Heidi Wirtz and the balancing act of being a pro climber
SUMMER 2006: Heidi Wirtz scanned the south face of the Ogre’s Thumb, searching for unclimbed lines up the 3,000-foot granite wall above. She stood awestruck on Pakistan’s Biafo Glacier, surrounded by the wild peaks of the Karakoram, imagining each pitch …till a scream shattered the stillness.
It was Lizzy Scully, her close friend and climbing partner. Wirtz ran back to find Scully sprawled face down beneath her 70-pound pack, blood from facial cuts staining the glacier crimson. Scully had slipped off a small ice tower, breaking a rib. She could walk, but couldn’t climb, and while Scully recovered in basecamp over the next week, five splitter days slipped by. Over the following six weeks, the pair managed two solid new-route attempts, both unsuccessful. With 10 days left and a terrible weather forecast, Abbas, their cook, invited the women to his village nearby. They accepted.
“Heidi Almighty,” 38, a professional climber since 2002 (her sponsors include The North Face, La Sportiva, Petzl, Julbo, Clif Bar, Pacific Outdoor, and Adventure Medical), has a reputation for strength, talent, and bull-headedness on all terrain: rock, ice, and alpine. It’s been said that Wirtz can onsight 5.11 anywhere. “She can pull on gear, free-climb hard, throw in ice tools,” the late Micah Dash once explained. “She can climb up whatever terrain is in front of her, no matter what skills it requires. She always takes her leads and gets ‘em done.”
Having cut her teeth in the trad bastion of the Gunnison Valley, Colorado, Wirtz is not your typical 5-whatever rock jock. In fact, she’s never climbed 5.13. But she’s undeniably hardcore: when Wirtz first moved from California to Colorado, she lived in a tent outside Crested Butte (elevation 8,885 feet) — for three years. “I remember being cold sometimes, like when it was -30 F,” she says, “but I never got frostbite or anything.”
In her 19 years climbing, Wirtz has established new routes in Patagonia, Jordan, Morocco, and Siberia, as well as numerous first ascents in Wyoming and Colorado (see the “Heidi Almighty Ticklist,” p.60). She and Vera Schulte-Pelkum hold the female speed records on three iconic Yosemite walls: the Nose, Half Dome, and Leaning Tower, all established in just one week in June, 2004. (Wirtz, however, says she’s “not proud of that” because her goal that summer was to link Half Dome and El Cap in a day. And Wirtz felt they could have climbed “way faster” than they did.) Today, Wirtz is perhaps the only pro female climber who uses climbing as a vehicle for philanthropy, educating girls in Pakistan, Nepal, and Liberia.
This last achievement was an outgrowth of Wirtz and Scully’s visit to their cook’s village, Khane, in 2006. Children queued up to hold the Americans’ hands, and the village mothers threw them dinner parties every night. They toured the government-funded boys’ school, a clean, whitewashed structure surrounded by a concrete wall and an extensive garden. But the girls’ school was a different story. Half the size of the boys’ school (but with as many students), the ramshackle, disintegrating hovel provided little shelter, and the yard had become an open-air outhouse. Built with short-term funding from the World Bank, the school was no longer maintained. Worse, the Pakistani government wouldn’t hire a teacher, so the village paid a paltry sum to a teenager who functioned mostly as a babysitter. The climbers felt they had to do something. “It just seemed like a no-brainer,” says Wirtz.
Back in Colorado, Wirtz and Scully wasted no time creating Girls Education International (GEI; girlsed.org). Scully formed a website and sought help from the Mountain Fund, while Wirtz helped write business plans and raise money by “doing the kind of stuff I know how to do” — like throwing dance parties, attending trade shows, and talking it up.
The organization grew slowly at first, but in 2008, Wirtz was one of five semi-finalists for the Inspiring Soles Award, which honors athletes who raise awareness for meaningful causes. Nominated for GEI, as well as her regular volunteer work for HERA Climb4Life events, the Khumbu Climbing School, and the dZi Foundation, Wirtz received $5,000, which she put toward GEI’s Liberia Scholarship Program. The award will provide $71 per year for 47 girls, covering their school fees through spring 2010.
Wirtz grew up in South Land Park, California, a Sacramento suburb, the third of four children. Her parents divorced when she was six, after which she ricocheted between mom’s house and dad’s. She quickly adopted a fierce, albeit curious, independent streak, filling the family void by developing intense relationships with peers, some older, who would party, dance, and drink. “I was a total punk, you know? I can’t imagine raising me,” she admits.
