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This article first appeared in Gym Climber in May 2021.
Matt Fultz swung into the crimp line of Slashface, V13, pulled along its crooked, horizontal line of pockets, and then, just before the move out to the famous final arete, fell. His reward for his flash attempt was, appropriately, a flash pump.
Fultz’s arms ached. If he put the same amount of effort into his next try without reaching the top, he would be in for a long day. The HuecoRock Rodeo, held in February, stretches until dusk.
The 29-year-old rested for a few minutes as the other Male Open competitors took turns on Lii, V13, a short walk away. The small but competitive field was led by Ethan Pringle, who has done numerous V15s, Jumbo Love (5.15b), and the first free ascent of Blackbeard’s Tears (5.14c); and Tristan Chen, who has repeated Jaws II (5.15a) and recently sent Paint It Black (V15).
When the pump receded from his forearms, Fultz tried again—crimping along the thin, errant crack, then hauling through the arete to the top.
Six more to go
After Slashface, he joined the others on Lii, where he tried the long dyno to an overhanging hueco four times, but beyond that, cruised. He then flashed Liana (V11) and New Map of Hell (V12).
“I knew I was in it after I sent (New Map),” said Fultz later, with characteristic understatement. “I knew it was going to be a pretty good day.” He then did Full Throttle (V13) in four attempts and finished Ayanami Rei (V11) on his sixth try.
It was early 2020 and, literally, Fultz’s first Rodeo, also his first time climbing on East Mountain, though he had visited the sunbaked syenite hills of Hueco Tanks State Park in northwestern Texas twice before—once at age 13 and once in 2019.
During the second trip, he had climbed on North and West Mountain, sending Esperanza (V14) and Diabolique (V13), and flashing Young Blood (V12). That trip sat amid a still-unfolding transformative period for Fultz as a climber.
As of the previous April, 2019, he had not completed a single V15. But between then and when I met him in August 2020, he had sent 10, achieved his first double-V14 day, and sent his first V15 in a day. He now hovers just outside the super-elite realm of climbing’s true mutant class. (For reference, Jimmy Webb has climbed at least 21 V15s and seven V16s, according to citations on 8a.nu and other sites; Webb did not return messages asking for confirmation.) Fultz attributes his improvement to his move to Westminster, Colorado, where the Front Range provides a buffet of hard blocks, and his marriage to Hailey Franklin, a nutrition consultant, who has helped him fine-tune his diet
When the warm, clear morning of the 2020 Rock Rodeo came, Fultz found his lack of experience on the East Mountain more exciting than unnerving.
“I think it helped, actually a lot, that I hadn’t seen any of these boulders before, but I’d seen videos of them and heard about some that were legendary, so the stoke was super high,” Fultz said after the event. “Whereas if I had been there a bunch of times, maybe it wouldn’t have felt that way.”
Rocco Bocchicchio, a guide working the Rodeo for his 12th season, heard the competitors’ chitchat as he bussed them into the park. “All the guys were half joking about how they were competing for second,” Bocchicchio said. “None of them were even entertaining the idea that they could beat Matt, despite knowing he had no experience on those problems.”
Contacted after the Rodeo, Pringle was candid. “I was, like, 95 percent sure Matt was going to win, because I had been climbing with him earlier that week, and he was just—I mean, he was Jimmy Webb status, basically shitting on everything,” he said. “First try, or in a couple tries, and looking as inhumanly strong as any elite-level boulderer I’ve ever seen.” Pringle called Fultz’s performance a “historic day” in Hueco Tanks.
The Rock Rodeo’s records are patchy. Its early days were informal, with winners receiving gifts such as a velvet Elvis poster and bottles of liquor. It was also suspended more than once due to access and other issues in the state park. But by 2006, the Rodeo had become the celebrated event it is today—laid-back but drawing some of the world’s best climbers.
Fultz finished the day with 7,705 points, the fourth-highest extant result, with only past performances by the top climbers Daniel Woods, Paul Robinson and Jakob Schubert ahead of him. In 2014, Woods set the highest score for the Rodeo when, in the Spur area, he threw down ascents of House of Doom, V14; Crown Royale and Sugar Ray, both V13; Splash of Red and Indisposed Heroes, both V12, and the V11’s The Ugh and Scream, for 8,115 points. Epic TV called it Woods’s “best day ever.”
After the Rodeo, and despite taking weeks off due to the coronavirus pandemic, Fultz had by summer sent a handful of V15s: Blade Runner (Rocky Mountain National Park), Everything Gneiss and Echalo (Clear Creek Canyon, Colorado), and Death Star (at an undisclosed location in Colorado). He had previously sent the V15s Dreamtime (Cresciano, Switzerland), The Kingdom (Brione, Switzerland), Desperanza (Hueco Tanks), The Game (Boulder Canyon, Colorado), plus Paint It Black, Bridge of Ashes, Topaz and Railway (all in RMNP). For the first five months of 2020 only Adam Ondra and Jimmy Webb stood above him on the climbing site 8a.nu in bouldering ascents over the last 12 months.
