Life With Congenital Heart Disease: Why I Climb


I recently returned from a quick getaway to Santa Cruz, filled with rock climbing, hiking, and a stroll along the Boardwalk. My boyfriend found a photo a couple weeks back taken by Chris Burkard on Panther Beach in Santa Cruz, highlighting none other than Chris Sharma. Upon seeing this, we knew our trip needed to include Panther Beach, just to experience this beautiful spot, even if the sandstone was a bit chossy. Climbing isn’t always about the popularity of the crag, but the memories it brings and the way you feel.

Why travel so far to climb on less-than-ideal rock? Honestly, I cannot imagine doing anything else with my free time. As a congenital heart disease patient, the only time I don’t feel sick is when I’m climbing. When my feet are off the ground, and I’m face to face with difficult holds and chossy rock, I’m no longer weaker than everyone else; I’m on level playing ground. When I’m sweating on a rock, hoping I can make the next move and not fall, I don’t even think about my heart and whether it will stop beating. The experience is freeing and I’m always climbing in some beautiful parts of the United States, that are completely unreal and nothing like what I experience in my day-to-day routine. To go into further detail, my heart problems are always on my mind. Not one day goes by that I forget I am a heart patient. Even sitting in a restaurant in Santa Cruz, eating dinner with my boyfriend, I watched everyone walk by and realized that most probably don’t have a care in the world. They are living their life as if they have infinite days. Meanwhile, I’m having heart palpitations and working on breathing techniques in silence to quiet and calm my heart. As long as my feet are on the ground, my heart is on my mind.

Panther Beach includes a short, borderline scramble to a beach, where on week days is virtually desolate. Immediately, you see this amazing arching rock, which shows a window to the ocean. Immediately seeing that rock, my heart races in the best way, knowing I get to climb that. I strap on my climbing shoes, synch my chalk bag and get ready to tackle the route. The moment I touch that rock, I am completely taken by the beauty of the destination and how unbelievable lucky I am to be strong enough to climb. As I maneuver each hand hold, push through the chossy sandstone, and breath through every move I make, my world is just quiet. I stop feeling sick. All of my problems go away, and the only thing in my head is “Don’t let go. You can do this.” My body keeps becoming stronger and like that of an athlete. Can you believe that?! A heart patient being strong enough to be an athlete! I crave outdoor climbing, and am awe struck each time I first put my hands on that rock. Climbing has allowed me to fall in love with life and locations over and over again. You know that feeling when you go on a first date or fall in love with someone for the first time? Those butterflies? That is what happens to me when I’m on my way to the crag or getting ready to project a route in the climbing gym. I get those butterflies, the excitement overtakes me and I’m filled with more joy than I ever thought possible. This is why I climb. Joy.

If you ever find yourself in Santa Cruz, check out Panther Beach and experience the entire landscape. It’s not going to be difficult to fall in love with the area and everything it has to offer. However, make sure to leave the beach in better condition you found it and pick up any trash you find. I can only hope that generations after us have the opportunity to see the raw beauty of this place and even take a shot at climbing.

“From the end of the earth I call to You when my heart is faint; Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”. – Psalm 61:2


Molly Hemphill


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