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The international psych meter spiked last week when Katie Lamb announced that she had made the fourth ascent of Box Therapy, becoming the first woman to climb V16.
Located seven miles from the Wild Basin trailhead, in Rocky Mountain National Park, CO, Box Therapy is the low start to Tommy Caldwell’s Spread Eagle (V11), which starts halfway out a small seam of micro crimps on the boulder’s 50-degree-overhanging face. Daniel Woods completed the whole line in 2017, hiking more than 90 miles before linking the eighteen tense and crimpy moves. Until Lamb came along, Box Therapy had seen repeats by Drew Ruana and Sean Bailey, while repelling the efforts of numerous others.
Lamb, 25, grew up climbing at the Boston Rock Gym, on the same legendary youth team as a number of other present-day crushers, including Mike Foley, Brian Nugent, Tristan and Rowland Chen, and her brother Andy Lamb, all of whom have climbed V14 or harder. After earning her BA in Computer Science and MA in Environmental Engineering from Stanford University, Lamb embarked on “an endless climbing trip,” supporting her climbing with a mixture of sponsorships and a 20-hour-per-week data science job. In addition to sending numerous V14s, she turned a few heads last February by making the first female ascent of Dave Graham’s height-dependent classic Spectre, which ranges from V13 to V-improbable depending on your size.
When we spoke over Zoom earlier this week, Lamb was on a weeklong trip to Squamish, visiting friends and resting her legs on the roadside boulders. In our interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, she spoke about the climb and her process on it; her complicated feelings about social media, grades, and being a professional climber; and how the V16 grade gave her some anxiety, particularly after the send, which might explain why she waited more than a month to announce it. (She sent on July 28.)
Climbing: Was Box Therapy a pre-designated goal for the summer or was it something you just fell into?
Lamb: I’ve spent three of the last four summers in Colorado, and coming into this year I had already done most of the stuff I wanted to do, so it felt like a good time to have a harder project. Box Therapy was an obvious candidate. But that wasn’t the only reason to be there. Colorado was just a good place to be for the summer.
Climbing: In his post about your send on Instagram, Keenan [Takashi] said that you’d leveled up this summer. Did you feel that way? And what did that feel like?
Lamb: Well, Keenan climbs with me more than anyone else. So I think he’s probably more familiar with my median level—and I’m more familiar with his—than anyone else. But I find that as I improve, it’s harder to quantify when I’m on a new level, because as I get better there are fewer candidates for quality projects that are at my limit, and there are fewer boulders in each subsequent grade. That’s why you’ve got people who, for instance, climb no harder than V10 for a really long time even though they’re capable of climbing V12. Maybe they don’t live somewhere with enough concentration or variety to find a climb at their limit that they want to project. Or maybe they haven’t gone on a trip that’s long enough for them to climb at their limit. But for me, based on how quickly I could do V14s, I felt like I was ready to do something harder.
Climbing: When did you first start trying Box?
Lamb: When I got to Colorado in May I was recovering from COVID and wasn’t very fit for hard crimping. I went to the gym a few times, but for me to get back into intense crimping I have to be climbing outside. So I did Chocolate Jesus (V13) and a few other climbs, just to have a bit of a benchmark before trying harder stuff. When I went out to Box in mid-late June, it was still under snow, and I had to dig it out. The meadow was snowy and wet and the hike took four hours each way, so it was sort of heinous to be there. I only went twice in June. Most of my sessions were in July.
Climbing: How did those first couple sessions feel?
Lamb: The first day was mostly shoveling the climb out and getting oriented. The snow bank was so high that the stand was basically a sit start, so I spent a lot of time working the upper section during those first few sessions. I managed to do all the moves on the low on my first session, but wasn’t making any links. That was partly because it was so cold and damp, but it was also the style: It’s weirdly consistent. I don’t think there’s a crux move. Every move is pretty much exactly the same difficulty, though the jump is a bit lower percentage. The stand is the redpoint crux.
Climbing: Your beta was pretty similar to the ones used by Daniel, Sean, and Drew, right?
Lamb: Yeah, everyone’s beta has been pretty similar, and everyone’s been relatively small, with Daniel being the tallest. My beta was a hybrid of Sean’s and Drew’s, but the only differences were the foot movements. Everyone uses their hands the same way.
Climbing: It’s interesting that Daniel is the tallest. He’s not a particularly big individual [at 5’7”].
Lamb: No, he’s really not. But that’s one of the interesting aspects of the boulder: It’s probably the only repeated boulder of that grade that has pretty much only seen ascents by shorter climbers.
Climbing: Is that because it helps to be small? Or is it that the strongest climbers who’ve properly tried it are on the shorter side?
