The Life of Rob Pizem: Full-Time Job, Family, and First Ascents

With a full-time job and young kids, the intrepid and always-psyched Rob Pizem is an unlikely hero in the world of professional climbing.
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Julie Ellison
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With a full-time job and young kids, the intrepid and always-psyched Rob Pizem is an unlikely hero in the world of professional climbing.

This story originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of our print edition. 

Rob Pizem Rock Climbing Zion National Park

With the entrance to the popular narrows hike nearby, Piz’ newest route in zion guarantees a lot of spectators. Photo: Julie Ellison

We cross the Utah border, flying 80 mph down I-70, and 39-year-old Rob Pizem thrusts his arm out the window to give a few emphatic fist pumps. We’re driving 400 miles to Zion National Park, where we’ll climb for just a few hours on his most recent project, Purdy Power, at the Temple of Sinawava. Despite 85° temps and sun blasting the route, a deterrent for most conditions-obsessed climbers, Pizem is giddy and bouncing around like an energetic dog waiting at the door to go for a walk. Which I suppose is fitting, this being his only weekend to climb outside this month.

On paper, Rob Pizem, or “Piz,” is just another weekend warrior. He’s married with two young boys. He clocks 40-plus hours a week as a high school science teacher. He has a house and bills to pay. He trains two mornings a week at the gym and gets one weekend a month to climb outside. Like many families with young kids, he and his wife, Jane, have a meticulously structured schedule, with every weekend planned out six months in advance, including a weekly routine of who gets up to take care of the boys while the other trains for his or her respective sport. (Jane is a competitive runner; she qualified for next year’s Boston Marathon and regularly finishes in the top five of her races.) But the difference is that instead of lapping 5.10 sport routes at the local crag on his “one weekend,” he’s pioneering new 5.13 routes on the towering big walls of the desert Southwest.

Piz packs climbing and camping gear into his small, fuel-efficient car while his 2-year-old son, Orson, climbs around on the inside, and Rowan, 4, stumbles around groggily after waking up from a nap. Jane looks on quietly, and it becomes clear that Daddy leaving to go climb is a standard, if somewhat doleful, protocol for this family of four.

“OK, I have to go now,” Piz says to the kids.

“Nooo!” Rowan wails, while Orson finds the car horn and gives it a good honk. Immediately Rowan forgets his tears and honks the horn too, this cool big-boy toy trumping any sadness he might feel over Daddy leaving. Piz gives them all a quick kiss goodbye, and we zip out of the driveway, leaving before anyone can say boo.

Rob Pizem Rock Climber Profile

Piz comforts Rowan, 4, before leaving to climb for his monthly weekend outside.

“I know my boys are bummed when I leave; I’m bummed as well,” he says, “but when I’m on the rock, I want to be climbing. When I’m playing with my boys in the yard or taking them for a hike, that’s what I want to be doing too,” he says. While traveling to climb might seem exciting and glamorous, the time apart can be hard on both him and his family, so Piz focuses on being present and in the moment whether he’s climbing or at home. Instead of suffering from the fear of missing out, he makes it a goal to enjoy each moment exactly as it is, whether he’s dangling 900 feet off the ground or building a fort with his sons. “[Jane] knew what she signed up for and that I wasn’t going to stop climbing,” Piz says of his wife and their unique situation, but family has softened him a bit. “My goal is always to be a good father and husband,” he says, “and there have been multiple routes I’ve had to walk away from in order to do that.”

When Piz was 18, he and his older brother were introduced to climbing by a family friend near their home in Cleveland. He was immediately hooked, and after a childhood spent backpacking, skiing, and mountain biking in the woods, Piz phased everything out to make more room for climbing. In 1995 he moved to Golden, Colorado, to attend college at the Colorado School of Mines and, of course, climb. Without any local partners, he bought his roommate a pair of shoes and a harness on clearance, boldly declaring, “You’re going to belay me.” After going out to nearby crags, he began to meet people who wanted to climb, and every time he went out, his goal was to surround himself with better climbers and to learn everything he could from everyone he climbed with. “It’s gonna sound harsh, but when I ran my course with a particular partner, I moved on to the next person who was going to help me progress,” he says. “My goal has always been just to see what I could do.”

Eventually he moved into his truck (which he only recently traded in for the more family-friendly Hyundai Elantra), spending whole climbing seasons in the Front Range, Vedauwoo, Indian Creek, Moab, and Yosemite. “Use it up and throw it out,” he says of moving on once he climbed everything he wanted to in a particular area. Eventually, he landed on Colorado’s Western Slope because of the nearby new-routing potential, seeing it as an open palette that would develop his vision for new lines.

