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Paige Claassen Brings Her A Game Physically and Mentally

One of America’s leading rock climbers is proof positive that the most difficult battles take place in the mind.

A few weeks after Paige Claassen started fourth grade in Estes Park, Colorado, the school office called her parents because she wouldn’t stop sobbing.

The issue was that she had just won a bike in a raffle, and the administrators had called her name over the intercom. Most kids would have howled with joy. Claassen instead shrank, mortified to be the center of attention.

She’d been doing that—the shrinking thing—for months. Her parents, Dan and Anna, describe a “personality switch” that happened upon their move from Parker, Colorado, to Estes Park in 1999. Both Dan and Anna had grown up in small towns in Kansas and eastern Colorado, respectively, and wanted to raise their kids in a similarly tight-knit community. And because they were both entrepreneurs—Dan runs a geology consulting business, and Anna makes custom window coverings—they could move anywhere. They chose Estes Park, where Dan had spent childhood summers.

But after changing schools, the outgoing Paige they’d known in Parker was gone. What was left was a shell, and somewhere, locked inside, was their little girl. “Like Paige, I’m very introverted,” says Dan. “So we were always watchful of that. We wanted her to be able to give a talk and speak in public and do all those things that she can do now that I’ve always struggled with.”

Read About Claassen’s Send of Dreamcatcher

To break the spell, they tried enrolling her in sports. But, Claassen’s parents recall, the only thing worse than watching their daughter shrink from social situations was watching Paige swim. “I remember her first meet,” says Anna. “She was really slow. It was just so very painful to watch.” They also tried soccer. Says Dan, “She wouldn’t really kick the ball. She’d just kind of run alongside it.”

Then they remembered a spark they’d seen at a children’s museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when Paige was seven. There had been a small climbing wall, with kids falling all over it in their cheap seatbelt-style harnesses. Paige had hiked the route. So the Claassens nudged her onto the climbing wall at the Estes Park Mountain Shop, which had just started an afterschool program.

A lean, lanky kid, Paige was a natural. She joined the fledgling Estes Park climbing team and slowly came out of her shell. She trained five days a week and made the podium in local competitions, then nationals. By age 15, she’d made her first Junior World Championships, coming in fourth. Paige’s younger brother, Sam, who now works as a marketer and lives in Colorado, also climbed and competed. Together, the Claassen family traveled the country—and the world—for climbing competitions.

Now age 31 and based in Longmont, Colorado, Claassen makes her living as a professional climber. Over the past decade, she’s become one of America’s best redpoint climbers, ticking three 5.14d’s, including the second ascent of Algorithm in Idaho’s Fins, in 2018 (see timeline, below). Back in 2014, she made the first—and so far only—female ascent of Smith Rock’s Just Do It (5.14c). Over the past few years, she’s put down dozens of mid-grade 5.14s. And yet every time her name surfaces in climbing media for an ascent, it feels like a distant reminder—Oh yeah, Paige Claassen. That’s right, she’s still out there. Then she descends again, ducking out of the public eye and back into her training cave only to emerge stronger than ever.

Claassen in her backyard stomping grounds of Boulder, Colorado, where she’s recently made it a priority to repeat old-school testpieces on the granite and sandstone crags above town. Photo: Tara Kerzhner

A True Undercover Crusher

Claassen doesn’t look formidable—she’s a slender 5’6”, and is studious and polite. She wears pearl earrings, and her hair is always clean. She has a nice-girl smile, freckles, and white teeth. She prefers reading historical nonfiction to watching TV. She’s given to philanthropy. And, unlike most professional climbers, she’s open about her Christian faith.

“It’s a big part of my life,” she says. “I’m someone who thinks everything happens for a reason. And I think that can be really freeing. It takes a lot of the fear, uncertainty, and loneliness out of life and just makes things more exciting and vibrant. It adds another dimension.” But even Claassen acknowledges that her commitment to religion is unusual among climbers, and that because of this, comments about her faith often precede her.

“Some people are aware of her being Christian and make assumptions about her personality because of it. But she never pushes her faith on anyone, ever. She’s really accepting of other people’s choices,” says Neely Quinn, Claassen’s longtime friend and climbing partner. The two have found plenty to bond over, ideologies aside. “Paige is funny and sharp,” says Quinn. “She’s very quick-witted.” Claassen’s sense of humor veers from the punny (you’ll hear moves occasionally referred to as “Ernest Stemmingways,” “William Shakesmears,” or “Crackie Chans”) to the deftly self-deprecating. Tongue-in-cheek captions and ridiculous, deadpan photos—like a recent one in which Claassen sported hiked-up sweatpants, a pink scrunchie, and teased 1980s hair for an impromptu Eddie Bauer shoot—have become a hallmark of her social media presence.

