Legends: Angie Payne
Started climbing: in a Cincinnati gym in the mid 1990s, at age 11
Disciplines: Comp climbing and bouldering, outdoors and indoors
Résumé highlights: many ABS and PCA comp wins, third female ascent of Midnight Lightning (V8), first woman to climb a confirmed V13
When and where was your first road trip?
About two years after I moved to Colorado, I took a whole year off from school and worked for half a year and saved up money and just drove around the States. I went to all the bouldering areas I could, for a total of two or three months. I spent a lot of time in Hueco. We also hit Squamish, Joe’s Valley, and the Southeast. We went from one end of the country to the other in this crazy fashion that kind of corresponded with the ABS Nationals—there were three of them at the time each year—trying to get to these different Nationals and climb along the way. When I look at it now it was just a crazy amount of driving. I put so many miles on my truck on that trip. It was worth it, though.
Who were your first heroes?
Well, I would say Lynn Hill. In Ohio, I read the climbing magazines a little bit, not a ton, but I had a poster of Lynn on the back of my bedroom door [of Hill on the Changing Corners, during the FFA of the Nose.] I just thought it was a really cool poster, and I knew she had done something amazing, and that she was a woman and she wasn’t very big. I was pretty young at the time, like 11 or 12, and that was really inspirational for me. I didn’t know all the details, I just knew that she was a big deal and she was really strong and set the standard, and when I was 12 or 13 I just thought that was really amazing.
Then, as I started bouldering, I’d say Lisa Rands was the person I looked up to the most. I was about 16, and she was doing amazing things in bouldering at that time.
It’s funny, this cover shoot was really neat because Lynn was definitely one of my heroes, and I also remember meeting Tommy when I was pretty young. I came out to Boulder for these youth camps, and he picked me up at the airport for one of them. I’d heard about him and knew that he was a really amazing climber, and I remember he picked me up at the airport and I was like, oh, woah, this is cool. I was probably about 14.
Then when I went to Yosemite for the first time—just to boulder, which is funny, I know, but I went to Yosemite just to boulder—and he was there. I watched him just do laps on everything around Camp 4. And I remember him spotting me on Midnight Lightning. And it was pretty cool to have this shoot with those two because they were really iconic for me as I was coming up through my climbing, people I thought were, like, legends in the sport—I mean, they are.
What was the state of the art when you started climbing?
I was pretty wrapped up in bouldering. For my discipline at that point there were probably three main things that were happening. There was this real push for pure difficulty in bouldering. A lot of the new boulders were really beautiful, but a lot were really hard moves, you know, like four really hard moves in a row. So that was one thing. And people were starting to climb really high things. That wasn’t particularly what I was interested in, but it was really the cutting edge. It was really, really hard moves and not very many of them, or really, really tall boulders. And it was kind of like you would either go toward one or the other it seemed, perhaps?
And females were progressing through harder and harder boulder problems, and I wanted to be on the cutting edge of doing the hardest things that females were doing in bouldering. Lisa had set the standard, and I wanted to follow that. So that was what I gravitated toward more than anything. I was going for either the hardest thing I could do or the prettiest thing.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in climbing?
For me personally it’s the length that people are willing to go for bouldering. In general people will do a LOT to get to boulders now. Like before, people only hiked to climb some big route, but now they will hike just to develop a bouldering area, or go repeat boulder problems.
I think that’s proof that some people just boulder. I’m not sure that really existed 20 years ago. I know that a lot of people used to think that bouldering was just practice climbing. Now, in my generation, that is just a joke, because people know that it is what a lot of us do. Just boulder. I have obsessed about four moves for a really long time. Just four moves. Compared to El Cap, it’s very different.
The community of boulderers has grown up so much. It’s gained a lot more credibility and a lot more attention. Kind of like snowboarding did, and skateboarding. I would like to think it’s as cool as those things.
What’s better, what’s worse?
People have put a lot of time into developing areas, and there’s so much more to climb on. And the crash pads have gotten so much better, and there are more people to go climbing with. Technology has improved, and the motivation to develop bouldering has definitely increased.
But because bouldering has become more popular, there are a lot of people who care a lot about it. It’s easier to get distracted because people focus on the difficulty. It’s a lot easier to get sucked into climbing numbers.
What was your most surprising climbing experience?
