Bleeding Fingers, Hailstorms, and 2,000 Vertical Feet: How Three Women Set a Big-Wall Climbing Record

By September 4, we had freed—or led without falling—every pitch of Rayu. Matilda sent the 5.14b section on lead while I had on top-rope, confident I could lead it on the push attempt. Now we needed to do it from the ground to the top in one consecutive climb. After four days of resting and waiting out storms in Posada de Valdeón, on September 8, we were ready to give the whole route our first official attempt. We woke up just after sunrise, ready to make our way back to the wall, tracing the path we now knew by heart. After a quick breakfast of eggs and coffee, we grabbed our bags and headed into the empty cobblestone streets of the sleeping town, where we met our 4×4 taxi, which took us 45 minutes up a winding mountain to the end of a dirt road. We hopped out of the vehicle and hiked through the mountains, gaining 6,000 feet of elevation over three miles, which brought us to our base camp. We prepared our packs for the next few days on the wall and hiked the remaining mile to the base of Rayu. It was Thursday, and the forecast predicted stable weather until Sunday. Then a hurricane might be coming.

Our plan was to go for a ground-up push to see if we could successfully send every pitch. Brette, Matilda, and I would alternate leads, each taking on different sections, but we all wanted a shot at leading the hardest one. I had an extra challenge: my hip surgeries had changed my climbing style, so I’d had to replace the flexibility I’d lost with core stability and strength. I was about to attempt one of the most challenging big walls of my career with a brand-new way of moving.

We took turns leading our way up the route. Due to our height differences, Brette and I had very different beta than Matilda on the hardest pitch; she floated through sequences that made the climb look like a vertical dance up the steep limestone face. I was confident that she could resend the 5.14b on this ground-up push but knew it might not come as easily for me.

On our second day on the wall, after sleeping at the midway ledge, Matilda sent the crux pitch. We technically didn’t need Brette or me to complete it, too, in order to claim the team ascent and to set the record. But I’d been very clear with the team that I needed to free the crux pitch to really feel like I had completed Rayu, which Matilda felt as well. So we agreed that with the weather window in mind, we would make that the priority before continuing on to climb the rest of the pitches to the top. After Matilda sent it, she lowered back down and I went for the 5.14b. I fell five moves from the anchors. Then I got one move closer before I fell again. Brette and I continued to alternate lead attempts on the 5.14b the next day, while Matilda rested on the ledge.

The problem was that my fingers were bleeding from every tip, and my muscles felt tired and less explosive. We decided I’d get one more try, and then, regardless of whether I made it or Brette did, we’d finish the next two 5.12 pitches and the final scramble to the summit. This was my last chance.

While I waited for the sun to move off of the route, I superglued the splits in my fingers and taped over them. I pulled onto the limestone, reminding myself to commit to the dynamic sequences, trust my feet, and not hold back. “You’ve got this, Sashy,” Matilda said. “You know you can do it. You love pressure!”

I knew that a fall would mean I’d failed this section, but I couldn’t worry about that now. I needed to let go of doubt and fully commit. I climbed through the first crux—I had that pretty wired—then I got to a place to rest before the second one. All the tape on my fingers was getting in the way of my friction, but it was protecting my raw wounds from the bite of the rock crystals. I climbed through the second crux and felt good; I knew what to do. Then, I was on the rest before the third crux, which leads right into the fourth and final section of the route to the anchor. As I shook my hands out from a resting position, I could feel the blood gushing from my finger pads below the slipping tape. I heard Matilda and Brette cheering from the belay below.

“Strong!” Brette called from below.

“So good, so strong. You’ve got this,” Matilda yelled. “Everything you’ve got!”

Invigorated by their energy, I bit off the tape and put my left ring finger into a single finger pocket, squishing it in deep for the best possible leverage. Then I reached out to a small crystal, walked my left foot up high, relying on friction to keep it in place, and jumped. I latched on to the hold, clenched my abdominal muscles, and hiked my right foot up. I screamed, embracing the pain beneath my finger tips, and told my muscles to keep going. I got to the next bolt, the final sequences in front of me. As I looked out to a dime-size protrusion, I thought, Don’t let go now! Find a way.

This was my chance. I needed to stay calm on the delicate traverse, 1,600 feet above the ground, while using all of my strength. I dove into the final sequences, unable to use my pointer finger on my right hand because it was too slippery with blood. My right hand grabbed the crimper, a sliver of rock half a centimeter wide, and I reached left. I just needed to hold on. I was past the point on the wall that I had fallen off during my four previous tries. I climbed stealthily, with precision; I was not willing to let go. Delicately, I progressed through the final few moves, at which point I faced down the final challenge: to launch my body up to the last good hold from which I could clip to the chains. Just go, I thought.

It was like moving through space in slow motion. I held my breath until I felt the hold beneath my bloody hand.

“Oh my God!” I screamed. I’d done it.

After Brette gave it one more try, we all continued on our ground-up push of the climb, through the remaining run-out 5.12 pitches to the summit. We untied to complete the final solo to the true summit and stood together atop the mountain. It was there, at sunset, surrounded by a sea of clouds with the Atlantic Ocean in the not-so-distant horizon, that we realized our dream. We’d successfully climbed Rayu.

We would not have been able to achieve this feat without our entire team: Ryan Sheridan, Priscilla Mewborne, Chris Alstrin, Michael Potter, and Fran Gonzalez. The film, coproduced by Artifactual Media, Female Focused Adventures, and Sender Films, will be released this spring.

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