Clinging like a spider halfway up the 3,300-foot face of El Capitan, a vertical rock formation in Yosemite Valley, Calif., rock climber Sarah Watson watched a climber fall 150 feet and land on a ledge just above her, shattering his leg and jaw.
Unable to climb farther up the rock because of the injured man, Watson and her climbing partner hung onto the face of the rock while a rescue helicopter flew in. The helicopter hovered just 100 feet above them, beating the air forcefully around them, its rotor blades just 5 feet away from the rock wall. The 2004 UW-Eau Claire graduate knew one wrong maneuver by the pilot would mean disaster for the climbers and rescuers.
Despite the precarious situation, the rescue was accomplished. But Watson’s shaken partner insisted on climbing down the cliff, a dangerous move that required them to traverse a large area of the rock with the 100-pound haul bag that held their food, water and sleeping gear.
“I looked up to see something white heading straight for my head,” Watson said. “I clawed into the wall, straddling it as much as I could and covered my head. Luckily the object passed by me, but it only missed me by about a foot and a half. I definitely felt it go by.”
The object was the heavy haul bag, which her partner had accidentally unclipped from the anchor (a fixed object on the rock to which a load is attached). The bag narrowly missed Watson, who was more than 1,000 feet above the ground.
Watson’s scare on El Capitan is just one of the many adventures — good and bad — she’s had since she began rock climbing while a student at UW-Eau Claire.
Now a professional climber, Watson’s first climbing experience came when a friend brought her to the indoor climbing wall in the McPhee Physical Education Center.
I was always on the lookout for ways to be active, and rock climbing seemed crazy and adventurous and a way more fun way to get a workout than going to the gym.
“I was so scared the first time I went there,” said Watson, who was a resident assistant in Murray Hall while attending UW-Eau Claire. “I remember my palms were sweating, and my forearms got so sore I could barely write the next day. I had just gotten back from a university outdoor recreation spring break trip to southern Utah. Some of the people on the trip were climbers and talked about how fun the sport is. I was always on the lookout for ways to be active, and rock climbing seemed crazy and adventurous and a way more fun way to get a workout than going to the gym.”
As her love of climbing quickly grew, she began going to the rock wall a few times a week.
“I bought a rack of gear before I even knew how to use it,” Watson said. “A few months after graduating, I met my now ex-boyfriend. He taught me the rest of what I needed to know.”
Just six years later, Watson’s climbs are sponsored by several international businesses that sell merchandise to rock climbers. Her sponsors include Mammut, a rock-climbing equipment manufacturer; Patagonia, an outdoor clothing company; Probar, a whole food meal replacement company; and Julbo sunglasses.
With sponsors, Watson can focus exclusively on climbing. She explained that her sponsors cover travel and living expenses and provide money so she can buy the expensive equipment she needs for her climbs.
Finding sponsors was an achievement given the relatively short time she has been climbing, said Watson, who has been featured in Rock and Ice, Climbing and other popular magazines for rock climbers.
“Sponsorship simply means that companies out there give you product and money to help you succeed at the climbing you are doing without having to take time off to work to pay for it,” Watson said. “It brings a certain respect but also a type of pressure that I’m not too fond of. Mostly it is a felt pressure from other climbers who want to size you up. I’ve just decided that I’m going to ignore all that. I just want to go play in the mountains.”
Watson has climbed in California, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Colorado and Kentucky. But she describes Utah as her “happy place.”
“The landscapes are incredible and intense, and the adventure to be found there is endless,” she said. “I also can’t wait to get to Europe to climb some steep limestone.”
She’s currently planning a trip to South America to help film a documentary and, of course, to climb.
While she has enjoyed her adventurous years since graduating from UW-Eau Claire, Watson has had to overcome several painful and dangerous challenges that resulted from her lifestyle.
In 2008 Watson had just completed a climb she considers a highlight of her career. She had helped put up a new rock-climbing route on the south face of Half Dome, a granite rock formation in Yosemite Valley with a crest that rises more than 4,737 feet above the valley floor. After the climb, Watson went to a rock-climbing trade show in Utah, where she contracted methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a bacterial infection that is highly resistant to antibiotics and often is deadly.
The infection landed Watson in the intensive care unit of the hospital. Complicating things, Watson is allergic to the antibiotics typically used to fight MRSA. Her immune system also was stressed by the physical exertion of rock climbing in the months before the infection.
Her fight with MRSA continued for months because she had a hard time getting rid of the bacteria — the infection returned 10 times. Each time she was bedridden for weeks.
“I couldn’t climb,” Watson said. “I didn’t have the energy to or even want to do it. I couldn’t work.”
For the first time, Watson was incapable of doing the things she most loved to do.
“I felt like it would never let me live my life again,” Watson said of MRSA. “I had to learn how to just sit and be OK with myself. Easier said than done — I have to be active in everyday life. It was traumatizing not to be able to move around and be active.”
Eventually, Watson recovered and returned to climbing, only to face another challenge.
She was bouldering, climbing without a rope, on a large boulder in central Mexico when a wrong move landed her in the hospital again.
“I was on my way back to camp, and there was a problem on this boulder, a much taller one that I had tried earlier in the trip,” Watson said. “I made it easily through the part that had thwarted me the first day, and all of a sudden I was way higher than I wanted or intended to be. I tried to jump off onto my crash pad (equipment that cushions jumps), but one foot landed off of it. Landing skewed and with the force of my body coming down on it, my knee collapsed.”
Watson had torn two of her knee’s four major ligaments, the ACL and MCL, and lost both sides of her meniscus. She also sheared the cartilage off the back of her kneecap and the bottom of the thigh bone. The damage was so severe the doctor wasn’t sure if she’d ever walk normally again.
As she recovered, Watson, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire with a biology degree, considered returning to school to become a veterinarian. But after surgery and intense physical therapy, she is walking normally — and climbing again.
As for becoming a veterinarian, Watson said it’s always an option.
“I can go back to school when I’m 40,” Watson said. “But I will only have this desire to explore for so much longer. I can already feel the pull to settle down.”
The near-death experiences and serious injury have had a tremendous effect on Watson.
“It’s made me really appreciate where I am at and how far I have come,” Watson said. “I am so much more appreciative of my body and my opportunities, and I am much more careful in terms of doing risky or scary things.”