Break­fast (and Din­ner) of Cham­pi­ons


WE PULLED UP TO the Rus­sian farm­house, our home for the next month. A clus­ter of wellfed, smil­ing faces greeted us: the three mem­bers of the Гражулис fam­ily. It was the sec­ond stop of our 2013 Lead Now Tour, in which Jon Glass­berg and I spent nine months trav­el­ing to climb and raise money for com­mu­nity-ori­ented non­prof­its. The Гражулисs had fixed up an off-the-grid rental cabin, our home base as we climbed at nearby Tri­an­gu­lar Lake, a gran­ite boul­der­ing and crag­ging area near the Fin­nish bor­der. I had my eye on one of the for­est’s few sport routes: Cathar­sis (5.14c), a pow­er­ful over­hang that cul­mi­nated in a side­ways dyno. The fam­ily didn’t speak a word of English; we didn’t speak a word of Rus­sian. My stom­ach churned with nerves, but hugs and hand ges­tures formed a shared, calm­ing sign lan­guage.

As we sat down to break­fast the fol­low­ing morn­ing, Babushka (“Grand­mother”) set out a large plate of pick­les. She then brought a moun­tain of fried pota­toes, drip­ping in oil. Not what I had in mind, but Babushka ran the kitchen, and you ate what Babushka served. As the fam­ily chowed down, I hes­i­tantly took a bite. I could feel the oil coat my mouth, throat, and stom­ach.

Af­ter a full day of climb­ing, we were greeted with a hearty re­cov­ery din­ner: pick­les and pota­toes. Again. And again. And again. To be po­lite, I forced my­self to eat this same fare twice a day for the next 30 days. As I fought my hard­est to send Cathar­sis, I could feel the heavy, starchy diet weigh­ing me down. Babushka seemed to think that this skinny climber girl needed to be fat­tened up, and it was work­ing.

In the end, Babushka won. On my best burn, I leapt for the fi­nal dyno and missed. She also con­vinced me that maybe—just maybe— I might like pick­les, but only if they’re pre­pared fresh from the gar­den by a stout Rus­sian grand­mother. And please, not for break­fast.

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