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Marmot Athlete Abbey Smith is Taking Bouldering to New Heights

10/24/17 by Emma Walker

What’s a climber doing in the heart of a city like Los Angeles? No, it’s not a riddle - Colorado native and Marmot athlete Abbey Smith makes her home in L.A., and not just because it’s the perfect hub for her creative pursuits.

"It’s a different kind of hustle," Smith laughs, pointing out some of the obvious differences between her years in Boulder and life in a big city. “We’re surrounded by the Sierra and close to Joshua Tree. We have all these different landscapes here—mountains, desert, and ocean!” (In fact, Smith says, it takes her the same amount of time to get to the nearest boulders from her home in L.A. as it did to drive from Boulder to Rocky Mountain National Park.)

Climbing at Horse Flats in the Angeles National Forest, about an hour from the city
    JESSE WEINER
Climbing at Horse Flats in the Angeles National Forest, about an hour from the city JESSE WEINER

Smith grew up in Greeley, Colorado, where it was easy to tag along with family friends for day trips to climbing areas like Horsetooth Reservoir and Shelf Road. At 17, she moved to Boulder, where she earned a journalism degree from the University of Colorado.

The university wasn’t Smith’s only education in Boulder. It’s also where she became acquainted with climbing as a "full-on sport," as she remembers. She did some trad and sport climbing, then fell in love with bouldering in her early 20s.

"I started realizing I really enjoyed the difficulty and the problem solving of bouldering," she recalls, “and the freedom of no gear.”

Boulder was also the perfect stomping ground for Smith to meet a lot of the big names in climbing, many of whom would become her mentors. One such mentor is fellow Marmot athlete Pete Takeda, who introduced her to the Marmot team in 2009.

"I saw it as the logical progression of Marmot’s sponsorship," Takeda says, pointing out that the company has strived to work with athletes at the cutting edge of climbing. At the time Smith came on board, bouldering was exactly that (especially alpine bouldering, which is what Smith has become best known for).

Right around that time, Smith had been planning a trip to Kashmir in India with her good friends Jonny Copp and Micah Dash. Copp and Dash had been to Shafat Fortress in 2007, and Smith was enticed by their photos. Sadly, Copp and Dash were killed in an avalanche before they could make the journey, but Takeda was part of the recovery effort, and soon, another trip was born.

The trip to Kashmir was a turning point in Smith’s climbing career. 
    MICK FOLLARI
The trip to Kashmir was a turning point in Smith’s climbing career. MICK FOLLARI

Smith and Takeda, along with climbers Jason Kehl and Mick Follari, hiked 20 miles to a base camp above 14,000 feet. The Himalayas, of course, are known for endless opportunities for expedition-style alpine climbing, but that wasn’t Smith’s interest. Instead, she spent her time exploring the area’s untapped bouldering potential. In all, the group established more than 40 new problems, some graded in the double digits.

"That was a turning point," Smith remembers. “I like to put myself on the edge. It’s on the forefront there, and you have to force yourself to commit, to be absolutely present and perform.”

After that trip, Smith continued to be drawn to the high alpine for bouldering expeditions.

"Abbey’s pretty unique in that sense," says Takeda. “She’s not only traveled around the world to boulder, but has also done a series of trips to the high mountains for the express purpose of bouldering.”

Smith on Breathless (V11), a 35-foot highball boulder problem that she established in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru.
    ANDY MANN
Smith on Breathless (V11), a 35-foot highball boulder problem that she established in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru. ANDY MANN

Next up was a trip to the Andes where they camped above 15,000 feet. That time, Smith ended up establishing what she calls the prize of her life: Breathless, the crux of which goes at V11. And it’s not just that the moves are hard.

"The first 20 feet is a pretty sustained crux," she explains. Twenty feet is higher than many boulderers are comfortable climbing without ropes and protection - it’s definitely well into highball territory. “At around 25 feet, you have a pretty good stance, and then it’s like, don’t lose it! It’s one of those magic moments where you become weightless, because there’s absolutely no option of failing.” In other words, you have to commit.

"People equate bouldering with being really safe," Takeda says, “but Abbey really blurs the lines between bouldering and free soloing. Seeing her on that route was pretty inspiring.”

Back in the States, Smith maintains that same kind of commitment to her local climbing communities. Since 2000, she’s spent most of her winters in Hueco Tanks, where she guides, climbs, and develops new boulder problems.

Smith on the first ascent of Raging Bull (V10) in the Miyar Valley in India.
    MICK FOLLARI
Smith on the first ascent of Raging Bull (V10) in the Miyar Valley in India. MICK FOLLARI

Guiding in one of the world’s bouldering meccas is different than in other places, Smith explains. In 1998, Hueco’s access was severely restricted due to an increase in recreational use and environmental destruction, including defacing of rock art. Now, three-quarters of the area is open only to guides and their clients, so in order to fully explore, it’s crucial to hook up with a guide like Smith, which helps to reduce impact.

Smith also continues the cycle of climbing mentorship by working with a kid’s climbing team in L.A. The group, out of local rock gym Boulderdash, climbs indoors, transitions to outdoor climbing, and learns the environmental stewardship that’s crucial to keeping climbing areas alive and well.

"I don’t know what I would have done without my mentors, so I want to give that back," Smith says. “It’s less about going out every weekend and sending. For me, it’s transitioned from just being obsessed with this sport to keeping our heritage and tradition alive.”

Eyeing up a move on a crag in California.
    JESSE WEINER
Eyeing up a move on a crag in California. JESSE WEINER

As part of that mission, Smith continues to work as the producer, among other things, for the Adventure Film Festival, founded by Copp. The grassroots festival celebrates the intersection of adventure and creativity, which is exactly where Smith finds herself.

"The power of storytelling is to not make us feel so alone, to connect us and translate these experiences," she says. It shows in her creative process.

"You have lots of dreams," Smith says, “and not all of them are going to come to fruition. But when I keep having one, I start to explore a little. And then I have a conversation, and it resonates with someone else, and then I start connecting the dots. When you see that it could work, you just sort of have to commit, right?”

This outlook working for Smith as she navigates the creative potential of her home in L.A., a move she compares with some of her greatest climbing trips.

The San Jacinto Mountains are one of many local areas for Southern California climbers.
    DAN KRAUSS
The San Jacinto Mountains are one of many local areas for Southern California climbers. DAN KRAUSS

"She definitely is steered by her heart," Takeda says of his longtime friend, “Actually, no. She’s steered by her gut.”

Next up for Smith is a winter in Hueco, followed by another high-alpine bouldering trip with Takeda.

Originally written by RootsRated for Marmot.