Strength does not come from physical capacity, it comes from an indomitable will. -Mahatma Gandhi
Amber Jaxon was born one of six half-siblings, all of whom were removed from their shared mother’s care to be raised by adoptive families.
Amber, however, was raised by her father.
He was an army veteran who worked hard as a truck driver and construction engineer. Amber was only nine when he, tragically, passed away. He would be only one of an unacceptable average of 21 veterans who commit suicide daily.
Her biological mother was, and had been, a drug addict making her clearly unfit to raise a child. Amber was given an option and chose to be adopted. Her nearest half-brother’s adopted family fit the bill.
Not only was the family closest in proximity (even in the same school district), they were one of her current caregivers, making the integration as natural as one could hope for; the best in a terrible situation.
Amber was finally able to live with her nearest biological brother, but soon after settling in, her brother, afflicted by bipolar disorder, began neglecting to use his medication. He was on a plethora of different prescriptions to help keep him functioning daily, and sleeping normally. Without them, he began self-medicating, using hard drugs in lieu of proper treatment. Needless to say, Amber’s hero, her half-brother, could no longer stand and be her rock as he once was.
At age 15, Amber was delivered another blow. After speaking up against years of abuse at the hands of her adopted father, she was kicked out of the house. Ousted, wrongly, as a liar.
Her adopted family called CPS and demanded Amber be removed from the house because she was causing problems and was no longer welcome. Without a moment’s hesitation, Amber’s biological aunt came rushing to her aid and, that same day, drove Amber away from the abusive situation and delightedly welcomed her into her home as a permanent fixture.
Despite struggling to adjust to her new school and new life, she only acted out mildly; petty teenage actions like sneaking out on occasion. Amber was, truly, a wonderful addition to the family.
She quickly got a job, working at an In-n-Out by age 16, a position she maintained for four years. When she turned 18, she and a long time friend moved out and shared rent together. Finally, at age 20, they set off to broaden their horizons, taking road trips up and down the California coast.
It was then that she met Yosemite for the first time.
“[Once into the park] I was freaking out, it was just so beautiful. I couldn’t help it, I was the person stopped in the middle of the road staring at the mountains.”
Frenzied by the new landscape, she clambered to find out where the employees that staffed the national park lived, what mountains she could hike, what people did there for fun. She wanted nothing but to overfill her mind with Yosemite. At the summit of Half Dome she managed to strike up a conversation with some climbers, who lived only 45 minutes from her hometown. She resolved that, once home, she’d accept the offered welcome to join an indoor climbing day with them.
Back home, but still dreaming of where she’d been, Amber found herself a year later camped at Coachella and sharing an area with a group of people who all worked as Yosemite Park employees. With their encouragement, she went home long enough to give the required two weeks notice at her job and applied for a position in the park. She spent three months on the road and while visiting family in Virginia, she got the call that her application was accepted. She headed proudly back to California, post haste, and settled into her new patch of earth in The Valley.
At this point, Amber still knew almost nothing about climbing. She had been to a gym to climb, maaaybe twice. It wasn’t the climbing that sunk the valley’s hooks in but the landscape.
From a deli, to a pizza place, to the ski lift, then a bike stand, and the rafting center, Amber trickled her way around The Valley, working most days, hiking some, but letting loose every night.
During her first year there, she went on her first climbing adventure. In the dead of a summer’s night, with headlamps and shoes three sizes too big, her new friends took her to Kevin’s Traverse. Overhung with a dyno to finish, the V0 looked incredible and impossible. Watching her friends launch from hold to hold, she was thrilled. Overcome with excitement, she became a disciple of bouldering, climbing every chance she could and doing her best to spread the word of how perfect and unparalleled the low to the ground discipline was, swearing that it was the sole resting place of, “try hard”. Luckily, her eyes were quickly opened, and she had a vertical epiphany.
