The subjective nature of rock climbing will never allow us to determine a definitive “best,” but among the contenders of our sport’s most accomplished climbers ever—male or female—Beth Rodden would be right near the top. A few of her profound achievements include: becoming the youngest woman to free climb 5.14 upon her 1998 ascent of Smith Rock’s To Bolt or Not to Be; free climbing El Capitan’s The Nose (5.14a), which only five climbers have done; and successfully free climbing Yosemite Valley’s Meltdown (5.14c), which some believe may be the hardest female ascent ever and remains unrepeated since its 2008 tick.
Growing up in the competition environment, Beth went on to climb some of the world’s hardest lines amid a cycle of ups and downs in her ongoing battle with injuries. Splitting her time between California’s Bay Area and Yosemite, Beth is happily married and she’s the mother to a young boy, Theo.
In this interview, we discuss Beth’s early days in the climbing gym, how our sport has evolved, and her tips for readers on projecting, training, nutrition, and more.
- Born: 1980
- Began climbing: 1994
- Most memorable ascent: The Nose with Hans Florine and his wife, Jacqueline, March 2000.
- Favorite crag snack: In-season fruit; peaches, nectarines, oranges, etc.
- Favorite climbing book: It’s not a book, but when I was a kid, I watched Lynn’s video free climbing The Nose hundreds of times. That video—I was so obsessed!
- Favorite non-climbing book: Maybe this sounds taboo now, but I loved Lance Armstrong’s first book.
- Favorite band: Gillian Welch, Bon Iver, and Elliott Smith. I’ll put them all together in one Pandora station.
Hi Beth, thanks for your time. What are you up to?
We’re in Yosemite for the fall season—it seems lots of people are pretty psyched on Yosemite right now.
Some get nervous about the crowds and influx of climbers heading to the Valley. What’s your opinion?
Everyone wants to go out and enjoy quiet time in their favorite climbing area, and I’m no exception to that, but you make the best of it.
We drove down to the Valley yesterday and on a Wednesday in mid-October, it was crowded to drive on the road. It has definitely been busy and I think that has been due to a lot of factors, one being the centennial celebration. And also, with Valley Uprising and the Dawn Wall craziness, it put Yosemite in the spotlight.
What would be your advice for a 5.10 climber coming to Yosemite … to not get mobbed by crowds?
Come in the winter, when the forecast is good. Because it’s going to be crowded and even then—in the winter—it can still be crowded. It’s a crowded place!
Let’s talk about your early days—where did you get started and what was it like growing up in the competition environment?
I got started in a small climbing gym, Rocknasium, in my hometown of Davis, California. It was the mid-90s, so climbing gyms were actually pretty rare back then, maybe just a dozen in the country.
We were lucky to have a climbing gym in our little town and back then the climbing gyms were different—they were small and like family. I know those gyms are still around, but since climbing is taking off some of the gyms now have thousands of members.
Back then it was really cool because there were a few hundred members and everyone knew each other. There was real mentorship going on.
So, when I started climbing outside, the guys working at the gym—they’d been climbing for decades, all around the world—showed me the ropes. They’d mentor me on ethics and stewardship at the crag. It was a pretty special time in my life and it shaped me as a climber.
I had also grown up doing competitive sports and when I started climbing, there were all these local comps. I started in the fall and that next summer or fall, a little less than a year, I went to one of the first junior national competitions in San Diego. From there, I qualified for the Junior World Cup in France.
It was cool because it was this first generation of kid climbers—people like me, Katie Brown, Chris [Sharma], Tommy [Caldwell], and all these people who would go on to push the sport of climbing forward. We were competing as juniors, but then we started competing with our heroes, people like Steve Hong and Robyn Erbesfield.
Learn About Beth Rodden's Gear Picks: Climbing Shoes“I rotate between three different pairs: La Sportiva’s TC Pros, Solutions, and Miuras. If it’s a long route, I’ll wear the TC Pro. If it’s a steeper climb, I’ll use the Solution. And then the Miuras are great for edging and vertical climbs. If I only had one shoe to bring with me on a desert island, I’d bring the Miuras.”
View Lowest Prices: Beth's Favorite Climbing ShoesLa Sportiva TC ProLa Sportiva SolutionLa Sportiva Miura
How did the competitions contribute to the climber you are today?
