months late because it took me that long to figure out how to put words to how I felt as an American in Vietnam. 

A few days after arriving in Saigon, I toured an American/Vietnamese war museum and seeing the victims of agent orange was a heartbreaking experience. I chose to do it alone and was glad, as I had the time and space to process the photos and read about the war from the Vietnamese perspective.

You guys, it was horrific. 

The chemicals we sprayed from planes caused the most extreme deformities you can imagine, and it's still affecting children and civilians even 40 years after the war has ended. Though I felt the anti-American propaganda unnecessary and distracting, the photos and the impact of agent orange is entirely real. I left the museum sick to my stomach, having left after watching a video of an 8-year old boy with feet attached to his hips crawl around his bedroom.

The next day I joined an Australian friend on a tour exploring the Cu Chi tunnels about 45 minutes outside of Saigon. I was one of the only American's on the tour, so I felt incredibly self conscious as I boarded the bus. But our guide was wonderful, walking us through the timeline from the Vietnamese perspective, which was so interesting to me as the Vietnam War is so glossed over our American history books.

What most impressed me most though was the grace he gave while speaking about the United States and the American soldiers. He explained that many U.S. soldiers didn't agree with the war and found themselves in a kill or be killed situation. He even talked about the many American soldiers returning home after such a gutting war to a nation that didn't support them. Telling a story about such a traumatic and political war while still creating empathy for both sides was not an easy feat, but one that I felt so grateful for. 

When we arrived at the Cu Chi tunnels, I was beyond amazed at the advanced infrastructure, especially from a nation with so little resources. I could barely fit through most of the openings of the tunnels, which were intentionally sized for petite Vietnamese soldiers. The tunnels were hot (even for Vietnam), tiny, and claustrophobic. I couldn't believe the Viet Cong soldiers lived in them for over 10 years. 

Over the next few months I struggled to process what I had seen. The more research and thought I put into it, the more my my anger settled on our government. And not even in a protest the war kind of a way. We're not the first country to do something really shitty like this, but in order to learn from our mistakes we can't bury them. If we know that history repeats itself, why don’t we as a nation own what we did and educate people on the American/Vietnam war? 

We need to talk about this, about the weapons we chose to fight with, and the effect they had and are still having.  

But while I was processing, I noticed something. The Vietnamese people offered me nothing but lightness and warmth. Wait - they're being so kind. My curiosity led me to some cautious conversations with a few locals about the war, starting with the man pictured playing the guitar. 

My uncle was a medic in that cave on this very island. 
Really? Wow. I can't imagine trying to treat people out of a cave. So how do you feel about Americans now?

Oh I like Americans.
...oh. Well tell me this; looking back on it, how do you feel about it now, are you angry?
No. Just glad it's over. 

Being in a country that we warred for so long could have been an uncomfortable, if not terrible experience. But instead, I benefitted from so many Vietnamese taking the high road, helping to create relationships between a new generation of people. But to be offered this kind of grace was nothing short of inspiring. 

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