Why 10-year-old rock-climber Selah Schneiter isn't all that impressed with her record-breaking feat
Ten-year-old Selah Schneiter buried her head in her hands, gasping for breath. Her baby blue helmet sat slightly crooked atop her head. She was perched on a rock on the peak of El Capitan with a thick red rope tied around her waist. She grinned from ear to ear as tears poured down her face.
"Selah, are those your first happy tears?" her father, Mike, a climbing guide, asks her, recording the moment on video.
She nods. "I just can't believe I just did that!" she says.
Mike then sent a quick text to his wife, Joy, who had been waiting by her phone all day: "We made it."
On June 12, 2019, Selah became the youngest person to scale Yosemite National Park's El Capitan, ascending the mountain's toughest course, The Nose, with her father and his best friend, Mark Reiger, in five days. The mountain is 3,000 feet high -- higher than the tallest building on Earth.
She carried 20 pounds of gear, food and water -- equal to a third of her weight. She pitched and led portions of the climb. She slept on a portal ledge. And she ate packaged dinner for five straight days.
But the immediate emotion she felt on reaching the top was sadness.
"When I got to that last anchor, I was honestly sad because I realized that now it was over, you know," Selah said. "I didn't have any more climbing to do."
The Nose is a daunting climb -- a bucket list feat -- even for adult climbers with years of Big Wall (mountains that take several days to scale) experience. But Selah could not have been more at ease, smiling widely after each pitch and enjoying the immensity of the experience, while the adults worried about the next pitch, the gear that needed to be cleaned out and carried ahead, and the path that needed to be taken to finish the day's climb. Selah was an expert with the guidebook -- she had either memorized the course or would swiftly read out instructions from the book when required.
"It was actually really cool to be able to yell down to her and be like, 'Selah, do we go left up here?' And she'd be like, 'Yeah, after the third pole, you go left,'" Reiger said.
And there is a reason Selah was a natural on a mountain -- especially El Capitan. It was the same mountain her parents scaled for the first time 15 years ago, and the same mountain where her parents fell in love. It was where they had brought Selah since she was a baby.
"I felt a big sense of accomplishment because I had dreamt of this climb for years. Years," Selah said.
The first time Mike met Joy was during a camping trip at The Needles -- granite rock formations in California -- in 2004. Joy was 21 and had just spent all of her savings on an old Volkswagen van. She had emptied out the inside to create a living space for herself and driven from her house in Montana to California.
Joy needed a summer to discover herself, and Mike had just gone through a rough year. His one-year marriage had ended, and he needed to get away from life. Mike and Reiger had planned on climbing El Capitan the next week, and after spending a few hours together on the camping trip, Mike invited Joy despite Reiger's initial apprehension.
The weird thing about getting to know somebody while climbing a mountain as intense as El Capitan is that there's a sense of time warp, Joy recalls now.
"The norms of dating do not apply when you're under stress and facing some of the toughest challenges of your life," she said.
Mike and Joy talked about life, nature and what they wanted for their future. When they got to the top, Mike kissed her on the cheek, a move so innocent, Joy fell in love with him immediately. On the way back from the climb, she called her mom on a pay phone from Camp Six -- the spot at Yosemite where climbers congregated -- and told her, "I am going to marry Mike."
At the same time, Mike was having his own internal monologue. He hadn't come here looking for love, but Joy was checking off everything on his mental list of things he wanted in a partner: Loves nature, check. Enjoys mountain climbing and running, check. Down to earth, check. Funny and silly, check.
It was like they were made for each other. Mike loved climbing, living out of his backpack, not looking at his phone for days. He had been a track and field athlete at the University of Iowa and had loved the physical challenge of running, but climbing provided the perfect combination of physical and mental challenges that Mike enjoyed. For Joy, this was what she was used to. Her parents were climbers and campers from Montana, and she had spent her entire life in mountains and parks.
They got married at Zion National Park in Utah -- where they had gone climbing several times -- less than a year later. Reiger officiated the wedding, and in his speech, he spoke about how marriage and climbing are synonymous. You can't climb on your own; you need people you trust, you need to be able to tell people how you feel, you need to be there for each other.
