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Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou: The Veteran Coach Leading the New Generation of Climbers

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Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou Rock Climbing Coach ABC Boulder
Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou is motivating the next generation of crushers.Louisa Albanese

In February 2017, 19-year-old Margo Hayes fired La Rambla, the 45-meter benchmark 5.15a in Siurana, Spain. Like many of today’s top climbers, spanning from the current generation, like Hayes, back to former-kid-crushers-turned-adult-pros, like Emily Harrington, Katie Brown, and Chris Sharma, Hayes had been coached by Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou. A Southern girl turned Coloradoan, Erbesfield-Raboutou, 54, is a climbing legend who, in 2012, opened the country’s first kids’ climbing gym, ABC Kids Climbing, in Boulder, Colorado. She is a woman of remarkable grit, energy, and determination who has not only been climbing the top grades for the past quarter century but also helping the next generation realize its potential.

Speaking of which, before she tried La Rambla, Hayes taped up her hands, raw with cuts and scrapes from the sharp limestone. Her plan was to climb to a kneebar rest at 45 feet where she’d remove the tape with her teeth before the crux. While Hayes wowed the world as the first woman to climb a consensus 5.15a (she followed up with a redpoint of the Céüse, France, 5.15a Realization on September 24), Erbesfield-Raboutou said she was “absolutely not surprised.” Standing 5’1” with long blonde hair, intense blue eyes, and lean, body-builder muscles, Erbesfield-Raboutou had taught Hayes well.

Hayes is just one member of Erbesfield-Raboutou’s team of world-class young climbers whom she coaches at ABC Kids Climbing. Others include her own children, Brooke Raboutou and Shawn Raboutou (see page 58), Megan Mascarenas, and Colin Duffy. After becoming a four-time World Cup climbing champion and five-time US champion, Erbesfield-Raboutou began her coaching career in 1993. From the start, she drew on her own experience, developing techniques and strategies by testing them on herself. For example, Erbesfield-Raboutou taught a young Harrington to “say yes” to herself while climbing to keep a positive mindset; 14 years later, Harrington still uses this strategy.

“I’m not really sure if there were other coaches around when I started … I’ve always developed my own coaching ideas so I really didn’t look for resources,” Erbesfield-Raboutou says. Harrington, a five-time sport-climbing US National Champion turned mountain adventurer, remembers Erbesfield-Raboutou setting up long bouldering traverses at CATS (Colorado Athletic Training School) in Boulder and leading her through the youth worlds in 2000 in Amsterdam. With the birth of her own children—Shawn in 1998, and Brooke in 2001—Erbesfield-Raboutou started having a more kid-centered mindset; in 2003, she stepped into her current role as a children’s climbing coach, launching the ABC brand in a small romper/climbing room upstairs at the Boulder Rock Club. “Most kids are very hungry for knowledge,” says Erbesfield-Raboutou. She has found it easier to build a foundation with kids rather than change old habits in adults.

Erbesfield-Raboutou has been based out of Boulder since 1997, but she grew up in a secular household in Atlanta, Georgia, with one older brother and two younger sisters. Her parents divorced when she was seven, so she alternated between her mom, and her dad and stepmom. Even with the two households, Erbesfield-Raboutou said her family life felt well-balanced. The four siblings were close, and would spend time swimming in the pool together at her dad’s house and at the neighborhood pool. Before climbing, Erbesfield-Raboutou also played basketball and soccer, two pursuits at which recalls being “a bit competitive.”

robyn erbesfield-raboutou the monument eldorado canyon rock climbing sport boulder colorado
Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou on The Monument (5.12d), Eldorado, 1990.Beth Wald

She started climbing at 18 when her high school boyfriend took her out on the granite dome of Mount Yonah, Georgia. She shot up a 5.8, surprising the guys at the crag. At the time, as an 18-year-old woman in a sport that was almost entirely men, Erbesfield-Raboutou thought, “Sweet! All the boys think I’m strong. I like this sport”—she enjoyed the attention. Even though no one else in her family climbed, they’ve encouraged her lifestyle. As Erbesfield-Raboutou says, “My dad would occasionally ask me when I was going to get a real job, but as I started to earn a decent living from climbing, he appreciated my approach more.”

