Rocking the gap year

Margo Hayes straddles the line between youth champion and professional climber

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Hayes’ hands show the toughness and grit required to take on some of the world’s hardest routes.
Courtesy of Margo Hayes

Being caught in the middle of possibility and experience is a defining characteristic of youth. Somehow the experiences of the young are partially valuable for what they will become in the future. In anticipation, questions about what’s next abound: What do you want to do for work? Where will you go for college? What will you do after right now?

Boulder’s Margo Hayes became familiar with these questions at a young age as a phenom climber with Team ABC, the youth climbing team at The Spot Bouldering Gym in Boulder. Since joining the team in 2008, she has stood on the podium 11 times in national youth climbing competitions, her future shining as brightly as her day-to-day accomplishments.

Hayes is now 18 years old, having graduated high school in May of this year. She is in the process of stepping from one stage to the next — from kid to adult, high school to college, youth champion to professional climber. Like many people in a transition period, she is frequently asked about what is next. Wise beyond her years, Hayes resists offering an easy answer.

“It’s less like breaking surface tension and more like jumping into the ocean,” she says. “You are continuously pushing through the density of the water because it is one thing to motivate you to jump in, to make you believe in yourself, but it’s another to keep going. It’s continuous, like stepping stones, because the first ones lead to the next ones.”

With such talent, it is tempting to posit some goal or crowning accomplishment destination, to mark the destination with an x on a map. As an idea though, success is not built on an ultimate achievement, but rather on the movement of succession that comes from the Latin word succedere meaning to come close after. It’s in admitting to the illusion of completion that true genius lives.

Hayes has a strong sense of where she is going and of the values that will guide her along the way, like hard work and sportsmanship to name a few. But she has a firm patience in letting her future reveal itself as time passes. In the meantime, she sets incremental goals to guide her passion for the sport she pursues with an admirable commitment and work ethic.

 Margo Hayes has sent two 5.14c climbs this year. “Pure Imagination” in Red River Gorge, Kentucky (pictured left) and “The Crew” in Rifle, Colorado. John Sprouse
Margo Hayes has sent two 5.14c climbs this year. “Pure Imagination” in Red River Gorge, Kentucky (pictured left) and “The Crew” in Rifle, Colorado.

Just about a year ago Hayes decided that she wanted to start climbing outside more and to tackle more difficult routes with higher ratings. Within months she sent some impressive routes on the limestone walls in Rifle, Colorado, a climbing destination rarely visited by the then 17 year old. In one day she redpointed two 5.14a climbs and the next weekend she sent “Waka Flocka,” a 5.14b, on her fifth try and her first climb in the category.

Hayes says that she paused and took a moment to celebrate her accomplishments, but there was no apparent break in the action. As soon as she broke through one limit, she was on to the next.

In March of this year she travelled to Red River Gorge in Kentucky where she climbed her first 5.14c, “Pure Imagination,” a special route for Hayes, and for most women climbers for that matter.

“Sasha DiGiulian sent the route about four years ago, making her the first American woman to send 5.14d (the route has been downgraded since 2011),” Hayes says. “I had that poster on my wall for years, and I would look at it every day and think about how badly I wanted to do that route someday. It was a big goal for me and when it happened it was kind of mind blowing.”

The next day she did a slightly easier climb, “Omaha Beach,” a 5.14a in the Motherlode, an area that boasts the highest concentration of the steepest and longest routes at the Gorge and where most of the serious climbers spend their time. Hayes talks about the climb casually, making it sound easy as she describes the abundance of positive holds on the route that make it more of an endurance feat than a technical challenge.

“After ‘Pure Imagination,’ I needed a little bit of breathing time to recover both emotionally and physically,” she says. “I think after you succeed at something that you have been dreaming about for a long time there is kind of this release, and you kind of just need this time to wind down.”

The next time she went climbing outdoors was in France, a whole new scene without any huge expectations or goals. The time away helped her to realize just what she believes she is capable of, as once again she searches to discover her limits and figure out ways to break them.

She is off to a good start this summer, most recently climbing “The Crew” at Rifle Mountain Park, her second 5.14c. The route is a perfect example of just what makes Hayes such a talented climber. The climb starts off with a series of big power moves that play to her sheer strength and a big part of why she has won accolades as a preeminent boulderer. But after the first six or so moves, it opens up into a classic endurance route that Hayes says is a natural match for her body type and mind-set.

Hayes climbing indoors in preparation for Youth Worlds competition coming up this November in China. Courtesy of Margo Hayes
Hayes climbing indoors in preparation for Youth Worlds competition coming up this November in China.

With more and more successes on increasingly difficult routes, the questions about what’s next for Hayes are piling up.

“I keep the specific goals to myself,” she says. “But if I had to sum up the all around goal, I would say that it is to do things that seem impossible. That transition from what you imagine to be impossible to becoming possible is such an incredible feeling.

“I have always been a curious and determined individual who loves to learn, no matter whether it is academic or just something about the world, or something about climbing or something about myself. I am continually asking questions because the more I learn, the more there is to learn.”

Hayes is taking a year off before heading to college, extending the stage she now finds herself in, between her past history of extraordinary accomplishments and her potential. She doesn’t seem worried or stressed, just happy to be where she is. She’ll be climbing around Colorado and the U.S. this summer, then it’s off to the Youth World Climbing Competition in China in November and finally to France for some new experiences and new routes. In the midst of so much expectation, Hayes wisely excuses herself from the conversation to get back to the simple joys of climbing and of living.

“I don’t ever think of a climb as something I want to check off or ‘take down.’ I never get angry at a rock,” she says. “It almost sounds cheesy, but I try to become one with the wall and enjoy it and just appreciate that I have the ability and the strength to even be on the beautiful rock that is in front of me.”