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Remembering Maya Humeau, 22

Maya Humeau died on September 13 after falling from the Black Wall at Mount Evans. Her friend Mathias Gruber recounts her life.

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Maya had convinced me to sneak in one last day in the mountains before the alpine season ended. It was a frosty September morning, and we’d gotten a late start on Mount Evans. Despite my plea to sleep in, she dragged me off her couch, where I was crashing for the night, and fed me a full breakfast of bacon and eggs and enough coffee to make me vibrate. 

She walked ahead of me on the trail from the parking lot and up the ridge toward the rappels into the climb, exclaiming praise at the last few fungi specimens of the season. “Fruiting bodies” as she liked to call them. “I can’t believe there’s still alpine puffballs—above treeline—in September!” she sang out, bursting with elation at the magic all around us. 

“You’re the alpine puffball,” I responded, indicating at her hilarious outfit: a massive, excessively tattered and duct-taped down jacket. Maya’s smile shone brighter than the sunrise over the hills that morning, per usual. In our typical form, we argued like siblings over who would get to climb with Paddy—her boyfriend and my cherished friend—the following weekend. I conceded. Maya had a rare day off work and school coming up, and she always made a point of getting out with the ones she loved. 

Maya lived a full life. She had the remarkable ability to use her time productively. Amongst her cohort, she was easily the strongest and most dedicated climber, consistently sending hard—often scary—routes wherever she was. She balanced her outdoor pursuits with a rigorous academic schedule at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she studied biology and ecology, and dealt with an erratic work schedule. Maya was a devotee of whatever she did, always paying careful attention to her health, diet, fitness, technique; always reading five books at a time (one for pleasure, four for science); always maintaining connections to far reaching friend groups, a family she was infinitely proud of, and a loving relationship with her dearest Paddy. Maya was always showering those near her in love, affection, lots of really, really good food, and the ubiquitous smile that occupied one-third of her face.

Maya existed loudly, with strong intention and voracious interest and inspiration. Her bedroom was a small library, blooming with books of flora identification, farming and climate theory and practice, ecological and environmental manifestos, climbing guidebooks and cookbooks and tracking manuals. Maya possessed the rare ability to change her mind as often as she came across new information. She adapted her life to match what she believed was morally and scientifically correct, but allowed that definition to constantly evolve. 

Throughout the time I’ve known her, she turned from a passionate vegan to a nose-to-tail carnivore as her understanding reached different perspectives. The money she saved by bypassing the grocery superstore self-checkouts, she would then spend buying most of her produce, meat, and dairy directly from small, local farms. She actually food shopped at the farmers market, frequented a butcher, and owned shares in a live cow for raw milk. Maya was the Robin Hood of our circle of friends, a model of the ethical dirtbag.

It was cold on that Tuesday morning and felt like the first true day of fall. On the drive up, as we waited for bighorn traffic to cross the road, we noticed the leaf change marking the end of summer. Maya left her car for the last time, as she usually did, complete with a dozen glass jars half filled with mystery elixirs, an assortment of necessary and unnecessary objects, and the gas light on. We came up to climb Cary Granite, a five-pitch route on the Black Wall. This was to be a relatively mellow day. We had spent the summer climbing the biggest walls in Rocky Mountain National Park, and had recently returned from a week in the Wind River Range. The casual 30-minute approach to the wall felt luxurious. We made our typical arrangements: Maya would take the crux, and I would take the wide pitches. It’s been the deal for the entirety of our partnership. I couldn’t have asked for a better rope gun

(Photo: Mathias Gruber)

We completed three simul-rappels to a large sloping ledge, which is where our route began. We were about 200 feet above the ground. We never even discussed roping up to walk over to the route. We had spent many days ropeless in the past, and some of our favorite scrambles included Icarus, the Fifth Flatiron, and the North Ridge of the Sharkstooth. Maya was by no means uncomfortable in this type of terrain. We came off rappel and she began to pull the rope. As I bent over to lace up my shoes, I heard her gasp, and turned around in time to watch her stumble and fall off the ledge, backwards and out of control, still pulling the rope down as she went. I lunged out in an attempt to grab the rope, a futile gesture as she wasn’t attached to it in any way. It happened so very fast and so suddenly that everything was still. In shock, I began calling out to Maya as I scrambled down ledges as fast as I could. I heard no response. 

