Outdoors

Beth Rodden's Peaks and Valleys


The legendary rock climber spills on a life of adventure and her brand-new memoir.

Words by BY ZACH DUNDASPHOTOGRAPHY BY ELLIOTT VERDIER

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Beth after a day of climbing in Fontainebleau, France.

Updated

4 Jun 2024

Reading Time

5 Minutes

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WHEN BETH RODDEN was fresh from high school (and in the process of bailing on college), freedom took the form of a two-door, mid-’90s Honda Civic. It wasn’t much, but for a young woman who aspired above all to scale Yosemite’s vast granite walls, it was home.

“I could sleep in it if I folded the back seat down,” recalls Rodden, now 44 and a legend among climbers. “My feet would be in the trunk. My head would be on the back of the seat. I could sleep anywhere, and no one would suspect it.” Perfect for a time when climbers played an ongoing cat-and-mouse game with Yosemite rangers and proudly embraced bare-bones “dirtbag” survivalism.

“I was living off five bucks a day or something like that,” Rodden says. “I’d raid my parents’ pantry in Davis. I had a small duffel of clothes I’d wash every few weeks. You learn that what you need is pretty small, but your world is so big. The possibilities are so big.”

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Rodden recounts tales from those rambling days in her new memoir, A Light Through the Cracks. Her story, though, runs much deeper—and darker. The book hinges on one terrifying ordeal: When Rodden was 20, she and then-boyfriend Tommy Caldwell were kidnapped by Islamic militants during a climbing expedition in remote Kyrgyzstan. After days of exposure and forced marches, Caldwell seized a chance to push their armed captor off a cliff. The climbers escaped, but as Rodden’s gripping account relates, the incident reverberated in her life for years.

“In climbing culture, there’s a strong sentiment that, like, climbers live better,” she says. “We go to the best places. We do the best stuff. Everyone else is trapped in a cubicle hell. I was very confident when we took that trip. Afterwards, I desperately needed therapy. But climbing, especially at the time, was very male-dominated, very chest-thumping. If somebody skirted death, that was seen as super heroic—like Kyrgyz- stan was just a feather in our cap. It was years before I unraveled the experience. And in doing that, I unraveled my life quite a bit too.”

THE WILDSAM QUESTIONNAIRE

BEST WAY TO START THE DAY

"A cup of tea—whatever's in my drawer."

SENSORY REMINDER OF HOME

"The sweet smell of the Sierras."

DREAM ROAD-TRIP RIDE

"Probably some kind of electric van with a shower. I've gotten to a point in my life where I really like showering."

BEST ADVICE EVER RECEIVED

"The rocks will always be there."

A Light Through the Cracks documents those frayed edges with vulnerability and candor. Rodden and Caldwell married in the kidnapping’s aftermath; years later, their marriage fell apart. With single-minded focus, Rodden forged an extraordinary climbing career, and her book provides a fascinating window into the pursuit’s fusion of extreme sport, performance art and backcountry science. But landmark ascents like “Meltdown”—a route in Yosemite Valley, repeated only three times since Rodden pioneered it in 2008—left her body and psyche battered.

Rodden says it took 10 years to write the book. The recovery stories it tells—personal, romantic and athletic—likewise unfold over long arcs. But A Light moves briskly, with many moments that cause a reader to sit up very straight: She doesn’t hold back on gnarly injuries, gritty climbing details or intimate relationship matters.

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“I was on a script for a long time,” she says. “It was like, I have my canned three-minute speech about what happened in Kyrgyzstan, and I’m good. The other stuff, we don’t talk about—that’s what people who don’t have it all figured out talk about.”

These days, freedom looks more like a 2006 Toyota Tacoma rigged out with sleeping arrangements for Rodden, her husband, her son and her dog. One hundred or more campout nights per year have given way to a gentler weekend-and-summer routine. Her mark on climbing culture now includes frank talk about body image and mental health. But through her evolution, she says, some lessons from her Civic days shine on.

“You don’t need a super fancy hotel, you don’t need to go out to eat every night,” the climber says. “You don’t have to travel a certain way to get a really rich experience.”

A Light Through the Cracks: A Climber’s Story publishes May 1 (Little A).

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