This article originally appeared on Climbing
Risk is fickle. As nice Jewish girls from Brooklyn know.
Ask Liza Mills.
On Mills's second big wall she found herself partnering with Lynn Hill, a dear friend from the Gunks, who, after moving from New York to Yosemite, passed the mantle of top Gunks woman climber to Mills. Still, Mills recalls, “When we’d walk around Camp 4, climbers looked at me, like, Huh? Who’s that?"
"Meanwhile everyone knew Lynn. She was climbing’s rock star.”
Their route, El Cap’s West Face (VI 5.11c, 20 pitches), should have been a stroll for the duo. But as Mills knew from her childhood in Brooklyn: Risk is everywhere.
Example: Hydration backpacks.
Mills explains, “Neither of us had ever used one and couldn’t tell how much water was left in them. It was a super hot day and by the tenth pitch, to our horror, we ran out of water.”
Hill adds, “But with half the climb left, we had to keep going.”
Exhaustion, magnified by blistering heat and dehydration, set in. Moving slower than expected, fighting to stay awake, as the sun set and cold and darkness descended, they made it to the Thanksgiving Ledge on pitch 16. Without bivy gear, they spooned together to stay warm as the “wall bugs” swarmed over them.
Hill says, "It was pathetic! Liza and I joked about dreams of water."
The next day, belaying Hill on pitch 19, as usual Mills took off her climbing shoes and clipped their loops into a carabiner. But this time the loop on one shoe broke, sending it plummeting nearly 3,000 feet and forcing Mills to climb the last two pitches semi-barefoot.
Yet Mills says the riskiest part still lay ahead: a technically simple third-class slab that they unroped for. "It's a greasy friction slab," Mills explains, "nothing to hold onto, no anchor even if you wanted one--and believe me, I did." Exhausted and dehydrated, Mills knew she was just one clumsy move away from dropping off like her shoe.
A careful planner, Mills still finds herself doing "some pretty stupid stuff," knowing that harder and more dangerous isn't always riskier.
For instance, in the photo below--and no, that's not Angelina Jolie but Mills on the Southeast Face of the Lotus Flower Tower (V 5.11; 2,000ft) swapping leads while free climbing four big walls in the remote Cirque of the Unclimbables in Canada's Northwest Territories. Earning its name for good reason, it features a notoriously remote, complicated, and strenuous approach, omnipresent rain--Mills was bombarded on lead with golf ball-sized hail--loose blocks, mossy cracks, an "easy" but runout 5.9 pitch, and rappels that typically snag before dropping through a waterfall.
Yet unlike on the slabs topping El Cap's West Face, Mills felt in control, inspired to further notch 25 Grade V or harder walls, often swinging leads with legendary Gunks climber Jordan Mills, in photo above sporting big wall haute couture--black trash bag. (Author note: Same last name not coincidental, as they're married. Mills’s same maiden name of Schwartz with the author, is coincidental.)
In the years that followed, Mills sailed across the world in a 35-foot sailboat, painted murals with Indigenous peoples in remote regions of the Amazon and Africa, and taught art in a city dubbed its state's "murder capital." Now Mills, 48, boulders V7, leads 5.11 trad, redpoints 5.13 sport routes, onsights 5.12, and feels in the best shape of her life to face the risks she might find ahead.
So how did a woman who started as a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn end up in places like these?
It was in Brooklyn, at age seven, where Mills first encountered risk. Her parents had recently divorced, and her mother, an eccentric English professor with Bohemian proclivities, who kept kosher and raised Mills as an observant Jew, married a physically and emotionally abusive addict who drifted in and out of jail. Mills spent weekends with her biological father, who wasn't exactly a parent figure either. Drifting across jobs, emotionally absent and abusive, he taught Mills about skiing, garage-sale bargaining, and, unintentionally, self-reliance.
Mills says, “He took me to the top of a double black diamond run, and, without a word, pushed off, just leaving me." Mills was shocked, then scared, then finally determined as she methodically picked her way down the icy slope, all alone. "I managed to get down by myself, but I knew that was not how I would raise my son.” That ski day set a tone for Mills's life: one of adventure, risk (sometimes unintentionally accepted), and a quest for personal growth.
Mills doesn't dwell on it, but her's was a tough childhood where she faced other lessons about risk in the high-crime neighborhood where she grew up. Consider: When she was twelve, walking to junior high school she routinely heard gunfire and passed drug houses. "I figured no one would mess with me if they thought I was crazy," Mills recalls. "So I’d scream and talk to myself as I walked.”
Later at Midwood High School--known for superb academics producing Nobel and international math award winners--Mills faced different risks. An indifferent student and completely nonathletic, she admits, “I cut classes to smoke weed. Like, a lot."