I expected to find a lifeless body; the human physiology doesn’t typically sustain life after a fall from those heights. I reached her within a few short minutes, and the strongest person I’ve ever met was still breathing when I arrived. Despite massive injuries, Maya was unresponsive but alive. I stabilized her and called 911 dispatch for a helicopter, begging them to send it as fast as they could manage. The incredible team of volunteer SAR, helicopter pilots, and air medics did the best they could to get to us as fast as possible, but when they arrived there was nothing left to do but pronounce her passing. Despite my hopeless attempts to keep her breathing, her pulse gave way just minutes before the first rescuers arrived. She fought bravely and calmly until the very end. Maya died in my arms almost three hours after she fell. She was 22 years old.

Maya all smiles in the remote Arrigetch mountains of Alaska. (Photo: Mathias Gruber)

The honor of being at Maya’s side for the last breaths of a truly incredible life was not lost on me, despite the weight of the circumstances. As I held her, I told her just how loved and admired she was by practically all who crossed her path. I knew she was listening, and I recalled the memories that came to me. 

We first met a few years back when she joined a mission to ski South Arapaho Peak outside of Nederland. I had no idea who she was, but she put her hair in two buns on the sides and ripped the Princess Leia variation with me. She explained how that hairstyle is called the squash blossom and originated in Hopi culture. 

The first time we roped up together, Maya and I clicked instantly. We showed up early to Eldorado Canyon and stayed out until the sun went down. Though our strengths differed, our drives and style were much the same. Maya loved climbing. It was simple and her motives were pure. She chased hard, big routes on alpine rock, getting way out there, and relished at being comfortable in uncomfortable places. Being silly in the gnarliest of circumstances. Smiling and laughing through 5.10R.

Maya was only twenty-one when she put up first ascents of two massive alpine routes in the remote Arrigetch mountains of Alaska. Maya, myself, and our partners Cam Jardell and Luke Shacter got wet, hungry, and sometimes scared for three weeks in the Arctic Circle. Maya brought the most uncomfortable haul bag as her only pack, and did most of the dozens of miles of horrendous bushwacking barefoot (she’d read a book about the theory of “Earthing,” in which electrons are transferred from the Earth’s surface into a person’s bare feet). We foraged edible mushrooms and sat in tents through eight days of rain. We also climbed the biggest mountains we had ever seen. Maya did so with impeccable ethics and genuine stoke for simply being in such a wild place. Together, we put up a mega-route on the east face of The Maiden, Gut Ripper (5.10, 2,100ft), right after she established Supernatural Apparition (5.10 1,000ft) with Cam.  

The Arrigetch, Alaska crew. (Photo: Mathias Gruber)

Back home on the front range, Maya redpointed hard trad test pieces like The Evictor (5.12+), Epiphany (5.11d R), and regularly onsighted routes like Aerial Book, Climb of the Century, and Mississippi Half-Step. She loved running up classics like Jules Verne, Doub-Griffith, and The Naked Edge. During her time spent in the Cochise Stronghold—one of her favorite places in the world—Maya sent Sound of One Hand Thrashing (5.11c/d R), Old School Executioner (5.12), and onsighted Poetry in Motion. On regular trips to Indian Creek, she flashed 5.11’s like they were sport routes. In Yosemite, Maya climbed Voyager and Freestone, both classic 5.11c’s. She also threw herself at aid climbing, making ascents of the West Face of Leaning Tower (V C2, 1,000ft), and Zodiac (VI C3, 1,800ft), on El Capitan. On a trip to Acadia, where Paddy had worked as a guide, they did an unbelievable tour de classics; her Mountain Project ticks for the second half of May, 2021 exhibit a woman on a mission. 

We spent a lot of time in RMNP together. Early on in our climbing partnership, Maya took the sharp end on the sustained crux pitch of Airhead (5.11+). After sending the first half and pulling through the roof, she found a restful handjam in a pod, having just ran it out above small gear on really thin climbing. Between labored breaths, she roared down to me: “GIVE ME THE RED CAM,” I look down at my two piece anchor of a stopper and the #1 Camalot. 

“Are you sure?” 

“I NEED IT NOW!” I quickly disassembled the anchor and clipped in directly to the nut. She pulled the cam up single-hand over single-hand on the tagline, still hanging from the hand jam, and placed the piece. Without another word she started climbing and proceeded to finish the proudest onsight I have ever witnessed. 

Despite pushing for harder grades, Maya loved the easy stuff too. Last summer, we simuled The Casual Route in two quick pitches (usually done in seven-ish) after finding our plan-A and-B both already crowded. This summer, we ran up to Sky Pond for the RMNP Triple. With a light rack and a 35-meter rope, we linked the Southwest Corner of the Saber with a solo of the North Ridge of the Sharkstooth. After waiting out a half-hour of rain, she practically dragged me up the Petit Grepon in a single pitch. You could almost smell the burning shoe rubber. Maya was damn fast. 

