Top of Her Game

Rock climbing is on the way up, and so is Brooke Raboutou, the sport’s first U.S. Olympian.

Kids are natural climbers.

Just ask the parents who have to keep their toddler from scaling the furniture. Or head to a nearby jungle gym. Or think back to your childhood dreams of living in a treehouse. All children must have an innate desire to defy the earth and reach for the sky, if for no other reason than their hands and feet make it possible and there’s more to see up there than down here.

But there are born climbers, and then there’s Brooke Raboutou. Climbing is the family business. Her older brother, Shawn, is an elite rock climber with a passion for outdoor bouldering. Her father, Didier Raboutou, a Frenchman whose flashy style made him stand out in top-level climbing competitions, installed homemade climbing walls in his children’s playrooms. Her mother, Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou, a four-time World Cup climbing champion, has coached some of the world’s best young climbers, including Brooke and Shawn.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Raboutou has been climbing since before she could walk. If you tune in to watch rock climbing make its debut at the Olympics this summer, you’re going to hear some variation of that line repeated again and again. You’ll probably get sick of hearing it, but it’s true that climbing is in her blood. It’s a part of the reason the 18-year-old Boulder, Colorado, native could well become a household name in one of the country’s fastest-growing sports. If she hadn’t spent her childhood the way she did—hanging off walls and boulders, mostly—she likely wouldn’t have made history last August as the first American rock climber to qualify for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.

Raboutou will look to her family for support as she prepares for the Olympics. She will train in Boulder. There will be trips to Salt Lake City to meet up with the national team, and to Atlanta to consult with a speed specialist. There will be trainers, coaches, movement and body experts, physical therapists, massage therapists. She will visualize routes: where her hands and feet will go, how to move, how to hold on. Meditate. Focus on her breathing. She will represent Team USA. She will climb, every day. Like she always has.

Family vacations revolved around one activity.

“We went on a lot of rock climbing trips,” Raboutou says. “Outdoor trips. Those were always the moments where I was like, ‘Wow. I love this.’” Living in Boulder made outdoor climbing a year-round possibility, and the family spent summers at their vacation house in France, climbing in the backyard gym or at the crags and boulders nearby. There were trips to Rodellar, Spain, to Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, and to the Rocklands in South Africa.

Good climbers master a number of techniques and moves. When you’re supporting your own weight on awkwardly shaped holds that have barely enough room for two fingers, you may be required to contort your body in novel ways. You may be suspended at odd angles just as often as you’re ascending vertically. Some modern climbers have gone so far as to adopt parkour-like styles, seemingly bounding from one hold to another. In roped climbing, there’s equipment to manage. There are always decisions to make. Figuring out the best way to complete a route can be like solving a puzzle. Raboutou learned quickly that there’s more to climbing than climbing.

From the beginning, she relished the physical and mental demands of the sport, which suited her analytical mind. Climbing requires as much thought as it does strength and endurance—Where do my hands go next? What if I move to the left here? Can I grip this hold while I swing the rest of my body to this next part? What if I fall? The fact that there were always new challenges to overcome satisfied her need to constantly push her limits. And the camaraderie and teamwork, which she first experienced climbing outdoors with her family, fit her lighthearted personality. Getting to go on vacations to some of the most jaw-dropping places on the planet was a plus.

Outside of climbing, Raboutou has led a life that would be familiar to most American teenagers. She likes to keep busy. She spends time with her friends and enjoys schoolwork. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at the University of San Diego, with plans to get a degree in business. She had been living in a dormitory before putting school on hold to train for the Olympics, which wasn’t an easy decision. Commitment to climbing has made some compromises necessary. “At times, when I’d be hanging out with friends and I had to leave for practice or competition or something like that, I felt like I was missing out. ‘Wouldn’t it be easier if I wasn’t a climber?’” Raboutou says. But she can’t imagine a day without it. “I need it.”

For much of its history, rock climbing took place exclusively outside because, well, that’s where all the rocks were. People have been scaling high elevations for thousands of years for all sorts of reasons, but climbing for pleasure is a more recent development. The 14th-century Italian poet Petrarch ascended the 6,273-foot Mont Ventoux out of “the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer.” The English mountaineer George Mallory famously made attempts to summit Mount Everest “because it’s there.”

