Rock climbing

Climber extraordinaire Paige Claassen finds her balance on and off the wall

“‘Paige Claassen decks on a 5.7’ probably wouldn’t be a headline,” joked Paige Claassen, one of the world’s top climbers, known for her many ascents on extremely difficult 5.14-rated routes and for her quest to reach the top of his first 5.15.

Claassen and I were perched on the side of a large sandstone formation at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. We were hoping to put together our first route of the day, surprised at how sketchy the supposedly easy climb was. Loose splinters on the rock and old runout protection bolts offered little comfort. Admittedly, we were unable to access the route we were planning to climb and so there we were.

Paige Classen. Photo credit: Spencer McKee.

At the age of 9, a shy Paige Claassen from Estes Park had started climbing with no way of knowing how much the sport would impact her life and the person she would become.

Rock climbing struck Paige a little differently than other athletic endeavors she had sampled in her short life, ones that had failed to pique her interest. Paige is a competitive person, but she wasn’t drawn to team sports like football or basketball. Very different, rock climbing offered Paige the opportunity to compete directly against herself.

Realizing she had found an activity she enjoyed and excelled in, Paige’s parents trained a variety of renowned coaches in her hometown of Estes Park, including Michelle Hurni, Stephan Greenway and eventually Mike Caldwell, the father of the celebrates Tommy Caldwell as a coach. . Paige has been climbing walls ever since.

Paige makes a rare ascent of The Fiend (5.13c), an overhanging double corner in the Boulder Irons, first established by Dan Michael in 1987. Photo credit: Arjan de Kock.

Paige Claassen makes a rare ascent of The Fiend (5.13c), an overhanging double dihedral in the Boulder Irons, first created by Dan Michael in 1987. Photo credit: Arjan de Kock.

For Paige, climbing quickly became a way to gain self-confidence, allowing her to overcome her shyness and build a sense of identity and pride rooted in the sport. Once plugged into the local gym scene, Paige continued to develop as an athlete, rising through the ranks and reaching the top of increasingly difficult courses in competition and beyond.

And then one day last spring, Paige didn’t make it to the top.

In May, Paige had been in California for about a month, repeatedly returning to the base of an isolated rock under a road called Empathetic. The route was rated 5.15a and was more difficult than any route Paige had managed to climb to date.

Granted, Paige is no stranger to persevering in the face of a formidable challenge. Beginning in 2012, she would work a 5.14b-rated road in Utah called “The Bleeding” for three years before earning her tick.

But this time in California was different. A month on and off the wall had begun to teach Paige more than just what it would take to reach the top of that specific route.

“It’s cool to send, but you can learn a lot along the way,” Paige said, reminiscing Empathetic as I furiously took notes amid hordes of clumsy tourists.

Since then, we had both descended safely from our precarious position on the rock face with the help of Sarah Janin from Colorado Mountain School in relay, now looking for a better option.

“In life, you doubt a lot of yourself and you don’t know what you’re capable of. Climbing is a way to discover what you’re capable of. It’s a way to build a really deep confidence in yourself, to build a sort of compass that lets you know who you are,” Paige continued.

While Paige had spent a lot more time on other routes throughout her climbing career, her instincts had pushed her to take her foot off the accelerator when it came to Empathetic. She came back to Colorado.

Paige Classen.  Courtesy photo.

In June 2020, Paige Claassen sent Kryptonite, America’s first 5.14d, to The Fortress of Solitude, first created by Tommy Caldwell in 1999. Photo credit: Arjan de Kock

Once a shy child who turned to rock climbing to give direction to her life, Paige has since realized that rock climbing is no longer the only aspect of her life that drives her forward productively. .

After a month on the wall away from her friends, family and other priorities, she couldn’t help but realize that she does better on the wall when these Entertainment were kept nearby. While Paige once relied on rock climbing to provide the basis of her identity, her identity has since evolved into something beyond, no longer so strongly tied to quickdraws and rope.

The day Paige and I were at the Garden of the Gods was packed despite the storm clouds slowly forming over a not-so-distant Pikes Peak. After rolling back from the first climb, we moved to a nearby road with less chance of a surprise slide and much newer bolts than we were previously trying to reach.

As Paige climbed the route with ease, a crowd gathered to admire her abilities, unaware that she was watching such a talented and accomplished professional climber who is sponsored by well-known companies like Eddie Bauer and La Sportiva. Some of the curious onlookers asked about Paige and the sport of rock climbing, seemingly trapped in a trance as their eyes followed her to the top of the arrow-shaped formation.

According to Paige, she does her best to climb when climbing isn’t the only thing in her life — when there’s balance, too.

In January 2020, just months before the coronavirus pandemic halted, Paige completed a lengthy project in South Africa with her nonprofit, the Southern Africa Education Fund. After founding the organization in 2016, Paige spent four years on a project that would ultimately build eight classrooms and a playground in Aussenkehr, Namibia, a resource-limited village eight hours from the busiest large town. close.

The new classrooms allowed the school of 850 students to switch to full days of classes, instead of having to alternate morning and afternoon sessions due to limited space. The extra space would become even more important once the coronavirus pandemic hit, allowing the education center to remain open despite social distancing restrictions, now with more room for more students.

“We tend to focus on one goal and then achieving it becomes all that matters, but in doing that it’s possible to lose sight of family and relationships and give back to the community,” said Paige, noting that her commitment to the non-profit world is another way she’s learned to bring more balance into her life. According to Paige, she sees this balance as something that makes her a better climber and a better person in every way.

Eventually our climbing group found a more private space in the Garden of the Gods. Away from the crowds, we worked our way to the top of a tougher route, probably one of the toughest routes my hands have ever touched.

With onlookers out of sight and on a route that presented some level of challenge, Paige’s eyes lit up as she prepared for her ascent. Soon Paige was leading a quick charge to the top, taking time to admire the facial features along the way. With his encouragement, I also made it to the top, mostly climbing up the wall between strenuous moves that I found a little out of reach.

Sarah secures Paige Claassen as she sets up a hueco-heavy road in Colorado Springs' Garden of the Gods.  Photo credit: Michael Imes.

Sarah Janin secures Paige Claassen as she begins to lay out a hueco-heavy route in Colorado Springs’ Garden of the Gods. Photo credit: Michael Imes.

At this point, distant storm clouds had closed in and our time together was coming to an end. Daily chores once again pulled me out of nature and back to my place behind a desk and three computer screens. We said goodbye and parted ways.

Thunder began to rumble in the distance as I walked to my car, thinking about how I could put Paige Claassen’s story into words.

Once a shy kid looking for a new sport, Paige found an inner strength in rock climbing that can’t be taught, eventually becoming strong enough to have a meaningful impact on the lives of many others far outside of her sport. . And it was this push outside of her sport that helped her become the dominant athlete she is today.

Without balance, some kind of undue pressure can seem to be upon a singular goal and this pressure can become an obstacle that makes it difficult to move forward. Yet with balance in the board, that pressure seems to be eased, allowing for a more natural pursuit of success.

That being said, it’s also crucial to note that balance didn’t happen spontaneously in Paige’s life. She worked hard to find it and developed it over time. After all, balance in life doesn’t come naturally to most, it comes to those who are strong enough to make the effort to build it on their own. Paige Claassen is one of those people.