Two Women Just Climbed One of America’s Hardest Routes

8 Feb

On Tuesday, February 6, Michaela Kiersch, 23, sent Necessary Evil (5.14c), making her the first woman to climb this benchmark route in Arizona’s Virgin River Gorge. Paige Claassen, 27, sent the same line the following day.

At 5.14c, Necessary Evil is technically not the hardest pitch in the U.S. as far as grades go—Jumbo Love, a 5.15b at California’s Clark Mountain, holds that title. But the conditions-dependent rock and the long reaches between tiny holds on this historic route have thwarted some of the world’s most elite climbers. Plus, the crag’s setting makes high-performance rock climbing difficult. The shape of the canyon blasts wind toward the limestone walls. The walls themselves are located in the northwestern-most tip of Arizona, directly above I-15, where the roar of semi-trucks passing at 80 miles per hour can be deafening. 

Kiersch’s personal motto is “be strong enough to overcome minor inconveniences,” which came in handy her first day on the route. Within a few tries, she had figured out all the moves of the 90-foot line. That’s when she knew it would be possible to clean it. “Initially, the opening moves, which are the hardest and described as V10 to V12, were very physical for me and felt low-percentage,” she says. However, once she figured out the sequence, she was able to execute the moves every time.

She gave the route a few attempts each day, getting through the low crux every time but falling at the upper crux—another long reach to a small crimp, followed by a desperate stab for a bigger hold. She repeated that sequence for almost a week before it was time for her to head back home to Salt Lake City, where she was competing in the Bouldering Nationals, an indoor climbing competition. “Leaving was really hard, likely due to a combination of disappointment, frustration, and eagerness to try again, but I had made a commitment to compete and I wanted to honor that,” Kiersch says. “Ultimately, I needed to walk away [from the route] anyway because I sensed that I was building a mental barrier.”

Paige Claassen sent Necessary Evil the day after Michaela Kiersch became the first woman to succesfully tackle the route. (Tara Kerzhner)

Meanwhile, Paige Claassen, a pro climber from Colorado, had also been trying the route for a few weeks. “Necessary Evil definitely suits my style, and I got really close in 2014, but it was just way too hot. It’s more of a mental crux because everything comes down to one move,” Classen says, referring to the tricky stab at the upper crux. Because the rock was so rough on her skin, Claassen was limited to trying it every other day.

After making it to semifinals at the Bouldering Nationals, Kiersch returned to the Virgin River Gorge on Monday. On Tuesday, she sent the route. Claassen sent the next morning. 

“What struck me as interesting was not two women gunning for an FFA [first female ascent], because I don't think that’s what was happening,” says Tara Kerzhner, a photographer and filmmaker who was in the VRG at the time. “It struck me as interesting that there were so many people getting close to sending this historic testpiece, which used to be a benchmark in American climbing.”

Both climbers credit the history of the route as their inspiration for trying the line. It was the hardest route in the country when Chris Sharma made the first ascent in 1997, and prior to this week, only about a dozen people had successfully climbed it, including Tommy Caldwell, Jonathan Siegrist, and Ethan Pringle. Alex Honnold, who has tried the climb but not sent it, calls it a “hard, old-school route.” He says, “It’s finicky—it can’t be too hot or too cold or too humid, because it will feel impossible. Unless it’s too dry, then it will feel slippery. It’s kind of heinous, and it’s extra hard if you’re shorter than 5’10”.”

Kiersch is 5’1”. Claassen is 5’6”.

John Long, who climbed the first one-day ascent of The Nose on El Cap, was there to support Michaela Kiersch's attempt. (Ted Distel/Digital Stoke Media)

“[Michaela and I] are very different climbers in terms of strength and size,” Claassen says, “but it was cool to cheer each other on, and we had a solid group of ladies up at the crag. Everyone was trying hard and having a lot of fun.”

Necessary Evil had been on a vision board Kiersch keeps in her home training room, along with other climbing and life objectives, like getting into grad school to pursue a doctorate in occupational therapy. While there are plenty of future goals to think about, for now, Kiersch is focusing on the satisfaction of crossing Necessary Evil off the list.

“I just want to enjoy this accomplishment a little bit longer,” she says, “before shifting my attention to the next objective.”