In this week’s Climber Spotlight, we chat with Anna Pfaff —alpinist, expedition climber, and nurse. Anna tells us her story of how she has made climbing into a lifestyle, her love of the alpine, and that time she may or may not have peed in her pants in Patagonia.
How did you get into climbing? Tell us about the early days of your climbing career.
I grew up in the corn fields of Medina, Ohio, so I did not experience the mountains until attending nursing school at the University of Colorado in Denver. My college friends were climbers so one weekend I accompanied them to Indian Creek and ended up tying in for the first time. They taped me up and put me on Supercrack and at that moment I was forever changed! Within those first few months I purchased an entire traditional rack and surrounded myself with experienced partners and mentors.
Related: Indian Creek — A Photo Story
Soon after my first desert trip, I hit the road to spend endless days on the big walls of Yosemite, granite of Squamish, alpine rock of the Bugaboos, and sandstone splitters of Indian Creek. I also spent a good deal of time alpine climbing in the Rockies and San Juans of Colorado, the Sierras of California, Mt Rainer and Peru. Between seasons I would pick up contracted nursing work in areas close to climbing like Joshua Tree and Red Rock.
Yosemite climbing was my base and the natural transition was to head south to Patagonia in the winters. The first time I laid eyes on Cerro Torre and climbed in the Fitz Roy range I was hooked on alpine climbing.
In 2007, I did my first expedition to the Himalaya and became infatuated with exploring first ascents in remote places around the world. Since then I have done multiple expeditions and first ascents in India, Nepal, Tibet, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Canada, and Bolivia.
What is your favorite style of climbing and why?
I truly enjoy all types of climbing from bouldering to big walls, but I am especially drawn to the complexity of alpine, traditional, ice, and mixed climbing. There is something about alpinism that makes me really feel alive.
I am drawn to experiencing all the elements, the physical skill and endurance needed to perform, critical thinking, risk management, and negotiating objective hazards. It is a feeling of freedom because you have the freedom to fail.
Alpine climbing puts one in such majestic, surreal positions. It still astounds me that we can climb frozen waterfalls. The balance between grace and savageness can be poetically obtained while ascending these frozen crystal formations.
I love the varying terrain in the mountains. One pitch may be sunny granite rock climbing, while the next you are front pointing and scratching your way up an icy crack system. It is truly a meditative state where all other aspects of life are put on hold. It can sometimes be a tipping point between sheer lunacy and sound sanity. The mountains are alive and provide continuing education. Ultimately they make the decisions and the true you is shown.
You’ve made climbing into a lifestyle, which is not always easy! What have been some of the struggles you’ve encountered with this? What things have helped you balance your love of climbing with issues like money?
I am very fortunate and thankful to have support from CAMP-USA, La Sportiva, Osprey, Maxim Ropes, Gnarly Nutrition, Zeal Optics and NEMO Equipment. These companies make the best gear on the market and I am honored to work with them as an athlete ambassador.
Also, I work on call as a trauma nurse in Oakland, California. This allows me a very flexible schedule so I can train, climb and continue exploring remote alpine areas around the world. Much of the aspect working as a trauma nurse can be transferred into the psyche of alpine climbing. They are both equally as intense and broadening at times.
What if you were to wake up tomorrow and for some reason were not able to climb? Do you have a backup plan? Any other hobbies that feed you in the way that climbing does?
Surfing! I used to live in Hawaii and surfed every day. So much fun! It feeds me in a similar yet different way than climbing. Also, at heart I am a training junkie. Running, lifting, and core work are a huge part of my weekly routine. Most days I will climb outside then train in the gym for 3-4 hours. I have many late night dates with the gym!
What is it like to be a woman in the male-dominated realm of alpine and ice climbing? How do you think your gender has affected your experience?
Most of my mentors in climbing have been male and I am forever grateful to have learned and keep learning from some of the best. I do not feel like gender has affected my experience at all. I enjoy climbing with men and women both equally.
Tell us about one of the best days you’ve ever had climbing.
With so many outstanding days it is difficult choose just one! Honestly, I enjoy being with positive partners, learning and having fun wherever it may be.
The Salathe on El Capitan, Yosemite, California comes to mind. It was my very first big wall. It rained, we were slow, and ran out of food. I was also scared and second guessed everything! We kept on keeping on, laughed bunches, and finished the route. It was amazing. On the summit I almost cut off my finger with a knife while trying to open a can of tuna we found!
Tell us about one of the worst days you’ve ever had climbing.
Hmm, that is a difficult one. If there is no bad how can there be good … so is it really bad? Yes, sometimes it is really bad!
In 2010 while climbing the Whillans Route on Aguja Poincenot in Patagonia, I wet my pants … for real. Everything was going great, we had good weather window and were moving efficiently. It was so cold that I put off the effort it takes to pee while on the mountain.
We had just finished ascending the steep snowfield and I took over leading through a technical mixed section that leads up to the granite headwall. I was stemming position and fear-struck because the gear was bad and the ice was delaminating from the wall. All of the sudden, I felt a warm sensation flow down my left leg and into my boot!
I kept climbing and brought my partner up to an anchor. The upper pitches were all icy and took an eternity to climb. We reached the summit around midnight and decided it was safer to bivy—rappelling in the early morning light would be safer. That night my boot froze and frost nip set into my big toe. To this day I have no feeling in that toe!
What are some of your proudest climbing accomplishments?
FA Unattached, Tarre Parbat, 5,830 meters, M4, AI4, WI3, 5.6, Kashmir, India (Spitzer, Van Sciver)
FA Apocalypse Now, WI7, M9, Traditional 300 meters, Newfoundland, Canada (Mayo)
French Reality, 5.8, WI 6+, Stanley Headwall, BC, Canada (Mayo)
Cerro Fitz Roy, The Affanacief, 1,500 meters 6c, Patagonia, Argentina (Lopez)
FA, Pfaff‐Lopez Direct, Lungartse Peak, 6,070 meters, TD, AI4, 1,200 meters, 90’, Khumbu, Nepal (Lopez)
FA, Southeast Face, Dome Peak, 5.10+ 1,000 meters, Miyar Valley, India (Lopez)
Tell us about one of your not-so-proud moments in your climbing career.
Poor communication and bad decision making are never proud moments.
What is the best climbing-related advice you’ve ever received?
The best climber is the one having the most fun.
– Alex Lowe
If you could give a beginner climber one piece of advice, what would it be?
Climbing will change your perspective.
Anything else you’d like to tell us?
Push yourself and go big! The mind is a powerful tool and many times overcoming mental barriers is the only step to sending your project.
Anna Pfaff is a CAMP-USA, La Sportiva, Osprey, Maxim Ropes, Gnarly Nutrition, Zeal Optics, and NEMO Equipment sponsored athlete.
To learn more about Anna, check out her website and follow her in Instagram. We send a huge thank you to Anna for sharing her story and inspiring all of us with her passion for the mountains. Good luck in 2016, Anna!