Erbesfield-Raboutou has always been determined, but her obsession with climbing stemmed from a genuine love for the sport. She’d climb outdoors any time she could, driving hours to places like Little River Canyon, Sand Rock, Looking Glass Rock, and Chattanooga to climb grades up to 5.12. She often teamed up with Rob Robinson, the prolific Tennessee first ascensionist. She also played around with training on wooden holds in her garage, and cross-trained by running, biking, and weightlifting. In her early twenties in Atlanta, Erbesfield-Raboutou founded and ran a 10-employee housecleaning business, Dust Busters, which took up much of her time.

When she moved into pro climbing in 1989, she talked sponsors into supporting her goal to compete in the World Cup, as well as sold Dust Busters to help boost her finances. After eight years of intense climbing and training, she was suddenly competing with the likes of Lynn Hill and Catherine Destivelle. (Erbesfield-Raboutou and Hill shared a house together in France around 1991 and are still close friends to this day.) In 1989, Erbesfield-Raboutou entered the first-ever climbing World Cup in Leeds, England, and won first place. She then went on to win three more World Cup titles and five US Champion titles. In 1993, she won every single competition she entered.

In the early 1990s, Erbesfield-Raboutou met her future husband, the French climber Didier Raboutou. Raboutou was one of the few in the world climbing 5.14 at the time—making the first ascents of the Saint-Antonin Noble Val routes Bad Attitude (5.14a) and No War More Love (5.14a)—and competed for the French national climbing team. The two met when Erbesfield was training with the French team near Aix en Provence, France. One 1989 article in The Guardian described Didier as the “glitter-pants […] Mike Tyson” of climbing: He was known for his stylish Lycra tights, well-coiffed hair, and grace on the rock. Robyn had a “huge crush on him even though he had a girlfriend.” After Didier and his girlfriend broke up, Robyn and Didier began dating on January 1, 1991, and married in 1993. Since then, the couple has raised Shawn and Brooke, now 19 and 16, respectively, and both cutting-edge climbers in their own right. It was Erbesfield-Raboutou’s instincts as a mother and a climber that led her to create her kids’ program.

Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou coach abc kids climbing gym rock boulder colorado
In coach mode at ABC Kids Climbing Gym, 2017.Louisa Albanese

“I created ABC because [my kids] were stoked on climbing and there just wasn’t much of a community of young climbers at the time,” says Erbesfield-Raboutou. She started out within the Boulder Rock Club (BRC) in 2003 in a small room on the second floor. Her kids, then five and two, were some of her first students. Didier, who builds climbing walls and other buildings by profession, designed the room, adding closely spaced holds shaped like dinosaurs, sea creatures, and safari animals, a zipline, and slides. The pair worked together to create an atmosphere and program that would help the kids develop confidence and skill. As ABC gained popularity, it outgrew the space. Once again, Didier designed and constructed the new gym with his building crew, using the BRC room as a prototype. ABC Kids Climbing opened in May 2012 in east Boulder and has become a huge success.

Today, ABC has over 7,200 square feet of terrain that ranges from easy slabs to V10-plus comp climbs out overhanging swells. While the gym specializes in bouldering, it also has five auto-belays with routes even three- and four-year-olds can climb. The central bouldering area, the Corridor, provides mostly overhanging, colorful walls up to 17 feet. There are also more kid-specific areas, like the ABC Room, which has a two-story spiral slide, cubbyholes, traverse ledges, and a zipline.

The gym has become what it is today because of Erbesfield-Raboutou’s passion. “As a climber,” says Garrett Gregor, who has been coaching with her for the past six years, “if [Robyn] gets psyched on a project, she’s going to give it everything, and that carries over to business.” He says that her passion especially shows in her work with the kids because “every time she comes into work she’s got a smile on her face.” She can be a soothing “mother coach” as Gregor describes it, toward whom the kids gravitate; yet she can also motivate and direct with authority. Harrington echoes the sentiment, saying, “I wanted to make her proud just like I did my own parents.” Harrington says a big part of that parental association came from the way Erbesfield-Raboutou cared for her off the rock: “She always made sure to ask me how school was [and] how I was doing outside of climbing.”

Today, Erbesfield-Raboutou has 15 coaches working for her and even more employees running recreational classes and summer camps. She makes an effort to know her employees by name and is quick to remind them that she’s happy to have them there. Meanwhile, her coaching style emphasizes communication and fun. She’s fond of the saying “A little play goes a long way” and incorporates games like dodgeball, “crazy dances,” and games on the climbing wall (like a climbing version of capture the flag). This extra bit of fun helps to “motivate [the kids] to work harder the next day or the next practice.” The flip side of her notable energy and enthusiasm might be that Erbesfield-Raboutou sometimes focuses on hard practices and intense drills. However, she’ll supervise these directly, working primarily with the most-motivated kids. And she’ll meet with the team after each practice to talk about what was too hard or too easy, and will then refine based on that feedback.