Wirtz’s nickname, “Heidi Almighty,” originated from her bold climbing style, but it could just as easily have stemmed from her unfettered willingness to shift life direction. Take her college stint at Humboldt State University in northern California: she quit in 1990, after a year and a quarter, to surf — her fi rst passion — and to follow the Grateful Dead. Then in December 1990, a friend dragged her to Crested Butte for a weekend. As Wirtz bicycled the vacant streets, the bike’s knobby tires split a track through fresh snow and she thought, This is where I need to be. A month later she pitched a tent in the back-town woods, and stayed for the next three years. As Meg Noffsinger, one of Wirtz’ closest friends, puts it, “Some people are too scared to follow their passion; Heidi embraces it.”
In winter, Wirtz would rise early for her job as a baker at the Crested Butte ski area, emerging from an enormous nest of down blankets and thrift-store garb. She also managed the Marriott Hotel’s banquet and restaurant, saving up money so she could play the rest of the year. She lived on less than $7,000 per year (“and only surpassed that recently,” she says). Wirtz later “upgraded” to a hallway-closet “apartment” that she shared with her boyfriend in a house with 20 roommates, several of whom resided in the laundry room and sauna.
By 1993, Heidi had scrambled in the California Sierra, and toproped some in her sneakers, but it wasn’t until friends took her ice climbing near Gunnison that she really got hooked. “Ice climbing takes you to the most amazing places,” she explains. For the next two years, Wirtz climbed every chance she had. She racked up mega vertical mileage — some rock but mostly ice — after which she embarked upon one of her favorite early climbing trips, cooked up with her then-boyfriend Lou Bartell: the “Ultimate Week” of Colorado ice. They began with Vail’s classic pillars Rigid Designator (WI5) and The Fang (WI6); drove to Ouray and swapped leads on the 1,000-foot Birdbrain Boulevard (WI6 M6); hit up the Telluride area multi-pitch testpieces Bridalveil Falls (WI5+) and Ames Ice Hose (WI5/6 M6); and finished with a few classics in Rocky Mountain National Park. After her intro years on ice, Heidi “got smarter” and gravitated toward the stone.
One day in Crested Butte’s Taylor Canyon, Heidi tied in to lead her first offwidth, a 5.9 gaper whose name she can’t recall. She slid in a hex, and then bear-hugged up one side of the fissure. Her five-foot, four-inch frame (and negative-two ape index) didn’t offer enough reach to place gear, so she kept climbing. The crack spit her off, sending her for a sliding, sideways, 30-footer that stopped just short of the ground as the hex skated a few inches and finally caught. Local tradster Joe Melley poked around the corner and surveyed Heidi’s bruised, bleeding side. “You’re not supposed to fall,” he deadpanned, himself limping from a sprained ankle recently incurred in a trad fall. The two became regular partners and soon after started dating.
And so began Wirtz’s tutelage under Melley and his band of nails-hard trad men (who Wirtz dubbed the “Old Dads”). Wirtz’s old-school apprenticeship rendered her a product of an earlier era, more a Catherine Freer than an Emily Harrington. Crested Butte local Les Choy (aka “Mr. Standards”) wouldn’t let Wirtz hang, even on toprope, and Melley prescribed that she follow 100 pitches at each grade before leading it. Heidi eagerly racked up these miles in the Black Canyon, Taylor Canyon, and Indian Creek (where she used to live for months), and on road trips to places like Red Rock, Zion, and Yosemite Valley. For five years, she plowed deliberately through the Yosemite Decimal System until she could lead 5.11 trad, onsight — anytime, anywhere.
November 1994: Yosemite Valley’s cafeteria, packed with dozens of traddies and wall-rats, reeked of damp polypropylene and bad coffee. Snowflakes spun from the sky, barely visible through the steamed-up windows. All chitchat on this cold morning revolved around the two climbers stuck nine pitches up El Cap’s Lurking Fear. Here, Wirtz shared a tiny ledge with Chris Purnell, shivering inside a 20-year-old sleeping bag that didn’t zip. This was her first wall on her very first climbing trip outside of Colorado. From the cafeteria, Scully, then a wide-eyed trad rookie, wondered, “Who is this chick? She’s a badass! I’ve got to meet her.” Three days later, Heidi walked into The Caff through the “Exit Only” door and sat near Scully.