When we met last summer, Fultz was purchasing an RV and setting himself up for a North American tour. The question is how far Fultz, a gifted, motivated, and durable athlete who, as he nears 30, is hitting his stride, can take himself.
Matt grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, the son of Steve Fultz and Connie Ausbun Fultz. Tragically, Connie died in a car accident when Matt was only 2. Two years later, Steve remarried to Jennifer Beaudry, who has been Matt’s mother ever since. Matt has an older sister and two younger half-sisters.
As a child, Matt went through what he calls the “merry-go-round of youth sports”—donning jerseys in Little League, soccer and karate—but none stuck. He describes himself at the time as “rambunctious,” and lacking an outlet.
One day Steve was out with Matt, age 11, when he saw a small climbing wall in a sporting-goods store.
Matt recalled recently, “I climbed on that over and over again and loved it.”
The proprietors directed him to a larger gym, Climb Time Indy. After three months, Matt entered his first climbing competition, and a year later tied with Grady Bagwell for first in his age group at regionals.
When Matt was 12 or 13, Steve had the opportunity to relocate the family to Nampa, Idaho, near Boise, for work. In a pivotal decision, primarily to support Matt’s interest in climbing, he took the job.
“That’s kind of when it took off,” Steve said.
Steve estimates that his son visited Swan Falls, a field of basalt boulders on the bank of the Snake River, upwards of 300 times over the five years he lived there—often leaving for the trailhead before dawn, and sleeping near the boulders.
“If he was not in the house, he was either A, at the gym or B, at the crag,” Steve said.
Matt also developed several double-digit boulder problems, some of which have since been downgraded.
“It’s a good thing,” Fultz said with a laugh when asked about those. “I was 13, 14, 15 and didn’t have a great handle or idea of grades. I’ve gone back and repeated some and kind of realized that, well, I was totally off.”
In 2004, at age 13, Matt took gold in Youth Male C (his age group) at USA Climbing Nationals in sport climbing. A month before his 14th birthday, he sent Blackout (5.13d/5.14a) in the China Cave, Logan Canyon, Utah. The next year he was third at Nationals, in the Male B level.
But in high school, Matt leaned toward conventional sports, becoming a key component on the Columbia High football team, where he played offense, defense and special teams: “Of course, he had a good grip,” Steve said, “and that helped.” Matt was also an able sprinter on the track team. Climbing fell by the wayside.
He took a track scholarship at the College of Idaho. But he was dogged by a hamstring injury, and after a single semester, he dropped the sport and turned back to climbing.
I met Fultz on a smoky Sunday morning in August at Bear Lake Parking Lot in Rocky Mountain National Park. He knocked on the door of my van at 4:50 a.m., his headlamp shining down over his black Team ABC puffy, for the standout youth training program where he sometimes coaches. A scruffy light-brown beard wrapped around his jutting chin. He greeted me warmly, and we started walking toward the Upper Chaos boulders in the dark.
When Fultz returned to climbing in 2010, a lot had changed, he said on the hike. “There were people who I could out-climb by a lot in middle school when I was really into climbing,” he said. “Three or four years later, they were way better than I was.”
Still, in 2010—the summer after his freshman year—he qualified for the United Bouldering Championship at Outdoor Retailer’s summer convention in Salt Lake City. He made finals, rode in a limo, and competed with Chris Sharma and Daniel Woods on a rooftop in front of hundreds.
“It [was] really wild,” he recalled. “That’s kind of when I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to do this more.’”
He went undefeated in comps in Idaho, and qualified for the US Bouldering Team from 2017 to 2019.
Graduating from college with a degree in exercise science, Fultz moved to Salt Lake City, where he coached at The Front and in 2018 was fourth at USA Climbing’s open Bouldering Nationals. He was 20th at the Bouldering World Cup in Vail in 2019.
This last season, the allure of competitions waned for him.
“I still enjoy the people, but it also kind of felt like visiting my high school years after you’ve graduated,” he said. “You’re like, ‘Yeah, this used to be the place for me, but it’s not anymore.’”
So Fultz has been taking himself outside more, and climbing inside less—mostly because he believes the demands of projecting are too stringent to replicate.
“Projecting at your limit is so specific,” he said. “And training for competitions is so general, in fact it’s the opposite: You want to prepare for everything. Which is a cool skill on its own, but doesn’t lend itself as well to pushing your limit on outdoor projects.”
