Robbi Ann Mecus is a 48-year-old, trans-identified woman living in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. She has been here for six years and before that spent 15 years living in the Mid Hudson Valley, along the Shawangunk Ridge. She has been a NYS Forest Ranger with NYSDEC for 21 years and enjoys everyday on the job.
“There isn’t a day where I wish I were doing something else. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to live my dream.”
She is also the parent of an amazing 6-year-old human being, who helps her see the little things in life everyday, and who teaches her how to have patience, and be present in the moment.
Bethany: Alright Robbi, describe yourself as a climber.
Robbi: Well, I got interested in climbing through hiking and backpacking in the early 1990s. I’ve always been drawn to wild places, and I couldn’t think of any place wilder than exposed cliff sides, and inhospitable mountains. I think that has shaped my climbing goals and experiences. I am by and large a traditional climber, but I can enjoy the occasional foray into bouldering or sport climbing. My climbing has always been with a mindset of increasing my skill set so I can access technical routes on big, remote peaks. Lightweight alpinism is the focus of what I do and why I climb. All that being said, a warm, sunny, fall day, cragging with some good friends is about as good as it gets.
Bethany: And how did it all begin?
Robbi: I started at the 59th St. Recreation Center climbing gym in New York City back in November of 1994. I was immediately hooked and knew from that first day climbing would take over my life. I went to the gym as often as I could, and by the spring of 1995 I had saved up enough money to buy my own harness and shoes. Some folks from the gym went to the Gunks that April and let me tag along. I fell in love with the rock, and never looked back. I quickly found a climbing partner with some training and experience, and he really taught me how to climb. I followed him up every 5.6 and 5.7 in the Gunks for two years before I tied into the sharp end. When I did start leading, it was starting climbing all over again. I was amazed at how different the leading experience was from seconding and top roping. In February on 1997, one of my college professors took me out for my first day of ice climbing, and I was just astounded at how beautiful the ice could be. The infinite forms and textures. The satisfaction of dealing with the elements and learning how to manage my fear really sat well with me. It’s been a fairly linear path ever since.
Bethany: Any climbers in your family?
Bethany: So, how do they feel about your climbing?
Robbi: I don’t think my family really understands my passion for wild places. We come from a very blue collar background in Brooklyn. Access to the outdoors was not a reality for me, socially or financially, until I discovered it in college. My siblings, particularly my sister, find it bizarre that I choose to spend my vacation on a cold, windswept glacier, seemingly putting my life at risk. They wonder why I just don’t go someplace warm and safe and sit on a beach. I’m definitely the black sheep, in more ways than one!
Bethany: What are some alpine climbs you’ve done?
Robbi: Accessing the big mountains has always been my goal. I sort of skipped right over some of the classic American alpine objectives and went straight to the bigger ranges. I often regret not having spent any time in places like the Tetons, or the Cascades, or Rocky Mountains. When I say “I’ve done so and so route, or mountain”, what I mean is that I put energy into climbing something in the purest style that I can conceive. Many of those attempts end short of the summit for one reason or another, but I refuse to call them failures. Climbing to me is about the process, and the style. The summit is merely a point on the way. I am honest with my claims of ascents, but in no way do I see attempts without summits as not succeeding.
So with that caveat, I’ve summited routes on New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington, Cannon Cliff, and Mt. Webster earlier in my climbing career, had one summit and a few hard attempts in Peru, a very frustrating season in Patagonia with little climbing, but one attempt at a new line on a beautifully shaped mountain. A summit of the Mooses Tooth in Alaska along with a couple of other harder technical routes, and an alpine style attempt on the South West Ridge of Ama Dablam in Nepal.
Bethany: Nice! So, I’m sure with all that you have some epic moments. Want to share one?
Robbi: Trying the second ascent of the NNW spur of Chopicalqui, which is an 800 meter rock and ice rib on a 6,400 meter mountain in Peru. Halfway up the rib, near the end of the first day of climbing, my partner took a 60′ fall on the lone ice screw he had put between us. The force of the fall destroyed my admittedly poor anchor, and left us both hanging off the lone screw 1,500′ off the glacier. He was unhurt, but our nerves were shattered and we spent an epic night in retreat. Later that night, in the snow cave at the base of the route, I realized I had snow blindness and I couldn’t see a thing. My partner had to short rope me down the entire glacier the next day. We were young, inexperienced, and way too ambitious. I learned a lot of “what not to do’s” on that trip.
Bethany: What’s next?
Robbi: April of this year my partner Emily and I are flying into the Ruth Gorge in Denali National Park to look for hard, technical rock and ice routes on the amazing peaks lining the Ruth Glacier. If conditions are good we will start off on an established route, then look for something that hasn’t been climbed yet. There’s an amazing wealth of unclimbed lines on those peaks still, and I am excited for the chance for two women to put their names on a good technical ascent in the Alaska Range, paying homage to the late Sue Nott and Karen McNeil, two bold, strong Alpinists who always inspired me and went missing on the Infinite Spur on Mt. Foraker in 2006.
Bethany: Favorite piece of gear?
Robbi: A red alien is an absolute staple for my rock climbing rack. That is my woobie. I won’t go anywhere without it. In the winter I split my affection between my oversized RAB puffy coat and my flask of Irish whiskey!
Bethany: And favorite trail food?
Robbi: I’m not sure if I have a single favorite trail food. It depends on the season and the weather. Hands down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich has got to be the most universal energy food out there. In the summer, I enjoy a fresh salad when I’m out working on the trails. I often don’t have a big appetite during the warm summer days. Winter I tend to crave fattier foods, and slices of cured salami or summer sausage with cheddar cheese really hits the spot. Chocolate in the winter is also a favorite.
Bethany: Oh, that all sounds really good! (Stomach rumbles.) And how do you train for all your climbing adventures?
Robbi: Honestly, I really don’t, I’m lucky enough to have a job that keeps me very active and aerobically fit. If I didn’t, I suppose I would have to do some sort of training, because I’m not getting any younger! But, for me climbing has always been about having fun. I’m well aware that I could probably climb a lot harder if I undertook a specific training program, but climbing “harder” isn’t always my goal. Having more fun is. My climbing is still improving, so I’m happy for now. When I stop improving maybe I will have to re-examine the whole training thing! The other issue I have with training is time. Being a single parent of a 6-year-old child, and having a demanding ranger career doesn’t afford me a lot of free time. The little free time I do have I tend to want to spend with friends climbing something.
Bethany: Alright, let’s end with a fun fact about yourself.
Robbi: I secretly love retro 50s and 60s fashion. I would wear circle skirts and crinolines and cat eyeglasses all the time if I could get away with it!!! I’m working on having the confidence to own my secret style and wear it proudly up here in the north country, when everyone else is wearing outdoor couture. The weather in the winter does put a damper on cute dresses though, and I’m always a little sad about that. (Robbi laughs.)
Robbi is naturally gifted with the written word and has an essay titled “Perspective” in Alpinist Magazine. Listen to the podcast: http://www.alpinist.com/p/podcast?fbclid=IwAR31Sa1Qe0D5ZdCBwOjl6YaJbNq2kN4_CS27EpmC23vbGHZ87eeob2xzT98