Erbesfield-Raboutou also takes the time to communicate with the parents—not an easy task when you have 50-plus kids on your teams. Her goal is to make sure the kids “don’t get to the point where they’re dreading coming because it’s going to be another really hard practice and they haven’t played dodgeball in six months.” She also closely monitors injuries. She can recall only three kids getting injured in the past 14 years of her coaching—all had broken growth plates in their fingers, and all three recovered in around six weeks.

ABC offers a few levels of engagement. They range from the purely recreational (birthday parties, summer camps, or weekly practice), to the mildly competitive “Hot Shots,” “Rockstars,” “All Stars,” and “Pre Elite” (practices vary from 1.5 hours twice a week up to 9 hours total), to the Elite/Travel Team (training 9-plus hours a week), which has been crushing regional, national, and international competitions since its inception in 2004. Most recently, in summer 2017, Brooke Raboutou (Elite Team) and Hayes (formerly of the Elite Team) competed in the adult World Cup circuit in Europe. At the Youth World Championships this fall, Team ABC members competing included Natalia Grossman, Cody Stevenson, and Jordan Fishman, with Colin Duffy taking the world title for Youth B lead, Hayes taking third in combined, and Brooke taking second in bouldering, third in lead, and third in combined. Meanwhile, this May, the team received 34 invites to divisionals. They’ve also won five straight bouldering youth national championships.

robyn erbesfield-raboutou 1990 lead climbing world cup berkeley California rock
Erbesfield-Raboutou in her comp-stomping days, at the 1990 World Cup in Berkeley, California.Beth Wald

With each traveling competition that the Elite Team goes on, Erbesfield-Raboutou provides a training camp for these top athletes. For example, for summer youth nationals, the team will rent a big house and live together for two weeks before the competition to create a fun “camp” feeling. They’ll spend hours each day training, playing Frisbee, basketball, and cards, and eating meals and doing chores together. The athletes, says Erbesfield-Rabouou, cultivate “memories that they just wouldn’t gather in two days under pressure and a competition.” One of Harrington’s fondest memories was staying in Erbesfield-Raboutou’s house in France with a gaggle of other 13-year-olds for two weeks before the Amsterdam Youth World Cup in 2000. At the time, Erbesfield-Raboutou was pregnant with Brooke, but cared for and supported the team despite her morning sickness.

When Erbesfield-Raboutou talks about what makes the ABC program special, she’s quick to credit her coaching staff. “I am not alone to be amazing,” she says. The team of coaches currently includes Erbesfield-Raboutou; Didier; Gregor, a consistent V13 climber; Meagan Martin, a V12 climber and frequent competitor on American Ninja Warrior; Ryan Arment, an aspiring AMGA Rock Guide and V10 climber; John Brosler, a pro speed climber; and Matt Fultz, a top-level boulderer with V14 sends to his name. In the past, ABC has also had pro climbers like Alex Puccio and Obe Carrion coaching.

Erbesfield-Raboutou works tirelessly, but she also continues to train and climb hard herself—this year, she sent Thunder Muscle, a 5.14a up a wall of wildly overhanging sandstone tufas in the nearby Flatirons. When she talks about what keeps her motivated, she says, “I get in [the gym] and, man, these kids just get me psyched. I basically just stand at the door and high-five and hug every kid who comes in, and their energy makes everything worth it.”

After all of Team ABC’s success, Erbesfield-Raboutou still insists her team and training style are no better than anyone else’s. While she radiates confidence in herself and her abilities, she by no means thinks she’s “better” than others. Instead, she pulls out the best in each person around her and gives credit for their accomplishments.

Specifically, with Hayes’s send of La Rambla, Erbesfield-Raboutou highlighted how Hayes “is this incredibly hard-working kid where no task is too big” and complimented her humility and composure. Erbesfield-Raboutou points out that “[Hayes] barely took the credit herself,” a trait rare in the world of professional athletics. Given that Erbesfield-Raboutou has known Hayes since she was 6 years old, and started coaching her at age 10, it seems fair to think that Hayes probably learned some of that drive and humility from her mentor.