In this week’s Climber Spotlight, we hear from passionate route setter, climber, and youth coach, Shannon Joslin —where she shares her experiences as a van dweller, what she’s learned from kid crushers, and her story of recovery from a bout of medical maladies that drastically and rapidly changed her life. Get to know her:
How did you get into climbing? Tell us about the early days of your climbing career.
My first interaction with climbing is quite an unfulfilling tale. I started climbing after my housemate asked if I wanted to try it at UC Davis’ climbing wall. I was immediately drawn to the way climbing existed at the intersection of mental and physical problem-solving.
Can I not only figure out the mental puzzle, but implement a solution with my body?
This inquisitiveness first blossomed through my good friend, Ian, who exposed me to climbing outdoors and continued to develop in my travels abroad.
In addition to being an avid climber yourself, you’re also a youth climbing coach. What have you learned from the kids you coach? What kind of values or attitudes can adult climbers learn from young climbers?
What haven’t I learned from the kids?
I’ve learned how to always look at the larger picture, how to simplify complex movements to their bones, and to teach to a mind that is sometimes unwilling—but most of all I’ve learned selflessness and patience.
You can’t exist for yourself when you coach children. Your projects, your trips, your time, your food—they all cease to exist when you surround yourself with children that look to you for advice. Or rather, they expose how silly holding onto those sentiments can be. I was a much hastier much more myopic climber before I started working with the kids. I had interacted with others who coached and didn’t understand. Now I understand. They have expanded my world, I owe them a lot.
You lived in San Francisco in your van, what was that like?
A bit chaotic. I wasn’t very good at asking people where the good sleeping spots were. I chose based off of proximity to a coffee shop and whatever gym I was working at the next day. My alarm clock was quickly replaced by the clattering of a garbage truck at 5:40am in the Marina District, a homeless man and his dog down in Belmont, and the murmurs of techies down in the South Bay. I took solace in the weekends where I would escape to the mountains.
Related: The Dichotomy of Dirtbagging
However, that all changed around when I broke my hand. I went through a slew of medical maladies that landed me in a really bad spot mentally, physically, and financially. Most of them are gone today, but I still feel the physical ramifications nearly everyday. In the span of two months I discovered I had hypothyroidism, osteopenia, a near unrepairable hook of the hamate fracture, low levels of nearly every vitamin possible in conjunction with some whacky hormone levels, and I also couldn’t eat a lot of delicious food due to a stabbing pain in my abdomen after eating seemingly anything other than basic vegetables and meat.
Every time I went to the doctor we found something new. The cause? A parasite I had picked up four years prior while traveling, Dientamoeba fragelis. It isn’t well studied, if you look up the symptoms the literature describes an “inability to thrive.” I’d say it’s vague but quite apt.
How did you repair yourself?
I took massive blue and white “death pills” to rid myself of one of the longest relationships of my life, Philia (my dog) aside. It was a strange feeling, before I had felt like Fry from Futurama—invincible. Then, the parasite took over and I felt like an emaciated Jabba the Hut. After ten days of death-dosing my gut, I started a complete redesign of everything in my life.
I strength trained under Josh Garza (an incredibly knowledgable coach) at SF Iron to load my skeletal structure and build back bone density. I consumed bone broth, raw milk, and sardines for bone density; fermented everything and yogurt for gut restoration; and a handful of vitamins to help replenish all the stores the parasite had depleted my body of. I became dependent on taking thyroid hormone to restore my TSH levels and rid my body of the brain fog.
I went to PT twice a week. I remember two months into physical therapy, the PT asked what my goal for the next month was. I told her
to open a jar of peanut butter.
I started cooking at my friend’s place. Anything to keep my mind off of the fact that I was twenty-four, living in a van in San Francisco near jobless, and the things I had defined my life around (climbing and setting) seemed utterly intangible. I couldn’t work and I couldn’t show my face at the gym. I hated being asked when I would be back to climbing hard again and what I was doing in the meantime—their eyes looking me up and down because I had gained weight to lift.
I felt lost and like an outcast from the climbing world. The answer? I still don’t climb as hard but I value climbing exponentially more. I’m coming back slow, guys. And smart.
You’re living in Tahoe now. Are you still in the van?
Unfortunately Wu Tang Van and Phily and I have parted ways in a bit of an epic story: she was stolen outside of my buddy’s house in Oakland … Just my luck.
I was gearing up to hit the road for a few weeks, I had loaded everything into the van, and was set to leave the next morning. I woke in a fit sometime before sunrise, went to get my medication out of Wu and she was gone. I checked the ground; no glass. I checked the street signs; none for towing. I called the police and waited on the curb with everything I had to my name: a red organic tank top, a ripped pair of pants, and Philia, my best friend. I was shivering. I hadn’t been that cold or alone in a while.
