She had climbed alone for 12 hours through the night, listening. The relentless, nagging voice in her head would not stop.
"It told me things like, 'your mom is going to be so mad at you,' or 'this is stupid, you can't do it,'" says Jes Meiris, a Colorado Springs resident and one of the country's best climbers.
She pushed on, high above the Yosemite Valley floor. The goal that day in 2014 was to become the first woman to solo climb El Capitan in a single push. She had hoped to beat 24 hours and set a new speed record on the 3,000-foot vertical wall. But time wasn't the most important thing on her mind.
"My real objective was to establish a new style of soloing," she says. "I was trying to break a new barrier for women. It really wasn't about chasing numbers."
And then she fell. With nothing but 1,500 feet of air below her, a small piece of climbing equipment no bigger than her fingernail popped loose from a crack in the rock. She tumbled down 25 feet. Her protection system worked. "I was fine, but it really shook me mentally," she says.
Suddenly, the voice in her head began to talk sense. But there would be no turning back.
"After that fall, I listened to the little voice by going a bit slower," she says. "I was moving into an area with harder climbing. I needed to pay attention to what I was doing and not feel rushed and not make any mistakes. I had to ignore the fear part and listen to the technical risk-management part. That sacrificed my 24-hour goal, but I'm alive."
She is proud to have opened the door for other women climbers. Her solo speed record on El Cap's Nose route has since been broken. But she was the first to go it alone.
Meiris, 34, was born and raised beneath the shadow of Pike Peak. She graduated from Cheyenne Mountain High School where she played soccer. She coaches a competitive climbing team at Fountain Valley School and in the summer works as a climbing guide in Wyoming's Teton Mountains. Like all experienced climbers she is strong, with a lean and distinct musculature.
And when it comes to seeking new experiences, Meiris is no stranger to exploration. She works as a professional figure model, disrobing and posing nude in art classes and at various studios in Colorado Springs. "I do enjoy it," she says. "It was never difficult for me. I never felt a self-consciousness thing. I don't remember it being challenging in terms of what people would normally get stopped by ... being naked in front of other people."
There is no voice — no internal critic — banging around inside her head when she models. "It is the one time when my mind is totally free to do what it wants to do," she says.
Meiris draws parallels between climbing and modeling. Her role in the making of art has helped her work through the mental difficulties of climbing. Striking a pose — creating her own art, really — she opens more doors for herself and the artists who work to channel her energy onto paper and canvas. She senses her struggles in the challenges artists confront. "Things like being in a vulnerable place, being in a beginner's mind, being open to learning, or being scared," she says. "Work quickly, but don't rush."
On the rock she climbs to push herself, to feel small and vulnerable, but also free. It's not all about speed records.
"My connection to the natural world when climbing has by far been the most impactful of any activity that I have done. I feel challenged to play in that world where I have a little bubble of safety, but where I also have those sensations. Where lightning could strike me down at any time. Mother Nature will always prevail and I can't do anything about it. But I can experience those things with a level of risk that is mostly manageable. If I plan well and execute well I can come out with this sense of connection, freedom and exuberance that is hard to find in any other area of life."
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