Rock climbing has its roots in mountaineering and began to emerge as a distinct athletic pursuit in the late 19th century before expanding in the 20th. More and more people were recognizing the beauty of climbing for its own sake, and new equipment was making it easier and safer to take on more challenging ascents. The development of rappelling was significant, as was the use of carabiners and pitons, metal spikes that are forced into the rock, helping secure rope to wall and climber to rope. Traditional outdoor climbing is done using a roped system, with at least two climbers supporting each other.

Other variations, like bouldering and free soloing, are done without a partner and without ropes. Indoors, bouldering walls are usually about 15 feet high, while walls for roped climbing are anywhere from 30 to 60 feet high. Outdoors, bouldering is reserved for smaller rock formations and routes that, relatively speaking, remain low to the ground. Free soloing is only for those with nerves of steel, as seen in the Oscar-winning 2018 documentary Free Solo, in which pro climber Alex Honnold scales the 3,000-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park with little more than chalk and the shoes on his feet.

The first artificial climbing walls, whose holds were meant to call to mind the grip of outdoor rocks, started appearing in the United Kingdom in the 1960s. A professional indoor circuit would eventually follow from that. Still, many experienced climbers who thrive in indoor competition, like Raboutou, first fell in love with the sport in the outdoors, where the thrill of pitting yourself against nature can perhaps be more acutely felt.

That was the case for Raboutou’s mother, who was 18 years old when her high school boyfriend took her climbing for the first time at Yonah Mountain in Georgia. Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou climbed like she’d been doing it her whole life. “It made me feel very strong and powerful,” she says. She was hooked, and soon was traveling on weekends to climb throughout the South. Before long she was competing professionally, winning the first climbing World Cup she entered. She met and fell in love with the French pro climber Didier Raboutou, and they married in 1993. By then, climbing was well on its way to becoming a more mainstream sport, complete with respectable corporate sponsorships.

That respectability may have come as a shock to the self-described “dirtbags” who helped popularize climbing in the U.S. in the 1970s. Renouncing the structure of a 9-to-5 to spend every day crushing difficult climbs at Yosemite didn’t make for a career your parents would brag about, but it was a lifestyle that appealed to free spirits. With the spread of the indoor climbing gym, however, no longer did you have to live in a tent and forgo hot showers to train. You could just try out climbing routes in the renovated warehouse down the street.

By the time Erbesfield-Raboutou decided to have children, climbing as a sport had bloomed. There were pro competitions in gyms, based on technical skill. Meanwhile, increasingly bold record-setting outdoor climbs continued. There is some crossover between the indoors and outdoors. Today, climbing is as much for the diehard Yosemite dirtbags as it is for pros sponsored by The North Face and the amateurs who got their start in air-conditioned suburban gyms.

Erbesfield-Raboutou climbed during both her pregnancies. Although there was never a conscious decision to raise her kids on a rock wall, she wanted to include her children in everything she did. “As soon as Shawn and Brooke were born, what do you do but go climbing?”

As the kids grew, so did youth climbing. This is probably not a coincidence. “As I saw both Shawn and Brooke become so passionate, I realized there wasn’t a structure for young climbers. For gymnastics, there are facilities all over the world where you can take a 2-year-old or a 3-year-old,” Erbesfield-Raboutou says. “There was nothing for climbing. I created ABC Kids Climbing for Shawn and Brooke.”

When she opened ABC Kids Climbing in Boulder, it helped pioneer a model of safe, supervised spaces that allowed kids as young as 2 years old to indulge their inclination to climb. Meanwhile, the Raboutou children were already becoming youth climbing heroes. By the time she turned 12, the youngest Raboutou had already set several records and was ready to compete with the best.

Raboutou can rely on her family as much as she counts on her own work ethic and sense of humor. “She’s focused, but I feel like it always comes down to having fun with her,” says Meagan Martin, a pro climber and longtime friend of the Raboutou family. “Sometimes when you watch people compete, they look kind of mad, but she’s always having a good time.”

Despite being a competitive individual sport, climbing nurtures a strong sense of togetherness. Close friends are frequently close competitors. Outdoors, your success and safety depend in a very real way on the person at the other end of the rope. Trust is essential. Enter any climbing gym, in any city, and you’re likely to hear shouts of encouragement and receive offers to join the community. The climbing world has its own code and particular rituals, but those can be learned.

