We arrived in Moab and I had one thing on my mind: climbing. As soon as we got here, I booked a guide to take me out, show me the ropes, and teach me how to safely lead climb. I was so nervous on our drive out to the crag, my palms were dripping wet and I had no idea what to expect. It had been so long since I had last top-roped, I wasn’t even 100% certain I could still climb, much less outside, much less leading. But I was intent on learning, growing, and conquering that fear that sat heavy in my stomach.

As we hiked up the slope to the base of the wall, I saw the car we arrived in get smaller and smaller, tapping into height awareness before I was even tied in. I was thrilled to top rope some easy routes before having to attempt to lead, and I was happily surprised by my muscles memory to get my body up the low angled wall. All that stood between me and my first lead was an unsurmounted fear that laid inside of me, but I knew that my stubbornness would never let fear be the one to stop me, especially not with people around watching and doubting me. My first lead wasn’t memorable, tbh, I don’t even remember the route name or grade, or completing it, but I know that I did it and I know that I was probably paralyzed by fear the entire time.

The first time Sean and I went to Wall Street with the intent of me leading, things did not go according to plan. We were both nervous; I was scared to death to be leading without a guide behind me saying “that’s perfect, Ashley!” and Sean was terrified to drop and kill me. I think we spent more time fighting with each other than actually tied in, and that day ended up souring us on climbing for a month or so. After the time off, the nagging inside of me got louder and louder: I needed to climb. To help with the fear, we watched a million YouTube videos to refresh the information the guide spent so much time going over, we did ground training with each other, we practice building anchors on the van, rappelling in the park, and just going through the motions in low risk scenarios. Basically, we spent the time building up each others confidence which in my opinion, is what it’s all about.

When we finally started lead climbing consistently, even the easiest of easy routes were terrifying and anxiety inducing. Routes that I would fly up on, on top rope, without ever thinking about the holds or moves, suddenly made me stop and evaluate every move I made and think very astutely before I made my next step. Leaving me to draw the conclusion that it was all in my head. “You can climb this route easy, Ashley!” I’d tell myself as I death gripped the wall and holds with all my might, ” OK you can lower me, Sean!” I’d yell down when I was certain my body wouldn’t move another inch upwards. Once I got to two feet on solid ground, I would stare at the route and climb it in my head before saying “alright, let me try it again” and then I’d repeat this process until I was past the crux and confident that I could get to the anchor. Overcoming my fear of falling is something I’m still working on. When I start to pass a bolt and start working towards to the next one, I have persistent thoughts about falling in the space between and become filled with fear and anxiety. Some days I can easily quiet these voices with affirmations I say out loud to myself on the wall, “you are strong enough to do this”…”you have the skill to climb this route”…”anxiety just wants you to quit, don’t let it win”…and usually after I have gone through these mantras a handful of times I am able to keep moving forward. But there are still many times when I can’t push pass the fear, and I’m learning that’s okay too. Just know that if you are beginner or even an intermediate climber and you still have fear and anxiety sandbagging you, you are not alone- it IS scary and those are totally valid feelings to have. It can be hard to admit to those feelings especially when we are around skilled climbers who seem to have their mental game on lock- but we aren’t those people, we are us, and we are scared, LOL.