“That was a wild time up there, eh?” offered Scully. Wirtz smiled, and her blue eyes lit up. “D’ya want to go to J-Tree?” she asked. The pair hit the road for three months, trad climbing all over the Southwest.
“Heidi would wake up at 6 a.m., go running, do yoga, then make tea,” says Scully. “Then she’d wake me up, and be like, ‘C’mon Lizzy, let’s go, let’s go!’ And then we’d climb 5.11 all day.” Mostly Wirtz took the sharp end — Scully was then leading 5.10 — and was, Scully recalls, “so tiny, so strong, and so obsessed.”
This initial trip formed a strong— if volatile — partnership that would take the two to India, Canada, all over the States, and then to Pakistan. For the last six years, despite her vagabond lifestyle, Wirtz has based out of Boulder, Colorado, where Scully also resides.
Wirtz today lives in a one-story ranch house in east Boulder’s farmland. She shares the house with two roommates, including her boyfriend, Patrick Megeath, 23. He’s a routesetter at the Boulder Rock Club by day and “DJ Dirt Monkey” by night, spinning for clubs and events in Boulder. Megeath and Wirtz climb together often, but his real passion lies in music — and in Heidi. She attends most of Patrick’s gigs, and is usually first on the dance fl oor. She’ll bend deep at the waist with every techno pulse, arms swinging, pounding wildly, smiling perpetually. Her movements are quick, sweeping, and so energetic that she must appreciate dance, on some level, as a workout.
Heidi’s talent and insatiable drive are counterbalanced by equal parts whimsy and ambivalence. Her motivation is sometimes shaky, and her habit of being psyched in the morning but indifferent at the crag is well known among her regular partners. The filmmaker Pete Mortimer, who has shot with Wirtz on several occasions, observes that rather than climb, “She might be just as happy hiking around, stretching, or writing in her journal.” Longtime climbing partner Topher Donahue theorizes that this is precisely why Heidi excels at long routes — that once she gets off the ground, she’s focused until the top, eliminating her need to “retool her psyche every 45 minutes.”
Perhaps the high point of Wirtz’s partnership with Scully came in August 2002, when the women used a $1,000 Mountain Hardwear grant to realize their dream of a first ascent in Canada’s Bugaboos. Considering the limited depth of their research, this was an unlikely coup. At the trailhead, the girls couldn’t tell the Hound’s Tooth from Snowpatch Spire, and they’d never even heard of the 2,000-foot granite incisor called the South Howser Tower Minaret.
Six grueling hours from the car, with one pair of crampons and no ice axes, Wirtz and Scully staggered over the loose, icy Bugaboo Snowpatch Col. They aimed for the Howser Massif, where Half Dome and El Cap-sized walls lurk on the Bugs’ “back side.” The duo wandered across the horizontal Vowell Glacier in a swirling whiteout, unable to discern snow from cloud. By sheer luck, they ran into Marc Piché, author of the Bugaboos climbing guide. As they huddled in the mist, Piché scribbled a topo of the South Howser Tower Minaret and its four existing aid lines. “You gals have to do the Minaret,” he said. “Nobody’s freed it.”
The following day, Wirtz glassed the Minaret’s contours, sketching climbable features. She fleshed out Piché’s drawing, adding pitch-by-pitch detail. The next two days were what Lizzy calls, “some of the best climbing days of our lives.”
Early the next morning, the women cruised the first low-angle cracks of the Minaret’s west side. Pitch four presented a runout 5.10+ face traverse between climbable cracks. On pitch seven, Wirtz’s scarred, tanned legs pressed against one chimney wall, her back braced against the other. Between her legs, the snowfield at the Minaret’s base appeared flat and distorted; the boulders and talus lay tiny and surreal, like grains of sand almost 2,000 feet below. Above, stacked, fang-like blocks guarded a roof that looked “super gnarly.” Wirtz breathed — cold, alpine air, with an odor distinctly granite — then shimmied, legs aquiver. Her blue eyes turned upward. She flashed a toothy smile and, finding her roots, committed to the unknown.
Wirtz fired the 5.11 offwidth through a roof — one of the route’s most memorable pitches. On pitch 11, a long, smooth, 5.11 dihedral brought them to a small ledge below a roof-capped corner at sunset. They’d circumnavigated half the Minaret, threading a free path through several plumb-line aid routes. Wirtz and Scully shared a bivy sack that only reached their waists and shivered until dawn, waking up groggy beneath the crux, twelfth pitch.