And those gyms are everywhere. Originally designed for outdoor climbers who wanted to keep fresh in between trips to their favorite wall, rock climbing gyms today take all comers. People who have never set foot at the crag are now rock climbers. Your co-workers, the members of your bocce league, even your grandmother—they’re all climbing. They speak the lingo, a combination of extreme sports slang and gearhead jargon. They’re becoming “crushers.” They know how to hold a “crimp” and how to pull off a “heel hook.” During strenuous climbs, when their forearms feel tight from a buildup of lactic acid, they get “pumped.” (Not to be confused with getting pumped up, in which case what they’re actually doing is getting stoked.)

Since the country’s first commercial climbing gym opened in 1987, hundreds have followed. About 50 commercial gyms opened in the U.S. in 2018 alone, a growth rate of nearly 12 percent from the previous year, according to Climbing Business Journal.

More parents are sending their kids to climbing gyms because they recognize the benefits of such a well-rounded sport. “It’s not all about strength and power,” says Marc Norman, the chief executive of USA Climbing. It’s also a mental workout that teaches problem-solving and persistence. And climbing’s newfound accessibility means that places as flat as Atlanta are now producing high-level competitive athletes, Norman says. The gym boom has accompanied the sport’s growing popularity, which continued to skyrocket when it was announced in 2016 that climbing would appear in the 2020 Olympic Games.

For Raboutou (here with her brother Shawn and mother Robyn) and her family, climbing is a way of life.

In climbing, mental fitness can be just as important as physical training. You’ll occasionally hear climbers talk about entering a “flow state.” In the case of climbing, it describes an intense, Zen-like oneness between person and rock. To be in a flow state is to fear nothing—certainly not falling. Movement becomes instinctual. Your mind is focused on the climb. Everything else disappears. Your body will stick to the wall, your hands and feet will find the perfect holds, and you will continue upward because there is nothing in the world that exists right now except for you and this rock.

Some climbers meditate. Almost all of the good ones, including Raboutou, visualize their climbs. Having studied the wall beforehand, they will imagine each step and grip and hold of the task ahead. Raboutou does yoga, too. “I don’t do it often enough,” she says.

Last year, in the weeks before the International Federation of Sport Climbing World Championships in Japan, Raboutou was getting distracted during competitions. Her climbing suffered. “After every [event], she was going, ‘I’m so frustrated. I could hear the microphone,’ or ‘I listened to these people talk,’” her mother says. A strong finish in the world championships would ultimately qualify several athletes for the Olympics, and the pressure may have been getting to her.

It was the first time Erbesfield-Raboutou could remember her daughter confessing to any doubts. “Brooke’s the kid who will say, ‘I’ve got it, Mom,’” she says. This time, Raboutou asked for help. Her parents taught her several techniques and told her to focus on her breathing, to calm her nerves. “To me, this is the sign of a champion. You’ve got it until you don’t have it. And if you don’t have it, you look to your team for support,” Erbesfield-Raboutou says.

When it mattered the most, she did what she needed to. At the IFSC World Championships in August, Raboutou finished ninth. USA Climbing had its first Olympian.

Given the huge new platform of the Olympic Games, U.S. climbing officials expect 2020 to be a banner year for the sport. But if Raboutou is feeling nervous about competing on such a big stage, she isn’t showing it, only lamenting that she’s taking a semester off from school to ramp up her training. For the most part, her life will look much like it always has. She will spend time with her family. And she will climb.

In October, just a couple months after her Olympic qualification, Raboutou fell during a competitive climbing event in Albuquerque. Although she wasn’t too seriously injured, she hurt her knee enough that she had to sit out the rest of the competition’s finals round. It wasn’t long before she was back in the gym, but it was a reminder, she says. She’d been getting too comfortable up there.

Every climber falls, sometimes intentionally. In bouldering, it’s the fastest way back down. But accidental falls happen, even for people who have been climbing their entire lives. Setbacks are inevitable. Progress, like a climber scaling a wall, doesn’t always follow a straight line.

Raboutou may have been born to climb, but she wasn’t born a great climber. What is it, then? Good genes? Hard work? The right breathing techniques? Maybe it’s simpler than all that. After she falls, she gets up.


Alex Macon is an editor of this magazine. Email him at alex.macon@paceco.com.

Photography by Tyler Stableford

Originally Published January 2020