When many think of America’s hardest climbers—with the likes of Chris Sharma, Dave Graham, Tommy Caldwell, Jonathan Seigrist, Ethan Pringle—there’s one name that is absent, even though he’s sent 5.14- trad and fired 5.15 sport: 34-year-old Cody Roth. Just last February he sent his hardest route to date, the 5.15a Me I Eat Dust, a line bolted by Clayton Reagan and Rupesh Chhagan and tried by others until Roth sent it.
So why is his name absent from the list of America’s best? And why haven’t more climbers heard about him?
“Having grown up in the outskirts of Albuquerque, New Mexico, I’m not used to being around a lot of people, so crowded crags don't make me happy,” Roth told Climbing over the phone from his seasonal home in one of the world’s most remote places, Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. There he does rope access work in oil fields seven days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day, for 24 weeks a year, before taking the rest of the year off to climb with his wife. (The two were married in January.) “I work for a Native Alaskan corporation where we create access plans, rig ropes, and provide stand-by rescue,” says Roth. “A lot of rigging and skills that you learn as a climber are transferable, [and] I’ve been able to do some of my best climbing during the off season.”
Prudhoe Bay is at the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, so far north that it’s impossible to go any higher without dropping into the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean. Roth calls the area “a grim place.” Being so far north with no one around except polar bears, moose, and grizzlies reminds Roth of his youth back home, where he was surrounded by quiet, but instead of arctic wildlife, there were elk, coyotes, quail, and roadrunners in the sparsely populated Land of Enchantment. New Mexico is an area of wide-open expanses, with a population of 17 people per square mile, and like Alaska’s, New Mexico’s economy depends on oil drilling.
In addition to being off the radar of mainstream climbing media, at least from a geographic perspective, Roth believes he’s overlooked by big-money sponsors because he doesn’t play the social media game. He doesn’t feel comfortable posting shots of himself daily like he thinks sponsors would expect. And when it comes to his crew, he chooses those who could care less about industry spray or move-for-move beta on the latest proj, and spend their time instead talking about books and art. “I see a lot of people just playing follow the leader, allowing people who only see sport as business to dictate to them and force this bland homogenization. I’d much rather be on the fringes, sharing the experience with a few close friends.”
“I basically see myself eating dust”—hence the route name Me I Eat Dust—“largely due to the fact that I don’t want to play the pro game the way it’s currently being played.”
Roth, with his recognizable head of curly brown hair, started climbing feverishly at age 10 after an intro to toproping class in summer camp. “I had a hard time concentrating as a kid and I loved that climbing required so much immediate attention,” he says.
Though New Mexico is lightly populated, it’s packed with climbing areas such as Sandias, a bouldering area similar to Joshua Tree, and Enchanted Tower, containing the state’s best sport climbing played out on clasticflow stone (lava). At age 12 the boisterous Roth was afraid to tell his belayer that he’d never led a climb before so he lied—he was ready for the sharp end and didn’t want anything or anyone to stop him. After intentionally taking a fall on one route "to check out falling," he tied in and tried to get off the ground for his first real attempt, but he couldn’t reach the opening holds so he asked for a boost. After a little help from the crew to get started, he flashed the 11c sport route Gollum. “That’s when I first thought I might have talent,” he says. He started route setting at his local gym at age 14 (the manager was also his coach) and at 15 he began frequenting Hueco Tanks and visited France’s Verdon Gorge with two U.S. climbers. That same year he qualified for the U.S. Junior Team. At 17 he was the American Junior Champion; later that year he sent his first 5.14b. At 19 he placed sixth in the World Cup. To build his fitness he swam twice a week, climbed four to five days a week, and had a campus board routine.
At age 18 he took his savings of $2,000 earned from route setting at Stone Age Climbing Gym and put it toward a plane ticket to Europe where he perused the limestone countryside, sampling the classics for three months. To stay within his meager budget, he thumbed it to get around and stayed with climbers. In his early 20s he dropped out of college twice, then spent nearly a decade in Europe where he eked out a living from sponsors, supplemented by apple picking in Innsbruck, Austria (where he was fed bread, cheese, schnitzel, and wine), working in climbing gyms, and painting houses.
“When I look back on it I think it was crazy,” he says. “I may have read too much Hemmingway. I loved his books as a teen—A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises—and they inspired me to travel to far off lands. I admired the sense of adventure of the characters in his book. I also wanted to be a professional climber. I still want to be.”
Today Roth, 34, dons a bushy beard and he still has a head full of curly locks. And though he only has access to the steeps half the year because of his job, he’s still wicked strong. He keeps his fitness up in the Arctic via sessions on his treadwall and hangboard. “I agreed to take this job because I could continue training,” he says.
Last year after three seasons of work (and a total of five months spent on the line) he sent his hardest route to date, Me I Eat Dust (5.15a), a short limestone route on private land in Austin Hill Country. (He got permission from the landowners to climb there.) The route, a variation to I, Me, Mine (5.14c; grade confirmed by Jonathan Seigrist) ascends mostly white stone that is streaked with blue like that found in Europe.
Me I Eat Dust is steeper than 45 degrees but not quite a roof and is packed with dynamic moves on finger-size pockets and crimps. For the first 18 moves it’s so sustained that Roth could only barely chalk up once, and then only with his left hand. The crux—from moves 12 to 18—consists of long spans between small razor holds that bite into fingertips. This six-move, foot-cutting section goes from V12 to V13. The crux barnacle crimps and pockets are reminiscent in size as the hardest moves on the Crown of Aragorn in Hueco (V13). Then comes a rest jug followed by athletic 5.12+ to the top. The 40-foot tall route is 30 moves in all.
So what’s next for the teenage climbing phenom turned limestone fiend turned arctic worker bee? He's just quit the Alaska gig and is moving back to the lower 48 to his two-bedroom house in Austin with his partner Melissa Roth. There in Austin, he’s eying two projects in the 5.15 range that are 45 minutes from his home. It’s hot and humid in Austin during the summer, so Roth will have to wait until it cools off to try the routes.
Roth’s decision to leave his job was spurred on by two reasons: discontent of indirectly supporting the oil industry and the opportunity for him and Melissa to work for the climbing guide app company Vertical Life Climbing based in Italy. Vertical Life provides guides to 9,000 crags in Europe. It also has a feature for 70 gyms throughout Europe that notifies users when new routes go up. Roth will be working in sales and development, while Melissa will be writing content for the company. They plan to move to the Italian province of South Tyrol in the autumn. “I’m happy to pursue a career in the climbing world. That is my bigger passion,” he says.