Rob Pizem Rock Climbing Zion National Park

Pants off! Rob Pizem crosses the virgin river to get to his project in zion. Photo: Julie Ellison

“I don’t want to get stopped by a slab move. I don’t want to get stopped by an offwidth. I don’t want to get stopped by a crimp or a pocket or an overhang, so I spent a lot of time in my life focusing on different aspects and rock types. It’s been pretty systematic,” he says. “For me, all of it has been a progression to take me where I want to go.”

Where he wants to go these days requires an equally systematic approach. Daily routines are a fair trade of training and family time so that both he and Jane can pursue individual athletic goals. They take turns getting up early with the kids; when Jane wants to run in the mornings, Rob gets the boys ready for the day, and when Rob heads off to the gym, Jane steps up. “She wants to be training too, and like any parent that wants to pursue their own passions, it’s always just a matter of how do we fit it in?” he says. For bigger weekend objectives, Piz, with his “Type A, sometimes Type Asshole, personality” says it’s all about solid planning. Recently, a friend of his had twins and complained of not having enough time to get out. Piz asked him, “Well, what did you plan for next month?” When his friend answered with nothing, Piz said, “Put it on the calendar! Get your partner, get that weekend, get that day, and your wife is gonna be cool with it.”

Rob Pizem Rock Climbing Zion National Park

Chimneys are one of the many styles Pizem has mastered in order to put up wild new routes. Photo: Julie Ellison

“Oh, he’s doing that a bit differently. He’s totally gonna do it. Oh my gosh, he’s doing it! Damn, he fell! But what cool beta! I’ve never even thought about doing it that way!” Piz declares excitedly as he watches his climbing partner’s move-by-move sequence on the 5.13+ crux of Purdy Power. We’re at the anchor above, and I’m not sure if he’s talking to me or just thinking out loud, consumed by watching someone else perform the beta-intensive moves on this pitch. Regardless, it’s entertaining, and his energy and excitement are infectious. Soon we are both screaming our heads off for Alton, my boyfriend and Piz’s climbing partner for the day, as he emits the guttural grunts that come from trying your hardest.

Piz’s chosen discipline in climbing is not as simple or time-effective as repeating hard sport lines or projecting double-digit boulders—stuff that seems better suited to tight time frames—but establishing new routes is really all he cares about.

“Sending something in two tries doesn’t interest me, whether it’s 5.10 or 5.13,” he says with a shrug. There was a time when he trained and ticked 5.14 sport routes “just to go ahead and do it,” but by the time he had sent a few of those, he was ready for something more interesting. “Those aren’t routes I remember, or ones that I care about. Something I invested my heart and soul into, that’s going to be an experience I remember, that’s what I look for.” And putting up new big wall routes that clock in up to 5.13+ gives him just that, requiring weeks of commitment, from exploring areas for a line to setting anchors and fixed ropes to working it for days on end, with and without a partner. Even then, “You’re never guaranteed sending a route,” he says. He spent 16 days on Purdy Power (5.13+), nabbing the send in May 2015. “I try to pick projects that I’m really passionate about, rather than just do whatever,” he says. “Time is short, so I gotta make sure that every day I go climbing I’m doing exactly what I want to do.”

And Piz routes are not for the faint of heart or the style-dependent strongman. “I don’t want to do the same move for 100 feet,” he says. “That gets boring. I want my climbs to culminate as a long route with a lot of variety and commitment and dedication and heartache, plus an extra element of adventure, something that makes it more interesting,” he says with a smirk. For Purdy Power, that means a freezing, pantless river crossing followed by 800 feet of vertical face climbing, slab, a fingertips crack, a layback dihedral, overhanging offwidth, and even a sideways dyno out of a chimney at 700 feet off the deck. It’s exactly that offering of variety that has kept Piz coming back to Zion for 20 years. On top of the 50-plus other new routes he’s put up around the world, Piz has established about a dozen new routes in the park, including his proudest send: the first free ascent of the biggest free line in Zion, the 2,000-foot Thunderbird (5.13a) in the remote area of Timbertop Mesa, completed in 2006 with partner Mike Anderson. “It was hard for us,” he explains. “Hard physically and mentally, and we both felt like we had accomplished something.”

Rob Pizem Rock Climbing Zion National Park

Piz pushes through slab moves high above the river at the temple of Sinawava in Zion. Photo: Julie Ellison

After Alton finishes the last hard section near the top on Purdy Power, Piz turns to me and says, “It’s so cool to watch someone else climb my routes, because then I get to witness them go through what I just went through.” Sharing that experience with another climber thrills him, and it’s clear that although most of his routes are difficult enough only to see a handful of repeats over the years, he puts them up for others’ enjoyment just as much as his own. Earlier that morning, a young climber on spring break had chased us down the trail to get unpublished beta on another Piz route in the area: Datura (5.12), one of the two lines he put up on his own spring break the year before. With waving, beta-miming arms and the smile of a Cheshire cat, Piz gave him a detailed breakdown of the pitches, clearly stoked that anyone was interested in trying to repeat the hard line.

