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Droz and Kelleghan blitz the Naked Edge in 37:40—the women’s speed record

On Sunday September 26, Becca Droz, a 31-year-old rock-climbing coach and instructor in Boulder, Colorado, and Kate Kelleghan, a 28-year-old visual designer also based out of Boulder, set the women’s speed record on the Naked Edge (5.11b) in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, climbing it in a lightning-fast time of 37 minutes 40 seconds. The route, which is approached via a ~200-foot 5.8 “scramble” up the lower pitches of Anthill Direct, is generally done in five pitches at 5.11a (finger crack), 5.10b (arête pitch), 5.8+ (moderate cracks and ramps), 5.11b (bomb-bay chimney to layback crux to exit hand crack), and 5.6 (exit slabs), comprising 460 vertical feet of climbing. The speed record is measured “bridge-to-bridge,” meaning the clock starts at the bridge leading toward Redgarden Wall over South Boulder Creek, and then ends when you tag the bridge again after descending the East Slabs.

The pair have been whittling their time down this past summer, moving increasingly quickly as they made their twenty-ninth and forty-fourth ascents of the route, respectively.

Redgarden Wall, Eldorado Canyon.
Redgarden Wall, Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. The Naked Edge (5.11b; 460 feet) climbs the sharp, prominent central arête. On September 26, 2021, Kate Kelleghan and Becca Droz set the women’s current speed record of 37:40 bridge-to-bridge. (Photo: James Lucas)

A Brief History of the Edge

Layton Kor and Rick Horn made the route’s first integral ascent in 1964 by aid and free climbing the technical cracks, chimneys, and faces of the prominent sandstone arête. Seven years later, Jim Erickson and Duncan Ferguson made the first free ascent of the iconic Colorado climb. In 2012, the Colorado climbers Stefan Griebel and Jason Wells broke an hour with a bridge-to-bridge ascent of 49 minutes. The speedy climbers began a competition with Brad Gobright and Scott Bennett, sharing tactics on how to climb faster. With the friendly rivalry, Griebel and Wells dropped their time to 24 minutes and 29 seconds. Then, in May 2020, John Ebers and Ben Wilbur set the current speed record of 24 minutes 14 seconds.

Becca Droz
Becca Droz racks up for a speedy simul-climb of the Naked Edge at the parking lot in Eldorado Canyon. (Photo: James Lucas)

How Droz and Kelleghan Did It

Throughout their efforts, Droz and Kelleghan have refined their rack to an 80-foot rope, 21 pieces of pro (comprising cams, draws, and slings), and three Mini Traxions. They also rely on knowledge of where each climber is on the route to help protect them as they simul-climb, minimizing risk by only having a few sections of climbing with fewer than four pieces between them. (The Naked Edge also has fixed gear, including bolts, pitons, and bolted belays, that they clip.) “I don’t think we push it nearly as far to the edge of physicality because we’re both being mindful of not increasing risk,” says Droz. “There’s a way to make speed safe.”

“The trick is doing two laps in a row,” continues Droz, noting that they set personal records each time they’ve done that. After a sunrise warmup lap on the route, the pair starts by running from the bridge to the base of Redgarden in roughly two minutes. There, they free-solo Anthill Direct (5.8) through the infamous “cave pitch”—a slippery roof over the void—to reach the Upper Ramp, and the base of the Naked Edge proper, in roughly 8 minutes. Kelleghan, who leaves the bridge with the Mini Traxions pre-rigged (see below) and a right-side-heavy rack on her harness because she mostly places off her left arm, then leads the entire route. (The pair decided that because Kelleghan places less gear and is slower on the descent, she should lead the entire route.)

To protect against being pulled off if Droz falls, Kelleghan places a Mini Traxion on the bolted anchor atop the first pitch’s 5.11 finger crack and then a second one atop the 5.10b arête pitch on pitch two. In the final hand crack, Kelleghan places a third Mini Traxion on a hand-sized cam, and then it comes to Droz to catch up to Kelleghan. Droz sprints to the top laden with the rack. When she summits, she unties, while Kelleghan, who has already started the descent, coils the rope while descending. (On their record-setting climb, they summitted in approximately 28 minutes.) The pair then rapid-fire downclimb the East Slabs of the Redgarden Wall (“third class,” but probably 5.0), then Droz catches up to Kelleghan just a few seconds behind her at the bridge. When both climbers tag the bridge, the clock stops.

 Speed Climbing and Women’s Records

Historically, speed climbing has been a male-dominated arena, though women have been quickly closing the gap. On the 15-meter IFSC speed wall, Reza Alipour of Iran holds the current male speed record with a time of 5.48 seconds, while Aleksandra Miroslaw of Poland holds the current female speed record of 6.84 seconds. On the 3,000-foot Nose of El Capitan, the time gap is wider. Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell hold the record with a time of 1:58:07, while Libby Sauter and Mayan Smith-Gobat hold the women’s record with a time of 4:43.

Kate Kelleghan, pitch two, Naked Edge
Kate Kelleghan sprints up the techy, slabby 5.10b second pitch of the Naked Edge. (Photo: James Lucas)

Droz and Kelleghan’s time on the Naked Edge—the third international speed-climbing arena—edges them closer to the men’s time, with a gap of 13 minutes. However, they’re breaking new ground. Droz noted that Madaleine Sorkin had previously been the only woman to have led the Naked Edge in a single pitch before she (Droz) started climbing the route with Kelleghan. The leap from pitching it out, to climbing it in two pitches, to climbing it in a single pitch proved significant for Droz—perhaps as substantial as setting the speed record in part because she and Kelleghan currently have no other female competition for the record.