They caught the perp a few days later and everything was gone. I found cigarette butts, lock-picking supplies, beer cans, and new and used lacy panties around the cabin and in the walls. Needless to say, my home had been violated and I needed to get out. Luckily, the thief was also a vandal and Wu had been physically assaulted as well.
So now I’m in Tahoe, under a roof. Though I can’t be sure if there aren’t lacy panties somewhere—my housemate Rylan gets out ;0).
You have also been a route setter for a few years and recently set for the Youth Nationals. What is it like being a route setter and setting for the big competitions?
Being a setter is hard work. Some days it’s a thankless job where individuals wait at the roped-off barrier and ask when you will be done. However, most days it is fantastically rewarding—you take a step back and get to see climbers physically and sometimes (when you are lucky) emotionally invest themselves in trying to solve and rise to the challenge of a problem you have created.
Nationals was a really inspirational event. I worked with a really dedicated crew who are in the business for the right reasons. Setting for bigger competitions allows you to look at the boulders with a more critical eye. When we set a round for a category, we seek to test what arsenal of movement each climber has brought to the event.
Ian McIntosh chiefed USA Climbing’s 2016 Youth Bouldering National Championships and a question he kept asking that resonated in my head was,
How can we ask a little more of the climbers?
You don’t necessarily place as much thought into the subtitles of movement in day-to-day setting.
You’ve only been climbing a few years, but your tick list looks like that of someone who has been climbing for over ten years. What do you attribute this to? How did you get super strong, super fast?
Complete and utter obsession in conjunction with climbing outside with strong, small people.
While I was in school, I was inspired by the try hard of Jesse Bonin. Watching him give every boulder, despite grade, his all out effort instilled a sense of tenacity in me. I wanted to try hard, I wanted to be on top of that boulder, I wanted to squeeze grips until sweat leaked out my fingertips and forcefully ejected me from the rock.
That was my initial reaction and the catalyst was leaving my career path as a scientist to live on the road. I was able to travel with Flannery Shay-Nemirow for awhile. She taught me a thing or two about capitalizing on good days and training to make good days more of the norm than the exception. I remember we were in Joe’s [Valley] and I had climbed a few hard boulders in a day and she completely gave up her day to see what else I could tick off. That was pretty cool.
We’d do abs on crash pads after long drives to have a higher baseline. Brian Hedrick also helped my mental climbing fortitude by leaps and bounds. His words,
Do you think climbing V12 feels good? No; it hurts—but you just try past the pain and it feels even better on top of the boulder.
play in my ear every time I feel myself wanting holds to feel better. They aren’t—you just try hard and deal. When I’m trying, when I’m training, and when I’m mentally preparing, I take them all with me everywhere I go. Try, train, try.
If you could give one piece of advice to a beginner climber, what would it be?
Adequate rest is any person’s secret to success. It trumps dieting and hitting the gym five days in a row. Sleep, climb, eat!
Tell us about one of your proudest moments in climbing.
Standing on top of Cathedral Peak with my good friend Chris Sinatra. I had just undergone surgery to remove a bone in my hand a couple weeks before and hadn’t been climbing for a few months when Chris approached me to ask if I wanted to do the triple linkup of Tenaya, Matthes, and Cathedral.
I wasn’t sure I could because I had been sedentary at sea level for so long, could only climb with one hand, and convinced myself I would no longer be a climber after months of mild to severe medical maladies. We ended up running out of water crossing the meadow to Cathedral, but decided to press on—the teeth of midday had passed and we wouldn’t be deterred from our goal.
We summited and I knew I would always have climbing, in some capacity. It was subtle, but important. Though it isn’t set in stone, my identity lies in the rock, and I had rediscovered my zeal for that sweet, sweat Sierra Nevadan Granite.
What’s one piece of gear that you can’t live without?
Absolutely my organic crash pads. I’ve slept, fallen, eaten, and cooked on them for years now and I’d be a lot worse off with out them.
Catch Shannon in The Shoe Wars Round 1: Five Ten vs. La Sportiva in Joe’s Valley:
If you woke up tomorrow and for some reason could not climb ever again (god forbid!) what would you do? Is there something else that feeds you the same way that climbing does?
I would ride horses. I rode growing up and for a spit at the end of high school/beginning of college. I haven’t connected with another living entity like I have with horses. They teach you a lot about the way that you project yourself. To be a good horse-person, one needs confidence and compassion, diligence, and the ability to be carefree. Now that I think about it, they are a lot like kids. More skittish though, and more likely to eat carrots.
Shannon Joslin is a La Sportiva, Joshua Tree Skin Care, and Organic Climbing athlete.
We send a huge thank you to Shannon for sharing her passion for climbing and inspirational story of recovery from illness. We wish you the best of luck in all of your future endeavors—whether in climbing or otherwise!