Last week, February 7 marked the 32nd annual Women and Girls in Sport Day, a nationwide observance to acknowledge female athletes’ accomplishments. While people across the country recognized achievements in organized sports, climbers saw yet another push in the standards of women’s climbing. The week saw 40 women entering the open category at USA Climbing (USAC) Bouldering Nationals, fighting for the title of the nation’s strongest boulderer. More notably, Michaela Kiersch and Paige Claassen climbed Necessary Evil, a 5.14c at the Virgin River Gorge (VRG), one of the benchmark routes in American sport climbing, with their ascents coming less than 24 hours apart. Kiersch ticked the climb on February 6, then Claassen sent the next day.
The history of hard female climbing dates back to the first woman to put on climbing shoes, but for 5.14+ climbing at the VRG, it goes back to April 2001, when French professional climber Liv Sansoz walked under the I-15 bridge and up to the Blasphemy Wall, the home to one of the hardest routes in the country at the time, Necessary Evil (5.14c). It is a singular, striking line up the belly of the wall, climbing impeccable orange- and black-streaked limestone that tilts a few degrees past vertical.
In 1989, Salt Lake City climber Boone Speed placed 11 bolts on the wall, hoping for a “moderate 5.13” route. “I was mistaken,” he said after bolting what would later become one of the hardest routes in America. The tiny crimps proved extremely difficult. “That was kind of the culmination of the idea that the hardest routes have the smallest holds,” said Speed. In 1997, a teenage Chris Sharma completed the first ascent, linking the opening V10 boulder problem into the redpoint crux, a low-percentage move to a slot 40 feet off the ground. Despite the easy access, 90 miles west of Las Vegas and a few minutes’ hike from the highway, Necessary Evil has only seen 17 recorded ascents in over 20 years. The number of ascensionists is small compared to newer routes like Golden Ticket (5.14c) and Lucifer (5.14c) in the Red River Gorge. “Necessary Evil has really hard footwork, small holds, and is mentally difficult,” says Jonathan Siegrist, who redpointed the route in 2011. “It’s not the type of skill or strength you can develop in the gym.”
Back in 2001, Sansoz began working the easier version of the climb, Route of All Evil (5.14a), which skips the initial boulder problem, coming in at the move to the slot. After she dispatched Route of All Evil, she began working the boulder-problem introduction on the harder climb. “I was extremely close to sending it,” she says. On one attempt, she sent the boulder problem but cut her finger on a sharp crimp. The blood caused her to slip on the move to the slot. “I had really no doubt I was going to send the route. It was just a question of tries and days,” she says. After her strong attempt, she returned to the VRG with a glued finger. Her friends had left, and so she climbed with a new partner, who accidentally dropped her on a warm-up on the right side of the wall. The fall injured her back and ended her chance for a first female ascent of the American benchmark.
In 2014, professional climber Paige Claassen, then 23, of Estes Park, Colorado, began trying Necessary Evil. For a month, she attempted the route, waking at 5 a.m. to beat the 80-degree spring temps. She quickly figured out the lower boulder problem but fell on the redpoint crux move to the slot. “The Route of All Evil crux is V10,” says Mike Doyle, who fell on that move 58 times before his 2014 ascent of Necessary. “You just have to do a V10 a little tired. If you’re strong, it’s easy. If you’re weak…it’s hard.” Indeed, strong boulderers have redpointed Necessary Evil in very few tries: Daniels Woods made an ascent in 2006 on his sixth; Ethan Pringle climbed it in four tries in 2007, after he sent Route of All Evil three years earlier; and Adam Ondra completed the route in three tries over 45 minutes in 2015. Claassen’s resume was strong: She’d made the first ascent of Digital Warfare (5.14a) in South Africa in 2013 and an ascent of Grand Ole Opry (5.14b) at the Monastery, Colorado, in September 2010. Later that summer, she’d redpoint Just Do It (5.14c) on Smith Rock’s Monkey Face, the first 5.14c in America. Still, she struggled on the slot move. “I fell about 50 times on the move that  trip,” Claassen says.
On January 14, 23-year-old Chicago native Michaela Kiersch walked under the I-15 bridge toward the Blasphemy Wall. Bouldering strong after a recent trip to Hueco where she flashed Diaphanous Sea (V11) and climbed Crown of Aragorn (V13), Kiersch made quick work of the initial boulder-problem crux. At the end of her first day, she was falling at the redpoint crux, going into the slot. She tried the route up to four times a day, but fell over a dozen times at the low-percentage move. On one attempt, she hit the slot but then fell adjusting her hand, dry-firing. Then she hit the slot, made the next clip, and dry-fired moving off the slot. With bad skin and a prior commitment beckoning, she left the VRG, walking back under the “You Suck” graffiti scrawled on the highway overpass. She got in her car and traveled four hours north to Salt Lake City.
While Kiersch fought for a solid eleventh place finish at USAC Bouldering Nationals, climbing against a stacked field of female competitors, Claassen stuck the boulder-problem introduction and stabbed at the redpoint-crux slot. Shortly after Kiersch had arrived, Claassen had returned to the VRG to try the route. During the fall and winter season, she had been working full-time in South Africa with her husband on their grape farm. With only an hour a day to climb/train, Claassen had focused on training for the route, joining Kiersch and a strong field of women at the VRG.
“Female participation in climbing has definitely increased in the past ten years,” says five-time national sport climbing champion and professional climber Emily Harrington, who along with Tara Kerzhner was working the bouldery Don’t Call Me Dude (5.13c) just a dozen feet left of Necessary Evil while Kiersch and Claassen put in their attempts. Indeed the “slaydies” outnumbered the men at the Blasphemy Wall. “Climbing is a pretty welcoming and positive thing for females right now,” Harrington says, discussing how some of the tokenism of climbing has dissipated, creating a healthier, more supportive environment where “the rising tide lifts all of us.”
On February 6, at around 9 a.m. with highs in the upper seventies, Michaela Kiersch made the first female ascent of Necessary Evil. This is Kiersch’s seventh route of the grade and her first one outside of the steep sandstone of the Red River Gorge. Earlier this year, she made the first ascent of Goldilocks, a 5.14b at the RRG’s Gold Coast. Less than 24 hours after Kiersch’s ascent, Claassen redpointed Necessary Evil, completing a hard-fought life goal.
The past twelve months have seen a flurry of women’s accomplishments, with Margo Hayes’s Feb 17, 2017, first female ascent of La Rambla at Siurana, Spain, the first 5.15a for a woman. On September 6, 2017, Anak Verhoeven made the first ascent of Sweet Neuf at Pierrot Beach in France, completing the hardest first ascent by a woman. And then in October 2017, the Austrian Angy Eiter climbed La Planta de Shiva, the first 5.15b redpointed by a woman. “Climbing is becoming obsolete for men,” says Claassen. “I think it’s going to become a women’s-only sport.”