“[out with her soon to be mentor, Ben Thomas on her first rope climb] We were on, “After Seven,” while I’m having the hardest time getting up it, and this woman just… solos right past me. I’m sitting here absolutely struggling on this 5.6 multi-pitch and she just waltzes right by me.— I realized… ‘Wow. There has got to be so much more to this place’ ”
She was eagerly acquainted with The Valley’s giants by Ben. Learning all of the faces and the legends between the monoliths. That first year she climbed and ticked off as much as she could; huge climbs like Snake Dyke on Half Dome, but eventually, the snow stopped her. The winter was long, record breaking snowfall kind of long, and by the time the ground thawed, climbing had taken a back burner. The following summer her time was spent working, sometimes hiking out into the backcountry, but moreso enjoying the faux college experience to the max, drinking and partying with the pool of park employees dedicated to doing the same. Once the warm days were gone and winter made its way back, she had an opportunity to accomplish a bucket list experience and set off to Nicaragua for three months to independently WWOOF [worldwide work on organic farms]. There, she managed to not only work on a farm, but also volunteer with an ultra marathon and help build a sustainable earthbag building for a future English school.
Returned from Central America, and headed back to Yosemite, she longed to get deeper into climbing. Like the year prior, she didn’t have her mentor and partner Ben and still didn’t have much in the way of gear, not even a guidebook. The year prior she was fortunate enough to have the sport catered to her, but now, on her own, she was a little lost.
With a little struggle, she soon figured out how to find partners and get herself on the rocks. She met a fella (who we will respectfully refer to as, “Fella”), an alpine climber who was taking it slow rehabbing an injury looking to climb mildly until fully healed up. Amber asked if he wanted to get a few climbs in together and they did. Her soon to be boyfriend was eager to set up top ropes on just about anything for her, keen on getting her stronger and more capable in movement. The winter draped back over the valley and in a fun relationship with a fellow climber, Amber travelled back to Fella’s home state of West Virginia.
“In Yosemite, I did long easy trad routes, cracks, and multi-pitches. That was my thing. Now we were living close to the New River Gorge and it was a completely different animal. Really quality but really hard technical climbing—this is when I learned how to really push myself.”
Under her new boyfriend’s guidance, she quickly gained ability and eventually caught up her knowledge – mostly being ushered to top ropes to hone in her red-point.
“I started learning how to take encouragement and also take pressure. Even just trying to make it through a sequence on TR, wondering, ‘Why can’t I do this?’ then finding out sometimes that I really couldn’t do it and becoming SUPER frustrated and angry with myself, coming off a climb yelling and kicking the rock out of anger—I had no idea how to center myself and realize it was something I could come back to later, and just feeling like I should be ABLE to do this. Up to this point, I’d only experienced success and now I was learning what it felt like to push myself and really learning all of the emotions of climbing.”
Fella was motivated to climb hard, and he equally he wanted her to succeed at climbing hard, but Amber had never had anyone in her life try to press her forward like this before. The amount of strain and stress that came along with it was completely unfamiliar and totally overwhelming.
“At this point, I was putting pressure on myself because I wanted to be impressive to him and attractive to him. I had this pressure to perform and perform at the level he thought I was capable of, and do the things he thought I should be able to do. It created this perfect storm that now, if I couldn’t do this one move, my feeling of self-worth would just immediately dissolve.”
Over the eight months in WV, she had gotten much stronger. Amber was on board to follow her boyfriend’s psych and they planned a huge climbing road trip. Together they outfitted a van and traveled from West Virginia up the east coast to Maine, spending about a day in each climbing destination to try and tick off as many climbs as they could. From the most north east corner of the country, they moved over through South Dakota to Devil’s Tower The Needles, then to Wyoming in the Wind River Range for her first sincere taste of remote alpine climbing.
“I had done some alpine climbing in Yosemite but that was like hiking in two miles and never really getting much higher than 11,000 feet. Now we were in the Wind River Range where we’re hiking in upwards to 10 miles with climbing and camping gear on our backs to set up a basecamp and then hike even farther to do these BIG alpine climbs. It was a huge first time for me.”
