Mayan Smith-Gobat: What I’ve Learned
33, Big-Wall free Climber, New Zealand.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 206 (December 2012).
Before I attempted the Salathé Headwall (5.13b), the hardest crack I had climbed was 5.12b. It was a huge learning curve, but the Headwall pitch taught me nearly everything I know about crack climbing.
I spent a lot of time working the Salathé alone. My routine was: wake up at 3 a.m., hike to the top of El Cap in the dark, rap down at dawn and spend the whole day dangling off my mini traxion trying to figure out how to climb this stunning crack. The key was learning to relax into the insecure jams, and keep going even when my body screamed to stop. Ultimately succeeding on this route was the hardest but most rewarding experience of my life.
German-born, and a former medical scientist, my mother traveled the world most of her life before ending up in New Zealand with my father, who was a mountain guide for Alpine Guides. For my first five years I lived at the head of Lake Pukaki, near the namesake village of Mount Cook, pop. 200, situated in the shadow of New Zealand’s tallest peak.
Mountains are home for me. I was skiing before I could even walk. But I didn’t actually start climbing until 16, when I got a summer job working for Alpine Guides. I took a mountaineering course and loved it, but still focused solely on skiing.
Sometimes the worst experiences lead to the most profound life changes. By 18, I was skiing semi-professionally, doing big mountain comps. In the winter of 2000, I flew off a track at high speed and collided with a tree in mid-air. I broke my jaw and both feet and couldn’t walk for six months. To keep myself sane, I began training my upper body and rediscovered climbing. I haven’t looked back since.
My father had an explosive temper, and I was pretty scared of him throughout my childhood. It has taken me a long time to rebuild my connection to him and learn to trust him. I still have a hard time handling anger or conflict, especially violence of any sort—it scares me and I instantly retreat within myself.
My parents separated when I was 7, and my father moved to England with another lady. At that point I disowned him, preferring to believe he was just away in the mountains. However, the way my mom handled the separation taught me a lot. She simply accepted his decision, even if it was very hard on her and me. She never showed any hard feelings and they are still friends.
Mom is a self-proclaimed gypsy and until I was 12 years old, we moved almost every six months. We lived in an array of random houses, sheds and tents, often ending up staying at friends’ houses for extended periods. Slowly, I learned to feel at home anywhere, be happy with few belongings and survive on very little.
In my early 20s, I lost my closest friend, Lucy Wills. She was 21 when she developed breast cancer, which was removed, but then returned and spread. She finally died at 27. She introduced me to meditation and taught me how fragile life is—to appreciate every moment.
Having grown up with a very strong single mom, I learned how to accept bad situations as they are, be strong inside and let everything else go. The flip side of having this strength is that I find it very hard to show any weakness, accept help or let people see the inner me.
I’ve had to teach myself that it is OK to open up to others. Especially after Lucy’s death, I’ve realized that there are no guarantees, and we could die at any moment. So make every one count, give everything 100 percent, live in the present fully and love life. Most difficult of all, try to let people in—I am happy alone, but having close relationships enriches life. Even if it hurts like hell if the people you love disappear, it’s still worth it.
Also read Why Women Should Put up New Routes, by Mayan Smith-Gobat