The queen of offwidth climbing

How Pamela Pack overcame physical hurdles to assume her reign

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With more than 50 female offwidth first ascents under her belt, Pamela Pack is known as the Queen of Offwidth climbing.
Taylor Froelich

Most forms of rock climbing are a lot like dancing — almost balletic in the delicate, precise, graceful moves involved. A beautiful waltz with the rock.

And then there’s offwidth climbing, which involves cracks too large for a fist and too small to accommodate the entire body. It’s like that pack of boys in junior high who would stand in a circle, jumping and screaming, skanking and moshing their way along to their favorite punk band. There is blood and there are bruises. It’s not pretty, and you’ve got to be a bit of a masochist to enjoy it.

But Pamela Pack, one of the most accomplished offwidth climbers, male or female, in the world, has always been a bit of a masochist. Whether it’s mapping and surveying the ocean floor off the coast of Alaska, putting her body through six hours of training a day, or making a name for herself in the brutal world of offwidth climbing, she is no stranger to pain.

Since 2008, Pack has sought North America’s most challenging inverted and vertical offwidth climbs. She has more than 50 female offwidth first ascents under her belt and in 2009 was the recipient of Climbing Magazine’s Golden Piton Award for establishing Gabriel 5.13c, a 65-foot inverted offwidth roof in Zion National Park.

Adv_image1Taylor Froelich

Pack is widely hailed as the Queen of Offwidth Climbing. But her reign almost never got a chance to begin.

After an injury sidelined her childhood gymnastics dreams, Pack discovered a different outlet for her physically masochistic tendencies through a 21-day Colorado Outward Bound course in the North San Juan range.

“It was also the first time I had been hiking in the mountains, used an ice-axe or even worn hiking boots,” she says. “It changed my life dramatically. I immediately fell in love with climbing, the mountains and living outdoors.”

Her introduction to the world of outdoor adventure led Pack on a whirlwind ride, sea kayaking in Mexico and along 500 miles of the Inside Passage of South East Alaska, as well as a three-month stint living in the Sierra Nevadas.

Pack tried everything from white water kayaking to windsurfing.

“But always returned to climbing,” she says.

However, after a particularly challenging winter of mixed climbing and bouldering, Pack couldn’t ignore the excruciating and troublesome signs of Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome (CECS).

“The more I trained, the more painful my forearms became,” she explains. “I started having noticeable difficulty with fine motor skills — it became harder to crimp and eventually I couldn’t even hold a pen. Finally, it got to a point where I needed help prying my hands off my ice-tools after a day ice-climbing in Ouray, Colorado.”

Surgery was the recommended course of action. And after consulting with four surgeons, Pam finally scheduled her appointment. But after considering the complications, she canceled the surgery the day before and decided it was time to give up climbing.

“I was devastated,” she says, “So, the next day I bought a mountain bike and decided to sell my climbing gear. But I just couldn’t sell my gear. I just could not stand the thought of not climbing anymore.”

But the dangers of climbing and the irreparable damage it caused to her body were too hard to ignore. And then she found a guidebook for Vedauwoo, Wyoming, and her life changed. In it were pictures of Craig Luebben and Bob Scarpelli, offwidth masters and revolutionaries. Their non-crimping style gave Pam pause for thought.

Adv_jevans-8445John Evans Photography

She set off for a week in the offwidth mecca of Vedauwoo where she learned the precise technique of offwidth climbing, because like the aforementioned skanking, as brutal and haphazard as it may appear, there is actually technique involved. And as Scarpelli describes, “the brutality of wide cracks, it disguises the craft … the brutality of it, the struggle of it, makes it seem like there’s no art to it, and there’s no craft to it, but if you think that, you’re on the wrong path.”

But Pack had found her path.

“It was more than an obsession — I felt like I discovered what I was born to do. I spent the entire summer in Vedauwoo learning the art of offwidth and never looked back,” she says. “I had always loved climbing, but I pursued offwidth with a passion I had never experienced before.”

Pack was quickly welcomed into the small offwidth community as she made a name for herself. And with her first ascent (FA) of Gabriel, Pack showed the world she was a force to be reckoned with, in all her 5-foot-3-inch, 110-pound glory. Ascending Gabriel required offwidth techniques that had not been invented yet, giving Pack “the possibility for unlimited creativity and experimentation.” There was no other route that required the full body inversion style of climbing within a squeeze chimney for which Gabriel is famous.

Pack accomplished this with a broken rib and pneumonia. But she was determined to make the ascent, having recently lost important mentors with the deaths of renowned climbers Craig Luebben and John Bachar.

“I wanted to get the FA for Luebben and Bachar in their memory. I cried when I clipped the anchor — it was a very emotional experience for me,” she explains, and it led her on a pilgrimage of sorts to repeat Luebben’s top 10 desert offwidths in honor of his memory and role in her life.

Now Pack hopes to pass on the gift of mentorship with her involvement with the HERA Foundation, an organization devoted to raising money and awareness for ovarian cancer. Their Climb4Life Boulder event on June 25 will be a full day of hiking, yoga and climbing with a silent auction and dinner to follow. The event will help HERA raise funds for Johns Hopkins University researchers studying ovarian cancer.

Pack is new to HERA, but thrilled to be a part of it this year, truly believing in founder Sean Patrick’s statement that “the skills women learn in climbing — problem solving, risk taking and confidence in their decision making — will enable them to climb all the mountains in their lives.”

And with her numerous setbacks of CECS, multiple ruptured discs, knocked out teeth, dislocated ribs, a torn ACL, a bite from a bat — to name a few injuries — stalkers, and the devastating loss of her mentors, Pam has demonstrated her ability to surmount the mountains in her life, continuing the forward pursuit of her passion, undeterred by hindrances threatening to stop her.

“And ultimately I just have such tremendous passion for wide crack climbing,” she says. “It’s the source of my finest moments — mentally, physically and emotionally.”

A passion she can thank her parents for.

“My parents have probably regretted sending me on that [Colorado Outward Bound] course ever since,” she says. “I’m not sure anyone’s parents want them to grow up to be a professional offwidth climber?”