When Wirtz went to relieve herself, her harness’ leg loops, somehow unattached, slid off the ledge, leaving her with just a swami. With what looked like half a dozen pitches to go, the women continued their climb.
Wirtz placed a green Alien beneath the roof and then launched into the crux, fighting for every awkward jam, grit falling in her eyes. Above, the fissure tapered to a smooth, flared seam in a blank wall. She finessed and fought her way over the roof and up the face, eventually flopping onto a sloping ledge, at the end of her strength — and rope.
Two-hundred feet long, this 5.12a pitch had been her most demanding onsight. “I was barely hanging on,” Wirtz recounts. “I was coming out the roof and it turned into a flared butt crack. I couldn’t get a hand jam or anything — it was ridiculous.”
At 2 p.m. on their second day, the women summitted, having followed Heidi’s hypothetical topo exactly. Wirtz tore off her helmet, exclaiming, “God, my hair is so knotted!” Equally appalled with her own mop, Lizzy squealed, “Eeeeww, mine is so gross!” The first free route on the Minaret had an instant name: Bad Hair Day (V 5.12-, 18 pitches).
By 2000, Wirtz was well known for her boldness, speed, and willingness to climb anything, but she still had worn-out rock shoes and ratty crampons. She despised publicity, but needed gear. “It pretty much came down to that,” says Heidi.
One day Donahue, an outdoor photographer, offered her climbing shoes in exchange for a photo shoot. Later that year, he asked Wirtz along on an Alaska trip sponsored by The North Face. The trip didn’t materialize, but TNF kept her résumé, and a close eye on her climbing. In 2002, Wirtz was one of three women featured in a Rock and Ice article Scully penned, and that same year she appeared in Peter Mortimer’s film Front Range Freaks. Wirtz attended her first Outdoor Retailer trade show, where Black Diamond, TNF, and La Sportiva all signed her immediately. She found herself in catalogs and magazines. She was recognized at the cliff. Climbing trips were funded. She was miserable.
“I was just so worried what everybody was thinking — like, really worried. I didn’t want to climb in front of anyone,” she admits. Sponsorships were her Annie Oakley to unlimited world travel, but inside she suffered crushing self-doubt. As Donahue qualifies it, “She got more focused [on climbing], almost as a job description, rather than her desire.” She struggled with setting goals, while letting go of expectations. “Heidi wants to be a better climber,” her friend Madaleine Sorkin explains, “but she doesn’t want to take it too seriously.”
Conspicuously absent from Heidi’s résumé are 5.13s. Although she’s sent sport routes up to 5.12d, she considers her hardest redpoint to be Eldorado Canyon’s technical and spicy Evictor (5.12c R), which required two or three days of attempts. On one attempt, 10 feet above a No. 4 RP, Heidi dynoed from two crimps to the finishing jug — and missed. A magnificent scream escaped her lips as she whipped 30 feet, halfway down the route. She laughed and went after it again.
Another memorable send was an elegant, 100-foot 5.12+ trad seam in Rocky Mountain National Park called The Wasp, on which she’s featured in Front Range Freaks. “I’d never seen a chick placing small gear, screaming, taking big whippers, and coming back for more at five o’clock the next morning,” recalls Mortimer, calling Heidi “the most vocal climber I’ve ever worked with.” He’s even dubbed in her breathing and screams when footage of other climbers needed a boost.
Watching the movie, it’s obvious that Wirtz at the time lacked the panache of a seasoned sport climber. Her feet scratch around until they stick; she muscles through delicate cruxes; she scans for handholds as if onsighting — on day two. And though Wirtz clung to her old-school, ground-up ethics as if they were The Wasp’s crux crimpers, Donahue eventually convinced her to wire the route on toprope. On her third day, she sent.
In areas like her backyard crag of Eldorado Canyon, Wirtz specializes in the technical, hard-to-read, trad 5.11s, routes that require the finger strength of a sport climber, a first-ascensionist’s eye for route finding, the gear-finagling skills of an aid climber, and the mindset of a soloist. Meanwhile, Donahue and Wirtz have established several new routes together — Wirtz-Donahue (5.11+), Sharp at Both Ends (5.11+) — in trad areas like Colorado’s Black Canyon and Rocky Mountain National Park. Says Donahue, “She can truly onsight 5.11 where no one has been before. I don’t know many men or women who can do that.”
