Miranda Oakley: A League of Her Own

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Photo: Drew Smith

Photo: Drew Smith

August 5, 2016. Yosemite Valley, California. The thermometer pushes triple digits. The solar oven of El Capitan radiates sunshine while a small dot races up the Nose (VI 5.9 C2), passing Texas Flake, cruising the Boot, nailing the King Swing, and heading through the Gray Bands. Up a pitch, down the same pitch, then back up again, the soloist covers three times the vertical terrain a partnered climber would.

August 6, 2016. Fort Collins, Colorado. I scan Facebook. The glowing screen offers the typical scrollbait. Then, a post from George Oakley, the father of my college buddy Miranda Oakley: “I just found out that Miranda did a solo climb of El Cap in 21 hours, 50 minutes. This broke her old time of just under 27. Way to go, Miranda. I hope you don’t have to work today.”

For the past 27 years, Valley speed climbers have rope-soloed the Nose in a day, but no female had broken the 24-hour mark, despite attempts by veterans Jes Meiris, Josie McKee, and Chantel Astorga. Until Miranda.

On June 21, 1984, Miranda Negla Oakley was born to mother, Arjunia, a special ed teacher and Palestinian immigrant to the United States, and father, George, a music teacher and American. Living in Maryland, the couple had always engaged in social justice issues, and that didn’t stop with the arrival of their first child.

“Miranda went to her first anti-war rally before she could walk,” says Arjunia, who is now an American citizen. “And I took her with me to meetings of the Palestine Aid Society, [which provides] humanitarian aid for Palestinians.”

For middle and high school, Miranda attended a Quaker Friends School, where she learned the fundamental tenets of Quakerism: pacifism and compassion. Her parents wanted to instill strong values in Miranda. “If you can say that Quakers had a dogma, it would be, ‘Live simply so that others may simply live,’” Arjunia explains.

In 1999, Arjunia took Miranda and her younger brother to the Sportrock Climbing Center in Rockville. While he was unenthused, Miranda took to it immediately. She joined the Sportrock climbing team, and started working at the gym when she was 17 so she could afford the membership. She mostly bouldered and toproped, breaking into 5.10 and V3. Although she placed third in one comp, Miranda never got competitive. For her, climbing was “just for fun.”

Oakley on a casual lead of Indian Creek’s Polygrip (5.11+). Photo: Drew Smith

Oakley on a casual lead of Indian Creek’s Polygrip (5.11+). Photo: Drew Smith

Miranda left home in 2002 for St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where she and I met as two of the only climbers on campus. When she chose St. Mary’s, which was hours from the nearest decent rock, climbing was still a peripheral activity for her. Still, Miranda’s interest in the sport only grew, and she took weekend trips to nearby areas like Coopers Rock and Franklin in West Virginia, Annapolis Rocks and Carderock in Maryland, and Virginia’s Great Falls. Occasionally, she would scrounge up some friends for the eight-hour push to the New River Gorge.

She started a school-sanctioned climbing club, and shortly thereafter, studied abroad in Granada, Spain, pursuing an interest in the Moorish and Spanish culture in Andalucia. In Granada, Miranda blossomed as a climber, frequenting the numerous limestone crags surrounding the city. She began leading sport climbs, and sent her first 5.12 that same semester.

I have a distinct memory of Miranda, bent over a pot of rice next to a desolate gas station in Kansas, siphoning electricity to make a meager dinner for us on our way out west. It was May 2006, Miranda had just graduated (I still had another year), and we were beelining it from Maryland to Yosemite, where Miranda was hoping to land a job. After three years in school together, we were good friends and climbing partners.

“I had, like, $13 in my bank account,” Miranda recalls. “I had a crashpad, rope, draws, a harness, and some clothes. That was it. I had never even touched a cam.”

She found a job that first summer in the high country, washing dishes and cleaning bathrooms at the Tuolumne Lodge. In spite of the drudge work, Miranda was hooked on Yosemite. She came back again the next summer, and then again. In her third season, she started trad climbing. “I had the rare and talented ability to epic on almost anything,” she says of her early days.

She and her friend Mauricio Salmerón took 30 hours to climb the Red Dihedral (5.10) on her first trip to the Sierras’ Incredible Hulk in 2008. Having planned a casual car-to-car day, they instead climbed slower than expected, got lost on the descent, and left half their rack behind as they bailed down the wrong gully. On another occasion, on what is many climbers’ first long Valley route—Royal Arches (5.10b or 5.7 C1)—she was in a party of five, and they were rappelling until 2 a.m. Six years later, she would be guiding the 16-pitch route in cruiser half-day outings.

In the off-season, Miranda climbed in the Valley or Indian Creek, collecting unemployment to afford food and gas. Twice she travelled to China to work as a climbing guide in Yangshuo. She climbed as much as she could afford, stretching her funds until the start of the next season.

