Rock climber Margo Hayes is quickly becoming a phenom in her sport
La Rambla in Siurana, Spain, is a stunning natural wonder, an almost impossibly steep cliff that looks insurmountable. An unending slab of beige and gray, the edges of which can slice through the most calloused of fingers along the way.
With a grade of 5.15a on the Yosemite Decimal System, it is considered one of the most difficult sport climbs in the world, and had, until this past February, been conquered by only male climbers.
So right before Margo Hayes, 19, clipped her chains at the top to become the first woman to send (rock-climbing's term for successfully climbing a route) La Rambla, she was rocked by emotions. It was her 17th attempt at the climb over seven days, and the pain and effort was written all over her face. Later, it would also be written on her bloodied, chalked and calloused hands and in her fatigued back muscles.
In her previous attempts, she had fallen repeatedly at the top crux, the most difficult part of the route.
"I was feeling that joy, but it's important to not let it take over your body until you've finished, until that rope is in that anchor, and I can say, 'Take,'" said the Boulder, Colorado, native.
Which she did, clipping the chains with her right hand. And that's when her emotional dam burst.
"I started bawling my eyes out, which I didn't expect. When I've sent a climb before or achieved a big goal, sometimes I've cried, but it wasn't like this," she said. "I mean, I was just hit with this wall. I'll never forget that moment."
Fellow climber and friend Matty Hong, who had been belaying Hayes (anchoring her from the ground) during the climb, let her relish the moment, partly because he wanted to capture it.
"My heart was racing as she made the final moves on the route. It was pretty intense to belay! I knew I had to get my camera ready because it was such a big moment, so I made her wait up there a few seconds longer before lowering her," Hong, who sent La Rambla earlier, wrote in an email.
Hong and climber Jon Cardwell initially invited Hayes on a trip in Spain. Hayes had been studying French in Aix en Provence in the south of France, only a short plane ride away, but had been thinking about sending La Rambla for a year already.
When she did, Cardwell watched from the ground as Hayes made her crucial final moves when, he said, the psychological toll can often overwhelm the physical one.
"Margo, however, handled it very well and with a ton of confidence. I think this was her strongest asset, aside from being super fit: her ability to keep it together and stay focused," Cardwell wrote in an email.
The 5-foot-6 climber credits this mental toughness to her consistently positive outlook on life and her physical strength to a lifetime of being active. Her training, she said, largely depends on her environment. She actually wasn't training specifically for La Rambla before she sent it. Instead, she had been focused on the USA Climbing Bouldering Youth Nationals in Salt Lake City earlier in the month, where she placed first in dominant fashion.
While in France -- where she is studying to become fluent in the French language -- she takes advantage of local climbing gyms and outdoor spots introduced to her by mentor and climber Arnaud Petit.
When she's at home in Boulder, she balances time in a climbing gym with body-weight strength exercises and running 2 to 5 miles at a time for endurance. Taking an intuitive approach to her training needs extends to her diet: "I mostly live off of yams, avocados, salmon, bananas, carrots, quinoa and other fruits and veggies. My plate is always colorful," she said.
As a child, she trained as a gymnast and earned the nickname "Thumper" after the rabbit in "Bambi," for the boot she was constantly wearing from her injuries.
"I was a big daredevil and didn't have a lot of fear," she said. Hayes still visits her hometown gymnastics center, CATS Gym, to train on the trampoline, doing flips and getting in what she calls her "upside down" time to improve upon her aerial awareness.
When Hayes was 10 years old, a local coach recruited her into climbing; she fell in love with the sport, committing to it full time by age 13.
But climbing is also in her blood: her grandfather was a mountaineer. And her father, a recreational climber, would take Hayes and her sister out to local spots in Boulder, creating some of her earliest memories of the sport.
"He would set up a top rope, and we would top rope something really easy, like a 5.5 [grade]," she said.
Hayes has proved her deftness at both indoor and outdoor climbs, recently placing second at the USA Climbing Sport & Speed Open National Championships in Denver. Outside, she has now climbed more than 15 routes of grade 5.14a or harder.
But no matter the backdrop, Hayes goes into each challenge with a mindset that's partly cultivated by a regular meditation practice.
"I go in with a clean slate. Each competition, each climb is an individual thing, and I think you can learn from each. But one experience doesn't depend on the other," she said.
A self-described "quirky" person with a variety of interests, Hayes is also keeping busy with her latest endeavor: raising bees. She's in the process of getting her first beehive.
"After reading and watching a lot of documentaries on the disappearance of the bees and colony collapse disorder, I definitely want to do my part and try to help out in that," she said.
That is, when she isn't pushing the boundaries of young women in climbing. Though she'd prefer not to share the specifics of her next goals, she would love to compete in the Olympics someday. And she is quick to credit her recent successes to the support she feels from the entire climbing community.
"A big achievement isn't something you do alone. There's always support from the community, from friends, coaches," she said. "We build on what other people achieved in the past."
Although, it doesn't hurt to be the first to achieve it.