But the good-girl reputation, goofball tendencies, and quirky humor only serve to obscure what Claassen really is: a sharp, calculating climber capable of sending viciously hard.

Back in 2017, Claassen shot the climbing coach Justen Sjong an unusual email: She wanted to send her dream project, Necessary Evil (5.14c) in the Virgin River Gorge, Arizona. The hitch was that she was committed to 14-hour days packing grapes at a family farm owned by her husband, Arjan de Kock, in Namibia all winter; Claassen would have only one hour a day, five days a week, to devote to training. Sjong hadn’t coached Claassen before, but he was a good friend, and she’d seen his training plans in action with her peers—he’d coached Daniel Woods and Emily Harrington.

“It seemed like an interesting challenge, and I knew how dedicated she was,” Sjong recalls. He wrote her a plan that worked with the weight-training basics, hangboard, and MoonBoard she had on hand. Over a two-month period, she worked every day managing complex logistics for the grape packhouse, starting around 4 a.m. and finishing as late as 9 p.m. And on her lunch break, she squeezed in her hour of MoonBoarding and strength training—two hours on rare days off. Claassen never missed a day. She never missed a single exercise.

She would need every rep: Steep and technical and bouldery, with a low-percentage V10 crux about halfway up, Necessary has moves that stand in sharp contrast to the precise footwork and delicate, controlled lockoff style Claassen is known for. “I would never describe Paige as strong or powerful,” says Sjong. “Anyone who doesn’t know her would say, ‘Paige can’t do that climb.’”

But in February 2018, Claassen became the second woman ever to tick Necessary Evil, less than 24 hours after Michaela Kiersch notched the FFA. Sticking the upper crux, Claassen says, was a matter of working her weaknesses (poppy, powerful movement), with which the MoonBoard had certainly helped. But at just six hours of training a week?

“Paige is very unique,” says Sjong. “Most people approach climbing in the classic Puccio style”—meaning they train day in and day out, building vast reserves of strength to widen their margins for error. Claassen, on the other hand, trains with focused intention and builds strategies to maximize efficiency, unlocking the secret sequences that allow her to tiptoe along the path of least resistance. “She doesn’t overpower. She doesn’t fight,” says Sjong. “Paige does her work internally. And she just glides.”

Last November, I watched Claassen onsight Clear Creek Canyon’s Wet Dream, a 105-foot 5.12a with hidden holds and a tricky roof. It was cold and drizzly; mist hung in the air, throwing the canyon walls into grayscale. Claassen moved steadily on the damp stone, her fingers wrapping around each hold without effort, as if they were just curious, plucking pebbles off a beach. She swayed from one move to the next, and at each, she paused, not so much resting as waiting. Somewhere, there was a current, and Claassen was swimming in it. Waiting for a break in the pulse of the flow, waiting for some balance to fall into place, waiting for the right time to move. Her progress was rhythmic and unhurried, graceful and slow.

Through her body, you could read her mind, and you knew how quiet it was in there. Says Sjong, “It’s like tai chi—like there’s energy all over, and Paige just finds a way to use it.”

It took Claassen only six days to nab the second ascent of Jonathan Siegrist's Fins, Idaho, climb Algorithm (5.14c/d) in 2018. Photo: Tara Kerzhner

The Dark Side of Perfectionism

The Jedi-master thing hasn’t always been Claassen’s MO—what young Jedi has an anxiety attack over winning a bike? Instead, Claassen says, it’s been learned. The hard way.

In 2005, at age 15, she secured a spot in the Junior World Championships in China. The trip was her first time competing in a World Championship and her first time traveling abroad. She took it seriously. Maybe too seriously.

Paige’s parents and Stephan Greenway, then one of her coaches in Estes Park, were worried. For the first few years Greenway had coached Paige, she’d been in her element. “You could see how much climbing meant to her, but it was always fun. The other kids looked up to her—because she created this atmosphere of working hard but always keeping it fun,” he says. But Claassen had begun to lose her effervescence, to become more withdrawn. That, and she was training hard up to five days a week, Greenway says.

