Article by Claire Monroy
A short excerpt about Nana: Elba was born in 1935 in Lima, Peru and raised in a traditional Catholic family. Throughout her entire life she has fiercely adhered to her deeply embedded belief that a woman belongs within the comfort of her home, serving her family and directing her household. Rock climbing and such “hard-core” pursuits are not activities that were considered compatible with this role.
Last October I went rock-climbing with my 83-year old grandmother in Malta. This was my first time to the Maltese islands. For Nana, this was her first time stepping onto the uneven terrain of an approach trail, let alone using her hands and feet to ascend vertical rock.
This was a celebratory climbing trip with two close friends, Yuki and Lauren, after successfully defending my PhD thesis in the Netherlands. We chose Malta for its promise of sunshine and spectacular seaside cliffs of steep white limestone. My family also flew to Europe for the defense. Nana, who has poor eyesight due to advanced macular degeneration, didn’t want to make the long flight home alone (my parents went to Italy for a canyoning trip afterwards). But she also wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to have her own adventure abroad, as her traveling days are becoming fewer and farther between.
So, while discussing travel plans with my parents, I suggested that Nana come to Malta before rejoining my parents at the end of their canyoning week to travel home. Initially, I was only half serious, but when I thought of how wonderful it would be to travel with Nana once more, the idea seemed better and better. I convinced her—and my father—that she could relax on the beaches while my friends and I climbed our rocks. My friends—bless them!—were more than happy to welcome a sweet, tiny South American grandmother to join our team. So, tickets were purchased and bags were packed.
Yuki and Lauren were soon smitten with Nana. Any thoughts of her staying behind while we adventured were abandoned. Instead, we sought crags with friendly approach trails. (Nana has a tumor in one ear and struggles with balance, while her macular degeneration distorts her vision and makes it sometimes impossible to discern her surroundings.) Lauren had the brilliant idea of borrowing a plastic foldable chair from the apartment and hauling it to the crag each day for Nana to sit in comfortably. Nana would hike behind us, either holding someone’s hands stretched out behind them or grabbing onto a backpack for balance as we navigated over rocks and steeper sections.
On day 2, Nana mentioned that she was beginning to understand what I was doing all that time I was hiking around in the mountains near our home. It struck me, in that moment, that Nana had lived beside mountains her entire life—yet never stepped foot onto a trail or been on top of one of them. The feeling of walking over stones and roots was completely novel to her, made more difficult by her balance and eyesight problems.
This realization made it more incredible to me when—on day 3—Nana agreed to try her first rock climb with almost no hesitation. She donned my harness and shoes with the assurance that she could come down at any moment and that I would be just beside her for support. I clipped into her rope and simul-climbed next to her, guiding her hands and feet when she couldn’t see. Nana needed some tugs and pushes to steady and help her upward, and at times she needed me to coach her a bit through the movements. But she otherwise made it to the anchor with little difficulty, and held my hand fearlessly as Lauren lowered us to the ground.
The climbing in Malta is incredible. The rock is pristine and almost completely unmarred by chalk marks. The limestone cliffs offer a beautiful variety of technical, delicate climbing and steeply overhanging walls of tufas. I hadn’t experienced true sea-cliff climbing before, and I found it wildly adventurous and exciting. We had almost every crag entirely to ourselves, with unlimited sport routes of every grade. We all climbed a lot, ate delicious food, spent a lot of time together. It was everything I had envisioned for my post-defense celebration trip. But the best part was, without a doubt, the memory of helping my tiny grandmother up her first and only rock climb of her life.
I asked Nana what she would like me to say about this experience, from her perspective. In her words, she was surprised at how much she enjoyed it. If she had tried it ten or fifteen years sooner, she says, who knows? Maybe she would have had the chance to try it more times. But the most important thing that struck her was the complete confidence and trust she had in me, that I would be able to support her and guide her. She had never experienced such absolute trust in another person, and the sensation was unforgettable.