First Time Climber, Once in a Lifetime Climb

Adventure, first time rock climber, Heather Cates, Independence Monument, rock climbing, Tami Mittan -

Heather celebrating at the top of Independence Monument
Heather celebrating at the top of Independence Monument

Heather Cates, raised in the Grand Valley of Western Colorado, has spent a lifetime loving the mountains. Being active is an important way of life to her. And like many inspiring women, she has a bucket list of challenging activities she’d like to try. On Heather’s list: Climbing Independence Monument, located in the Colorado National Monument. Although not a rock climber, the amazing vista called to her.

Opportunity knocked when a friend and member of the Monument Board approached her with the idea of joining a group making the climb on July 4, 2011. Part of a tradition started back in 1911, Mesa County Search and Rescue Team has organized this event for the past few years. They required no climbing experience, and gear and assistance would be provided to any who qualified physically.

“I told myself it was one of those things I’d like to do before I turned 40,” Heather said. “But then I got to thinking, why wait?”

She had made the 45-minute hike to the base of the 450-foot Independence Monument many times before. But this experience would prove to be quite different. The morning of the climb she felt equal parts excited and nervous. They arrived to find the Search and Rescue team already in place at the four pitches, several colorful climbing ropes dangling freely from each.

After watching the first of the 20-person group begin his ascent, Heather decided jumped right in. “I had it in my head that my athletic abilities would make this climb fairly simple,” she stated. “Five minutes into my climb up the first pitch, I realized I was sorely (no pun intended) mistaken. Rock climbing is a completely different kind of workout. One of the key points is to use your legs as your power to climb, not your arms.”

Heather near the top of Independence Monument
Heather near the top of Independence Monument

Tackling this climb was a little more than she had bargained for. “Although rock climbing is not an aerobic workout, my heart was pounding as if I had just run several miles,” she explained. “Wow, I thought to myself, ‘I am not even halfway up this sucker yet, and already my body is screaming at me.’”

Once they arrived at a pitch, they were able to rest and regroup for about 10 minutes and absorb the beauty of the National Monument’s deep canyons, rugged valleys, and towers – a breathtaking landscape of red rock and green junipers.

“Working my way slowly up the second pitch, I started to view the cracks and holes in the rock face before me as tools to help me strategically plan where the next placement of my hands and feet would be,” Heather stated. “Not that it was getting any easier, but I guess I was finally getting the mindset of what I needed to do if I wanted to reach the top.”

This started to serve her well. But then she made a startling discovery. “Approaching the top of pitch 2 with every muscle straining, I came face-to-face with a rock smudged with blood, most likely from a previous climber’s knee or elbow,” she recalled. “It wasn’t until I reached the next ledge that I realized how beaten and bruised my own knees were. ‘Amazing,’ I thought to myself. I had not even felt my knees banging and scraping along the sandstone walls.”

At last, she reached the final 80-foot pitch, which turned out to be the most difficult and exposed, with 20 MPH wind gusts trying their best to throw her off balance. She explained, “Sizing up what lay between me and the summit, I made the decision to do my best not to look down either side of the narrow incline to the earth over 400 feet below. I just kept my focus ahead with my body as close to the rock face as possible.”

So when she approached the last caprock outcropping, she felt relief, but also hesitant. “I was 10 feet from reaching the summit, but my energy level had hit bottom. Maneuvering the final section required summoning forth some Superwoman strength. I couldn’t believe how wildly my arms and legs were shaking. My muscles were angry at me and protesting.”

But she placed her hands on top, heaved herself upward, and heard the cheers. She looked around to see the smiling faces of others in the group who had summited before her. “It is funny how complete strangers can feel like close friends within only hours,” she mused.

With the last rope untied from her harness, she was able to freely walk across the top of Independence National Monument. The realization of what they had all just accomplished began to sink in.

“I picked a spot to sit and just relive the last few hours of my climb, and to take in the view,” she said. “I was looking at an incredible artists work, and wanted to always remember that view and how it lifted my spirit so high that I couldn’t stop smiling.”

No doubt her sense of accomplishment was lifting her spirits as well. Would she make a climb like this again? “I decided that I do really like rock climbing, but I would not tackle that particular climb again. For me, it was like skydiving … amazing, but a one-time experience. I’m so happy that I did it!”

~ Written by Tami Mittan, Stonewear Ambassador


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