2016 Golden Pitons: Breakout Performance

Michaela Kiersch, Chicago, Illinois

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Michaela Kiersch was seven years old when she fell in love with climbing, and has been scaling walls and cliffs ever since. While the now 22-year-old professional climber and DePaul University senior has had success competing indoors, she really started making headlines for her outdoor ascents in 2016.

The Red River Gorge is a 7-hour drive from Chicago, but that hasn’t stopped Kiersch from stacking her ticklist. This past April, she barely paused to celebrate after sending Thanatopsis, her first 5.14b, in just seven tries. Riding out her psych, she made the third female ascent of Pure Imagination that same weekend. It was her first 5.14c.

“I think that I can be a bit of a perfectionist with everything,” Kiersch said. “There is a fire that ignites when I try a project and make progress, and I can’t help but obsess over it until I can do it.”

Kiersch kept that fire burning through the year. She ticked Lucifer (5.14c) in October and made the first female ascent of The Golden Ticket (5.14c) in November—all while a full-time student, coaching youth climbers five days a week, and driving seven hours each way to Kentucky.

“I think the key to my success this year is having a manageable and reasonable routine that is focused on achieving the goals I set,” said Kiersch. “I schedule study, class, work, and training times into my routine in digestible increments. This allows me to chip away at each area of my life and steadily improve. The hard part is sticking to the routine; it can feel easier to just go home and nap, but I have learned that is a slippery slope.”

Kiersch says she is more driven by personal challenges than first female ascent titles. “The Golden Ticket was my way of pushing myself to grow and experiment as a climber,” she said, explaining that overcoming the reachy style of the route at 5’1” was her motivation for trying. However, she does hope that her FFA will motivate other women to try the route, too.

As for 2017, Kiersch is focusing on graduating college early. However, she isn’t planning to take a break from challenging herself outside. Her projects for the upcoming season are the technical, crimpy 24 Karats (5.14c) and steep, ultra-endurance route 50 Words for Pump (5.14c), both at the Red River Gorge.

“I have found a balance between work and play that works for me,” Kiersch said. “Anything is possible if you can prioritize and work for it.”

See the rest of the 2016 Golden Piton winners: