A Natural Born Climber: Paige Claassen

Jon Glassberg
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Paige Claassen has been climbing for more than half of her life. When asked what she finds appealing about the sport, she has many answers, but the one that seems to come to mind time and again is community. “Climbers are an eclectic group of people, and typically very accepting...It's still such a small sport, so it's really important that we all support one another, and work to protect our crags,” she offers. Her statement encompasses not only the relationships that tie us together as humans, but also those that tie us to the land around us.

Paige has had plenty of time and many travel opportunities to fully immerse herself in climbing, a sport she began as an 11-year-old in Estes Park, Colorado. She tried swimming (“I sank in the swimming pool”), was lackluster at basketball, and had no musical inclination. But her parents saw an ad for a new climbing gym that was opening in town and they remembered a family vacation where Paige had climbed on a tiny wall in the Arts and Science museum. She had climbed with enthusiasm and without fear and her parents realized there was hope for her in climbing. Her parents weren't climbers themselves, but they were avid hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, and in that moment, she found her place. “Climbing, the sport for misfits, had accepted me with open arms,” she says.

Paige began doing small, local sport climbing competitions initially, where she tied for first with a few of the boys. Competitions were the logical extension to learning to climb in a gym, especially because she had always been a competitive person, both against herself and other people. Her first big competition was the Junior National Championships in Ann Arbor Michigan where she placed 7th when she was eleven. While she loved climbing in part because every route was a new challenge that stood in front of her, where she could think "In this moment, all I need to think about is how to get to the top of this route," she wasn’t totally obsessed with it. It was simply something she loved for what it was.

Jon Glassberg

She went on to place well and win many competitions and instead of feeling stressed, she found climbing grounding. “You have to focus on your obstacles in that exact moment, but also prepare for what's ahead. Each route is like a puzzle — in addition to the physical aspect, it takes incredible mental tenacity. You have to unlock moves that feel impossible, whittling down the sequences until they feel attainable. I love the process of working on a route, from the initial ‘this is impossible’ to the ‘I can do this’ and finally to the ‘I did that!’” Over the next ten years, she spent as much time as she could training in the gym and traveling around the country for national level competitions on the weekends. During summers, she competed internationally, traveling to China, Austria, France, and Spain for both youth and adult World Championships.

She’s worked with coaches, but credits her parents as her greatest mentors, in climbing and in life. Her parents and her younger brother Sam (who also climbs) have traveled with her to competitions throughout the world, providing an excellent support system.

By the age of 19, she took a break from competing and chose to refocus her efforts on other challenges. While working towards her degree in Marketing at the University of Colorado Boulder, she climbed throughout the country, making the first female ascents of routes such as Grand Ole Opry (5.14b/c) at the Monastery, a climbing area in Colorado with fantastic slabs poking out of the mountainside and accessible by a hike, and Motley Crux (5.14a) in Deep Creek, Washington.

Jon Glassberg

Claassen prefers climbing outside, rather than training in the gym: “Climbing outside allows me to pursue personal challenges in beautiful environments with the people I love,” Claassen offers. She selects routes that “demand her attention and efforts for extended periods of time, at quiet crags with close friends.”

The result of her “attention and efforts?” Six First Female Ascents ranging from 5.13b to 5.14c throughout the world between 2010 and 2013, as well as V8 and V9 first ascents in Peru. In case you’re not up on bouldering and climbing lingo and you have no idea what the rating systems mean, 5.13+ to 5.14+ climbing routes, and V8 and V9 boulder routes equal HARD — incredibly hard for a huge percentage of the climbing population.

With so much experience and expertise, it seems Claassen would have a favorite place to climb and a favorite type of stone. In fact, she lists several places and says it is impossible to choose one, as each has its own charm. If pressed, she will admit she loves the limestone in Ceuse, France, the technical South African sandstone, and the slightly overhanging granite faces at the Monastery in Colorado. But it is the individual people she meets and the cultures she experiences, the kindness and acceptance of people she has met along the way, that means more than any surface or route she climbs.

The bulk of her recent efforts have come since graduating in December of 2012, when Claassen found herself with a great deal of time to travel, focusing most of her efforts on Lead Now. To promote the agenda of this non-profit, she has traveled to South Africa, Russia, Italy, Japan, China, India, Turkey, Ecuador, and Chile not seeking First Ascents or even trying to pursue work with her Marketing degree, but to use climbing as way of inspiring people from many different cultures to lead a life of adventure. By partnering with local non-profits, such as Heifer International, Save the Children, and Room to Read, her intent was to do a new climb in each country as “a way to draw attention to social needs around the world and enable women and children to sustain their own communities.”

Jon Glassberg

When Claassen competes at Stone Fort in Chattanooga in October, she’ll be contributing toward the Triple Crown’s mission of raising money for the Southeastern Climbers Coalition and the Carolina Climbers Coalition , two organizations that are dedicated to creating and maintaining access for climbers. Chad Wykle, Triple Crown co-organizer, says both of these organizations “have been instrumental in the acquisition of land for the climbing community, in a region that is riddled with access issues.”

At this event, Claassen will return to competition although, as usual, it is the community aspect of this event that seems to excite her the most. “You meet so many unique characters,” she offers, "and you can learn something from everyone--from the beginner to the seasoned veteran, male or female." Claassen says she enjoys climbing with members of both gender sets; men because they tend to be very dynamic and she can learn from them. And women because she feels they are more naturally inclined for climbing — meaning more willing to use their feet rather than put all the stress on their arms — and she is reminded of the importance of grace and footwork.

Paige Claassen leading a climbing clinic in Ecuador
Paige Claassen leading a climbing clinic in Ecuador Ministerio de Turismo Ecuador

These mini-reminders aid Claassen when she teaches climbing clinics, which she does as a way “to give back and to stay close to the sport.” They also help her remember her unstoppable enthusiasm when she first began climbing. “New climbers have fresh energy and they are eager to learn and try. Experienced climbers often become jaded, and picky about conditions and what they'll climb on,” Claassen says.

What does the future hold for Claassen? She hopes a lifetime of climbing. The sport changed her life by giving her confidence when she had none. It taught her that rewards come from hard work. And that it can be used as a tool for reaching many communities and cultures. She’ll continue to travel, climb, and inspire others to do the same.

Sponsorships and Ambassadorships : Marmot, La Sportiva, Smith Optics, Camp Technical Adventure Equipment, Mac’s Smack

Organizations : The Access Fund, The American Alpine Club

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