What I love about climbing, is that my physical abilities don’t hold me back (yet), my mental strength does, and that gives me something I can work on and work to push past. Lately, this is exactly what I have been doing. I have found that running laps on a slightly challenging route has been super beneficial, places where I find the fear rising in my stomach, I concentrate on and do over and over and over again. Once I pass it, I lower down to do it again until the fear is gone and I am reminded my ability to conquer the route. Another way I have found to help to overcome the fear is building my confidence on easy-peasy routes. I see a noticeable difference in my climbing on days that I start on an easy route and those days that I start on a more challenging route. I now know the importance for myself to build the confidence right out of the gate- send an easy route, remind my mind + body that I got this, and then move on to the actual routes that I want to work on. Lastly, and this one took me longer to realize the problem, but learning to trust my gear has been paramount. I found that halfway up a route, I would start to second guess the anchor and actually picture in my head the draws unclipping, freeing the rope, and dropping me to the ground in the process, or the rope just snapping, or a bolt ripping out of the wall, or, or, or…you get the point. For me, all this is, is anxiety and my brain trying to keep me alive. My anxiety thinks that if it alarms my brain of all these very possible, very real scenarios (they aren’t very possible or very real), that I will lower my body back down to solid ground and be safe again. And it works- like a fucking charm! I do lower. I do give up. I do hear a sound in the rope and am certain it’s about to snap and scream to be lowered. But, I am working on it, and how I’m working on it is by telling myself in the moment that anxiety wants me to quit- that this is the same voice that convinces me that van will be towed from the perfectly legal spot I parked in at the trailhead. Anxiety wants me to live quietly and safely and not put myself in any scenarios where I could be hurt- or worst- fail. But that isn’t the type of life I want to live, I want to grow and get better and do things that scare me so that one day maybe they won’t scare me so bad- or maybe they still will and I’ll do them despite it.

My climbing journey definitely mimics that of a mountain range, with peaks and valleys, it has been anything but linear, and that’s okay with me. Sports have always came to me easy since I was kid, naturally athletic, my body is solid and strong. But climbing? That uses a whole new muscle that I spent most of my life ignoring: my brain (okay that sounds hilariously bad but you know what I mean). The brain needs strengthening and conditioning, just like the rest of the body and it would behoove (parks +rec 4 lyfe) you to start adding it in to your weekly routines.

I guess what I’m saying is that I like lead climbing because I suck at it big time and I don’t like sucking at things, so lead climbing gives me something tangible to work on and towards. I’m also a very goal-oriented person, so having a goal to work towards like leading 5.10a’s seems doable but also really fucking hard and I’m just so stoked to have found something just so slightly out of my reach that it keeps me interested and going for it.

My only advice to you is this: find something that challenges you and demands peak performance and then work really really hard towards it. Having goals and something to work towards can help unlock what’s holding us back, for me, it’s fear and anxiety. I don’t want fear and anxiety to dictate what I do in life so I’m not going to let it, will you?

When we arrived in Moab, we had no idea what was in store for us. We had been in the van for only 2.5 months when we got into town, and spent most of that time in the middle of no where, barely speaking to other humans. We would laugh and fight over who had to go into the grocery store and be the one to talk to people, Sean always lost that fight, HAHA. So when we got to Moab, right as the peak season was about to hit, we went through a bit of a shock to the system from all.the.people.everywhere. I remember when we got here, we were genuinely nervous. Would we fit in here? Would Sean find a job? How could he get a job without an address? I mean, it’s the first question on an application. Where would we park the van at night? How long will we be here?

It felt, it still feels like, Moab welcomed us with open arms, as if to say, “what took you so long?”. Every last thing fell right into place, and before we knew it, those big questions, had all been answered. Sean found the best job working with the best people, who are now some of our best friends. At first, we felt like little fishes in a giant adventurous ocean, it felt like everyone was always doing these wild things, like B.A.S.E. jumping, highlining, skydiving, climbing these insanely tall towers before going to work the dinner shift…where did we fit in to all of this?? Here’s the thing we realized though, we don’t need to do those wild things to be friends with the people who do them, or to even just fit in. We just need to be ourselves, do what we love to do, and cheer on our friends when they do rad shit. We found interests that spoke to us loudly and clearly and started to focus on doing the things that scare us + make us feel most alive…and we are in good company in Moab. When we stopped focusing on whether or not we would fit in, we found our place in this town and in a moment, felt like we belong.

Looking back, we are clearly different people than when we arrived, and I am so thankful for the transformation that we have gone through. It’s hard to change and grow when you’re around people you have known for so long or grew up with, you don’t want them to think that you ‘changed’ even if you really really want to do just that- change. We both knew we just needed the time and space to try to find who we really are, and Moab gave us exactly that. For the first time for both of us, we feel completely free and overwhelmingly happy. That’s not to say that we haven’t had bad days or moments- because we most definitely have, but for the most part, we still can’t believe that we were able to not just pull off living in Moab for a full season, but thrive and make a home for ourselves here.