In the last two years, Wirtz seems to have found peace with her pro status, but even if she weren’t paid for it, she would climb with equal gusto. Her longtime friend and climbing partner Mike Schlauch compares her to the late Charlie Fowler: “He’d climb every day, it didn’t matter what. Whether across the world or at the local crag, it ain’t easy to get up and get after it every day,” Schlauch told me. Wirtz still battles herself when she decides, last-minute, to do something other than climb. But rarely a week goes by when she doesn’t tie in at least four or five days.
Today, Wirtz spends about 20 hours per week on nonprofit work. GEI continues to grow (it raised more than $18,000 in 2009), and has half a dozen volunteers searching for new ways to aid needy areas. But political turmoil, corruption, and inaccessibility have prevented any real work in Khane, the village that first inspired her.
“It’s been super-frustrating,” says Wirtz, but there is hope. GEI recently partnered with the Pakistan-based women’s rights organization Bedari, which designed a scholarship program for girls, to be implemented in Laphi, a village of 3,500 in the northern mountains of the Punjab region. This is a huge step for GEI — and for Heidi personally. Scully, friends with Wirtz now for 14 years, says the GEI work has let Wirtz start to “value herself more.”
Meanwhile, Wirtz is still climbing and traveling with The North Face climbing team. She was most recently in the Czech Republic, and her plans for 2010 include all-female ascents in Yosemite, overseas trips (to “undisclosed destinations”). When home, she’ll climb in Eldorado at least once a week, the Black Canyon in the spring (where she has an eye on new routes), and Rocky Mountain National Park (for alpine trad) in the summer.
Near the end of my interviews, Wirtz and I spend a day ice climbing above the snow-covered Camp Bird Road, with a down-valley view toward the bustling Ouray Ice Park. Heidi kicks a vertical ice pillar with her left crampon, her right foot stemmed onto a rock ledge. From the 200 feet below, Steve House and his clients watch. Wirtz talks to herself during the whole lead, provoking Colorado Ice guidebook author Jack Roberts, one route over, to ask (with a chuckle) what she’s saying.
Wirtz finagles a stem rest beneath a rocky roof traverse on Tourist Trap (WI5 M6), then calms her mind, pre-crux. I can tell, because she’s finally quiet. Then, without warning, she pulls her Almighty thing — hooking and torquing rightward through two bodylengths of exposed, slightly overhanging rock and ice. When I reach the belay, I am sweaty and out of breath. Heidi’s eyes brighten and she cracks a warm, happy smile. You can see that she doesn’t want to be anywhere else.
Senior Contributing Editor Chris Weidner has enjoyed all genres of climbing for over 20 years, but Almighty status has thus far eluded him.
The Heidi Almighty Ticklist
•Bad Hair Day (V 5.12-), Bugaboos, Canada; FA with Lizzy Scully
•Qui Lombo (IV 5.11+ A1), Aguja San Rafael, Patagonia; FA with Zack Smith
•Pufigu (IV 5.11 A1), Kupol, Siberia; FA with Roxanna Brock
•North Face (IV AI4 M3), Hapless Peak, Alaska
•Losar (VI WI5 2300 feet), Khumbu region, Nepal
•Bird Brain Boulevard (IV WI6 M5), Ouray, Colorado; Heidi led every pitch over two ascents in two different years
•Off the Road (IV WI6-), British Columbia, Canada
•Bridalveil Falls (IV WI5+/6), Telluride, Colorado
•Stettner’s Ledges (III 5.8, winter ascent), Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado; with Vince Anderson
•The Nose, El Capitan, Yosemite Valley, California; women’s speed record (12 hours 15 minutes), with Vera Schulte-Pelkum, 2004
•Regular Northwest Face, Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, California; women’s speed record (5 hours 19 minutes), with Schulte-Pelkum , 2004
•West Face Leaning Tower, Yosemite Valley, California; women’s speed record (5 hours 15 minutes), with Schulte-Pelkum, 2004
•Dar al’Salaam (V 5.13a), Wadi Rum, Jordan; FA with Chris Kalous, Aaron Black, Ben Firth
•Colorado Welcome Party (IV 5.11+R), onsight, Black Canyon, Colorado
•The Evictor (5.12c R), Eldorado Canyon, Colorado
•The Wasp (5.12+), Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
•Fish Crack (5.12b), onsight, Yosemite Valley, California
•Positron (E5 6a), onsight, Gogarth, North Wales
•Sentry Box (5.12a), onsight, Squamish, Canada