Climber Beth Rodden is slight of build and mild in manner, but the reigning queen of rock packs a serious dose of whup-ass in her tiny fists.
By Kate Siber
It's a rainy Sunday and Beth Rodden has just baked cookies. She sits curled like a cat on the couch in her home in Estes Park, Colorado, watching a video of her husband, Tommy Caldwell, inching up El Capitan's Dihedral Wall, the most difficult big-wall free ascent in the history of climbing. "God, Tommy, every time I watch this I'm so impressed," says Rodden, who belayed him on the 25-pitch monster. She seems like a sweet, diminutive homebody with her blond ponytail, cherubic smile, and disarmingly high, honeyed voice as she gushes over her hubby. But don't believe the domestic-diva routine. In October, eight months earlier, it was Caldwell's turn to belay Rodden on a route north of Bend, Oregon—the Optimist, in Smith Rock State Park—that, at 5.14b, tied for the hardest first ascent ever completed by a woman.
On her first attempt, Rodden looked awkward on the difficult route. Her taut legs splayed between two imperceptible ridges, and her feet grappled on the rock before slipping. Her fingers clenched sloping cracks, then empty air. She fell, fell again, then fell for the tenth time and howled "Dammit!" It was one of the rare moments the even-keeled 25-year-old let her aggravation show during her monthlong bid to complete the climb. Her frustration was forgivable. The Optimist is an 80-foot slice of slightly overhanging volcanic welded tuff as blank as the open highway. It's so featureless, in fact, that it had formerly been completed only with mechanical aid. But Rodden, at five-one and 105 pounds, was tackling it as a free climb, using only her hands and feet. Rodden's small size is a blessing and a curse: She may not have the reach of other climbers, but she can wriggle her chopstick-size fingers into nearly nonexistent cracks, and her light frame gives her a great power-to-weight ratio. After weeks working out the moves, Rodden tied in, chalked up, and moved seamlessly up the pale expanse of rock like an elegant insect, sending the route and becoming America's top female rock climber.
Rodden got her start as part of climbing's original Brat Pack, a group of teenage phenoms including Caldwell, Chris Sharma, and Katie Brown, who rose to stardom through competitions in the nineties. It was the first time in the sport's history that adult climbers were upstaged by kids—and the first time the top competitors ran around pulling wedgies between problems. Though she won junior nationals three years in a row starting in 1996, it wasn't until 1998, when an 18-year-old Rodden became the youngest woman to send a 5.14a—To Bolt or Not to Be, at Smith Rock—that the world started to see her as more than a child prodigy. The feat was grown-up enough to get the attention of legendary big-wall-climbing pioneer Lynn Hill, who asked Rodden to join an expedition to Madagascar, where they established a 5.13 a0 route called Bravo Les Filles, the hardest, longest first ascent ever established by an all-female crew. Since then, Rodden has put up an enviable number of first ascents, including Lurking Fear, a 5.13c on El Cap that made her the second woman, after Hill, to free-climb the iconic granite slab.
Despite the audacity of her ascents, she's not in it for the adrenaline. "I'm not going out just to live on the edge," she says. "I get scared every single time I go up, but you learn how to harness that." And she would know about fear. After a disastrous Kyrgyzstan trip in 2000, during which she, Caldwell, and two friends were shot at, kidnapped, and starved by Islamic rebels before Caldwell overpowered one of their attackers, she nearly quit climbing. But once the exhausting media frenzy passed, Rodden returned to her sport again with an ascent of El Cap that raised money for the AmeriCares fund for 9/11 victims' families. She has now put the near-death experience behind her, enough to talk about it plainly. She can now even consider the possibility of a movie about the ordeal. "Hopefully, they'll have Matt Damon play Tommy," she laughs.
Without a doubt, her romance with Caldwell has added to her reputation—and, she believes, has supercharged her athletic development. Though they initially met at climbing competitions in their teens, it wasn't until Rodden had become a traditional climber—placing her own protection along her routes—that she really caught Caldwell's attention. The two fell for each other almost immediately after meeting again as adults, at a climbing slide show in Boulder in 2000. And like a classic romance, there was one moment when they recognized the other was going to be more than a belayer—when Rodden decided to sleep head to head, instead of head to foot, with Caldwell on their portaledge, 1,000 feet up on El Cap in the summer of 2000.
Now, after two years of marriage, the couple's house is filled with the trappings of both domestic and vertical life. Apple-cobbler recipes are scribbled on Marmot sticky notes next to the stove. A map of Half Dome hangs on the wall alongside paint swatches for their next home-improvement project. A framed first-date photo—the two posing with headlamps and giddy grins on the top of El Cap—shares an end table with family snapshots.
"We've got it so good together," says Rodden. "We thrive off each other." The couple climbs almost exclusively as a pair, as the anointed royal couple of rock climbing. Their personal and professional futures have melded into the vertical world's version of Nick and Jessica, so much so that outdoor-apparel maker Marmot commissioned them to design a clothing line to be launched in spring 2006: the Beth Rodden and Tommy Caldwell signature collections.
Still, you're more likely to find Rodden planning her next trip than her next fashion line. Over the summer she plans to set up first ascents on Norway's Lofoten Islands before working on undisclosed projects in Yosemite in the fall. And after that? Well, the living room could use some paint.
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