"'Paige Claassen decks on a 5.7' probably wouldn't be too great of a headline," joked Paige Claassen, one of the world's best rock climbers, known for her many ascents on extremely difficult 5.14-rated routes and for her pursuit to reach the top of her first 5.15.
Claassen and I were perched on the side of a large sandstone formation at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. We were hoping to set-up our first route of the day, taken aback with how sketchy the supposedly easy climb was. Loose flakes on the rock and old, run-out protection bolts offered little comfort. Granted, we were unable to access the route we were planning to climb and thus, here we were.
At the young age of 9, a shy Paige Claassen from Estes Park had started climbing with no way of knowing how much of an impact the sport would have on her life and the person she would become.
Climbing hit Paige a bit different than the other athletic ventures she'd sampled in her short life, those that had failed to pique her interest. Paige is a competitive person, but she wasn't drawn to team sports like soccer or basketball. Starkly different, climbing offered an opportunity for Paige to compete directly against herself.
Realizing she had found an activity that she both enjoyed and excelled at, Paige's parents a variety of reknowned coaches in her hometown of Estes Park, including Michelle Hurni, Stephan Greenway, and ultimately Mike Caldwell, the father of the famed Tommy Caldwell as her coach. Paige has been climbing walls since.
For Paige, climbing soon became a means of finding confidence, allowing her to overcome her shyness and form a sense of identity and pride anchored in the sport. Once she was plugged into the local gym scene, Paige continued to develop as an athlete, rising in the ranks and reaching the top of increasingly difficult routes in competition and otherwise.
And then one day, last spring, Paige didn't reach the top.
In May, Paige had been in California for about a month, repeatedly returning to the base of a remote crag beneath a route called Empath. The route was graded as a 5.15a and was harder than any route Paige had successfully climbed to-date.
Granted, Paige is no stranger to perseverance in the face of a formidable challenge. Starting in 2012, she would work on a 5.14b-rated route in Utah called 'The Bleeding' for three years before earning her tick.
But this time, in California, it was different. A month spent on and off the wall had started to teach Paige a lot more than merely what it would take to reach the top of this specific route.
"It's cool to send, but there's a lot you can learn along the way," said Paige, reminiscing about Empath as I furiously took notes amid hoards of bumbling tourists.
The two of us had since safely descended from our precarious position on the rock face with the help of Sarah Janin of Colorado Mountain School on belay, now in search of a better option.
"In life, we doubt ourselves a lot and we don't know what we're capable of. Climbing is a way of finding out what we're capable of. It's a way of building a really deep trust inside of you, building a sort of compass that lets you know who you are," Paige continued.
While Paige had spent much longer on other routes throughout the course of her climbing career, her gut had her pulling her foot off the throttle when it came to Empath. She came back to Colorado.
Once a shy child that turned to climbing as a means of giving direction to her life, Paige has since realized that climbing is no longer the only aspect of her life pushing her forward in a productive way.
After month on the wall away from friends, family, and other priorities, she couldn't help but realize that she performed better on the wall when these distractions were kept close. While Paige once relied on climbing to provide the basis of her identity, her identity has since evolved to something beyond that, no longer so heavily tied to quickdraws and rope.
The day Paige and I were at the Garden of the Gods was a crowded one despite storm clouds slowly forming above a not-so-distant Pikes Peak. After backing down from the first climb, we moved to a nearby route with a lower chance of a surprise slip and bolts that were much newer than those we were previously trying to reach.
As Paige climbed up the route with ease, a crowd gathered to gawk at her ability, unaware that they were watching a professional climber so talented and accomplished that she's sponsored by well-known companies like Eddie Bauer and La Sportiva. Some of the curious onlookers asked questions about Paige and the sport of climbing, seemingly trapped in a trance as their eyes followed her to the top of the spire-shaped formation.
According to Paige, she does her best climbing when climbing isn't the only thing in her life – when there's a balance there, too.
In January of 2020, just a couple months before the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, Paige finished up a lengthy project in South Africa with her non-profit, Southern Africa Education Fund. After founding the organization in 2016, Paige would spend four years on a project that would ultimately build eight classrooms and a playground in Aussenkehr, Namibia – a village with limited resources that's located eight hours from the nearest major city.
The new classrooms allowed the school of 850 students to move toward full days of class, instead of having to alternate morning and afternoon sessions due to limited space. The extra space would become even more important once the coronavirus pandemic hit, allowing the education center to stay open amid social distancing restrictions, now with more room for more students.
"We tend to zero in on a goal and then achieving that becomes all that matters, but in doing that, it's possible to lose sight of family and relationships and giving back to the community," said Paige, noting that her commitment to the non-profit world is another way that she has learned to bring more balance into her life. According to Paige, she considers this balance to be something that makes her a better climber and a better person, all-around.
Eventually, our climbing party found a more private space at the Garden of the Gods. Away from the crowds, we worked on reaching the top of a more difficult route, probably one of the most difficult routes my hands have ever touched.
With gawkers out-of-sight and on a route that presented some level of challenge, Paige's eyes lit up as she plotted her ascent. Soon, Paige led a quick charge to the top, taking time to admire features of the face along the way. With her encouragement, I made it to the top, too, mostly pulled up the wall in between taxing moves that I found to be a bit out of reach.
By this point, distant storm clouds had moved closer and our time spent together was drawing to a close. Daily duties were once again pulling me out of nature and back to my spot behind a desk and three computer screens. We said our goodbyes and parted ways.
Thunder started to rumble in the distance as I walked to my car, thinking about how I could put Paige Claassen's story into words.
Once a shy child looking for a new sport, Paige found an inner strength in climbing that can't be taught, eventually growing strong enough to have a meaningful impact on the lives of many others far outside of her sport. And it was that push outside of her sport that helped her become the dominating athlete that she is today.
Without balance, a sort of undue pressure can seem to fall on a singular goal and this pressure can become an obstacle that makes it difficult to move forward. Yet, with balance in the picture, this pressure seems to be alleviated, allowing for a more natural pursuit of success.
That being said, it's also crucial to note that balance didn't just occur spontaneously in Paige's life. She worked hard to find it and developed it over time. After all, balance in life doesn't come naturally for most, it comes to those strong enough to put in the effort to build it for themselves. Paige Claassen is one of those people.