Alli Rainey is a professional climber, yoga teacher, route developer, climbing coach, and writer based out of Ten Sleep, Wyoming. In this week’s Climber Spotlight, Alli tells us her story about making a life out of doing the things she loves, what it’s like to be a female route developer, her battle with depression, and much more.
Hometown: I moved enough times growing up to not consider anywhere my hometown from my childhood. I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else.
Current location: Ten Sleep, WY
Living in a van/car/house/couch surfing: House
How did you get into climbing? Tell us about the early days of your climbing career.
I wasn’t ever interested in climbing and didn’t really know anything about it until I had a boyfriend in my senior year of high school who was into climbing. After a few months of him trying to convince me I should try it, I finally grudgingly agreed to give it a shot when it was time for me to cut my nails for softball season. I loved it from the first day I tried it, even though I only got a few moves off the ground. Solving the puzzle captivated me. I couldn’t wait to put the next piece in place each day I went out.
I was at boarding school, and I was sneaking off to climb at the local top-rope area whenever I could. I had no gear of my own, so I’d just wait for the climbers to show up, ask for a belay, and then ask if I could borrow a harness, shoes, and chalk bag. They were very kind and supportive, and helped me learn a lot in those early months. I think having to work so hard on my first climb ever, probably is the reason why I’ve always enjoyed trying routes that are too hard for me more than I enjoy routes that I can onsight or send in a few tries.
It’s all about making something that seems utterly impossible for me possible—that experience is what got me hooked on climbing, and I continue to enjoy that more than anything today. When I can do a move consistently that once was the hardest thing for me or that I couldn’t do at all—this is the coolest thing in my climbing world. I have the memory of the former impossibility still there, but the evidence of transformation in my ability level drives me and fills me with amazement every time.
You’ve managed to make a life out of climbing, coaching, and yoga. Tell us about how you managed to make your passions into a career.
There have definitely been ups and downs. I’ve enjoyed support from the outdoor industry through sponsors since 1999, and that’s been a huge help and one that I’m so grateful for. My current sponsors are Petzl, prAna, Scarpa, Clif Bar, Joshua Tree Skin Care, Native Eyewear, and Total Coaching.
I worked hard to build a solid relationship with a publisher and supported my life more through writing professionally (mostly not about climbing) than anything else for more than a decade.
Then the economy crashed in 2007, the publisher went out of business, and life stuff happened too, and I was left wondering what to do next. Right around then, though, I started getting more into training, thanks to an ankle injury in a climbing competition early in 2008, actually, which left me unable to climb but able to train my upper body for a couple months.
As my knowledge of training and my excitement about it grew, another climber suggested that I start an online coaching service. I still only have a small number of clients at any given time because I don’t want to lose the individual touch and relationship that I have with each person I work with. It usually takes 2-3 years at this point to move from my waiting list onto my client roster.
I earned my RYT-200 in December 2013. I have practiced yoga since I found a copy of Richard Hittleman’s Yoga: 28 Day Exercise Plan in a used bookstore when I was about 10. I taught myself the poses I liked out of the book and ignored, then forgot, the ones I didn’t like so much—weirdly enough, those are the ones that I struggle with more today!
Teaching yoga enables me to share with non-climbers the same kind of movement-in-the-moment, fully present activity that I enjoy when I climb, as well as during my own asana practice. I currently teach anywhere from 8 to 15 classes a week in Ten Sleep and Worland, WY—when I’m home, meaning not traveling for yoga training or climbing (or both!).
You’ve done a lot of route development in Wyoming, especially in Ten Sleep. What has been the best part of this experience? The worst?
I’m surrounded regularly by people who do and have done way more route development than I have or ever will—so I never think of myself as a prolific route developer at all, especially not these days! But I have had a hand in developing some areas and routes here.
I believe that the best thing that’s come out of my involvement in developing climbing here was being able to help found and to serve on the board of the Bighorn Climbers’ Coalition (www.bighornclimbers.org), our nonprofit local climbing organization. We have built a great working relationship with the land manager for Ten Sleep Canyon (Bighorn National Forest), and in the two years since we started have already achieved so much.
Since I first came here, I’ve always wanted to see climbing in this area protected and preserved, and having the BCC here helps assure that it will be. I also do like seeing people enjoy the routes that weren’t there when I first showed up here, whether I put them up or someone else. I have these early-days memories of areas like the Cattle Ranch sans bolts and people—and the contrast is pretty neat.
Worst? Dealing with various dramas that aren’t worth going into. But even that has been good in its way because it’s helped me learn to keep a cooler head and a bigger-picture perspective about what’s really important.
Related: Climbing Destination Guide: Ten Sleep, Wyoming
You’re one of the only females developing routes in the world. Has this been hard? A blessing? Does your gender affect it at all?
I never really know how to answer this question, to be honest. I guess I don’t think of myself as being special in any way for being a female who has wielded a drill. I know a number of other ladies who have drill-wielding on their resumes as well, and have had the pleasure of developing a crag with one of them in the past (along with four guys).
