Brittany Goris just sent The Phoenix (5.13+) in The Needles, South Dakota, scoring the granite trad route’s third ascent. The American climber is unquestionably a pioneer in the world of hard women’s trad—and one of the top trad climbers in the country.
She became one of only a handful of women to climb 5.14 on gear earlier this year, with a January send of East Coast Fist Bump (5.14a) in Sedona. She was also the first woman to climb Todd Skinner’s City Park (5.13d) in Index, with the route’s third redpoint, in 2018, and redpointed the legendary Stingray (5.13d) crack line in J-Tree in 2020, among other hard lines.
Hard climbing aside, however, Goris is also a prolific writer, keeping an active and insightful blog, “My Life in Center Toroidal,” where she muses on everything from fear to the loneliness often encountered when climbing as a woman. She wrote about the ascent of The Phoenix on her blog, in a post entitled “All That Glitters.”
She finishes the essay with, “As much as I value climbing for my own selfish reasons and the intrinsic rewards it brings me, if my climbing can make even one person out there believe that more is possible for themselves, it makes all the hard work worth it … So this one is for all the women out there pushing themselves on gear, no matter if it’s 5.4 or 5.14.”
Climbing caught up with Goris via email to talk about The Phoenix and what the send meant for her as a female trad climber, and also got her advice for newer climbers nervous about jumping into committing, hard routes on gear.
For starters, can you tell us a bit about the crag and the approach?
It’s a secret! Just kidding, but only kind of… The climb is located in The Needles of South Dakota, and while The Phoenix is a five-minute walk from the car and directly over a tourist trail, the area itself is well off the beaten path when it comes to major climbing destinations.
It’s not really a place a lot of traveling climbers like myself end up because most of the climbing is a pretty intense, old-school style. There is still a strict ground-up, hand drill only ethic (aka expect spooky runouts), the grades are as stout as they get, and the rock type is unlike anything else out there. It creates a style that really forces you to leave your ego at the door, but in my opinion that’s the most rewarding type of climbing; the kind that forces you to really dig deep within yourself to rise up to the challenge.
How long have you been working on The Phoenix?
On and off for about two months, all together I didn’t put too many days into it, but it took a while because there weren’t a lot of days where it wasn’t too hot during the summer months. I seem to have a bad habit of projecting hard granite climbs in the middle of summer when they are the most difficult.
This was the third ascent on lead, correct? Chris Hirsch got the first ascent and Harrison Teuber also sent?
Correct. Hirsch, a local legend, got the first ascent. It had been top-roped clean before that I believe, but Hirsch was the first one to have the vision to lead it. His ascent is particularly impressive to me because he climbed it without a kneebar pad, which essentially eliminates all the good rests. My partner Harrison Teuber got the second ascent in 2020 and was the one who got me psyched on it. The two of them have quietly established and sent pretty much every hard climb in the state over the past decade.
What was the crux of the line for you?
The crux for me was dealing with fear. The climb is very much about stamina. It’s pretty overhung, with the hardest moves being two-thirds of the way up, so climbing efficiently is key, yet it’s hard to climb efficiently enough to be able to get through all the hard sections if you’re overgripping, shaking, and fumbling around because you’re terrified.
My first few lead attempts I couldn’t climb well enough to even have a chance, because I was so focused on constantly calculating what would happen if I fell from any given spot, rather than actually climbing the moves. The gear isn’t actually that bad, it’s just small and well-spaced out, not to mention strenuous to place. It makes it feel really intense to think if something were to blow, the next cam below it is a long way down; there aren’t a lot of backup options.
The first time I didn’t feel so afraid leading it was the time I sent.
You mentioned rough conditions… What happened there? The heat?
Yeah, it’s just not an ideal summer project because it’s granite, and it’s in the sun most of the day so the rock just bakes. Half of the time afternoon thunderstorms would eliminate the only time it’s in the shade anyway.
You wrote on Instagram that, “The Phoenix reawakened my fire for challenging single pitch trad climbs” … What particularly about this climb stoked your fire?
It’s simply beautiful. It’s so long and overhung, and the entire wall is painted with all kinds of different colors of blue and gold, and the mica makes it glitter as though it’s covered in some kind of fairy dust. It’s unbelievably striking to look at, but it’s also got amazing movement so it feels beautiful to climb too.
It’s also challenging both physically and especially mentally, and I knew that it would make me a better climber. That’s the kind of experience that really calls to me, the kind of challenge that really takes me on a journey and forces me to dig deep to find the answer.
You also talk on Instagram and on your blog about feeling lonely while working The Phoenix, being one of the only women climbing trad in the area. Can you give us some insight into that?
The local scene in the area is very small in general, and there aren’t a lot of travelers that pass through. Of the people around, the community is almost entirely comprised of men. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t met a single person here that hasn’t been stoked, kind, genuine, and welcoming to me, and I think the world of the local community here.
I’m also very used to being the only woman climbing the things I climb in most places I visit, but the difference is that usually there are at least other women around who are stoked and pushing their limits, even if it’s on different things.
It can be hard to feel like you truly belong somewhere when you feel different than the people around you for any reason (not just gender). You have to create your own space, rather than just fitting into one that already exists, which takes confidence that’s sometimes hard to find.
You also wrote about meeting another woman, Sarah, and that she was present on the day you sent. Do you think that that helped motivate you in any way?
Absolutely. The day I sent, Sarah and I had been climbing with another woman, Kelsey, and the three of us had been talking about the lack of a female presence in the area just hours before. Hearing that I wasn’t the only one who had experienced loneliness from the lack of other women was really motivating to me, because I realized that maybe I could use my climbing to open doors for others.
I hoped that seeing me push my limits would inspire other women to do the same, no matter if it was on 5.9 or 5.13. I hoped that other women would be able to relate to my experiences, and that they would show them that they are limited only by how big they can dream and how hard they are willing to work. That goes for everyone… We are all capable of so much more than we think, but we’ll never get there if there are these barriers that make it hard to step outside your comfort zone to explore our limits.
Feeling like there are others you can relate to, even if they are total strangers, can create a far better space for growth than if someone feels like they stand alone. I always want my climbing to reflect that, and to be a thing that allows others to see how much more is possible on their own journeys. That’s what gives meaning to my climbing, far more than just accomplishing whatever goal I’m working towards.
For newer climbers who perhaps are leery of committing trad routes, but are keen to start climbing more hard trad, what advice would you offer?
Trad climbing is all about trust. Learning to trust the equipment is always the first step (and realizing that even shitty gear is way stronger than you might think), but after that it becomes about learning to trust yourself. You have to trust your own ability to place gear once you know how [to do so], and when things get more committing you have to trust your ability to climb through places where you can’t just fall wherever.
Once you can logically trust the system, it becomes about conquering your less logical emotions. A mental trick I often use when I get scared is to pretend like I already am the kind of person I aspire to be. I imagine my dream routes and think, “If I want to do that much harder or scarier thing one day, I need to take this step first (whatever the current challenge I’m intimidated by is), so I might as well do it now.” I pretend I’m already the kind of person who wouldn’t be afraid, even when I am terrified.
Fake it ’till you make it, essentially.
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Owen Clarke is a freelance writer living on the road. In addition to spending time in the mountains, he enjoys motorcycles, heavy metal, video games, and key lime pie.