Margo Talbot: World-Renowned Ice Climber’s Story of Healing and Self-Discovery

Margot Talbot and Michael O'Donnell
Mar­got Tal­bot and War­ren Mac­don­ald  at the Port­land Alpine Fest

Mar­go Tal­bot is a writer and climber who lives in the south­ern inte­ri­or of British Colum­bia. She has com­pet­ed in a num­ber of climb­ing com­pe­ti­tions, includ­ing the ESPN X‑Games and the Ouray Inter­na­tion­al Ice Fes­ti­val. A spon­sored ath­lete with Out­door Research, she also guides for Chicks with Picks and runs an adven­ture guid­ing com­pa­ny for women, The Glit­ter Girls. She recent­ly gave a pre­sen­ta­tion on how ice climb­ing empow­ered her to heal her­self from a life­time of drug addic­tion and sui­ci­dal depression.


The Clymb: As an accom­plished ice climb­ing instruc­tor and men­tor who strug­gled with depres­sion and addic­tion for years, you’re work­ing hard to use climb­ing to help peo­ple heal them­selves. How do you see ice climb­ing as a metaphor for liv­ing a healthy life?

Mar­go Tal­bot: For one, not all ice is cre­at­ed equal. When you try to swing your axe into a chunk of chan­de­lier ice, it’s real­ly hard to get a sol­id pur­chase you can trust. Nav­i­gat­ing life with the effects of child­hood trau­ma or sui­ci­dal depres­sion is sim­i­lar to nav­i­gat­ing chan­de­lier ice — you nev­er feel like you have a sol­id foun­da­tion beneath you. The best thing you can do is help your­self devel­op in ways you nev­er did as a child.

Also, ice climbers are noth­ing with­out the right tools. We bring the axes, cram­pons, rope and screws we need to pro­tect our­selves from a ground fall–the equiv­a­lent of rock bot­tom. The best thing peo­ple suf­fer­ing from men­tal health or depres­sion can do for them­selves is get them­selves the sup­port sys­tem they need to keep them­selves from tak­ing repeat­ed ‘ground­falls’. Rock bot­tom can be a per­fect turn­around point for some peo­ple but for oth­ers it’s a slip­pery slope into oblivion.

Last­ly, ice climb­ing brings you into the present moment. It’s an exer­cise in mind­ful­ness and a mov­ing medi­a­tion. Depres­sion is defined as being caught up in the pain of the past and anx­i­ety is fear of future events. The obvi­ous anti­dote to both of these is being in the pre­set moment. That’s hard to do with unre­solved trau­ma inside of your body, but the best thing to do is to try not to numb the pain, instead be present with the pain and move through to the oth­er side. To heal yourself.


The Clymb: What is the most impor­tant life les­son you’ve gained from ice climbing?

Mar­go Tal­bot: Climb­ing taught me to trust myself and trust life. With the right tools and tech­niques, you’ll find that you can progress your life upward one move at a time. You can’t know every part of a route, you just trust that you’ll have the skill and the tools to reach your desired goal.


The Clymb: Dur­ing your bat­tle with drugs and depres­sion you describe life as “… mono­chro­mat­ic, devoid of colour or bright­ness. There was no beau­ty in the world, only pain and suf­fer­ing. I felt this inside myself, and I saw it reflect­ed every­where in the word.” How did you even­tu­al­ly learn to heal yourself?

Mar­go Tal­bot: I saw the con­nec­tion between the pain that was stored inside of me and the thoughts and feel­ings I was har­bor­ing as a result of this. I decid­ed that at a cer­tain point I was the one who was per­pet­u­at­ing the pain, because the caus­es for it had been removed from the time I left home. This rever­sal in my think­ing, that rather than the pain com­ing from the out­side in was now being trans­mit­ted from the inside out, was a key step in mov­ing for­ward. I decid­ed that I need­ed to own my life up to that point, and every­thing in it, in order to begin the heal­ing process. As long as I saw myself a vic­tim of the cir­cum­stances of my life, I was going to feel pow­er­less to do any­thing about it. This shift in my think­ing would be cru­cial to mov­ing beyond my painful past, to go from stand­ing at the base of the climb to step­ping onto the ice and ven­tur­ing upward.

At the age of 37, I topped out of my climb out of depres­sion. It’s a mir­a­cle to me to wake up depres­sion and anx­i­ety free every­day. I would­n’t will depres­sion on my worst ene­my but I will say that I learned more from that state than I could with­out it and that’s because look­ing back over expe­ri­ences that are labeled a dis­ease by our cul­ture, all I see is the archi­tec­tur­al beau­ty of the blue­print of my own psy­che. Every­thing that hap­pened to me was tai­lor made for my own heal­ing jour­ney and I learned that we are all equipped with the tools to heal our emo­tion­al trau­ma if we can stop the distraction.


The Clymb: As a respect­ed author, speak­er and climb­ing advo­cate, you’re quick­ly gain­ing noto­ri­ety as a female role mod­el in a male dom­i­nat­ed sport. Did you have any women role mod­els when you were learn­ing to climb?

Mar­go Tal­bot: One month before I got bust­ed I was leaf­ing through a climb­ing mag­a­zine and I found this incred­i­ble image of a woman climber named Kit­ty Cal­houn. I looked up to her a lot as a climber and a woman. Dur­ing my first two years of ice climb­ing, I did­n’t run into many women ice climbers and I always won­dered if there was a way to lure more women into the sport. I heard about a gal in Col­orado named Kim Reynolds who ran Chicks with Picks. She heard about some of the work I was doing with all female clin­ics and called me to see if I would come teach some clin­ics for her. When I showed up I real­ized that I was teach­ing right along­side my idol, Kit­ty Cal­houn. That was twen­ty years ago and I am hap­py to say that some of the strongest rela­tion­ships I’ve formed to this day are with the women I met through Chicks with Picks.


The Clymb: Did you ever tell Kit­ty she was such an impor­tant role mod­el for you?

Mar­go Tal­bot: I always want­ed to go up to Kit­ty and tell her my sto­ry about her being my role mod­el before I was thrown in jail and the drugs and every­thing but I nev­er did because my past used to be a maze of care­ful­ly hid­den secrets. But then in the Fall of 2009 I began writ­ing my book, All that Glit­ters. Many peo­ple have asked me why I decid­ed to write the book when I could have kept my past a secret. I want­ed to give a voice to my depres­sion because it was some­thing I lived with so inti­mate­ly for so many decades that it actu­al­ly feels like a best friend. I want­ed to help remove the stig­mas we have in our cul­ture towards men­tal ill­ness, sui­ci­dal ten­den­cies and drug addic­tion. But most of all, I want­ed peo­ple to know that there is hope. That even in the depths of dark­ness, humans have come through seem­ing­ly impos­si­ble situations.