The China Doll Contradiction: Behind the Scenes of the Film

Last summer I climbed the hardest trad route of my life, China Doll, a 5.14a R in Boulder Canyon, CO.

Jon Glassberg, of Louder Than 11, was interested in documenting the process, and wanted to make a climbing film that was different- not just about sending and then being happy.  He wanted to reveal raw emotions including the frustration involved in redpointing at your limit.

If you haven’t seen it, here’s a link to the film:

What evolved through the film-making and interview process was something different.

My friend Franziska Schweiger, a Ph.D student in German studies based in Boulder, had an early viewing of the film and related to its messages beyond the realm of climbing.

“The wall acts as a mirror.  China Doll transforms from being a climbing project into a catalyst for (self-) reflection on success, gender roles and self-acceptance. In the end, Heather confronts herself in that project.”

Caroline Treadway- writer, photographer, and filmmaker based in Boulder, wrote the script for China Doll.

“When I started working on the film, the story I saw was not the story I wanted to see.  It was the story of a woman who didn’t believe in herself, despite her incredible climbing achievements.  A woman who has so much talent, determination, and skill but still doesn’t believe in herself.  How can that be the story?”

Watching China Doll a couple months ago, I cried.  It was like opening up my diary to a glimpse of my life where emotions ran high.  I was in a place where I let my negative self-worth mind chatter take over, despite just achieving the greatest climbing accomplishment of my career.

I shared Caroline’s sentiment. How can such a successful girl feel so shitty about herself.  How does she never feel ‘good enough’?

It deeply saddened me.  But I realized I’m not alone.

Franziska is in the top of her field of academia, yet she often doesn’t feel like she measures up.

“I always feel a bit incapable, ‘not all that worthy’ so to speak.”

After sending China Doll I felt lost- I lacked a sense of purpose, direction, and confidence.  I ran into Arno Ilgner, of the Rock Warrior’s Way at the outdoor retailer tradeshow last August, and agreed to work with him on mental training.

Over a year’s time between working with Arno, I learned a lot more about myself.  I had to really confront my inner voice and not continue to mask it with distractions or numbing behavior.  It was a lot of work and still is.

My negative self-worth issues stem from childhood.  I grew up in an alcoholic family- my mom was my best friend and role model, but she suffered from depression and wild mood swings.  She stayed in an unhealthy relationship- filled with cheating, lack of communication, and when she drank- shit hit the fan.

Everybody has their trauma in different forms.  But are we facing the past?  Or just sweeping those demons under the rug?

I was a “sweep it under the rug” person, but in times of stress- like on China Doll- this deep sense of ‘not good enough’ would rear its ugly head.

Why on Earth would I write a blog about this and leave myself vulnerable to the masses?

“I found that Heather’s vulnerability, her willingness to talk about emotional darkness and to be real, was a different version of strength,” Caroline explains.  “I came to realize that she was much stronger than she seemed, and that admitting a painful truth about self-confidence, she was speaking for a world of women, and she wasn’t afraid.”

I choose to live my life without walls.  I want genuine conversations, relationships, and realness.  China Doll intimately displays my relationship with Chris and my project at the time.

Caroline sees the film as a “‘Mars-Venus’ take on love and projecting.  It’s about the inherent disconnect between men and women.  That despite our best efforts to understand each other, we often have completely different, simultaneous experiences.”

In the film, Chris chats with Jon while belaying me.  “Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a guy and I haven’t learned yet, but reasoning with a chick that’s in a dark place, never, ever works.”

Men are from Mars…

“The biggest emotions I feel watching this and making this film are frustration and annoyance at Chris being such a stereotypical dude, mixed with knowing that he’s trying to support and understand Heather but just doesn’t get it,” Caroline explains.

Chris supported me so much on that climb through countless hours of belaying and gear toiling.  But he was also trying to tell me what I should do and how I should do it.

With assertiveness, he says regarding my redpointing tactics, “She’s trying to rush the process.  I think she should just focus solely on getting the gear completely dialed, so that the next day we come, she can combine the two.”

Do men have an easier time feeling confident, or is it all just show?  Are we, as women, subject to gender hierarchies and simply more willing to let our guards down for others, while men maintain their protective walls?

