The place is called Nurse Jackie, probably after the TV show of the same name, but who knows. It’s a 50-foot via ferrata in Colorado’s Boulder Canyon, and by Mo Beck’s standards, it’s easy.
As she climbed from this spot on a glorious Monday morning in July, Beck, National Geographic Adventurer of 2019, was beaming with excitement. I asked about the joy that splashed over her face.
“Climb on it,” she said. “And then ask me again.”
I went to the wall. The first 8 feet were almost straight, difficult for a beginner like me, even with obvious grips. But after that the wall turned a few degrees, still too steep to climb without ropes, but not much. I threw out my right hand, then my left foot, then my left hand, then my right foot and felt like I was imagining Spider-Man’s feeling as he climbed skyscrapers. I immediately understood Beck’s joy.
In climbing, a sport that is sometimes characterized by ambition that drives away fear, Beck always tries to finish the next pitch, add the next skill and master the next challenge. But she also finds happiness when she climbs for sheer fun.
For Beck, climbing and living as a solo preneur is about finding a balance. In climbing, that means pushing yourself, doing hard things, adding more skills … and living to tell about it. In the world of work, this means finding time for her diverse appearances, from lectures to sponsorship appearances to marketing for her former full-time employer. In addition, she has to climb, have a life, see her husband, take care of her animals, etc.
“I’m not one of those people who make me feel alive when I climb,” she says. “It reminds me why I want to be alive.”
* * *
In the opening of Stumped, a documentary about Beck’s rise to Days of Future Past, an ascent at 5.12 (the standard by which good climbers get great), Beck tries to look serious as she explains why she only has one hand The left arm ends on her forearm. “Somebody took the guard from the wood chopper,” she says, nodding seriously.
But she can’t keep up the trick. She grins as she introduces a series of explanations, each more absurd than the other – about meeting an alligator in a petting zoo or saying goodbye to a helicopter pilot.
The truth is, she was born that way. When she was a young girl, they did real and imagined trifles. She attributes her beginning climbing to a guide in a camp who suggests that she suspend this activity. That made her angry. Soon she was pushing open every rock in Maine. While in college, she climbed passionately and then put it aside a little to pursue a “normal” career.
That bored her. She moved to Colorado in 2012 and immersed herself in the climbing scene there. She started working with Paradox Sport as an adaptive athlete instructor and participated in paraclimbing competitions. She has won five national championships and two gold medals in international competitions.
With her growing presence in the climbing community, the admiration has come, which is largely out of place, she says. She feels “gross” when fans praise her as inspiring for being a one-handed climber. Being one-handed climber doesn’t make her inspiring, she says, it only makes her active, and just being active isn’t inspiring. “Who wants to live their life on the couch?” She asks.
If she does something inspiring – for example, as she has climbed days in the future past – she will accept the praise, though perhaps reluctantly. To get to the top of Days of Future Past, she returned about 20 times in five months, climbing three to 15 times per visit. It kept falling in the same place (called a crux). When she finally got upstairs, she looked half stunned, half relieved. She was tired of this wall and was glad to be done with it.
I tried asking about the resilience it takes to keep trying after failing more than 60 times. She wiped the question away. “That gives me way too much credit for the intent,” she says. “Maybe it is. Or I’m just too stupid to stop. “
* * *
Even now, with years of experience, Beck has to convince her “monkey brain”, as she calls the inner desire to stay alive, to climb.
It keeps two ideas in tension. On the one hand, the best climbing stories are about difficult and challenging places. Stumped wouldn’t have been worth seeing (or doing) if she’d climbed Days of Future Past on the first try. The other is that obsession with a can-do attitude can be mentally and emotionally toxic, not to mention physically dangerous.
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Her rational brain tells her the ropes are safe, the carabiners are safe, the belay system is safe. Her monkey brain tells her that falling will hurt and maybe a lot and why do we even want to do that? “They all look scary from below,” she says.
This article originally appeared in the March / April 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photos by © Daniel Gajda
Matt Crossman is a writer and lives in St. Louis. He writes about sports, travel, adventure, and professional development. Email him at [email protected]