He decided she needed a change from her gym routine. Greenway took Claassen and her parents, along with a few other climbing-team families, to Shelf Road in southern Colorado. On that trip, Paige sent her first outdoor route: Cumulocrimpus, a 5.12a. And she started to fall for climbing outdoors—the camping, the road trips, the liberty to work routes at her own pace. But it would take years to figure out that this quiet freedom was what she needed.

World Championships rolled around, and Claassen placed fourth. Having come within reach of the podium, she leapt back into training and competing. By age 17, she’d racked up five podium finishes at various national and continental competitions (she never did place higher in a World) but was teetering on burnout, fighting elbow tendonitis and bursitis, a heel condition brought on by wearing her climbing shoes too small. She’d also started to do the shrinking thing again, but this time in a more literal way.

“I was nearing the end of high school. I wanted to climb my hardest, but I also wanted to fit in,” Claassen says. She’d started spending more time in Boulder, where she caught a new current. “People were taking climbing really seriously and training hard and watching what they ate,” she says. “Suddenly, every decision you made all day long was a decision about your climbing.”

Claassen stopped eating sugar. No carbs. Low-fat or no-fat versions of everything. “I remember her arriving at the gym and eating a tiny, little salad—not nearly enough fuel for a two-hour workout,” Greenway recalls. She lost weight—a lot of weight. So much that Greenway brought it up with her parents. But by the time those conversations had begun, Claassen was getting ready to head off to college. There was only so much they could keep an eye on.

Claassen graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA. She had all but run out of classes to take by her senior year. In 2008, she enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder, a recipient of the extremely competitive Boettcher Scholarship, which then provided a full ride plus a living stipend to just 40 outstanding students from the state.

At CU, Claassen enrolled in pre-med, managing an inhuman load of schoolwork all while training and climbing. The pressure she put on herself was enormous. The perfectionism, crippling. Even climbing began to feel like a chore. Claassen was partway through school when she began rooming with Emily Harrington, who had also struggled with disordered eating during her peak competition years. Harrington says it seemed like everyone in the comp scene was counting calories and dropping weight.

“That was the world we were living in,” she recalls. “It was this unspoken thing, that if you wanted to be successful, that’s what you had to do.” Harrington was in recovery by the time she and Claassen moved in together, and it was hard for her to watch those familiar demons take hold of her roommate. She did her best to support Claassen, modeling an example of healthy eating and a less obsessive relationship with the sport.

“I would drink wine, or go out with friends, and Paige would say she didn’t want to do that because alcohol had too many calories in it. And she would say she didn’t like dessert—even though I knew she did,” Harrington says. “It was difficult. We drifted apart during that time.”

“It was hard to watch Paige try to be perfect at everything,” says Anna Claassen. School had always brought out those tendencies—even as early as middle school, Anna recalls, Paige would take over group projects to make sure they were done right. At one point during her sophomore year of college, Paige called her mother, crying. She doesn’t remember why.

“My mom said to me, very honestly, ‘This isn’t working. What are you going to change?’”

Claassen musters every bit of shoulder power to hold the swing during an attempt on Made in Time (5.14c), Flatirons, Colorado. Originally bolted by Matt Wilder, the bouldery climb saw its FA by Vasya Vorotnikov in 2020. Photo: Tara Kerzhner

The Tai Chi of Climbing

To get better, Claassen realized, she needed to step back and look her demons in the eye the way she would gaze down a V10 crux. Quinn says this analytical self-assurance has a few sources. For one, there’s that Christian faith, which Quinn says has a grounding effect; having a sense of something greater than herself helps Claassen keep climbing obsession at a healthy distance. For another, there’s her family, a loving unit that built strong bonds via nightly dinners, family trips, and an impressive collection of board games.

With her support network in place, Claassen began watching her thoughts, keeping an eye out for what she calls the “hamster wheel” of needing to achieve, needing to be perfect. “I realized that in climbing, I want to try 110 percent on every move,” she says. “But if I do that in life I’m going to be miserable, and I’m going to make the people around me miserable.” During her sophomore year of college, Claassen switched from pre-med to business school, and she made peace with taking an extra semester to earn her degree. She started forcing herself to take more rest days. She started eating more. She quit competitions for good.

“I had to look at the long term,” Claassen says. “I knew I wanted to have kids someday and have my body be healthy. I knew I wanted to climb when I was 50 and not have all these injuries piled up. So I would tell myself, ‘I have to eat this cookie, or it’s going to mess up my future body.’” Soon Claassen’s tendonitis issues subsided and she began to enjoy climbing more. Ultimately, she and Harrington repaired their friendship. To this day, they remain regular confidants as well as climbing partners.