All good things must come to an end however, and now that the nights are getting colder, the days shorter, and the busyness of town decimating, we are forced to plan and get ready to hit the road for the winter. Our original plan was to head to Florida, and enjoy the warm air + beaches and then head back to Moab come spring, but after a trip to Southern California last month, we realized that we just aren’t beach people anymore; too boring. So, we changed plans and agreed that we would spend the winter climbing as much as we possibly could and try to get ourselves in tip-top shape for next spring in Moab. Looking at our climbing app, there is no shortage of routes in the Southwest, and our plan is to just follow the warm + dry weather to whatever walls we can find and really dedicate our time to honing in on our skills + techniques. Neither of us are great climbers by any stretch of the imagination, we both can comfortably lead up to a 5.9+, so we have a lot of work to do- fun work, but work nonetheless.

Our exact departure date is still being determined, but it will be soon after Thanksgiving. Currently, we are considering heading to St. George first and climbing for a week or so, weather depending of course, before heading to Red Rocks outside of Vegas for a few weeks. After Red Rocks we may swing into California or we may just head south into Arizona. Prescott, Sedona, Phoenix, and Tucson all have something for us, hopefully we have enough time to hit them all up before spring. Last winter was very wet in the southwest, leaving many roads impassable, so we are really hoping this winter is drier and cooperates with our big plans. Even if the weather doesn’t hold out, I know we will find a way come hell or high water to climb and get better. The not knowing is so fun- I wonder what adventures this winter will bring?

Come springtime, we will be setting our GPS to Moab and I’m certain the stoke is going to be high as we have BIG plans for Moab 2020. Learning to skydive, highlining, climbing towers, canyoneering, high water rafting, and so much more- honestly I’m unbearably stoked just thinking about all the adventures to be had next year… but I don’t want it to get here yet- I wish time would slow down for us. Hard to believe that come January 4th, in just over 2 months, we will have been in the van for an entire year- that just doesn’t seem right. But, I’ll save those thoughts for an end of the year post.

So, that’s the plan- for now! We don’t stick to many plans so who the hell knows where we’ll end up actually, but that’s the best part about vanlife, you can go where ever the wind blows ya.

Ashley here, typing this up in the wee hours from the Red Rock Bakery in Moab, Utah.

Fall is in full swing here in Utah and we are taking full advantage of the beautiful weather by exploring the surrounding area every free moment we have. Luckily for us, Moab is only an 1.5 hours away from an area we have really fallen in love with, the San Rafael Reef (east side of the San Rafael Swell). We’ve made a few trips down there over the last couple of months, and we’ve only just begun to skim the surface. Next spring, I think we will be spending significantly more time in the Swell than in Moab even.

The San Rafael Reef is located in and around Goblin Valley State Park, a famed park for it’s 3 square miles of hoodoos and oddly shaped towers-goblins– definitely worth the trip. The park does have a paid campground, but the park itself is surrounded entirely by free camping, so we drove around and found some great little spots, we found one for convenience, one for alternate weather, and a few with considerable distance from others.

Our first time, we arrived in the afternoon and went straight to the visitors center for beta, weather conditions, and coffee. Luckily the Ranger working was very knowledgeable, gave us a lot of great information and pointed us to Crack Canyon, but only after he checked to make sure our van had high enough clearance, which alone made us excited for the road ahead. It took us a good 30 minutes to drive the 4.5 miles to the mouth of Crack Canyon because the “road” was so uneven, sandy, rutted, and absolutely perfect for the beginning of an adventure. Once we hiked through the wash and got into the canyon, the walls started to narrow, and we started having to maneuver our way around the obstacles water have carved through thousands of years of flooding. We didn’t have Rufio’s canyoneering harness yet, so it was a little difficult getting him down a few sections but we managed. For a brief moment, the canyon opened up and in the distance we could see storm clouds rolling in and decided to bail on the rest of the canyon, leaving it for us to complete on another trip.