Pausing, she adds, maybe thinking of her teenaged son who'll eventually read this, "Let's just say I was not on a good path."
But two fellow Midwood High misfits, inspired by summer-camp climbing, convinced Mills to join them for a week at the Gunks. To prepare, Mills applied her garage sale bargaining skills to buy a used climbing harness at a local flea market--talk about risk!--and trained by rappelling off the third story of a Brooklyn fire escape.
That week in the Gunks changed her life.
Mills found new risks to contend with in climbing, but also focus, meaning, and structure, delighting in unexpected physical challenges, untapped athletic talents, and an outdoor world of beauty and awe she hadn't known existed.
Afterwards, Mills still cut classes but now with purpose--bouldering in Central Park at Manhattan's Rat Rock--or climbing at New York's first climbing wall, City Climbers Club, circa 1990 cutting edge, boasting shredded tires for floor padding and routes with wooden walls “soaring” 25 feet. Her talent on technical rock soon apparent, Mills was embraced by the Gunks elite scene, which had famously included Lynn Hill and prominent locals like Jordan Mills and Russ Clune.
For college Mills had only one choice--New York State's university in New Paltz, just six miles from the Gunks cliffs. "I've never been able to climb so much in my life!" Mills says about her college days.
But drawn to art since childhood, Mills was also attracted to the school's renowned creative credentials, graduating in 1998 with undergrad art degrees and later a Masters in Art.
After graduation, without an art-related job offer, Mills turned to a different risky path: construction. As a building-facade inspector, anchored atop iconic skyscrapers like Manhattan's thousand-foot Chrysler Building, Mills rapped down the sides looking for signs of damage. Mills enjoyed the work, but it was dirty, grueling, irregular, and offered the occupational risk of pigeon shit. Soon Mills realized, "I can’t see myself doing this in thirty years."
Nor did the idea of living as a climbing bum in a van appeal to her. Her obvious question: “How can I support myself, make art, and climb?"
Plan B: Mills waitressed and guided at the Gunks for several months until hired as a substitute junior high school art teacher, eventually becoming permanent in 2001, in a nearby city once holding the national record per capita for gun deaths.
Mills’s art has evolved with her personal path. Initially she was attracted to ceramics, loving the material’s tactile, organic, and earthy nature; next, silversmithing, drawn by fire and heat; and also scouring her beloved garage sales for old watches to transform into artwork. “I love giving life to something discarded,” she says.
Mills’s art now focuses on vibrant drawings of classic Gunks routes, inspired by her far flung travels, including sponsorship from an educational nonprofit funding American artists to travel to remote South American and African regions. For five years, Mills averaged two weeks annually creating murals with local children on their concrete town buildings in remote villages like Alba and Misahualli in Ecuador, Windhoek, Namibia, and San Pedro, Belize.
As a building material, concrete is cheap, durable, and practical, but drab. Mills's murals-- celebrating local fauna, flora, and wildlife--were meant to beautify, uplift, and bridge cultures. While Mills learned basic local phrases, dialects like Quechua or Garifuna can take years to master. But, Mills says, "You don't need to speak the same language to speak with kids."
Yet most satisfying were murals she created at home with her regular junior high art students, together expressing outrage about gun risk and violence. Despite the city's rampant graffiti, these murals remain untouched.
In 2000, Liza married Jordan Mills, whom she met climbing when 19, and with whom she has shared a life of adventure and risk: An early date was illegally bungee jumping off a local bridge at 1 a.m. Soon after marriage they bought a casita without electricity in Belize, owning it for nearly twenty years while honing boating skills alongside climbing, in preparation for a year sailing across the world.
Planning absorbed three years, encompassing boat handling, navigation, supply logistics, finances, homeschooling, and moving the 35-foot "Lizalou" from England, where they bought it, to Fort Lauderdale, where they launched in late 2019.
Their route, the "Coconut Milk Run," attracts about 200 boats annually. Despite its breezy name, it's 10,000 miles of high-stakes sailing crossing the unpredictable Pacific east to west, with stretches of calm punctuated by strong winds, rough seas, isolation, and little chance of rescue. At ports, boat crews swap stories, books, DVDs, weather forecasts, and local tips like the best supermarkets, laundromats, hardware stores, and wifi.
Sailing reminded Mills of big walls: Stretches of boredom punctuated by alternate bursts of beauty, inspiration, or fear--but also 1990s Gunks climbing; supportive yet self-sufficient, and often on your own if an accident happened. In the era before cell phones, the Gunks's characteristically steep roofs and sharp corners meant you often couldn't hear or see your partner, and rope tugs subbed in for verbal communication.
For Liza, her biggest strain was emotional. “For the first twenty-four days at sea,” she says, “we didn't see another boat or person." Fed up with the boat’s sedentary and isolating existence, she faced dark times when she just wanted off.