Three years later, when Selah was just 2 months old, they took her on her first trip to see El Capitan. Mike and Joy couldn't go on long climbs together with a young baby, but they still climbed solo when they could, and Joy also would go on long runs. Fifteen months after Selah was born, Joy finished a 100-mile ultramarathon -- after breastfeeding Selah at mile 50.
As a kid, Selah would throw climbing jargon into conversations like a pro. She had seen pictures of her parents' first climb, had heard their story and now she wanted to add to that: In the winter of 2018, she told them she was ready to start training to climb El Capitan.
Joy was sure Selah would come back after her first day of training and tell her something like, "This was a huge mistake, I had no idea what I was thinking," and they could put the whole thing to rest. But instead, Selah came home with a big smile on her face. Pitching the rope, belaying and sliding up the mountain were exactly what she wanted to do.
So, when her parents saw how seriously she was taking her preparation -- Selah would go out with Mike to smaller mountains, perfect the skills, carry her gear, sleep on portal ledges -- they knew she was ready for the El Capitan climb.
"I've been climbing since I was 20. She's been climbing since she was basically 1. There's something subconsciously natural about her interaction with mountains," Reiger said.
Selah had seen El Capitan several times in her life, but when her father pulled into Yosemite National Park the morning of their climb, she felt a rush of emotions. She knew what she was getting herself into, but even as prepared as she was, it was probably going to be the toughest thing she had ever done in her life.
It was not Mike who had decided to climb The Nose. He had, in fact, suggested another course -- a lighter one -- but Selah's mind was set. If they were going to climb El Capitan, it had to be The Nose. It was iconic: Movies had been made about it, and books were written about it -- including "Climbing Free," which she had recently read.
The trio had packed 12 gallons (about 100 pounds) of water and food to last them a week. After a breakfast of oatmeal and granola, they set off, Selah with her guidebook and the adults helping pitch the rope. On average, they climbed 10 to 12 hours a day, watching the sun set and eating a dinner of mac and cheese one day, Bombay potatoes and Madras lentils the next. They checked in with Joy once a day, then switched off the phone after to save the battery. Joy had wanted to be a part of Selah's first El Capitan climb, but she was at home with the Schneiters' three other children, 7-year-old Zeke, 6-year-old Sunny and 17-month-old Salome. Joy's mother, who was the only one who could handle her kids, was out on a 60-mile cycling race and unable to babysit for the week.
While it is nowhere close to being the most dangerous climb, El Capitan is definitely a daring adventure and in even the past year has seen fatal accidents. But Selah and Mike felt well-prepared. They had practiced the entire skill set required for the climb for months on smaller mountains around their house in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Selah wasn't scared of the climb itself. There was only one thing she says she was scared of: not being able to finish the climb and get to the top because of reasons that were beyond her control -- like not having enough water or food.
Mike believed it would be unsafe for just the two of them to attempt the climb, but with Reiger, another skilled climber to help them, Mike felt that they had just the right number of people to help Selah when things got tricky. The men positioned themselves on either end of Selah, keeping a close eye when she transitioned away from an anchor to a rope and on the other end, when she climbed to an anchor from the rope.
Mike also made sure to strip away some of the risks involved in climbing, like lowering Selah out on his own for several pitches (a technique used to get from point A to B when the climber moves in pendulum motion in the void). This meant he was taking care of getting the hooks, the locks and the ties in place, instead of having Selah do it, thereby mitigating the errors that could be made.
"I might seem like a crazy dad, but I was there to watch her and help her with her every move and making sure she faces minimum risks during the climb," Mike said.
For Selah, the most challenging part was climbing down the mountain after scaling it. She had to lug her gear on her back, and her shoulders ached. She just wanted to get home. And once she was home, she immediately started talking about climbing more mountains.
The mountains at Zion National Park, where her parents got married, are on the agenda for later in this year. She also wants to do El Capitan again -- definitely once with her brother, Zeke.
But she cares very little about what people think of her accomplishment. "Why are people writing about me? What is so great about what I did? I just climbed a mountain!" she said to Joy when she started receiving phone calls from media. Climbing is a deeply personal thing for Selah -- not about records or accolades -- and she wants to keep it that way.
"I just like being away from the rest of the world. I like the skills; it's good to be active. I like it when you get to be in nature; that's really key for me," Selah said.