Lamb: I think it’s both. I have pretty fat fingers relative to my body size. I’ve tried Box with people who have thinner fingers, and they can dig really deep into the holds; but I’ve also tried it with people with way bigger fingers than mine, and for them those half-pad edges go to quarter pad, which makes the whole thing much harder. That said, I think it’s mostly the feet: when you come into Spread Eagle from the lower moves, you grab the start hold with your right where your left would go, and that forces a very bunchy foot sequence. If a tall person could find a reasonable way to switch their hands, it would feel more comfortable. I’ve seen people successfully do it, but it’s quite hard.
Climbing: So how did things go? Was it pretty steady linear growth? Was it a mental game?
Lamb: Each session saw minor but linear progress. I was progressively falling higher and higher, making little beta tweaks. I linked the lower part into the stand on day three or four, but didn’t feel remotely close to doing the whole thing. The stand comes down to two hard moves, and I actually never fell on the second hard move from the ground. So from day three or four, when I first fell on the stand, to the day I sent, most of the progress wasn’t upward. It was that I could do the top when starting lower. Or it was that I could get through the bottom more times in a day. So that was how I measured progress.
Climbing: That’s interesting. So you were falling on one of the last moves, but you were also still taking energy to give lowpoint burns?
Lamb: Yeah, I would try from the bottom until I was too tired to get to the stand. Then I would work on linking to the top from lower down.
Climbing: We’ve chatted in the past about how you’re more interested in taking down specific projects or lines than in doing a ton of volume. When you tried The Swarm, for instance, in December 2020, you put six days into that boulder, and those were basically your only six climbing days that month. Did you do that with Box Therapy or were you doing other things to give yourself a break?
Lamb: I would only try Box once a week because the hike is so tiring. Then I would climb for two or three days in other places. But I was mentally devoted to doing Box, to saving skin, to making sure I was rested. It was definitely the priority.
Climbing: Do you look for something specific in those side projects? Like, since Box Therapy is super thin, were you looking for something with bigger moves on bigger holds?
Lamb: Not really. I was mostly just looking for something that didn’t wear down my skin in the same places.
Climbing: What did the send burn feel like?
Lamb: I went up alone that day and had one of those moments where I knew I was going to do it but also didn’t have any expectations… which is inherently contradictory. But I wasn’t nervous. I just knew that it was going be OK and was able to tune everything else out.
Climbing: You climb alone a lot, and you mention that you like feeling alone. Do you consider yourself an introvert?
Lamb: I’m probably more of an extrovert, actually. Climbing alone has been a recent development for me. In high school and college I was always on squad climbing trips, which was super fun, but now that my life is sort of an endless climbing trip, I find myself alone a lot more, and I’ve come to really like it.
Climbing: I sometimes find it hard to sustain the psych or self-confidence when climbing alone. Do you experience that?
Lamb: If I’m trying a hard boulder for the first time, it’s tough to be alone. I did a lot of early sessions on Box with other people, and it was super helpful, super collaborative. When you’re alone and get frustrated, it’s hard to get out of that; you can end up spiraling into your own frustration; whereas having friends around makes you happy and puts things in perspective. You have to be less shitty when you have other people around.
Climbing: That’s a fun way to put it. Like, it’s less socially acceptable to curse yourself out for being a moron and a loser in front of other people. You have to put on at least a decent attitude, and that often ends up making you feel decent. It’s like that old saying that you don’t need to be happy to smile, you need to smile to be happy. Did anything strange or funny or surprising happen during the Box Therapy process?
Lamb: Not in my process. But I was surprised by how many climbers I met up there, considering how far it is. Boulderers in Colorado are down to hike. They’re like, “Six miles each way, no problem.” It’s an exhausting mentality, and I’m excited to be in Squamish climbing on roadside boulders, but it’s also a bit mind opening. Returning to California, I was like, “What could I find if I hiked six miles into the Sierra?”
Climbing: To switch gears a bit, one of the things I’ve found especially fun and refreshing about your social media presence is that you use a pretty distinct and almost self-deprecating lingo. The decision to use “scaling” instead of “climbing,” for instance, seems to poke fun at the whole endeavor. Is that intentionally meant to remind people that climbing is an absurd hobby, or is it a way of speaking to a certain personal community?
Lamb: I think it’s both. Climbers are fun and silly people in general, and the words ’climbing,’ and ’climb’ just seem too serious. I’m almost never climbing. I’m just scaling. I may also have benefited from having had social media when I was a teenager, when what I said didn’t matter. I’d do a climbing post and it would get maybe 10 likes. And that was freeing because I felt like I was just speaking to those ten friends. Now I struggle with the idea that I’m speaking to tens of thousands of people. And the whole personal brand thing definitely makes me uncomfortable. So I try to have a more authentic social media presence. I’m still writing to those ten best friends.
