The pitch is called Nurse Jackie, probably after the TV show of the same name but who knows. It’s a 50-foot rock climb in Colorado’s Boulder Canyon, and it is, by Mo Beck’s standards, easy.
When she climbed off of that pitch one glorious Monday morning in July, Beck, the 2019 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, was glowing with excitement. I asked about the joy splattered across her face.
“Climb it,” she said. “And then ask me again.”
I stepped up to the wall. The first 8 feet were close to straight up, difficult for a beginner like me, even with obvious handholds. But after that, the wall turned in a few degrees, still too steep to climb without ropes but not by much. I threw my right hand out, then my left foot, then left hand, then right foot, feeling like I imagine Spider-Man feels when he scales skyscrapers. I immediately understood Beck’s joy.
In rock climbing, a sport sometimes defined by ambition driving out fear, Beck is always looking to finish the next pitch, add the next skill, conquer the next challenge. But she finds happiness, too, in climbing for the pure fun of it.
For Beck, climbing and the solopreneur life are both about finding balance. In climbing, that means pushing herself, doing hard things, adding more skills… and living to tell about it. In the work world, that means finding time for her wide variety of gigs, from speaking engagements, to sponsor appearances, to marketing for her former full-time employer. On top of that, she also has to climb, have a life, see her husband, take care of her animals, etc.
“I’m not one of those who climbing makes me feel alive,” she says. “It reminds me of why I want to be alive.”
* * *
In the opening to Stumped, a documentary about Beck’s ascent of Days of Future Past, a climb rated as 5.12 (the standard at which good climbers become great), Beck attempts to look serious as she explains why she has only one hand, as her left arm ends at her forearm. “Someone took the guard off the wood chipper,” she says, nodding solemnly.
But she can’t maintain the ruse. She grins as she launches into a series of explanations, each more absurd than the last—about meeting an alligator at a petting zoo, or waving goodbye to a helicopter pilot.
The truth is, she was born that way. When she was a young girl, slights real and imagined drove her. She traces her beginning in rock climbing to a guide at a camp suggesting she sit out that activity. That pissed her off. Soon she was shimmying up every crag in Maine. She climbed passionately while in college, then set it aside somewhat to pursue a “normal” career.
That bored her. She moved to Colorado in 2012 and dived into the climbing scene there. She started working with Paradox sports as an instructor for adaptive athletes and entering paraclimbing competitions. She has won five national championships and two gold medals at international competitions.
With her growing presence in the climbing community has come adulation, much of it misplaced, she says. She feels “icky” when fans laud her for being inspiring because she is a one-handed rock climber. Being a one-handed rock climber does not make her inspiring, she says, it just makes her active, and simply being active is not inspiring. “Who wants to live their life on the couch?” she asks.
If she does something inspiring—such as when she climbed Days of Future Past—she will accept the praise, though perhaps grudgingly. To get to the top of Days of Future Past, she returned to it roughly 20 times over five months and climbed it three to 15 times per visit. She fell at the same point (called a crux) over and over again. When she finally reached the top, she looked half stunned, half relieved. She was sick of that wall and glad to be done with it.
I tried to ask about the resilience necessary to keep trying after failing more than 60 times. She brushed off the question. “That gives me way too much credit for having intent,” she says. “Maybe that’s what it is. Or I’m just too dumb to quit.”
* * *
Even now, with years of experience, Beck still has to convince her “monkey brain,” as she calls the intrinsic desire to stay alive, to climb.
She keeps two ideas in tension. One is that the best climbing stories are about difficult and challenging pitches. Stumped would not have been worth watching (or making) if she climbed Days of Future Past on the first try. The other is that an obsession with a can-do attitude can be mentally and emotionally toxic, to say nothing of 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 want to do this, anyway? “From the bottom, they all look scary,” she says.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photos by © Daniel Gajda