On our onsight of the Black Dagger (5.11a) on the Diamond earlier this summer, we decided that the Longs Peak fashion show was on that day. I wore my favorite alpine button up, and Maya donned her leopard-print onesie, matched by her pink leopard print chalk bag. On the descent, we ran into Katie Kelble, a seventeen-year-old crusher who had been working on The Honeymoon Is Over (5.13c). Katie was up there alone that day, so she joined us for the descent. The two shyly yet proudly declared their mutual admirations, Maya promising her unwavering support for any of Katie’s projects. 

“Fashion Day” on the Diamond, Maya in her leopard-print onesie. (Photo: Mathias Gruber)

In the time since her passing, countless young women who were friends and acquaintances of Maya—climbers or not—have shared what an inspiration Maya was to them. A totally badass mountain woman who was also deeply feminine, caring, and intelligent. Indeed, Maya was an excellent female role model. But on behalf of the boys, Maya was a role model for us all. Never have I met a more dedicated and impassioned person, in every aspect of her life. That is an attitude that all who knew her will continue to carry.

This summer when walking up to climb Birds of Fire (5.11 R, 1,200ft), Maya found a white puffy jacket on the side of the trail. She wondered why anyone in their right mind would buy a puffy of that color—it wouldn’t match all the inevitable duct tape. Proceeding to wear it for the rest of the day, she declared her new identity as “Aspen Mom.” I mentioned an idea to write a profile about her, but she couldn’t wrap her head around why anyone would care. We discussed the merits and downsides of climbing, fame, and the lifestyles we strived for. We went fast, light, and committed with a single 60-meter rope—up and over was always the plan. 

Maya and I shared one of those beautiful and incredibly fun low gravity days on Birds of Fire where we seemed to dance up every pitch, smiling through some of the best rock we had ever seen. We both flashed the route, despite somewhat wet conditions. We summited in the face of cold rain and giggled down the loose and exposed descent. By the time we were passing the base of the Spearhead on the walk down, it was sunny and the rock was dry. 

“Should we?” I began to ask, but Maya was already switching back to her climbing shoes.

I had scrambled up the North Ridge of the Spearhead (5.6) several times before, but nothing compared to watching Maya float weightlessly up on her first time, her hair free in the wind. Her smile lit by the sun with Longs Peak behind, it appeared her soul was on fire. We reached the car after dark—navigating sans headlamp—our helmets full of bollette and oyster mushrooms. That was the last time we climbed together before the accident just a few short weeks later. It was undoubtedly one of the best days of my life, and will remain forever as my favorite example of what it was like to experience life with the greatest partner I’ve ever had. 

Maya talked fondly and proudly of her family. Her parents, Thierry Humeau and Dana Chladek, met on the international whitewater paddling circuit. They’re both accomplished slalom paddlers with multiple World Championship medals, and Dana being a two-time Olympic medalist (talk about a strong female role model). When Maya moved into our house, the first decoration she put up in her room was Dana’s Olympic medal portrait. Thierry is also a renowned cinematographer, having worked on documentaries around the world, while making time for personal sailing expeditions. Both remained active in the whitewater scene, and Maya grew up immersed in that world. In her teenage years, she made the U.S. Junior National Team (that’s right, she was also a nationally ranked kayaker as a teenager). Her parents’ influence of leading exceptional and fulfilling lives was clear in the way Maya lived out her days. 

I had the honor of meeting not only her parents, but her sister Zoe, grandmother Ema, and Aunt Petra, who—along with Dana—are equally as beautiful, vibrant, and perceptive as Maya was; the smile gives it all away. We gathered at their cherished family cabin in the mountains, along with much of their wonderful family and a large cohort of barefoot friends. We mourned the indescribable loss, but more importantly celebrated the incredible life Maya shared with us. I have now heard enough Maya stories to greatly exceed this word count and fill several books. But a clear theme rings true, as Paddy eloquently put it: “I now see the deepest lesson of our journey together, that love is the most important thing in our lives, and there are infinite ways of expressing this love to the world.”

Maya’s 2016 profile for the US Junior National Team, when she was sixteen, listed her favorite quote as: 

“What is the point of living if you don’t try to do something remarkable?”

Maya exceeded that lofty goal many times over, and showed so many of us what the point of living is. 

Thank you for sharing your remarkable life Maya, you will be dearly missed and always remembered. Climb free.

With love and admiration,

Mathias Gruber

 

“I was confused, but I held on to the only thing I have ever truly believed in – Kindness. In many instances it was not returned to me. That was ok. I knew that if I rejected hate and made an effort to understand where it was coming from, I could make a change in those peoples’ lives the way I made a change in my own… Living with love, intention, gratitude.”

—Maya Humeau