I climbed a desert tower, Ancient Arts. I got close to the top, and it has this sidewalk that you have to cross and you have to end up on this weird formation. I got across the sidewalk part, and it started raining and storming. I had never been in that kind of situation. And it was surprising to me that so many people go through that, and they really enjoy that, I think. And I was just really terrified. It was a completely different world of climbing that I hadn’t really experienced before. And I felt like a complete wimp.
I can feel really tough when I hike to the boulders, and it’s cold out, and I’m trying my project and I split a tip and my finger bleeds. But here I felt like the wimpiest person in the whole world and I was just paralyzed. I was really surprised. I definitely had a complete meltdown when I had to cross back over that sidewalk in the rain and wind. I didn’t feel so tough at that point.
A big milestone will be when women start establishing really difficult boulder problems. It will be a big deal when a woman climbs V14, but it will be an even bigger deal when women are putting up V12s and V13s in new areas.
What do you think about climbing entering the Olympics?
It’s really exciting to think about. It would be bittersweet—more sweet than bitter, but I would have loved to see it happen when I was younger. Just because I really do enjoy competing, and that would have been a big goal for me.
But it would be very exciting just to be involved in any way, so I hope it would be a really good thing. I think it has a lot to do with what discipline makes it in, too. That would really have an effect on how the world perceives climbing. I have a personal bias, of course. I would love for it to be bouldering because I think you can put on an amazing show in a bouldering competition. But I don’t think that’s as likely. I have a feeling that they would probably be more attracted to speed climbing, something faster-paced.
What’s the biggest challenge climbing is facing?
I think the challenge is instilling that, I don’t really know what to call it, but those core ethics of the climbing community. There’s some common thread between all climbers, I feel, so passing that down to the younger generation, where it is more common to go bouldering and to grow up in the gym. I know the ethics have evolved a lot, but it’s about respecting the past and understanding the history. And things like respecting the areas we climb at, because growing up in the gym is very different from growing up in Yosemite.
There are a lot more kids like me now, just climbing in the gym all the time. And they don’t really have that exposure to climbing outside. So it’s becoming such a different sport in itself. And if climbing was in the Olympics, I feel that would be accentuated, and then you lose that connection with nature and respect for the rock.
I think that’s the biggest challenge, keeping that common thread through the whole community. It would be sad if it got really polarized and the Olympic-bid gym-climbing community went one way, and the outdoor climbing community went the other way.
If you could start climbing again now, instead of when you did start, would you?
I’m really glad I started when I did. I got really involved in competition climbing when I started, but it wasn’t as big and developed as it is now. I think I would have gotten a lot more focused on that than I am, and I probably wouldn’t have climbed outside as much as I did, and that’s a part of climbing that I really, really enjoy. I’m afraid if I started now I wouldn’t have as much exposure to that side of it. I would have missed out on a lot of really important things that have shaped my climbing.
Any advice for the next generation of climbers?
I think my advice for the younger generation would be to really remember what you love about climbing and not get too distracted by everything else. There’s just so much going on in the sport, and that’s great, that’s awesome, and I’m all for the growth of it, but I think it’s really important to the future generation that they don’t get burned out too young. That’s the biggest fear I have now when I see young climbers.
If there’s a young kid who’s going to revolutionize the sport someday, I would hate for them to be revolutionizing the sport and actually hating it. Or just doing it because they felt like they should. It’s scary to see these little kids—it’s really inspirational, but at the same time it makes me hope that they have people coaching them into a healthy perspective on it.
It comes back to the biggest challenge question. We have all this young potential, and kids are getting into it so young, but it kind of comes back to that lifelong love for the sport that so many climbers have. I hope that can get carried through, that whole mindset. I hope that the younger generation doesn’t lose sight of that just because climbing’s becoming more competitive and because it might get in the Olympics. I wouldn’t want it to turn into something where there’s these phenoms that do it for like six years and then they’re done.
That’s the beauty of climbing, that there are so many facets of it that you can push the limits for a long time. And even if you’re not pushing the limits it can be a lifelong sport. That’s hard to realize when you’re 11, but I hope people are trying to instill that in the youth, instead of just, “This could be an Olympic sport. You should go to the Olympics.” And that’s all. There’s a little bit more to climbing than that from what I’ve seen.