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The sun was coming up now, rising red through a blanket of wildfire smoke. We stopped for a water break beneath Sun Spot (V10), and Fultz swigged from his Nalgene. Fultz is imposing, coming across both as bulky and extremely lean; 5-foot-11 with a plus-six ape index. In an interview with Kris Hampton just before the Rodeo, Fultz said his lowest competitive weight was 160 pounds, with something like 8.5 percent body fat, though in August he was on a more relaxed diet. He weighed somewhere in the mid or upper 160s, tending to put on weight in summer when warmer temps preclude his best sending efforts. “Going back up slightly to a more manageable weight for a while is really good for [general] longevity, and your climbing, and just, like, your happiness,” he said.
For someone so active, Fultz has a demeanor I can only call chill. He speaks softly, and doesn’t mind a lull in conversation. When asked to explain something about his technique or thoughts on coaching, he expounds in a quiet, reasonable quest to present every aspect of the idea. He is also a proponent of factuality and civil discourse online.
In a recent post he wrote: “Random and unrelated: memes and ‘swipe right’ infographics are fun, but my education shouldn’t stop there …. I believe it’s my civic duty as a human to develop my opinions based on my own personal values, experience, and research.”
In another Instagram post, he talked about how climbing hard is just one facet of being a sponsored athlete.
“As someone that has been supported by the climbing industry in some regard for nearly 15 years, to me the answer is pretty simple: they should sponsor whoever they want,” he wrote. “The day may come when I get a pay cut (or my spot is replaced completely) to make room for a BIPOC climber. I have to admit that initially it would be painful, but I can recognize the importance of a movement that is much bigger than myself.”
We hoofed it for just over an hour. I asked about the upcoming road trip, and Fultz described looking at trailers, Sprinter vans and full-blown RVs.
“With COVID, I want to say luckily, I guess luckily, we can get out of our rent agreement with 60 days’ notice with no penalty at our apartment.”
He and Hailey Franklin Fultz have known each other since he was in seventh grade, and have been married for four years. Matt says she has helped him develop a routine for pre- and post-workout meals and supplements, and maintain a balanced meal plan.
In May, the two started their own climbing training business, called Off the Ground (OTG). Matt handles climbing programming, assigning clients’ workouts and rest days, and giving climbing advice, while Hailey addresses their dietary needs.
OTG is part of the couple’s plan to work remotely while on the road. But their first stop after getting an RV, he said, would likely be at RMNP. Hypnotized Minds was waiting for him.
“It’s an October boulder,” he said. “We aren’t going to leave until that gets snowed out, basically. Or until I send it.”
We dropped down into the tunnel of the famed Green 45 boulder, high in the talus field above Lake Haiyaha. Smooth walls slanted up in a sustained overhang, and another boulder leaned overhead to form a stone awning.
The boulder had the complexion of a city in the rain—dark brown, gray, faded pink with rashes of green lichen and white chalk. We were inside the alcove that houses Jade (V14), 1,000 Shades of Green (V9), Blade Runner (V15) and Don’t Get Too Greedy (V13), some of which are considered benchmarks for the grade in the U.S., and all of which Fultz has ticked.
A month after the Rock Rodeo, Matt and Hailey left for Switzerland, where he managed to climb Dreamtime and The Kingdom before the pandemic bloomed across Europe. The two then retreated to Colorado, and meticulously followed stay-at-home protocol.
“It was hard, man, it was really hard,” Fultz had told me on the phone (pandemic-bound myself, I did much of the interviewing that way). “I was so used to a certain level and volume of climbing.”
Matt had to make do within the walls of his apartment, hangboarding for weeks, especially when RMNP closed down. He fell into situational depression.
“I gained 10 pounds,” he posted on Instagram. “Climbing was the last thing I wanted to do.”
One of the ways he maintained a modicum of motivation was to visualize an ascent of Hypnotized Minds, which he’d tried in 2018 and considered an “aspirational boulder.”
He liked the history of it—sent by Woods, labored over heroically by Dave Graham for seven years. It was that boulder that helped keep him focused. Each night before sleeping, he ran through the moves in his head.
After several weeks at home, he and Hailey traveled to Idaho, where he built a home wall and could train.
To get to the Green 45 that day, Fultz had gotten up at 3 a.m. and driven the hour-and-a-half trip from Westminster so he could arrive in cool morning temps, as he had done for most of the summer and the summer before as—mostly alone—he projected all its other routes. But the night had been warm, and the air was atypically still.
Fultz, down to a T shirt at only about 7:00 a.m., brushed a small crimp on Jade and felt the hold.
“This is already not feeling so good, but I’m an optimist.”
He pointed out Blade Runner, to our left, a V15 established by the Swiss bouldering phenom Giuliano Cameroni. In repeating it, Fultz had needed several sessions just to build the requisite calluses. Then his skin condition and favorable weather seemed to alternate.
