© Matthew Hoffman
Eight years ago, Favia Dubyk was halfway through medical school and making great strides in her side passion of bouldering when she developed problems breathing when lifting her arms. After investigative surgery and an initial misdiagnosis, she was told she had Hodgkin lymphoma and subsequently spent six months bedbound during chemotherapy, which left her so weak that even opening the refrigerator door was a struggle.
A passionate climber, Favia used her return to bouldering as a goal during her recovery. Seven years after her last surgery, she is a kickass climber and qualified pathologist, and on the side, runs the blog Traverse Girl, a guide to the best bouldering traverses in the US, from her home in New Mexico. A two-time Ninja Warrior contestant, Favia also has insane upper body strength – check out her weighted pull-up and one-arm pull-up videos on Instagram after you’ve read our Q&A!
You were a track athlete growing up. At what point did you find bouldering?
I discovered bouldering after college. I went home to Tennessee to visit my family and I Googled ‘things to do in Nashville.’ A climbing gym popped up, so I decided to try it. I loved it instantly – so much so that when I moved to NYC for graduate school, I bought a year’s membership in the first week of school.
You were a keen climber before you were diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma in 2012. How quickly did your life change at that moment?
I had been sick for at least six months before I was diagnosed. It was definitely a shock to hear the words “you have cancer” but at that point, I was already struggling to eat and breathe. I received the actual diagnosis after living in the hospital for several weeks. I was actually relieved to find out what sort of cancer I had so that I could start treatment.
What were the next six months of your life like whilst you underwent chemotherapy?
Horrible. Awful. There’s no word to describe the tremendous pain I went through. I only had one working limb (my left leg), so I struggled to walk and feed myself. At one point, I had to be on a bathroom schedule where my husband and friends had to carry me to the toilet! I barely ate but somehow still filled countless buckets with vomit.
How did being bedbound for six months affect you physically?
I weighed about 20 pounds (9kg) less than I do now! I was nothing but skin and bones. It was hard and painful to even open the refrigerator door.
Did thoughts about climbing enter your head during your treatment?
I didn’t think about much during treatment except for trying to survive. After I finished treatment, I could finally focus on something else other than just surviving. However, I was overwhelmed with sadness, processing everything that happened over the previous eight months. It wasn’t until several months after I finished chemo that I even thought about returning to climbing.
When did you start training again and what was your first experience back on the bouldering wall like?
I had my last surgery in February 2013 and a few days later, I hobbled into a boxing gym. I had an awesome personal trainer who helped me to remember that I loved working out. He never mentioned how feeble and sickly I was and didn’t treat me any different than his other clients. This made me feel a bit like myself again.
In August , I finally decided to return to the climbing gym. I tried to warm-up on a V0 but realized I could not lift my arms above my head. I figured out I was able to traverse like a T-Rex, so I did that for a few minutes. After 15 minutes in the gym, I was exhausted and had to return home. It took me a couple of months to climb a V0 and I didn’t start training until around 2015.
Three years later, in 2018, you were invited on Ninja Warrior, but you had a huge fear of obstacles. How did you work through your fear?
By screaming and closing my eyes! Eventually, I learned that I needed to look where I was going, but I never stopped screaming! That’s why NBC dubbed me ‘Dr. Scream’.
Do you ever feel scared whilst bouldering outdoors?
Most of the time I don’t feel fear while bouldering outside because I mostly climb lowballs and traverses! However, my new project combines a lot of my fears – dynamic movement and a semi-high and not-easy top-out. For this problem, I’ve been really training my mind by doing the ‘scary’ moves over 20 times in a session with varying levels of a power spot (where a spotter takes some of the climber’s weight in order to let them practise a move). Sometimes the power spot is just taking a couple of pounds off and other times it’s 30 pounds off. Now that I’ve done the move over 100 times (with a power spot), I’m no longer afraid of it!
You have some seriously impressive pull-up videos on Instagram. Can you share what a typical week of training looks like for you now?
Thank you! Right now, I train five days a week. I hangboard twice a week and have about five climbing workouts. I do a lot of conditioning including weightlifting, muscle-ups, and abs. I also climb outside twice a week. I also have to do rehab exercises for my shoulder and herniated disc. I have a large care team including four chiropractors, one massage therapist and one acupuncturist that keep my body healthy!
Do you use any particular training methods for improving your finger strength?
I absolutely love hangboarding! I prefer hangboarding over climbing workouts.
Your blog, Traverse Girl, is the ultimate guide to traverses across the US. Which have been your favourites to climb so far?
Baby Martini at Hueco Tanks (El Paso County, Texas) is definitely a favourite. It’s a flowy roof traverse that’s only a few feet off the ground! Locally, in New Mexico, Chung-Li is another great traverse that is 20+ moves along the edge of a limestone roof. It is very precise and requires a strong core but is a lot of fun!
Do you have any climbing goals on your radar for the future?
Yes, right now I’m working on Center Ling-Chi (v12), which is the project I mentioned earlier. This will be the first time I have projected something where you actually need a spot!
What are your must-have items of kit for bouldering?
Earplugs are probably the most essential item in my pack. I can’t concentrate with bugs buzzing [around me] so in the summer, I have to wear something in my ears.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
Yes! I am sponsored by La Sportiva, Organic, Chalk Cartel, Deuter, Kinesio Tape, PhysiVantage, and Elite OSM.