Dawn LeBlond sat in her cubicle at the Federal Aviation Administration feeling lost. A former Navy aviator, she’d always held herself to high standards, and getting divorced at 32 felt like an epic fail. Even worse was the dim memory of who she used to be: optimistic, athletic, outdoorsy. Where, LeBlond wondered, had that Dawn gone?
While standing on the platform at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station that day in 2018, she checked the website of a veterans group she’d joined a while ago, and saw they were meeting up at a climbing gym that evening. “Perfect,” LeBlond thought.
It wasn’t until LeBlond was halfway up the beginner climbing wall at Sportrock Climbing Gym in Alexandria, when she remembered that she is scared of heights. Really scared. In fact, the last time she had been climbing — in middle school — she’d frozen in terror halfway up the wall.
“I refused to go up or down, and they eventually had to send someone up to get me,” LeBlond recalled.
LeBlond wasn’t going to let that happen again. She pushed through the fear and kept clawing her way up the wall.
“I realized that if I didn’t look down, I didn’t realize I was high up,” she said.
After that first climb, LeBlond was hooked. A combination of physical exertion and mental puzzle-solving, climbing took her mind off the big questions that were hounding her — things like, “What am I doing with my life?” and “What is wrong with me?” — and replaced those anxieties with a more concrete fear of falling.
“When you’re dangling off a rock, what else is there to worry about?” she said.
To improve her strength and endurance, she started working out with her friend, Pearse Swail, 26, who was also recovering from a bad breakup.
“Dawn would show up with these absolutely brutal workouts and shout at me like a drill sergeant. ‘You call that a push-up? That’s a lousy push-up. Do it again.’ Then she’d do it herself, like it was no big deal,” Swail said. “She’s hard-core.”
It was LeBlond’s intensity that attracted the attention of Sportrock regular Christian Lopez, 44. “I’d noticed her for a while. Everyone did,” he said. “She’s beautiful. And very loud.”
LeBlond had also noticed Lopez, a powerful climber who would grab a weight vest and do laps on “the Prow,” the gym’s hardest wall. Sixty feet tall, the prow angles outward, so scaling it requires extreme upper body strength.
“He’d climb up and down on that thing, and I was like, ‘That’s superhuman. People should not be able to do that,’” LeBlond said.
The two quietly admired each other for months. Then, in March 2020, Lopez finally came up with an excuse to talk with LeBlond.
“I don’t like to hit on women in the gym, but that day, I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll just give her a compliment. She was doing a really intense workout with her friend, and I was like, ‘Where did you get that workout?’ And she says she made it herself.”
LeBlond gave Lopez the slip of paper she’d written her workout on. Lopez carefully folded up the sweat-stained valentine and put it in his cellphone case.
Later, when Lopez asked LeBlond out to dinner, she shut him right down. LeBlond loved the climbing gym. It was her “happy place.” If she dated another regular, it would almost certainly cause drama.
Plus, she wasn’t sure she believed in love anymore. At least not for herself.
“At that point, I was like, I’m going to be alone forever and that’s okay,” LeBlond said.
Lopez was crestfallen, but undeterred. He had faith that, if he gave LeBlond space and time, she would eventually come around. In the meantime, he just had to occasionally remind her of his existence and avoid the “friend zone.”
“She would discourage me and say, ‘You know I don’t date people from the gym,’ and ‘We should be friends,’ and I was like, ’No, I have enough friends.’ " Lopez said.
Then the pandemic hit, and the climbing gym closed down. How, Lopez wondered, could he stay fresh in LeBlond’s mind when they didn’t even see one another?
The answer was Instagram.
“He literally slipped into my DMs,” LeBlond said. As they flirted, LeBlond began to wonder what was really stopping her from giving Lopez a chance.
“I sort of knew that Chris might be the last person I ever dated, that things would get serious with him quickly, and I was afraid of that,” she said.
This realization came to her while she was hiking the 80-mile Standing Stone Trail in Pennsylvania, by herself, for a week.
“I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it on my own,” she said. But along the way, she realized that what she really yearned for was a partner, someone who would love her, understand her and go on adventures with her.
The next time Lopez asked her out, she said yes. And, three months later when Lopez asked her to marry him, she said yes again.
The proposal took place at Seneca Rocks in West Virginia, a jagged blade of pale stone that juts nearly 900 feet out of the gentle West Virginia mountains. LeBlond knew immediately she wanted to get married on that very spot, even though that would limit the guest list to fairly experienced climbers.
“Our families understood that this is a place that’s really special to us,” LeBlond said. “But a few of my non-climber friends felt left out.”
Two of LeBlond’s best friends floated outlandish plans to get themselves to the summit, schemes involving mules and helicopters. LeBond was pretty sure they were joking, but she asked them to stop. “They were making me anxious that they’d show up with mountain goats or something,” she said.
In the end, the guest list included eight friends and photographer Daniel Rodriguez. The eight friends would take an “easy” three-hour route to the peak, while the bride, groom and photographer would take a more technical route known as Pleasant Overhangs.
A meandering route up the west side of the mountain, Pleasant Overhangs is famous for its heart-stopping views of the ground far below. Climbing it requires nerves of steel, as you balance on barely-there ledges and reach for nooks while avoiding a few loose rocks. Counting stops for photos, LeBlond figured it would take the two of them about five hours to summit.
The first time LeBlond climbed Pleasant Overhangs, she had a clean run — meaning she didn’t fall — and while she had her safety ropes securely attached to her, she didn’t need to use them for support. But when the pair went back after getting engaged, LeBlond found the climb to be more difficult than she remembered.
“I started making the first move of the second pitch, and I got nervous and I looked over and I was like, man, the first piece of protection is really far away. If I fall, this is going to be a really big fall, and so I started to go back down to calm myself. And as I went back down, I lost my feet.”
(A pitch is a section of a climb, the length of a single rope. Protection is specialized hardware that wedges into rocks to keep climbers from falling too far.)
“I swung and I ended up falling, like, 25 feet,” LeBlond recalled. As she dangled from the rock, unscathed, from her safety harness, she realized that she’d screamed so loudly, “a group of climbers at the bottom heard me and applauded.”
(Applause is how climbers offer encouragement after huge whippers. A whipper is an arc-shaped fall.)
LeBlond climbed the route two more times before her wedding, and all that practice paid off. On the big day, Aug. 22, not only did LeBlond climb clean, but she also somehow kept her custom-made dress dirt-free.
LeBlond and Lopez’s friends reached the summit just a few minutes after the happy couple arrived. It was an overcast day, but the sun broke through the clouds just before the ceremony, bringing out the sparkle in LeBlond’s dress and the quartzite rock formation. Verdant green mountains stretched around them, and Swail, the officiant, did his best not to get choked up.
“Seeing them standing there together — it was just perfect,” Swail said. “I was so happy for them. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to get through the ceremony without breaking down.”
Swail managed to keep it together to the big finish. “You may now kiss the bride,” he said, as the wedding party cheered.
Then, they heard more cheering from further away. Was it an echo? No, the cheers were coming from the welcome center at the mountain’s base, where random climbers had formed an impromptu wedding watch party.
“It seemed like the whole universe was rooting for us,” LeBlond said.
As she stood on a mountaintop, proclaiming her love to the world, LeBlond couldn’t help but notice that fear, her longtime companion, had not been invited to the party. “In that moment,” she said, “I didn’t feel scared at all.”
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