Liza adds, "Sometimes I felt alone even though Jordan was a few feet away. He can sit through a three-hour watch staring at the sky. But I need more engagement."
Liza faced different conflicts with her son, then 12. “I had his homeschooling all carefully planned. And it just fell apart. It caused our biggest fights,” she says. "I realized I had to put my relationship with Eli first and let go. Somewhere near the Cook Islands, I threw all his math textbooks into the ocean. 'I'm done,' I thought. 'I can't do this anymore.'"
Finally, they compromised. "We'd read, do index cards with math tables, and everyday he'd write in his journal and draw a picture," she says.
Physical risk, as on big walls, always lurked. Liza recalls, "One night in the middle of my watch sailing to the Cook islands, I hear an explosion. One of our sails had torn apart. The pieces sank and wrapped themselves around our keel, rudder, and propeller."
Unless the tatters of the sail were cut free, the Lizalou would drift helplessly in the water. With his family's lives at stake, Jordan instructed Liza to belay him while he heroically swam under the boat, knife in hand.
"Jordan's a really good free diver," Liza says, "but it was terrifying. It's dark, choppy water, he could have gotten a concussion, or been knocked out by waves."
She adds, "But he did it."
Back in New Paltz, Liza found that her ad hoc "curriculum" for Eli kept him academically on target. But, socially, the boat trip had changed him. At the formative age of thirteen he had spent a year entirely with adults facing adult issues and handling adult responsibilities, all removed from social media and pop culture. Eli returned disconnected from kids his age.
Liza says, “‘We knew that was a risk, for better or worse. Eli grew emotionally and even spiritually in a way much older than kids his age. Even now, he relates more to adults.”
Liza's path is still evolving. Her mother, with whom Liza has rebuilt an accepting and loving relationship, relocated from Brooklyn to a nearby New Paltz town. She was caring for Eli in 2009 when Liza and Jordan swapped leads up the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome (VI 5.12), characterized by its excruciating approach, cramped ledges, and ever-curious rodents looking for a "wee delicacy" in the night.
Though their ascent went smoothly, Liza and Jordan couldn't shake the feeling that big-wall climbing as parents was irresponsible. Topping out, Jordan said, "We can't climb like this together again. It’s too risky now that we're parents. We can’t both die when Eli is young."
Without Jordan, Liza continued climbing big walls until 2013, after onsighting D7 (IV 5.11+) on the Diamond, Longs Peak, where she decided that climbs like that were too risky for a mom.
Yet she still faced a fundamental question: How to balance giving to others--as a friend, parent, partner, and teacher--while leaving enough for herself so that she wouldn't end up frustrated, resentful, and dried out.
She has no pat answer.
"When I was younger, climbing at the level I wanted meant being selfish," Liza says. "My husband and son changed that. But there were still plenty of times when Eli felt I was selfish, because he wanted more of me but I needed time to climb or go abroad to do art."
It's a universal struggle for all parents, not just climbers. Pausing, Liza admits, "It's something I face constantly. But I also believe kids need to see you modeling a passion."
Sailing around the world was something she did unstintingly for "her boys."
"Jordan told me when we first started dating that it was his dream. It wasn't mine, and I never grew to love sailing. But I love him and it meant a lot to me because of that. Jordan and Eli are very close, and as Eli grew older, I could see that it meant a lot to Eli as well."
Liza knew taking a year off from climbing was a risk at her age, not knowing how she'd be when she came back.
"I was surprised but delighted to find I could get even stronger. But I have friends, particularly women, who took off years from climbing for personal reasons, always planning to come back. I'm thinking of one in particular. It was thirteen years before she could, and by then she found that both she and climbing had changed too much."
For Mills, her passion now also includes mentoring women climbers. Laughing, she says, "At the climbing gym, most of the women could be my daughters."
While she also insists her focus is now safer sport climbing, she's also training for the Nose, partnering with a young woman she's mentored. "When I'm being honest, I have to admit it's risky, particularly since I'll be 50 and swinging leads."
Mills pauses. “Dealing with risk is something I've gone back and forth about nearly my whole life. But I can't escape that I still have emotional needs I fulfill by pushing myself in climbing. While I can downplay the risks, they're still there."
She adds, “I can’t rationalize my way around risk. When Eli tells me some of the mountain bike routes he wants to do, I want to say. ‘Over my dead f**king body!’ But I can’t. It would be hypocritical.”
After Eli graduates high school next June, he and Jordan will sail again across the world. This time, though, Liza will be thousands of miles away--reveling in her dream as a dirtbag climber in Camp 4 once again.
“For Jordan and Eli, the ocean is their passion," Liza says. "But the mountains are forever my happy place."
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