That said, I do think my social media is inherently disingenuous. I think everyone’s is. I am not the Instagram personality that I put forth. You have to craft a persona that you feel reflects who you are, but that persona is necessarily so much smaller and narrower than who I actually am. It’s just sort of a shell. Which is why, honestly, bouldering in a crowded forest in Squamish this week has been really fun: I feel like I can be more myself around people in that setting. I’m a lot sillier.
Climbing: Given your discomfort, what has it felt like to have gained increasingly more attention, both from brands and from fans, over the last few years?
Lamb: If I had the means to climb as much as I wanted to—I mean, if money was no object—I would have never pursued climbing professionally. But I’m glad I pushed myself to make it more of a career, to explore what it means to be a professional climber. There were a lot of upsides that I didn’t expect. I get to do really cool projects with sponsors, particularly with Patagonia, and I’ve been able to engage with the wider community in a way that feels personal. With Box, for instance, I got a lot of really nice messages from people who are genuinely happy for me and feel inspired to push their own climbing. It’s nice to be reminded that there’s this huge community of people who have made climbing a central part of their lives even though they have no intention of ever getting paid to do it, people who have made climbing something of a religion. So yeah, there are obviously some negatives to being a pro. You get way more scrutiny. Occasionally you’ll see people talking about you in ways that don’t feel good. But I think it’s outweighed by the supportive interactions that I’ve had both in person and online.
Climbing: Let’s talk grades. I consider your ascent of Spectre one of the most impressive things that’s been done in climbing. But because tall people think of it as V13, your ascent only really got attention from people who know just how improbable the climb is for people your size. My sense is that that could be liberating in some ways: It was a personal project, something you had the ability to interpret in a different way from the rest of the climbing world. Compare that with Box Therapy, however, which wears the V16 grade, and I imagine the projecting process felt different because you knew the send would be interpreted differently. Did that give you any anxiety? And did the fact that no woman had previously climbed the grade make the process feel different from less quantifiable goals like Spectre?
Lamb: It definitely gave me a little anxiety. And I think I expected a lot more scrutiny about the grade. But when you start climbing harder you learn that you have to take grades with a grain of salt. You almost have to stop caring and just decide what it feels like for you. Spectre is definitely the next hardest thing that I’ve done, harder than any of the V14s. When trying Box, it wasn’t because I wanted to skip a grade and become the first woman to climb V16. I was just trying to find the next logical step based on where I was geographically, what my style is, and my personal list of the best boulders in the U.S. So to me Box was super logical. But I realize that for an outsider, that perspective isn’t there. So that did give me anxiety.
Climbing: Favorite boulder problem ever?
Lamb: The best boulder I’ve done is probably King Air. But if I could do one boulder ever, it would be The Finnish Line, which so far I’ve only tried on a rope with a popped pulley and approach shoes.
Climbing: Most important send of your career other than Box Therapy?
Lamb: Probably Evilution in Bishop. I did it when I was in college, and I feel like it opened up a lot of doors mentally for me. It ignited a fire.
Climbing: Biggest climbing hero growing up?
Lamb: Beth Rodden.
Climbing: Biggest non-climbing hero?
Lamb: I really liked Boston sports teams as a kid, so maybe someone from the Celtics? Paul Pierce… That’s a weird answer.
Climbing: If you weren’t a rock climber, what would you do athletically?
Lamb: If I wasn’t a climber, I would be a musician, even though I’m not musically talented. If I had to be an athlete, I’d be a surfer, even though the ocean terrifies me.
Climbing: What’s the longest break you’ve ever taken from climbing?
Lamb: When I popped my pulley last June I took four weeks off.
Climbing: What’s a climbing destination you’ve never been to but are most looking forward to visiting?
Lamb: Oh there’s too many. Probably Japan, New Mexico, and those island chain boulders up near Flatanger, Norway.
Climbing: Favorite climbing shoe?
Lamb: The Solution Comp. But I want to get my hands on some TC Extremes. They’re like a TC Pro meant for climbing waterfalls. I want to see what I can do in them.*
Climbing: What are you looking for in your next few years of climbing?
Lamb: I think in the short term, selfishly, I’m hoping for a dry Yosemite season. All this rain in California’s great, but it would be awesome to get some climbing in this winter. I’m also looking for something a little more adventurous, something a bit more unknown. I have a mental list of boulders I need to do before I die, and that list is getting smaller, which is great, so I think it’s time to find new stuff and add to that list.
*Ed Note: Forthcoming by La Sportiva in 2024, the TC Extreme is a cold-weather rock shoe, designed for use in places like Patagonia and on 6,000m peaks. They are not expressly designed for use on waterfalls, though they may prove adept in such conditions. We’ll let you know. We’ve got them out with testers at the moment.