Franziska can relate in her field of study, dominated by men.  ” I tend to easily overwrite my emotions, my intuition, with other peoples opinions and thoughts.  I submit myself to others’ advice, often men telling me that I have lots of potential and good ideas but that I am doing it all wrong, standing in my own way, which makes me feel more incapable.”

Chris and I were both working the route together, but he left mid-summer for a trip to Switzerland with his friends while I stayed behind to find partners and stick to my goal.  It was stressful recruiting random partners- some of whom I’d never climbed with before- but that didn’t get in my way.

Two weeks after he left, I sent.  And, contrary to the film’s presentation, my friend, Molly, belayed me.

When times get tough, it’s your girlfriends that have your back no matter what…we’re from Venus after all.

Caroline questions, “Does Heather really not believe in herself?  Or will she not allow herself to admit self-confidence?”

I do believe in myself.  I admit that I live most of my life with confidence, but I battle those deep-seated thoughts of negative self-worth, and sometimes they take over.  I’m getting better at catching those thoughts and labeling them, not letting them go too far like they did in the past, but they’re a part of me and always will be.

I cycle between self-assured and submissive, and China Doll reiterates this contradiction.  In the beginning of the film, my confidence is highlighted, and toward the end my role is more of a subordinate.

Franziska experiences a similar juxtaposition outside of the climbing world.

“People have told me that they observe a stark discrepancy between how despisingly I speak about myself vs. how gracefully I carry myself in these immediately stressful situations, like giving a lecture to hundreds of students or presenting my work to a prestigious audience.  In the film, this tension appears in the juxtaposition of the footage of Heather moving on the wall while declaring ‘I don’t really know what I am doing.’  Heather does know what she is doing, particularly when she doesn’t think about how to do things right, but simply does things.  Her way.  In that sense, I identify with both Heather and Chris.  I have a Chris in my head and a Heather in my heart.”

The dynamics between Chris and I that are emphasized in China Doll have changed since this film was made just over a year ago, and continue to change every day.  Watching it recently, I don’t want Chris to be so bossy to that girl.  I don’t want him to be such an overarching voice in the film.  It’s heart wrenching revisiting the clip from our proposal, and seeing the tender hug he gives me at the car before climbing.  We live in a life of impermanence- and it’s as difficult as it is beautiful.

I hope through this film- this uplifting yet sad, confident yet insecure facet of my life- I can share what I didn’t know then, but have since learned:

Only through believing we’re ‘good enough’ as we are, in this moment, will we find peace- with our significant others, our goals, and in the most important relationship of our lives- with ourselves.

“No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” – Eleanor Roosevelt


JHG Heather China Doll 10-21-15-117541

PC:  Jon Glassberg


PC:  Celin Serbo

JHG LT11 China Doll Low Res Web Images PROMO 1-26-17-2

PC:  Jon Glassberg


  1. Sylvia Marcia · · Reply

    Heather – I love this so much. I struggle with the not believing I am worthy. I admire you so much. This article is perfection in explaining the ways that we can confident then have negative self-worth still creep up at times. Thank you for this! I just started climbing and I get so intimidated and feel so unworthy to do the sport sometimes. Reading this helps me not give up and know I’m not the only one struggling with this. Thank you again. Really love this.

    1. Thank you so much Sylvia, and it means so much to me that other women like yourself can relate. Keep climbing and hope our paths cross one day out on the rocks. Best to you- thanks for reading and the kind words!

  2. I watched the movie 2 times almost in a row. It loved it, it’s beautiful. I really can relate to this struggle of not seeing in myself what other people can see. Reading your article is really interesting and gives a new perspective. Having read it I find it now a little sad that there is so much emphases on lack of confidence and that the movie ends on it. It sure makes a good story but it doesn’t feel that it’s your main trait of character. You’re a strong women for sure ! Very inspiring. Many thanks.

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful message. I really agree with you completely on the focus of the movie, and I felt like it was inconsequential. I hope the blog post gave it some perspective, as the movie was really a small part of my personality but glad other women can relate. Thank you again for your time and input!

      1. Yes your blog post really gave some necessary perspective ! And man can relate too, because I am one actualy lol !

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