Straight to the Top
One strong gust of wind could blow me right off the side of this rock. That's what I'm thinking as I scale El Capitan , a 3,500-foot cliff in Yosemite , California. My callused fingertips grip the side of the rock as my boots search for a foothold. If I slip, it'll be a long way down. And the only thing separating me from a half mile of air will be one slender rope tied to my waist.
I've never done anything like this before. For the first time in my career as a rock climber, I'm scared. OK. I'm just 14. And I've only been climbing for three years. But I'm good at it - better than some climbers who are 10 years older and a whole lot more experienced. I have never lost a climbing competition. I set a new world record at last summer's X Games , racing up a 60-foot artificial rock wall in just over 13 seconds. That's four seconds faster than any woman has ever done it before. I love everything about those competitions - the noises, the DJs, the crowd. But, mostly, I love the heights. I'm a thrill-seeker. An adventurer. And I hate to have my feet on the ground.
To New Hegiht
But now I'm really scared. Three other climbers invited me to scale El Captain with them. They've done it before. But this is new territory for me. El Captain isn't plastic, like the walls in the competitions. It's real rock. And there's no padding or safety nets at the bottom. I'm 2,400-feet high, maybe two thirds of the way up this mountain. The wind is pounding against me. I'm 5'2'' and 96 pounds - I feel like it'll carry me away if I let go.
It's a four-day climb up El Capitan. No girl my age has ever made it to the top. But, as I hold on for dear life , I tell myself that I'm going to be the first.
A Climbing Life
I guess it's just dumb luck that I'm a climber now. I had always thought I'd be a ballerina or a figure skater . But I stumbled across a rock-climbing wall while Christmas shopping in an Indianapolis mall. I was 11.I thought, "Hey, that looks cool," and I asked my dad if it was OK to try it. By the time I made it to the top, people around me were astounded . They said they had never seen someone climb that wall so fast.
But my real climbing experience began far away from an Indiana mall - in Benin, West Africa. I had moved there with my family when I was 4 years old. My parents were missionaries , but we lived just like everybody else. We slept in a little cement hut. We spent our days in the village, cooking with the women and working in the marketplace. We saw lions and elephants in the fields. Once, I went swimming in a pond with a hippo. I didn't know he was there until he yawned and I found myself staring right down his throat.
We had animals all over our property. Two deer, three rabbits, seven chickens, a turkey, two guinea pigs, and a tortoise. But my favorite was my pet mona monkey, Georgie. She was 7 days old when she came to us. Her mother had been killed by hunters. I remember feeding her with a baby's bottle. The size of a kitten, she'd rested in the pockets of my sundresses and I'd take her all over town.
I guess it was Georgie who got me climbing. I followed her up every tree in our village. When I was 8, just before we left Africa, Georgie was killed by a snakebite. I think about her during my climbing competitions. As silly as it sounds, Georgie taught me a lot about climbing. I guess she taught me to be fearless.
Queen of the Mountain
But I'm not feeling so fearless now. Not as I hang suspended from the side of El Capitan, with the wind beating against my body.
The weather changes as you climb up a mountain. You start out in the baking sun, wearing little more than a tank top and shorts. Then, you climb another pitch - 100 feet and suddenly the wind picks up. You quickly pull on sweat pants and a fleece shirt. You carry you clothes and food and gear on your back as you climb. Dinner is usually just a mashed bagel with peanut butter. And my bed is a two-foot-wide ledge . I sleep tied to the mountain but, one morning, I woke up with my legs dangling off the side of the ledge.
The Final Stretch
Come on, Tori, I tell myself. Think less, climb more. My hands are cut from the rock's sharp edges. Bruises and scratches run down my legs. Every muscle in my body aches. But in three-and-a-half-days - half a day ahead of schedule - I pull myself to the top of mountain. My dad is waiting for me. I fall into his arms. I'm dog-tired , but I have never felt such a sense of accomplishment. I did it! Me, Tori Allen, the youngest female to ever summit El Capitan!
Climbers who make it to the top of El Capitan sign a guest book and place a stone on large rock pile. Tossing my stone on that pile was one of the happiest moments of my life.
Work and School
Climbing is a huge part of my life right now. I train four times a week. And I compete so much that I have to get special permission to e-mail my homework.
I like high school, but it's a real scene. It's all who-is-hanging-out- with-who. I have always been cool hanging out with the guys. In fact, I'm the only girl on the boys' track team . I love to pole vault , but schools in Indiana don't offer girls' pole-vaulting. So I just joined the boys' team.
I won't climb forever. I'd love to go to the Olympics. They don't have rock climbing yet, so I'm focusing on pole-vaulting. I want to go to college and have a family and be a kindergarten teacher. My parents have always encouraged me to follow my dreams. And that's what I tell other young girls: Don't give up. If I can make it to the top of the mountain, you can too.