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Drew Ruana’s Rise To The Top Of American Bouldering

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“It’s starting to tear my skin,” Drew Ruana said as he moved the Milwaukee portable fan pointing at the starting left-hand undercling. At 10:30 p.m. on an early-fall Saturday night, when most of the other freshmen at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado, threw ping-pong balls in red Solo cups, Drew Ruana hiked three pads to a 45-degree roof in Clear Creek Canyon, 15 minutes away from where he was studying chemical engineering. Ruana flipped the fan upside down, positioning it perfectly between the rocks and hitting the crux hold on his project, an undone sit start to Daniel Woods’s Echale (V14). He examined the now stable fan, nodded, and said, “Yeah, I go to Mines.”

Ruana resting between burns on a night session on Echalo (V15), Clear Creek, Colorado. Echalo is a low start to Echale (V14), an old-school Daniel Woods’ testpiece. (Photo: James Lucas)

Stretched out on the move, the 5’7” Rudolph “Drew” Ruana maximized his negative 1-inch ape index. The 21-year-old pushed his reach as far as he could, hitting the hold. While the move looked hard, Drew’s excitement pushed the holds closer together, a project that he would return to complete in October. 

With first ascents of V15s like Pegasus in Joe’s Valley, V16 repeats, and 5.14d first ascents of Assassin in Smith Rock’s Aggro Gully and Brave New World, also 5.14d, at Little Si, Washington, the longtime comp climber and Redmond, Washington, native had found the perfect blend between studying, his passion for outdoor climbing and moving past the comp world.

Ruana giving the opening moves of Echalo his all. Says James Lucas: “I think it was a cool autumn weekend night when most college students would be out partying. I met Drew by himself so he could manically try a boulder problem 1000 feet from the road. He worked the crux move over and over, then tried the top. He had little success that night, but his determination made it seem evident that he would send the problem.” (Photo: James Lucas)

Ruana’s studious nature and his devotion to climbing partly stems from his parents. Rudy, a bridge engineer, and Christine Ruana, a Microsoft computer engineer, met in the early 1990s while climbing at Smith Rock. Even after they settled in Redmond, Washington, the pair remained devoted to the volcanic tuff of Smith, with Rudy sending Rude Boys (5.13b) and Christine sending Heinous Cling (5.12a). In 1998 they had their first child, Rudolph “Drew” Ruana. Three years later they had Jono. Four years after Jono, they had their daughter, Sarah. When Rudy was in charge of the kids, which was every other weekend, if he wanted to climb, he had to take them. With Rudy in charge, Drew spent his weekends leaving from Redmond and waking up in a tent at Skull Hollow Campground. He was climbing at Smith Rock at 3 years old.

“Drew’s really competitive with himself,” says Tyson  Schoene, the Vertical World climbing-team coach. Drew joined the team at 9-years-old under Schoene’s tutelage. He’s won first place at the U.S. National Youth Sport 

Ruana, at age 16, on a project in his home turf crag of Smith Rocks, Oregon. Smith Rocks was the birthplace of American sport climbing, and it didn’t take long for Ruana to climb the place out. (Photo: Tara Kerzner)

Championships, on two occasions, and won first place at U.S. National Youth Bouldering Championships. Despite his focus on indoor competitions, Drew still crushed technical climbing in the Pacific Northwest. “Climbing works well for Drew,” says Schoene, “because you’re battling yourself and doing it for yourself.”

Oxygen has 33 holds on it and Drew used 56,” said Schoene of ten-year-old Drew’s ascent of the classic 5.13b Smith Rock route. “He had the ability to hold onto these tiny, tiny things that people didn’t need to.” 

Ruana sending Just Do It in 2014, at age 15. Just Do It is an iconic route at Smith Rocks and was the first of its grade ( 5.14c) in the US. It only took Ruana 8 days of work to send. (Photo: Nathan Starzynsky)

In 2012, at the age of 14, Drew fired off Mr. Yuk (5.14a). Two years later, he finished the classic To Bolt or Not to Be (5.14a). “People said it didn’t count because even though I used the footholds, I stemmed off the wall to the right for one move,” Drew said of his ascent. “Don’t worry,” his father told him at the time, “You have the skills, the height will come for free.” 

Kids can climb cracks too: at age 7, on Crime of the Century (5.11c), Squamish, B.C. (Photo: Ruana Family )

His short height as a teenager made him seek alternative 

beta, though this never hampered his ascents. By 15, he’d climbed Just Do It (5.14c) at Smith, and then the following year, he onsighted Omaha Beach (5.14a) and flashed Transworld Depravity (5.14a) in the Red River Gorge. Drew had become a force in hard climbing.

“I’m planning on going bouldering more,” Drew told me in 2016.  He’d just completed the first ascent of the Aggro Gully’s Assassin (5.14d), Smith Rock’s hardest route, and made the first ascent of the “endless V8” climbing of Brave New World (5.14d). Primarily a sport climber, Drew knew he wanted change in his climbing career. At the time, that meant bouldering. “I’m gonna get my license soon, too, which will help.”

 But instead of bouldering or more sport climbing, the competition circuit remained a focus for Drew, though it didn’t always go well for him. “I never felt satisfied,” said Drew of his competition climbing and always being on the finals’ bubble. “I always made mistakes.” At 15, he traveled to New Caledonia, outside of Australia, where he would take second place at the Youth World Championships when his foot slipped two feet from the top in finals. He had hoped for the win.

Working the arete of Chain Reaction (5.12c), one of the most photographed climbs in America, for good reason. (Photo: Ruana Family)

The other, larger factor in eventually deviating from comps had to do with Drew’s climbing style. With an ability to execute on projects, Drew has had success making numerous hard first ascents outdoors. His short height as a youth climber instilled in him an ability to decipher unique body-specific beta, to always learn more on a route or boulder. However, the necessity to perform in a moment of competition proved difficult for Drew. In October of 2019, Drew traveled to the Olympic qualifying event in Inzai, Japan. Though he performed well, the comp ended up being one of his last. He deferred from school for a year after high school and started climbing more outside again.

 “Outside, you can wait for the right moment,” Drew said, and 2020 was that moment. Starting in January, he began tearing across the U.S., finally focusing on bouldering.  

“His mentality changed when he started climbing outside,” says Cameron Horst. The pair had met when they were teenagers while climbing in the Red River Gorge. In late 2019, they bouldered together in Red Rocks, and Drew climbed Trieste Sit (V15) and then his first V16, Sleepwalker. In the summer, he moved to Colorado to start attending school. He quickly became a Rocky Mountain Park addict, hiking out from the boulders in the middle of the night after sending Creature from the Black Lagoon (V16) and then making the second ascent of Box Therapy (V16), also in RMNP.

 When the temps cooled and he no longer needed the fan, Drew fired the sit-start to Echale, making the first ascent of Echalo (V15). For a moment the obsessed climber found a bit of peace. He has been on a tear ever since, notching no less than four V16s as of presstime, making him one of America’s most accomplished boulderers.

This article originally appeared in Gym Climber 11.