When Claassen graduated from college, she faced a choice: She could take the safe route and jump into the corporate world with her new business degree, or try something riskier—going pro. Maybe it’s a testament to her anti-perfectionism work that she chose the latter. Over the next few years, Claassen worked to build relationships with her sponsors, and carve a name for herself away from competitions. Gradually, her outdoor climbing garnered notice.

Today, Claassen is on salary with Eddie Bauer and sponsored by La Sportiva, Maxim Ropes, and PhysiVantage Nutrition. While she feels comfortable and stable in her career now, she says it took a long time to get used to the pro-climbing lifestyle, especially its lack of structure. During the first few years, she felt unmoored. Says Claassen, “You look around and think, ‘What am I working on? What am I contributing to?’ And when the answer is ‘I don’t know,’ that’s a scary place to be.”

While Claassen had grappled with those questions on her own for most of her life, her parents say she also benefited from the arrival of her laid-back husband, Arjan de Kock.

The two first met in South Africa in 2013, but only briefly. A few years later, she returned and called him up, looking for a climbing partner. The two hit it off, launching into a whirlwind, across-the-world romance before getting married in 2016. Today, the couple lives in Longmont, Colorado, full-time. (De Kock’s family had to sell the Namibian grape farm in 2019.) Earlier this year, de Kock started a custom-van build-out business in Colorado. He also works as a professional photographer and, of course, climbs.

“I think Paige takes things very seriously, and takes the weight of the world on her if something’s wrong. And like anyone else who is highly, highly intelligent, she has trouble falling asleep at night because she can’t switch off,” de Kock says. “But me, I go through life like a fish. I just try to glide through. And as soon as my head hits the pillow, I’m asleep.”

Living in one place instead of splitting her life between hemispheres has also helped Claassen feel more grounded, though at night she might still run through everything she could have done better that day—and everything that could go wrong the next. Still, she says, she feels far, far better than the old days when she was starving herself and often felt “awkward in my own skin.” Besides, with a quieter mind, more weight on her body, and less internal pressure, she’s sending harder than ever—between 2018 and 2020, she’s notched one 5.14+ per year.

Now, dieting sends Claassen into a tailspin, so she doesn’t do it anymore. Instead: high fat, high protein. (When I last called to interview her, she was pulling out of an In-N-Out drive-through near Red Rock State Park, milkshake in one hand, French fries in the other.) And instead of constant workouts, Claassen limits herself to training in her basement no more than four days a week, for two- to three-hour sessions, or will even drop down to one or two days a week when energy and motivation wane. The rest of her time is spent resting—properly.

Claassen’s basement gym is small, dim, and loud with her music of choice, “trashy metal”—high-schooler rage bands like Bring Me the Horizon and A Day to Remember. One wall is a 47-degree spray wall, kitted out with Kilter holds. The other wall is a 25-degree panel, Claassen’s drawing board for powerful moves. She also has a hangboard, a campus board, and TRX straps. The simple, low-ceilinged setup suits Claassen’s introverted tendencies; it’s more conducive to productivity than the social circus of the climbing gym and caters to her preference to train, if not simply be, alone.

“That’s probably the hardest thing about being friends with Paige,” Harrington admits, recalling nights on a ladies’ trip to Mallorca in 2017 when Claassen would opt out of group dinners and evening outings, instead retreating  inside to read. “But, again, we all respect that. Paige is good at knowing what she needs,” Harrington says.

Checking out Made in Time (5.14c), the Maiden, Flatirons. Following a double-overhanging arete above the infamous Crow's Nest, the airy route "feels more like a steep multi-pitch than just your typical sport route," says Claassen. Photo: Tara Kerzhner

Reasons Not to Climb 5.15

Recently, Claassen announced on social media that she’s making it her goal to climb her first 5.15. In February, she attempted Jonathan Siegrist’s All You Can Eat (5.15a) near Las Vegas, Nevada, but abandoned the route when a particularly fingery sequence set off alarm bells. Now, she says, she’s headed to California to scope out another option, Carlo Traversi’s Empath.

But when asked about how important sending the grade is to her, she simply shrugs.

“Sure, I want to climb 5.15, but does anyone care?” Claassen asks. When it comes to preserving her sanity, Claassen falls back on one pretty reliable decision-making rubric: “Is my life going to change? Is anyone else’s life going to change? And the answer is always no,”
she says.