The landscape was more than she could put into words. It was glorious, but the elements out there are real, and they were much more remote than she’d ever been. In hopes of finishing out climbs before the afternoons break open in rainstorms, you have to start early. Like the backside of early that no one hopes to ever have to unearth. Like two or three in the morning early. Subscribing to the alpine start, the two were up on their first big alpine climb and Amber was nothing short of shook.
“I was terrified with this overwhelming, new kind of fear.”
Up higher that she was comfortable, with a partner who was pushing her and taking risks in the name of speed and arguably ego, and without the knowledge anywhere in her on how to take care of herself (let alone the both of them if something were to happen due to his precarious choices), but also wanting to be the strong partner she felt she was expected to be, she was left with a heavy nagging feeling of helplessness.
The next day was more of the same. In heed of afternoon storms, Fella pushed for more speed, not waiting, and leading farther and farther away from her on the approach up the talus field. Eventually, they had a breakdown. She pleaded to him that if they were going to take down these projects, he had to not confuse his ambition with her ability, while he argued that speed needed to be their priority if they were to finish these climbs.
They were at an impasse, and soon into the argument, were heading back down the talus field to pack up and bitterly head to the next destination.
“I began to feel like the only reason I was on this trip was so he had a climbing partner and would be able to do these climbs, not because I was his girlfriend. I felt that I could have been anybody and he would prefer if that ‘anybody’ were stronger.”
Accompanied by another friend now, they moved on to the Tetons. They climbed with more success thanks to the buffer of a third party. Eventually, the two were off, through Yellowstone, and up to the Bugaboos. With some incredible moments, coupled with more overwhelming and unprepared experiences, it seemed like the farther they got from home, the farther off the ground they got. The weight finally lifted after the months on the road came to a close. As if to solidify her feelings, once the trip’s tick-list was completed and there were no climbing destinations left, Fella ended the relationship. Their last stop was Yosemite. He headed home for Christmas in West Virginia, and she, back to San Diego, for the first time in three years.
“While the trip was extremely hard, emotionally and physically, it taught me what it was to have goals, what it was to summit huge mountains, really, it showed me what climbing could give you.”
Working at the park again, Amber was taking full advantage of everything there was to offer, but this time she wasn’t having to rely on guidance to get her there. She soloed royal arches and was taking the lead on multi-pitches. Now she was picking the climbs instead of waiting for someone to pick them for her. For the first time in Yosemite, climbing was her priority. She was making her own tick lists and teaching others. Amber finally broke through and had the confidence and power to know she didn’t need anyone else to take her where she wanted to go.
Since her last stay in Yosemite, Amber returned to San Diego, started school, and fell in love with coaching youth climbing indoors, and teaching ethics for outdoors. A year later, Fella and Amber decided to go tackle another big climb in Colorado. They had a surprisingly positive time and agreed to give try their relationship again, hoping that time and growth was the magic ingredient, but in the end, resolving that they weren’t meant to be, and that was okay.
“Success is really just going out and enjoying yourself, and I think, to some degree, you should strive to be better, to learn more, and I have. I haven’t become the super strong 5.13 rock climber, but that isn’t what I value in climbing. I just want to be good at what I do and do it very efficiently, and really, I want to be able to do it for a long time. I’m not worried about achieving my peak in performance, because, to be quite honest, I’ve probably passed that. My shoulder is messed up now and it’s probably going to bother me for, maybe, the rest of my life, so that’s a limitation. But I’m really okay with that. I’m comfortable and I’m happy knowing it is okay if you don’t want to be your strongest and you don’t have to feel pressure. It’s not a requirement. The most important thing is that you’re having fun and you’re learning something.”
With a tool belt full enough to share, due confidence, and her sights set high, Amber is currently on track to becoming a teacher, a teacher who spends her spare time as far from sea level as earth will let her, and experience has now given her the proof that she alone is capable of getting herself there.
“Climbing has been the most constant thing in my life now. The rocks are always there. I may not have achieved becoming this great climber who has led people into the vast deep wilderness, but I’ve been lead into the wilderness, and I’ve been able to experience these things, and it has continued and will continue to be something that’s always there for me.”