When he and his regular partners, Anderson and Mike Brumbaugh, find an intriguing new route, they routinely spend days cleaning it as thoroughly as possible—no small feat in places like Zion, where one day of rain can make the unstable sandstone crumble like a stale piece of cake. They pry off and trundle massive rocks at their own peril, and although some elite new-routers will ignore safe protection in favor of their own ego (keeping a route as R- or X-rated can prevent it from being repeated, thus leaving the first ascensionist with the only ascent), Piz insists on equipping routes with enough bolts to make sure they’re reasonably safe. “But,” he says, “that doesn’t mean you might not have to go for it over some gear!”

Unlike the typical pro climber’s mine-is-bigger-than-yours competition of ticking higher grades, there’s little ego in what Piz does and not a single ounce of machismo, despite the dirty and dangerous nature of his work. Piz has experienced his fair share of injury, including breaking his back and hand from a 50-foot upside-down fall while trying to get the first free ascent of Arcturus (5.13+) on Half Dome in Yosemite in 2006. He calls it “the worst time of his life,” not because of the pain, but because he had to sit around doing nothing. “I can’t sit still or watch TV; it’s just something that moves in front of my eyes,” he says. “I need to be doing.”

Rob Pizem Rock Climbing Zion National Park
Rob Pizem Rock Climbing Zion National Park
Rob Pizem Rock Climbing Zion National Park

The sideways dyno on Purdy Power comes out of a chimney at 700 feet off the deck. Photos: Julie Ellison

“When the alarm goes off every morning at 4:45, I say, ‘I hate this,’ especially if the kids were crying all night,” Piz says. But he doesn’t hit the snooze button with internal promises to train the next day like the rest of us. He gets up and goes to the gym. Life before kids involved climbing every Saturday and Sunday, all 52 weekends a year, training Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and staying at the gym “as long as I wanted to.” Now, his surprisingly simple weekly regimen is enough to maintain his strength: two 15-minute hangboard workouts, an hour of climbing routes one morning, 1.5 hours climbing one night, and going outside one weekend a month (“One weekend every two months if the weather is bad!”), with an hour-long Treadwall session if he can fit it in. His response to those who claim they don’t have the time? “You just have to make every minute count, and you can’t say you don’t have 15 minutes twice a week.”

Maintaining and progressing doesn’t come without heartache and pain (“I really would rather lie in bed,” he says), but having regular training partners and clients (he’s also a head climbing trainer at his local gym) who are psyched to be there and get stronger together keeps him getting out of bed and heading to the gym in the morning. Plus, a limited amount of outside climbing time motivates those early morning sessions. “Knowing that I might only get one day outside this month and one shot at whatever I want to do, I want to be able to perform,” he says. Many pro climbers forego a day job to train, but the easygoing and cheery Piz works at an alternative high school for troubled teens and young adults. “I’ve always wanted the hardest job or the hardest route because I just get bored easily,” he says. He’s been teaching for 14 years, the last four of those at R-5 High School, where the kids range in age from 16 to 21 and “have every single problem you could imagine.” He enjoys the difficult task of connecting with kids who are overlooked by the standard education system, and figuring out how to help them succeed. “They have bad home lives and regularly tell me to screw off,” he says.

While the life of Piz is an ever-evolving puzzle of climbing, family time, travel, training, and work, he thrives on the busy and demanding lifestyle. “It’s kind of like a long route,” he explains. And suddenly, everything makes perfect sense. 

Rob Pizem Rock Climbing Zion National Park

Piz eyes down the desperate, smeary 5.13+ crux on Purdy Power. Photo: Julie Ellison

How to Climb Like Piz

PLAN. You should have the next six months of weekends planned out: partner, route, prep time.

COMMUNITY. Befriend other parent climbers so you can take turns climbing and caring for kids.

FOCUS. If you have a particular goal in mind, spend all your climbing time in pursuit of that, whether it’s training or projecting. Don’t just go out and climb.

COMMIT. If early mornings are your only time to train, then commit to getting up. If you want to climb 5.12 but don’t train for it, you’ll never get there.

BE PRESENT. Don’t spend climbing time wishing you were with family and family time wishing you were climbing. It cheapens both.

REST. Being focused and well-prepared are worthless if you don’t listen to your body and take time to recover.

SMILE. We are lifelong climbers; one weekend of failing to send isn’t the end of the world.