Whether female times should be compared with male times is a difficult question, and moves into the controversial arena of first female ascents and how different genders compete with each other. “It’s also a topic that I think women should be in control of,” notes Sauter of men’s and women’s records being compared. “When the majority of women feel that we should be competing against men or [have] our records and FAs compared against them…that’s when I think it should happen.”

“I think it’s important that other women see women are doing that,” says Kelleghan of women setting speed records, pushing themselves on hard climbs, and having fun while doing it.

Becca Droz, Eldorado
Becca Droz celebrates a rapid-fire lap up the Naked Edge as she crosses the bridge over South Boulder Creek. (Photo: James Lucas)

At the bridge in Eldorado, after the women had already hustled up the route twice in a day, an Eldorado local approached them. Regina regularly runs through the state park, and had watched the pair climb the route from the road. That night, she would write in her journal about the pair’s partnership, dedication, and how she’d been inspired to take Droz and Kelleghan’s efforts and apply them to her own life. As Regina demonstrated, more important than the times, the superlatives, or the details of the climb is the way they inspire.

A Q & A with Kate Kelleghan and Becca Droz

Climbing: What was the impetus for going for the record—when and how did the idea come to be?
Kate Kelleghan:We started running speedy laps together as I was honing down my time with [my friend] Eddie. I wanted Becca to get speedy with me because I loved the idea of an all-female team going for a record. I persuaded her to start linking pitches and taking out pieces here or there. We knew there wasn’t really a previous female record, but we wanted to whittle our time down to something pretty close to the male record before making it “public.”
Becca Droz: Kate got psyched on dialing in the Naked Edge with the goal of climbing it in a pitch. She convinced me to start climbing it with that goal in mind. We knew there was no women’s speed record, so anything we did would be it. We decided we’d whittle our time down to the best we could get to as a team, and then “record it” via Mountain Project to put it in the books.
Climbing: What were some of your earlier times like–a range, roughly–and what did you realize needed to happen to begin honing your times down?
 Kelleghan: We were averaging around 1:15-1:45 in our earlier laps, most of which we were still splitting into two pitches. The first time going in one pitch for real speed, we did 50 minutes. We have climbed the Edge 11 times total together, ever. We knew we needed to start sprinting harder through the beginning and descending more efficiently. We traded our [approach shoe] shoelaces for speed laces, started from the bridge running in our climbing shoes, and worked out beta on certain pitches. Becca slips into a locker on a knot instead of tying in to save time. I am still trying to figure out what the best thing to do with the rope is while approaching and descending so it doesn’t loop all over the place while I run—that is a work in progress. The best beta of all, though, was the double lap. Doing a warm-up lap and then an actual speed lap cut off almost 10 minutes from when we were doing single laps.
 Droz: For a while, we were climbing the Edge in two pitches in around 1:20. Kate finally led it in a pitch and inspired me to do the same during my 31st birthday challenge in Eldo with the Sensei [Justen Sjong]. We started to dwindle our time with other partners first, and then came together to work on our specific team strategy. We had a sub-hour goal, then sub-50, then sub-45, and sub-40 was sort of a stretch goal we were aiming towards. Honing the time has a lot to do with cutting obvious time on the approach and descent. The double lap changed everything in terms of honing the time down, so I guess we needed cool enough temps to have time for two laps. On our first double-lap attempt, we cut our PR of 46 minutes down to 39! Now we can’t wait to give it a few more double laps and see what happens.
Climbing: What, at a glance, is the most difficult part of this endeavor? The running? The solo/scrambling? The climbing? The descent? And why?
Kelleghan: The most difficult part in my opinion is sprinting through the approach hill and carrying that momentum into the approach pitches. I just hate sprinting…because I want to maintain 100 percent control over the parts we are free-soloing, so you have to keep your mind, breath, and body in check. I don’t really like free-soloing in general, so it has become somewhat of a necessary evil for this record.

 Droz: Cardio fitness is neither my, nor Kate’s, strength. There were times when we both left the bridge moving too fast to keep up the pace, so we learned to slow down to a more sustainable pace (which could definitely be faster). Those first two minutes to the base of the scramble are exhausting, and we aren’t trying to get sloppy-tired while free-soloing high-consequence moves on the approach. The descent is definitely a place where we can still make up more time; we are not very speedy at but- sliding down the slabs. I guess it’s difficult to balance going my fastest while also acknowledging it’s not worth getting hurt and taking precautions to prevent mistakes and injury.

Climbing: What do you hope other climbers—men and women alike—take away from your experience and from the record? I.e., maybe, what did you learn about yourselves and your climbing partnership along the way?
Kelleghan: In a broad sense, I hope that other climbers will be inspired to find fun ways to push themselves out on the rock. That could be a local backyard challenge, like the Naked Edge is for us, or some sort of linkup goal, a speedy goal or something totally random, something that gets you psyched and excited to be outside doing what you love. The climbing community is full of fun people who all have a unique perspective and set of skills. With the right people, you can make really fun goals come to life in a creative way. While Becca and I have a lot of things in common, we also had to figure out how to navigate the things that we see differently, and that has made for a stronger, more open partnership in the long-term. We know how to go about tackling our differences on bigger future goals now. We also hope we can inspire other ladies to try things that might have previously been considered uncharacteristic for women. Push boundaries, try hard, figure out logistics together, train together, and make it fun!
 Droz:I hope people see this and recognize the power in finding partnerships that inspire them to feed on the team energy and explore what their specific partnership can accomplish. Every team has different strengths and dynamics. We leaned into a goal that uniquely suited our strengths and we faced the tension in our approach strategies, learning from each other’s differences along the way.

James Lucas is the author of the popular Peaches Preaches column and the new Yosemite Bouldering guidebook. He is currently based out of Boulder, Colorado, where he works as a freelance writer and photographer.

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