Interview with Margo Hayes

Margo Hayes recently climbed Biographie (5.15a / 9a+), quite likely the hardest sport route ever done by a woman. With La Rambla (9a+) and Biographie within a few months, the 19-year-old has taken the world of climbing by storm.

We met with Margo before the Youth World Championships and talked to her about climbing La Rambla, the media, and why we climb.

Climbing La Rambla must have changed your life. What have you been up to since then?
The moment was unforgettable. I knew I was capable, but I couldn’t believe it at the same time; it didn’t feel real. And it was very liberating, actually, when I clipped the chains and it increased my belief in myself. Since La Rambla, I’ve been training for comps, climbing outside, practicing French and spending time with friends.

How was that liberating? Did the pressure build up?
I put pressure on myself. I had to let go of that pressure while climbing in order to send it. I tried to focus on enjoying every movement, enjoying the route as a whole, focusing on the process rather than the end result. That’s what my parents always tell me, they say it’s about the journey. So, when I was able to just focus on that, and dive into the beauty of the climb, that is what enabled me to clip the chains.

What is your background? Is rock climbing a big thing in your family?
My grandpa, my mom’s dad, Dr James Morrissey, was a mountaineer. He led the American expedition to the East Face [Kangshung Face] of Mt. Everest in 1983 [1]. My dad grew up in California. In college, he discovered Yosemite Valley and he fell in love with rock climbing, in love with the Valley and he used to drive there almost every weekend from school. My dad still climbs. He’s my best belay partner and my best climbing buddy.

How did you get introduced to climbing? In Yosemite?
My dad introduced me to climbing when I was young. He used to take my sister and me up easy 5th class around Boulder. I joined Robyn Erbesfield's Team ABC when I was ten years old. 

So, Robyn Erbesfield Raboutou was your coach, rather than your dad. 
My father has never been my coach, but continues to teach me about climbing and safety outside. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today without him. He fully supports me, but he doesn’t coach me. And the same with my mom, they’re never there pushing me, but they’re always there beside me. 

Climbing La Rambla was a great achievement that made headlines. Now you’re quite well known. Do you feel more pressure when climbing since? When you are Innsbruck, you go into the gym, and everyone recognises you.
I don’t think that everybody recognizes me, but even if I am better known now, climbing hasn’t changed for me. 

Now that you did La Rambla, your opportunities for working with media or companies have increased, is that right? 
Yes. After I did La Rambla, I was appreciative of the positive support yet overwhelmed with the media requests. I enjoy my privacy and I didn’t want to get too wrapped up in media, which takes my focus away from my passion. It’s easy to become distracted by media. I’m not saying that media is bad, it’s an important means of communication, but sometimes it’s too consuming. 

Do you want to be a professional climber? Are you still in school?
I want to climb my whole life. I want to combine climbing with my other interests. I am doing some courses on-line right now. I love math and science, art and technology. I’m not in a rush to attend university.  I can continue to do on-line courses while I train and eventually transfer into university when I decide it is the right time.  Climbing is my biggest passion in life right now and I am going to embrace it and give it everything I have!

The past year has been full of success on rock, but in competitions, you have not had similar success. 
This past year has been a bit rough with the competitions. They haven’t gone as well as I’d have hoped. If I look at my entire career, however, I think that I have done very well in competition overall, but it is definitely an area where I plan to put in the time it takes so that I am better prepared for the World Cups.  I know that I have much to learn. I think that I am still trying to find that balance between climbing outside and competition training. 

Why were the last year and a half difficult?
I think that I am still trying to find the balance. Although I trained hard, I don’t think that I trained properly.  Times like that are really rough and can be very frustrating. But that’s when it’s important to stand up and to say: “Ok, what’s going on, what can I learn, what can I do differently?” And while I am not where I want to be, I’m going to find my way there.

What are the lessons that you’ve learnt in the last year in competition?  
The most important lesson I’ve learned this year is that I need to find the formula which works best for me. I am looking at this year and my performance as a learning opportunity rather than a failure. I’m trying to identify my strengths and weaknesses, learn from them and then move forward. It is an ever-changing process, I think.

