Touchstone Blog Archive
Sunday, April 4, 2010
  Melissa Michelistch: The Wallress
Melissa Michelitsch came into rock climbing over ten years ago with a strong background in dance and ballet. In between teaching classes in Oakland, she makes trips to Yosemite, Indian Creek, Red Rocks, and anywhere there are long classic crack climbs. She's been climbing in Yosemite since she started, making ascents of El Capitan's The Nose in a single day as well as Never Never Land, Zodiac, and a myriad of other Yosemite Big Wall Climbs. She's also climbed wall routes in Zion National Park, hiking up some of the best desert big wall cracks in the world.

Melissa on Slice N' Dice in Indian Creek

The big wall veteran, the Wallress, Melissa took some time to answer a few questions about big wall climbing for the Touchstone Blog.

How did you get into wall climbing?

I lacked skill but had lots of zeal and endurance. I (wrongly) reasoned that climbing walls would be like doing other climbs that I’d done…just doing them for a long time. I talked a friend with legitimate skills and experience into doing Lurking Fear with me. He must have thought I was cute or something because anyone with his level of experience would have realized that I had no place on any end of the rope on El Cap yet. I led two pitches and jugged the rest, slowly and ineptly, fearing for my life. My lousy start left me with something to prove to myself, so I tried to come back with a few more skills the next season.

What do you enjoy about being up on the wall?

The act of being on a wall really isn’t that fun for me. I like the anticipation and strategizing before hand and the sense of accomplishment when I’m done.

Do you ever get scared being so high off the ground?

I’m not afraid of heights. The exposure down low vs. up high feels about the same to me, and mostly I only see the rock in front of my face anyway. (Looking down is an activity for long belays.) Heights might be the only thing that doesn’t scare me.

Often the things that scare me the most are phantom fears…Fears of things that are very unlikely to happen or, for some of them, that wouldn’t actually be that big of a deal if they did happen: fear of getting trapped in a storm, of being too uncomfortable for too long and just dying from it, fear that good gear will rip, fear the my partner will get hurt on a lead that I shirked, fear that my rope will cut or my jugs will fall off when I’m jugging.

Melissa waking up on Never Never Land on Yosemite's El Capitan

What was it like climbing the Zodiac?

I climbed Zodiac w/ my bff, Kate, 6 years ago. Kate had never climbed El Cap before but had led more aid pitches than I had. I’d been up El Cap a couple of times but had always had a much more experienced partner to pick up my ample slack. We had plenty of bugs in our systems, but on the whole it worked out quite well considering that we were as green as grass. When my interest in taking the next step in what up till that point had been a progression of more challenging routes never materialized following our climb, I realized that I wasn’t really on a path towards harder aid routes any more. Kate had a very different epiphany. She went on to aid pitches as hard or harder than any woman before her.

What's your favorite part of wall climbing?

A wall can end up eating up a whole month of your life…Planning, packing, humping loads to the base, resting, fixing, climbing, resting again, carrying loads down from the summit, being in la-la land daydreaming about what you just did, etc. When you’re not into it, it starts to feel like a big time waster. When the project is exciting, it’s fun to give yourself over so fully to one absurd goal.

What do you do to prepare for a big wall climb?

Spend a little or a lot of time gazing at the topo and convincing self that the nice line must be hand jams. Negotiate the rack w/ a partner, always too much and never enough. Buy necessary food and beverage. Spend $200 at REI on who-the-hell knows what. Meet up w/ my partner at the designated time and place. Decide that we need to either bring an extra bag or leave some stuff behind. Choose to climb forth or bail.

What's the best way to start wall climbing?

I don’t think there’s a best way. When you climb walls you have to figure out how to deal with situations that you’ve never seen before with the limited tools on hand. Your partner is often out of sight and out of earshot, so you’re on your own. People who are really driven to do walls (as opposed to casually intrigued by the idea) are going to be pretty good add seeking out the learning resources that they need to get started.

Melissa rebolting on Arches Terrace in Yosemite

You don’t have to be a strong free climbing to do many walls, but it doesn’t hurt either. People with years of experience leading long, traditional free climbs usually fare better than their counterparts with less rope and epic management experience on their first walls. I skipped the years of experience part when I started trying to climb walls, and as a result I often spent more time trying than climbing. Anyone seriously driven to stick with it can eventually summit (if they don’t make any grave errors or fall to wanton acts of nature).

Steve Schneider is easily the most well rounded El Cap climber ever. He’s also a member and employee at Touchstone Climbing. He’s an AMGA certified guide and has a clinic planned at Ironworks this spring.

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