I don’t think it really makes things different to be a guy or a gal—it’s still dirty, messy, hard work, even on the best-quality rock. But it’s also fun and rewarding in its own way, kind of an adventure and experience of discovery. I rarely get bitten by the bolting bug these days—but it did happen this last season once, and I did enjoy the results!
It’s great when you put up a climb that is really fun. I’m definitely not a driven route developer though. At this point, it’s only if I see something so awesome-looking that I feel it simply must happen, and then if I can’t convince someone else who’s more into it than me to do it, well—out comes the drill!
Hear about the process and passion behind Alli’s route development in Ten Sleep, Wyoming:
Related: What it Takes to be a Female Route Setter: An Interview with Kat Hart-Gentry
What has been one of your proudest moments in climbing?
Oddly enough, the first thing that comes to mind is that I’ve finally managed to connect the emotional side of me into my logical knowledge, to let go of outcomes and to simply enjoy the experience of being able to rock climb on every single day that I get to go out and climb, no matter how I perform on any given day.
I am a person who struggled with depression for a long time, and a lot of this would manifest around my climbing. If it wasn’t climbing, it would be something else. People often feel sad and then ascribe the feelings of internal sadness to external circumstances, and for me, this was often climbing and dissatisfaction around my performance. And then being upset that I was upset, of course, knowing that climbing isn’t really important and that it’s “a silly thing to be sad/angry about.” The logical understanding was there; the emotional connection was missing.
However, with lots of work and effort (also connected to the not-so-proud moment), at some point during this last year it was like that emotional part finally (finally!) got fully plugged into the logical part of me that had already decided and knew that I shouldn’t be sad or upset about climbing—ever. In other words, I stopped allowing my emotional state to be dictated by the fulfillment or lack thereof of my expectations for or desired outcomes on any given day.
I unwired a longstanding but very dysfunctional neural pattern, and I became much more free as a result. I am now just pleased that I can go climbing, send or fail or flail. I realized this transformation was happening one week earlier this year when I reflected that while I’d had a great time on all the climbing days of the previous week, I had actually enjoyed the day during which I didn’t send anything more than the day that I did send a route—because the people, energy, and laughter of the not-sending day had been way more fun than just merely sending a climb.
Of course the sending is always fun, but it’s not what stands out to me. If I can’t enjoy the process, then I’m destined to be unhappy most of the days I climb, given my penchant for trying routes that kick my butt all over the place. I choose happiness!
Tell us about one of your not-so-proud moments in climbing.
Though I’d been working my way slowly out of the darkness of depression for years, I’d say the biggest turning point came in 2012 when I got injured on a trip to climb in Spain. I handled this terribly. I was devastated. I’d been climbing better than I ever had just before this, enjoying a great fall season in the Red River Gorge in 2011. I came home from that all psyched to train, promptly overtrained, and started having some nerve issues and numbness in my left hand (probably related to a previous injury where I tore some muscles in 2006).
In any case, I tripped and fell, hard, in the airport on the way to Spain. I woke up two days into my trip (nerves take a while to swell and a looonnngg while to stop being swollen) unable to really use my left hand or wrist. I couldn’t hold a water bottle or type, let alone pull up a rope to clip a quickdraw, or belay. It sucked; it was scary; I wondered if I was going to be paralyzed forever, but managed to work with a doctor back over here to determine that my best course of action was the waiting game (with lots of anti-inflammatories in there).
It didn’t hurt physically—but mentally, I cratered. I had put too much weight on my identity as a climber and into climbing (and performance climbing/sending) as my source of joy and reason for living. I felt empty.
After my injury healed, I found myself still disturbed by this dependency. It was frightening, and I didn’t want my joie de vivre to be held hostage by my ability to climb or not. If I got injured again and couldn’t climb for a time—or forever—I knew that I had to release myself from this dependency on something external as my source of happiness.
Going back to my roots, then, I delved more deeply into my yoga practice—not just asana, but yoga philosophy and meditation as well. At the start of 2013, I decided to pursue my RYT-200, and I continue on this path today, deepening my education and sharing my knowledge with others as a I teach. Practicing yoga has provided me with wise and profound guidance that has helped me gradually reshape my psyche and to emerge a much more contented person as a result. Losing climbing would still be tough, for sure, but there’s more to life than climbing, and I’ve connected with that truth.
Related: Teaching Yoga to the Toughest Alpine Climbers in the World
If you could give one piece of advice to a beginner climber, what would it be?
Maintain your beginner’s mind no matter how far you progress—the excitement, joy, lightness, sense of freedom/adventure, and openness to learning new ways to experience your body-mind that made you fall in love with climbing.
But, if you want to improve your climbing, it’s never too soon or too late to hire a knowledgeable coach or trainer to help you create and implement an effective training plan.
If you could give one piece of advice to a V15/5.15 crusher, what would it be?
Exactly the same advice as I’d give to the beginner climber!
Anything else you’d like to tell us?
My favorite climbing days are the ones where I get to share the day with people who make me laugh so hard that my abs hurt, even if they make me laugh so hard that I fall off of the rock. The combination of awesome climbing and an abundance of hilarity simply cannot be beat!
From everyone here at Moja Gear, we send a huge thank you to Alli for her inspiration, honesty, and psych.
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