Is this process why you like to compete?
I love competition and the learning process is part of competition. I also enjoy the excitement at the venue, seeing my friends and supporting the other competitors.

How do you prepare for competitions? For example: do the route setters or the venue play a big role or not?
The route setters and venue don’t play a big role for me because those are variables that I don’t control. I’m very systematic in some ways, but I think that I have learnt to adapt in different situations, to accept what is and to trust that whatever is, is just right.

Lionel Terray called climbers ‘conquerors of the useless’ (orig.
Les Conquérants de l'inutile). There is no extrinsic reason to climb rocks, there’s no cure for cancer or anything else on any summit or at any chains. Why climb?
Climbing is personal.  It challenges me mentally and physically. It pushes me to believe in myself and makes me more confident.  I think that that transfers into other areas in life. By feeling confident and realizing goals, I want to impact the world in other ways. The intrinsic becomes extrinsic.

Could climbing be the venue for that?
Yes, I believe that climbing is teaching me many life lessons that impact my interests in other areas.

There has been a lot of debate about this "first female ascent" tag. Some people view it negatively. Some people say it helps women to pursue their goals and make the sport grow. What do you think?
I don’t think that "first female ascent" is a negative thing. There are also first male ascents and there will be more. Historically, women have not been acknowledged for their work in science, technology, politics, art, and much more.  We are trying to narrow the gender gap and I think that by documenting a woman’s achievement it becomes part of history.

We already have, right. The Nose.
Exactly, we already have. Lynn Hill proved this point.

Do you think that if there’s a first male ascent, people would call it a first male ascent or would people call it a repeat?
People would probably call it a repeat right now. But I think that given the direction we’re moving in, eventually it will be called a first male ascent. Because that’s what it is.

When you look for a goal in sport climbing, do you look for something that's not seen a first female ascent or is that secondary to you?
It’s secondary to me. Most of the climbs I have done have not been first female ascents. I look for something that inspires me, something that I personally want to climb.

Doesn’t the tag imply that a woman has a more difficult starting position than a man to reach their goal?
We all have our individual weaknesses and strengths. If we look at it more on an individual level rather than just by gender, then maybe it’s easier to compare. We’re all human.
I think that as climbing grows, as more women try and send 5.15, more women will start bolting 5.15.

Are you going to participate at the 2018 World Championships in Innsbruck?
Yes, if I’m qualified, I’m going to participate.

What do you associate Innsbruck with? Do you like it here?
Innsbruck is a beautiful city. There is so much history, the architecture is gorgeous... and this gym is the most amazing gym I’ve ever experienced. I think it’s the best gym in the world right now. I have so much respect for those who put so much hard work into envisioning it and building it for the climbing community. I’ve enjoyed every day here in Innsbruck, climbing with friends from around the world!

Yes, it's the Camp 4 of competition climbing. What do you think about the Olympic format
Personally, I think that in a perfect world we’d have an all-around medal as well as a medal for the individual disciplines, like in gymnastics. That would be the best format because I think often people specialise in one discipline or two disciplines and I think that we would get the top athletes in each discipline that way. But I also think that if the all-a and is the decided format, that’s what I’ll train for.

Were the Olympics always a big dream for you?
Yes, going to the Olympics has always been a big dream for me. When I was competing in gymnastics, going to the Olympics was my goal. Now with climbing is being introduced as an Olympic sport, it is a dream of mine to compete on that stage.

Coffee or tea?

Mountains or beach?

Céüse or Red River Gorge?

Another 9a+ or world champion?

The most impressive competitor ever is…?
(Long pause) Maybe Serena Williams.

The best route?
(Long pause) I haven’t discovered it yet, I think. The best route in the world hasn’t been bolted yet. It’s out there waiting for us.

Your favourite moment as a climber was…?
(Long pause) I have to keep that to myself.

 [1]: The expedition successfully climbed the face. It is the steepest face on Mount Everest. The "American Buttress" has not seen a second ascent. Among the summit climbers were George Lowe and Louis Reichardt.


2000 Griffe





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