That rubric is in part what’s driven her toward philanthropy: In 2013, Claassen launched the Lead Now tour, with the goal of both sending a hard route and raising money for local communities in nine countries she and her then-boyfriend, the photographer Jon Glassberg, visited. Together, they raised over $20,000 for grassroots nonprofits, and Claassen sent 5.14s in five countries, including the first ascent of Digital Warfare (5.14a) in Free State, South Africa, and the second ascent of Art Attack (5.14b) at Sasso Remeno, Italy. In 2016, after meeting some neighbors and parents near the Namibian grape farm, she started the South African Education Fund to build classrooms for the underfunded local school system. (The de Kock family donated farmland, and Claassen raised funds for construction.) Thanks to those efforts, the nonprofit was able to build eight new classrooms. The impact turned out to be huge: During COVID-19, the kids have had room to socially distance, and therefore to stay in school.

Claassen’s parents say she’s always been that way: She sees a need and she wants to fill it. But Claassen says simply, “To me it all feels like baby steps. I’ve just always felt that climbing isn’t enough for me. Part of that is I come from enormous privilege … and there’s guilt, or responsibility, associated with that. I don’t know if it’s the right emotion to feel, but I think it’s a natural emotion to feel.”

Emily Harrington and Claassen pretend they’re cool kids on a sunset stroll through Barcelona, Spain, while making the climbing film Slaydies in October 2017. Claassen calls Harrington—her former roomie—a “climbing hero, drop-knee mentor, and close friend.” Photo: Tara Kerzhner

A Life Far from the Limelight

Claassen’s choice to give up the competition limelight years ago has, in a way, freed her up to chase the routes she really craves: the forgotten climbs; the stout, OG testpieces; the lines almost no one ever does. Think 5.13s and 5.14s at the Fortress of Solitude in western Colorado, the Fins in southeast Idaho, or obscure crags tucked within Boulder’s Flatirons.

“What’s cool about these old-school routes is that often they were the first ones developed in an area, so they follow the most aesthetic lines,” she says. “They’re not always the hardest, or the most modern, but, man, are they striking.”

Take Necessary Evil. Bolted by Boone Speed in 1989 and freed by Chris Sharma in 1997, Necessary tackles a proud, overhanging panel of copper-streaked limestone within the Virgin River Gorge, Arizona, a roadside crag with incessant highway noise that keeps many suitors away. Historical, stout, under-trafficked? That’s the Claassen trifecta.   

All three are qualifiers you’ll find pinned to dozens of routes across the Colorado Front Range. Claassen grew up there, but between her competition focus and then early infatuation with more-distant locales like Rifle and Smith Rock, she never dedicated herself to the area’s climbing. So when she moved home to Colorado permanently in 2019, she had a list. On it: Christian Griffith routes, Dan Michael routes, Colin Lantz routes—all authored 30-plus years ago by heroes she’d seen around Boulder as a kid.

“A lot of times these lines are a little scary,” Claassen says. “There’s not as much information about them, so you really have to hunt for beta. Then they’re runout, or you’re falling around an arête and your foot is on the wrong side of the rope—you have to think about it more. There’s more going on than just trying really hard.”

One on her list was The Fiend, a double-overhanging dihedral deep in the Flatirons, established in the 1980s. “I’d seen a [La Sportiva] advertisement of Dan Michael putting up the first ascent. And I’d seen him at the gym for the last 15 years. So I talked to him about it, and he said he bolted it with, like, five ring bolts and a piton,” says Claassen, who ultimately redpointed the route in a day (the bolts had since been replaced). “I like knowing all that about a route. It gives it more personality.”

Claassen plans to spend the rest of her season shuttling between Colorado, California, and Nevada in a van that de Kock built out. Back home in the Front Range, she plans to keep her focus on the local routes (she’s more than halfway through; see sidebar, page 70). After that, there may be entirely new adventures.
“We definitely want to have a family,” Claassen says. “I want to have kids and then keep climbing hard.” Just 10 years ago, becoming a mom was less common for female athletes than it is today. Now, Claassen says, things are starting to change. More sponsors are looking for ambassadors who are relatable to their audiences. In that sense, motherhood may be an asset.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. But that’s life. You never know what’s around the corner,” she says. “I just have to trust the process.”

Corey Buhay is a writer and editor based in Boulder, Colorado. You can find her work in Backpacker, Climbing, Outside, and Ascent.

From Fall 2021