“Physically, it wasn’t the hardest boulder I’ve done,” he would tell me later in an email, “but it just took so much work!”
Earlier in the year he had sent Carlo Traversi’s The Kingdom (V15) in Brione in a day.
Asked how he had stayed motivated on Blade Runner, Fultz said he liked the sense of possibility in projecting—a feeling that an ascent could happen any day.
“I might not be feeling good, and might not be confident, but there have been times I haven’t felt good or confident and did the boulders,” he said. “So I think … [an] attitude of going to the boulder [and saying] I’m gonna make some progress today, I’m gonna learn, I’m determined … that’s where the fun comes in.”
Matt looked at the small crimps that ran out of Blade Runner. “The end of Blade Runner is fucked up,” he said, in a rare bit of profanity.
What he meant was that Blade Runner requires pulling hard on small, sharp holds. But Fultz is a sci-fi fan, so I switched topics and quoted the eponymous movie’s final lines, a melancholic monologue.
He laughed and joined in the final words. “Like tears in rain.”
He had read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the book “Blade Runner” is adapted from, and found the ending of the movie perplexing (the two differ significantly). He is an avid reader of comics and graphic novels, though he calls some of the mainstream superhero comics “borderline unreadable” in their convoluted storylines. He enjoys independent titles like The Walking Dead and Ex Machina, and the graphic novel’s format as a whole.
“It’s all dialogue, which is the best part of a novel anyway, then all the rest is distilled into beautiful art.”
Fultz estimates that he read 50 novels in 2018.
“That’s a lot for some people, but I also have a lot of free time,” he said. “Then this last year I read 150 graphic novels, which take a lot less time.”
I asked him if, at 29, he ever feels rushed, as if he is running out of time.
“Not really,” he said. “Jimmy [Webb] is four or five years older, and he is still improving. He’s an inspiration in that way. That means I have at least four or five more years. And climbing is such a skill sport too, you’re always learning and refining.”
Much of the climbing world is still new to him. He has been to Rocklands, South Africa, once; Cuba once; and on the one truncated trip to Ticino.
Matt pulled on his shoes and weighted the holds on his project to link Jade into 1,000 Shades of Green. He tried a few moves, then stepped off.
“I just feel like it’s eating me up, skin wise,” he muttered.
The problem required that he pull onto the starting crimps of Jade, then roll his right arm over his head in a drive-by to a crimp with shark-teeth depressions.
Watching Fultz climb is almost like watching a winch work—all torque. Everything that can go statically he does with nearly complete control, and the effect is like looking at a climb where every move is just as easy or as hard as the one before. If he can latch a hold, he will move patiently across it. If his feet pop or cut, he quickly reels them in.
He took off his shirt for a couple of serious tries, revealing a chain with what I thought was a cross on it. I asked if he was religious, and he said that he and Hailey were both nondenominational Christians. But it wasn’t a cross, it was Mjölnir, Thor’s hammer—a small totem to represent power.
“To celebrate my Norse roots—being Scandinavian and into comic books,” he explained. Thor is a Norse deity; Thor Odinson is a Marvel comics superhero based on the myth.
“Unfortunately, it’s not the best comic.”
He tried again and came off, tried and fell again, saying, “It’s just not there today.” As I made a note, he smiled and asked, “Did you write, ‘Punt’?”
We scrambled around the corner to another project: a low gneiss roof hanging over a cave with a skirt of stone plunging down from the ceiling about 20 feet back.
“This kinda looks like Creature From the Black Lagoon,” I told him.
“This is Creature From the Black Lagoon,” he said.
The legendary V16 looked every bit as ominous as it had online, when I watched Carlo Traversi, Shawn Raboutou and Daniel Woods send it. The colossal amount of dark rock overhead gave the area a benthic feeling, heightened by the names of the routes that skitter along its underside: Two Ton Skeleton (V14), Leviathan Style (V11), Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Loch Ness Monster (V13).
Fultz hopped onto the ceiling, his limbs splayed, taut as the strands of a spider web as he started working through the moves, trying to link Creature into Leviathan.
It felt strange under those circumstances, with one of the country’s hardest problems right in front of us, but I kept thinking about what came next. What happens when Fultz takes the show on the road, and doesn’t have to wake up at 3 a.m. to drive an hour and a half for a day’s work. But I didn’t press the issue. His career was already unfolding as fast as it could, and he, more than anyone, was waiting for the answers.
We climbed until about 1 p.m., when Matt called it. We packed and headed down, passing hundreds of tourists on our way out. In a couple of days he would be back, climbing the same steps in the dark.
One evening a few weeks later, a text from Matt lit up my phone: He’d just sent Hypno, its fourth ascent.
It was Sunday, Sept. 27—ahead of schedule, even by his calendar.
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