Oakley gazes at Spring Lake Wall in Sequoia National Park, California. Photo: Drew Smith

Oakley gazes at Spring Lake Wall in Sequoia National Park, California. Photo: Drew Smith

In 2010, I made my annual pilgrimage to Yosemite to visit Miranda. We had been climbing partners for seven years, but the gap between our skill levels had widened. When we took seven hours to climb the nine-pitch East Buttress of El Cap in the blazing summer sun, Miranda apologized for suggesting that we bring a single liter of water. “I had no idea it would take that long,” she said. We both knew it wasn’t her that had slowed us down.

A few days later, on the Rostrum, she cruised the notoriously hard 5.10 offwidth pitch. When I arrived at the belay, bloody and battered, she said, “Sorry. I thought this would be more fun.” After that, she encouraged me to try to onsight the Enduro Corner on Astroman, which she had sent months earlier. I made it about 20 feet before my hands started bleeding and I whipped. Miranda just didn’t seem to realize how good she was getting. Valley testpieces had turned into cakewalks for her.

The next year, she turned her attention to wall climbing. With various partners, she did El Cap’s Lurking Fear (VI 5.7 C2) and the West Face (V 5.7 C2) of Leaning Tower—the standard beginner aid climbs—and then the Nose of El Capitan, climbing it in three days. Then she climbed the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome (VI 5.9 C1) in a day, blazing up a route most parties take two days to complete.

Meanwhile, she was starting to send notable Yosemite cracks like Butterballs (5.11c), Crimson Cringe (5.12a), and Fish Crack (5.12b). By 2012, when Miranda left Tuolumne to work in the Valley as a backpacking guide, she was a crack aficionado, and among a small crowd of friends had built a reputation as one of the best “unknown” crack climbers around.

During the winter of 2012, Miranda made the trip to El Chalten, Patagonia, the next step for many Yosemite climbers wanting to climb remote alpine walls. After more than 24 hours of travel, she arrived to a perfect weather forecast. She hiked straight into the mountains with Josh McClure and John Rambo. The team established The Wormhole Theory, a 400-meter 5.11d on Aguja de l’S. “We made the big hike and climbed the approach pitches on my first day in Chalten, climbed our new route on day two, descended and hiked to Aguja Rafael Juárez on day three, and then climbed Anglo-Americana (400m 5.11b) the next day,” she explains. “I had really good luck with the weather.”

When she returned to Yosemite in spring of 2013, she did so as a climbing guide for the Yosemite Mountaineering School. She refocused her efforts on speed climbing, managing her first Nose in a day with McClure in 14 or 15 hours, eventually whittling the time down to 10.5 hours. She was still sending hard single-pitch routes, onsighting Ruby’s Cafe in Indian Creek for her first 5.13. (It has since been downgraded to 5.12d.) She swapped leads with McClure on Zion’s Moonlight Buttress (V 5.12+), freeing the entire route.

That winter, Miranda and I traveled to Cochamó, in Southern Chile, where we established Siete Venas, a 10-pitch 5.12 C1. We both came close to freeing the crux pitch before bad weather pushed us out. Miranda went back to guiding in the Valley the next summer and soon was linking the Nose and Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome in a day with McClure.

She returned to Cochamó the next winter with friend Tesia Jankowski, cleaning and bolting belays. Only Miranda freed the route (at 5.12b), but she insists, “Tesia did most of the work [of bolting and cleaning]. She deserves a large part of the credit.”

Oakley onsights Hydraulic Pump (5.12+) in Indian Creek. Photo: Austin Siadak

Oakley onsights Hydraulic Pump (5.12+) in Indian Creek. Photo: Austin Siadak

Jankowski recalls watching Miranda on the rock, calling her a climbing goddess. “It’s the only word that encompasses her inner and outer beauty, and climbing prowess. Watching her gracefully and confidently stride up the wall is an amazing experience,” Jankowski says. “She makes even her hardest sends look effortless.”

By summer 2016, Miranda had quietly established herself as one of the best female traditional free climbers around, after onsighting Tricks are for Kids (5.13) in Indian Creek and sending the 245-meter Blowhard (5.12+) on the Incredible Hulk. Her hardest sends have been either onsights or routes she’s done relatively quickly. Who knows what grade she might climb if she projected a route?

This winter, Miranda is planning a trip to the Middle East with fellow Yosemite climbing guide Lauren Levanovich. It’s a climbing trip primarily, but Miranda is also excited to get back to her mother’s roots. “Thanks to development in the West Bank and the opening of a new bouldering gym in Ramallah,” Miranda says, “a small climbing community has emerged in Palestine.” She and Levanovich hope to open new routes in the area, and teach climbing classes—specifically to women—to encourage the burgeoning community, and make sure women have a place in it.

When I described the trip as humanitarian, Miranda was dismissive, even apprehensive. “I feel weird taking credit for things I haven’t done yet,” she told me. “I’d like to get more into humanitarian work. But right now, it’s just an idea. It would be like spraying about freeing a route before you’ve actually done it.”

And you won’t see Miranda spraying about a route before she’s done it—or afterward for that matter. In an age of never-ending self-promotion, Miranda’s humility is refreshing. She’s an incredible climber, for sure, but it’s her character that sets her apart from the rest.