I think the comps showed me this community side of the climbing population. Here were all these kids and we were scattered throughout the country. Then we got to see each other half a dozen times per year and as we got older, we started planning trips together.
It was this pretty cool time to see how small the climbing community was. You could cross all these barriers and generation gaps and I think the comps really introduced me to loving climbing and wanting to push myself; it was an avenue for that.
In less than a year of climbing, you qualified for the World Cup. How did you progress so quickly?
I lived at the climbing gym. I was a good student, so I would come home, do my homework first, and then go to the climbing gym as much as I could. I loved climbing. It was a natural fit.
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your teenage self during this time?
Enjoy it! It may seem like those days will last forever, but they won’t.
I think when you’re young—or at least when I was a kid—I was like, This is an everyday experience, it will happen all the time. I went to Madagascar and I sort of thought, Oh, I’ll come back every year!
You have to enjoy it all—there’s no rush.
You’re known for hard redpointing. When working Meltdown, you said you thought the climb was impossible—you could only do one out of ten moves.
Where do you get the motivation to work through something that seems so far out of reach?
I really like big projects and big ideas—taking my time and problem-solving. The problem-solving aspect is something that I love about climbing, but I think it might be getting lost a little bit.
What do you mean by that?
This is a generalization, but I’ve worked with youth teams and have gone out climbing at the crag and boulders and it seems like a lot of people now—instead of walking up to a climb thinking, How am I going to solve this?—just want the beta so they can send it … to see if they can push their bodies physically.
It makes sense to me because that’s a really cool part of the sport, but it takes away the problem-solving aspect of how you’re actually going to get through the climb. It’s more like, “Can you tell me the beta to see if I can send it?”
Climbing is everyone’s own thing. But for me, the problem-solving aspect is a big motivator.
What has caused this shift? Any notable climb is on YouTube—is that a factor?
I think it’s multi-faceted. When I was growing up at the climbing gym, the walls were completely filled with holds and only some of them were taped. I went in and would make up my own problems. I climbed the taped problems, but that only provided so much.
I’d go into the gym and spend 75% of my time making up problems.
Now we go into these big gyms and there are hardly, if any, extra holds. So I don’t know if it’s the commercialization of climbing or the media—it could be a bunch of different things.
Again, this is a generalization and it’s interesting to see how the sport changes.
So even from your first days in the gym, you were in this mindset of exploring and making your own path.
Exactly, and that drew me to climbing. Obviously the physical movement is amazing and I loved that, but for me, growing up with normal competitive sports where you have a coach, practice time, and a schedule—I loved how I went into climbing and there were no coaches, I could do whatever I wanted, I could stay for eight hours or 30 minutes. It was this time for self-discovery that created this self-drive and passion.
All these posts about #valleyuprising and #yosemite are making me miss climbing on the impeccable granite there! Psyched to ease back into it this fall 🙂 pictured here a lot fitter and stronger a few years back on a free ascent of The Nose. Picture by @coreyrichproductions @outdoorresearch @lasportivana @metoliusclimbing @bluewaterropes @skinnourishment @oakley
On a big project, what’s a greater hurdle for you: the physical difficulty of doing the moves or the mental barriers that might hold you back?
It’s probably a physical barrier. I’ve always loved the problem-solving component so it doesn’t take much for me to want to go back to something.
So for me, it’s about not getting injured, getting strong enough, knowing how much rest to have, doing specific training, that sort of thing.
What’s your relationship to training and climbing?
I think training and climbing has come leaps and bounds, but I never really followed anyone’s training program. I took bits and pieces of what I learned from Robyn or Tommy or Randy or other friends. I found what worked for my body and I’m sure it’s not the most scientific.
When I was redpointing really hard routes, I would climb in the gym three or four days a week. My body does well with a lot of rest and that took me a while to figure out. I think that may be a reason I’ve been injured so much because when I was 14, I could climb five or six days a week. It’s a hard transition to realize you can’t do that anymore.
You’ve had your share of injuries over the years. How do you know when you’re pushing yourself too hard?
It’s tough and I still struggle with this because climbers want to see how far they can push their bodies. One of my strengths has been that I can push hard and you can’t do that if you’re too scared of getting injured.
Resting a lot has helped but I’m still battling with injuries. I think when someone has been pushing their hardest in the sport for over twenty years, you’ll have injuries here and there. Acceptance is a really good thing to learn.