We high tailed it back to a paved road in fear that if it started raining, we’d likely get stuck in the mud/clay the road quickly became when wet. We decided to go check out Little Wild Horse Canyon, the most popular canyon in the area, the storm looked like it was rolling south past us. There is a reason it’s the most popular canyon, it is absolutely beautiful and as narrow as your foot in some sections, without requiring any technical gear. We hiked the whole canyon before turning around, which in hindsight, we probably would have pushed through and connected Bell Canyon, but we weren’t sure how many extra miles that would add.

Our next adventure to the area, we came prepared to explore canyons with a little more technical aspects. We brought our canyoneering gear and Rufio’s new harness that allows him to rappel and be lowered, and camped at a beautiful secluded site on the way out to the canyons. The spot we found had a handful of really cool tunnels that we explored, they reminded me of gothic cathedrals, very unique and beautiful. For dinner, we made the most delicious pasta dinner, played a couple rounds of Sorry, and went to bed early in anticipation of a very early morning and a long day on the trail.

I woke up around 5:30AM and headed straight for the trail head while Sean and Rufio stayed asleep in bed, or at least they tried to sleep. Getting back to the paved road was hysterical, it was so bumpy and because it was still pitch black it was impossible to see all the bumps and divots in the road, which resulted in Sean and Rufio literally flying around in the back while I cried laughing so hard and exclaiming “Sorry!” every few feet. As I drove to the trail head, I saw only a few little field mice scurry across the road, avoiding death for surely only the first of many times that day. At the parking lot, we made oatmeal, packed out bags and set out to loop Little Wild Horse + Bell Canyons. Little Wild Horse was just as cool the second time around, Bell left a lot to be desired, but these are non technical canyons, so I should have expected that it would be underwhelming- still pretty though!

We completed the LWH-Bell Loop much earlier than anticipated, getting back to the van right around noon. We decided to finally go check out the actual Goblin Valley, and when we got there we were totally blown away, it is so cool! It’s a large open valley, filled with all different size and shape hoodoos, aptly named ‘goblins’ that you are free to roam + explore around. It is like a giant playground for all ages. We were feeling adventurous, so we grabbed our packs and took off for the area behind the valley. We had no idea there are rappels and a lair you can explore, so you can bet that we will be getting back there asap.

We planned to stay for sunset, but the wind picked up and 30MPH gusts started pelting us with sand, making it difficult to just open our eyes, so we figured we oughtta go find a hidden spot to cook and sleep for the night. We were planning on doing Ding + Dang canyons in the morning and wanted to camp nearby, but since the wind was blowing so hard, and we weren’t sure if a storm would roll in with it, and we opted to camp at a convenient place where rain wouldn’t trap us. I woke up at 5AM, took note of the lack of wind and wet ground, and proceeded towards the canyons. The road to the canyons followed a sandy wash and all along the way we found free campsites for future use. Ding + Dang are low key technical canyons, with hand-lines in place for you, but since we have Rufio, and he doesn’t have hands LOL we had to bring our gear, a rope, and Rufio’s harness so we could lower or rappel with him. The canyons were beautiful, you ascend Ding and descend through Dang, and between the two is Ding Dang Dome, which tbh, I just love to say. Ding was fairly easy, we just hoisted Rufio over all the large boulders that could be easily climbed by humans, a few times Rufio even surprised us by jumping or stemming without any assistance. Pretty quickly into Dang, we had to pull out the rope and lower Rufio down a few 20 foot drops before a 40 foot dryfall, all within the first quarter-mile of the canyon, we knew we were in for some real fun ahead! The obstacles were fun and easy for us, but having Rufio with us added problem-solving, a sense of adventure, and some real challenges to overcome. Once we made it to the end, we had a little celebration and hung out for a bit before heading back to the van for lunch. We were tired and happy and starving- we didn’t bring lunch because we thought we’d be done before noon, but we didn’t calculate how much time each of the 12+ obstacles would take, so we didn’t get to the van until after 1:30PM. We collapsed once back at the van, made PB+J sandwiches, and then loaded up and headed back for Moab, planning on our next trip back all along the way.