2024 Adventure Summit | A dirtbag climber’s tale
Published: February 7, 2024
It all began with an owl, a porcupine and a near-fatal case of multiple organ failure.
In a bizarre twist of fate, these are the creatures and conditions that propelled local resident and barista Molly Finch on a whirlwind cross-country adventure replete with mountainous highs and dumpster lows.
Her multiyear journey is the topic of a public presentation at Wright State University on Saturday, Feb. 10, 4:45 p.m., as a part of Five River MetroParks and the university’s Adventure Summit. Finch’s presentation, titled “From Near Death to Dumpster Diving, A Dirtbag Climber’s Tale,” will be staged in the student union at Wright State, in Endeavor Room C.
“What my adventure gave me was faith in my own resilience,” Finch, 32, told the News last week. “A lot of my talk will be focused on the relationships between a person and their fears and anxieties — especially how they can create false senses of limitation.”
Finch is a longtime satellite of the Yellow Springs community, perhaps best known as the friendly early-morning coffee pourer and wine-tasting aficionado at Emporium Wines & Underdog Cafe. Perhaps a surprise to some, she wasn’t always the mountain-climbing thrill-seeker she became on her journey.
A Springfield native, Finch said she grew up as an “uncoordinated fantasy geek,” always fumbling and getting chosen last in her elementary gym classes. In the classroom, she was an overachiever and perfectionist — a lover of classic literature, tuba player and aspiring marine biologist. But when it came to physical activities, the young Finch had all but divorced herself from bodily exertion.
“I was always afraid of getting hurt and being bad at things,” she said.
The natural world, though, maintained an allure. After a formative high school biology class and some undergraduate time at Wright State, Finch became a naturalist at Glen Helen. By her second year at the preserve, she became lead naturalist; in year three, she joined the administrative team at the Raptor Center.
Time turned and Finch enrolled at Maine’s College of the Atlantic, continuing her course of a “hardcore science kid” who excelled at everything cerebral, seldom physical. There, she presented a paper at an international conference, received a grant from NASA to study gulls on a remote island, led birding tours at 4 a.m., studied spotted salamanders with the National Park Service and more.
“Too many things,” Finch said, shaking her head.
Then, while working at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Bar Harbor, Finch’s life changed forever. That’s when the fateful owl-and-porcupine event occurred, causing a life-threatening medical emergency for Finch, wherein she nearly lost an appendage and almost died from septic shock.
To learn the full details of the “owl-porcupine story,” Finch insisted, with a knowing wink, curious parties will have to attend her talk next Saturday.
Hospitalized and forced to renegotiate the relationship with her body, Finch turned over a new leaf.
“I had a multiple-organ shutdown, and a winter-long recovery of not being able to walk. To say the least, that whole winter was rough,” Finch said. “I was missing so much. I knew the snowy owls had returned to Sergeant Mountain [in Maine] and I wasn’t there to see.”
Lying in her hospital bed, unable to move and do the activities she loved, Finch had an epiphany.
“I had taken my body for granted,” she said. “Over those hospital weeks, I realized there were so many things that I had been doing — that my failures as an uncoordinated child were fantasies, that my body could carry me.”
Finch continued: “I resolved then and there that when I recovered, I wasn’t going to identify as having a body that can’t — to not be fearful of death, to co-exist with my fears. It was the most world-opening realization. I told myself, ‘OK, body, we’re going to rally and do all the s**t that won’t probably kill us.’”
Winter passed, Finch recovered — appendages still intact — and followed through. She tried surfing, going on more arduous hikes, flying planes and, above all else, discovered rock climbing. She was in love.
Her first major climb was the 766-meter-tall South Bubble mountain in Acadia National Park over Jordan Pond. It was a multipitch climb, meaning that, instead of ascending the cliff face with one single rope length, Finch and her climbing partner scurried up South Bubble with several anchored rope lengths.
“I totally cried because of how hard it was,” Finch said. “But I was coached on how to position my feet — and, somehow, it worked. I realized then that climbing wasn’t just being able to do chin-ups with your fingertips. It was more knowing how to use your body to creatively leverage yourself against a wall. Suddenly, it was more intellectual than physical.”
Hooked on climbing, Finch hit the road. She moved into her Chevy Cruise in 2017 — having outfitted her car with an ad hoc sleeping platform designed for elderly dogs — and headed west.
“Everything I owned was with me,” she said. “That was the greatest freedom I’ve ever experienced. Sure, I was still in college, but in the meantime, I became a dirtbag climber.”
The next several years were spent bouncing back and forth across the American continent, climbing every appealing peak she could find, living out of her car, dumpster diving for meals, reading botany textbooks illuminated by headlamps under dusty desert moons, working here, working there, struggling and sleeping where she could — this is the story Finch will outline in romantic, gritty detail in her Adventure Summit presentation.
“Often, the reasons why we think we can’t do things — and, just so people know, I’m going to swear in this presentation — are b******t,” Finch said. “We’re capable of a lot more than we allow ourselves to do. This adventure, the mountains, everything — this proved that to me.”
Finch added: “People do incredible things all the time, but I guarantee they’re still afraid. I suppose that’s what my talk is going to be about: the ongoing process of learning to move through fear and doing the ‘big things’ anyway, broadening the horizons of our comfort zones.”
Finch’s last stop on her rollicking cross-country adventure was in Red River Gorge in Eastern Kentucky — a veritable mecca for climbers. From there, she moved back to the area in 2021 and was soon hired to manage the Emporium.
These days, Finch still climbs when and where she can, but for now, she’s content to settle down and nestle into small-town, fixed-place living. Beyond her managerial work at the coffee shop, Finch is laying the groundwork to soon start an ecological garden design business. She volunteers on area farms and recently kindled a relationship with a local whom she met at the Emporium.
In short, Finch’s nomadic dirtbag days have drawn to a close — she’s hitching her carabiners to Yellow Springs.
Still, the lessons learned on the road, against the American cliff faces and in her hospital bed remain.
“No longer does fear dictate what I do or what I don’t do,” Finch said. “I’ve learned how to use the resources available to me, to turn adverse situations into learning experiences and to no longer fear death. Now, fear is my companion — it goes wherever I do, and I can accept that.”
Molly Finch’s talk, titled “From Near Death to Dumpster Diving, A Dirtbag Climber’s Tale,” will be presented as part of Five River MetroParks’ and Wright State University’s “Adventure Speaker Series” on Saturday, Feb. 10, at 4:45 p.m. Her talk will be held in Endeavor Room C in the Wright State Student Union, and is free and open to the public.