When climbing your hardest, what’s your sequence of climbing/non-climbing days?
For a hard project, usually one day on and two days off. I definitely rest a lot more than other people.
Getting into the specifics, are you doing anything in particular with your breath while climbing?
Not really. I think I’m pretty good at breathing and that’s probably from comps—they taught me how to climb tired and push as far as I can.
Some climbers lay in bed visualizing their entire climb, move-by-move. Do you do anything like this?
I think about the beta so I don’t forget it, but I’m not a big sports psychology type person. I’ve never been into visualization or picturing success. That type of thing can actually stress me out and I prefer to just climb more naturally.
Do you have any sorts of rituals or habits when you walk up to the wall and are getting ready to start?
Not necessarily. I try to make sure I’m warm because it always seems to be cold when I’m projecting. I wear a lot of down jackets!
This is all interesting because any time I get asked about my mental state, I can never pinpoint it. I just kind of do what I do. I make sure I’m warm, that my gear is all good, and I try not to get too worked up.
What advice would you give to climbers struggling with the fear of falling?
Oh man, I’m probably not a good person to ask! I’m kind of a panzy.
I get scared to fall so I always work up to it. I take a few falls and realize it’s okay, then work up to bigger falls and realize it’s still okay. But I hate falling.
What are you eating to climb your hardest?
I’ve totally cleaned up my diet in the past handful of years. I used to always eat the same thing, having vegetables at maybe one meal and I thought that was pretty good.
I was the typical on-the-road climber having a can of soup and a burrito with beans and rice. I thought, Well, there’s not bad stuff in there.
Thanks to my husband, I’m eating real whole foods from good and organic sources. Now I eat vegetables at almost every meal and we get good quality meat—not low-quality stuff, but meat that’s expensive because it’s raised properly.
It’s good for my body and good for the earth.
Learn About Beth Rodden's Gear Picks: Quickdraws and Alpine Draws“If I’m doing a long route, I take anywhere from 7-10 alpine draws and the Metolius F.S. Mini Quickdraws. Then if I’m sport climbing, I’ll use the Bravo Wiregate Quickdraws.”
View Lowest Prices: Beth's Favorite QuickdrawsMetolius F.S. Mini QuickdrawMetolius Bravo Quickdraw
Have you ever given up on a project? How do you know when it’s time?
I have projects that I’d still like to do, so I don’t know if I’ve given up on them. But I’ll leave things that don’t inspire me—if I’m not driven to go back there I might leave it.
It’s not uncommon to have a down-cycle in your psyche after a big accomplishment. How do you suggest climbers cope with these ups and downs?
That’s something that took me a long time to learn. I remember after The Optimist [5.14b], I didn’t really want to climb that much and I didn’t feel psyched. Honestly, I think that’s something that injuries have helped me with—they’ve helped me get so psyched to go and climb
You have to realize that climbing can be a life-long endeavor if you want it to be and if you’re not feeling it or you have to dial it back for a month or two or a year, that’s fine. Climbing will be there when you’re psyched again.
Even if you’re not psyched again, that’s cool too. Or if you just want to climb 5.8, that’s also cool.
Climbing provides so many different avenues and it’s good to listen to your body and your mental psyche because if you push it too much, you might burn out entirely.
How has your relationship to climbing hard and pushing yourself to the limit evolved over the years and into motherhood?
For the longest time, that’s what drove me in climbing—setting really big goals and pushing my body as hard as I could to achieve them. Once I started getting injured and couldn’t be doing that, I got super bummed and frustrated. But, that’s where being injured gave me a such huge gift …
I got to the point where I was wondering if I should even go through the pain and anguish of continuing to climb. I took time and went climbing with my neighbors, on 5.7 and 5.8, and on big ridges. Over the course of a year, I realized I love climbing no matter what.
I’m super happy getting to the top of a big project of mine like a free climb on El Cap or a 5.14, but I’m also just as excited and giddy getting to the end of a huge ridge traverse. I don’t know if I would’ve learned that without the injuries. That’s been a huge lesson—to realize I’m a lifer!
Transitioning into motherhood, I couldn’t climb super hard when I was pregnant. Then I had a pretty tough, physical postpartum recovery from having my son. Now I climb when I can with Theo around and then other times give him all the time and attention he needs. It has been great.
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Editor’s note: this article was originally published on October 26, 2016.