When 9-year-old Aussie Angie Scarth-Johnson recently cranked her first grade 31 climb, she became the youngest person anywhere to have achieved that. Yes, even Adam Ondra didn’t crank that hard until he was 11.
A friend had described to me Angie’s ability to pull on the tiniest of holds — holds that most of us wouldn’t even consider using. I commented that it’d be cool to see how hard she could crank if she could find a route where she wasn’t shut down by her height, now it seems we’ve found that out. But after watching the video footage (it is out of focus so probably will not be publicly released) of Angie’s send of Swingline in the Red River Gorge (USA), a route she sent on just her third day of attempts, I suspect she is capable of much more.
Especially given that Angie’s parents (Claudia and Tek) are not rock climbers, we were curious to find out more about this young crusher and what makes her tick (in both senses of the word). So we (Monique Foresiter and I) sat down with Angie and her parents at their Blackheath home and put some questions to them (28 December 2013).
Onsight How old are you and how long have you been climbing for?
Angie I’m nine now and I started climbing around my seventh birthday, so yeah it’s been about two and a half years.
Onsight Have you done other sports before you started climbing?
Angie I used to do swimming and I didn’t really like it because I’d grown up doing it and all I’d do is sit there and watch my sister do laps, just go up and down. I just got bored of it, watching her and when it came to my turn to do it I didn’t really enjoy it.
Onsight So how did you get started in climbing?
Angie I’d been to a swimming competition and on the way out there was a rock boulder and I started climbing it… And I really liked climbing and so I started climbing everything and then mum just took me to a (climbing) gym one day (in Canberra).
Onsight So when you went to the gym, what did you like about it?
Angie I liked it because I could finally climb something that I was allowed to without hurting myself and I could just climb with other people that really enjoyed it. It was really fun to hear that they went out on the weekend and I got really excited with that and I really wanted to do it…Then [some guys] from the gym they saw me and I saw them bouldering and I really wanted to try it and they came up and they started helping me in the gym. And then I went out with them to Nowra for the first time and it was really fun and I wanted to do it again and again.
Onsight What did you find challenging about outdoor climbing? Why did you like that so much?
Angie Because when you are climbing outdoors you can do more, you can climb a route that you really want to, you can do what you want, you can do a 15, an 18 a 24. But indoor if its reachy then you can’t do it, there is nothing in between like climbs outdoors.
Onsight You are very small Angie so how did you overcome reach problems outdoors?
Angie I try the climb altogether and then I square them and put them into little groups and when I find my cruxes I will work them when I am there and if I still can’t get them I’ll come down and I’ll rest and then sometimes, if it’s a reachy problem, I’ll come back up and I’ll have to sit on the rope for a while and just look around, but I’ll normally find stuff, other little things in between that aren’t chalked and other people don’t use — that’s why they’re hard to find.
Onsight Can you explain a bit more about what you mean about how you square the climb up.
Angie In sections like on Swingline the 31 I squared them up into pieces so into three cruxes and I could do two of them and the second one was quite hard so I’d square them and work them in sections. I might try the first crux up to a certain draw and I’ll work that and then come down for a rest and then try the next bit and work them like that.
Onsight Did you have to convince your parents much to let you go climbing outdoors?
Angie Dad was fine with it, but mum, she’d never heard of it really and never thought that is was that much of a sport. But after I’d been out a few times one day she came along and got very excited and wanted to come again.
Onsight What are you doing for training? Do you have a trainer? Do you follow a program?
Angie I go to the Bowlo (a private bouldering wall) after school about three times a week and spend about an hour, sometimes more. I don’t have a trainer. I write my own programs. I usually write a new program every week, sometimes I keep them for two or three weeks depends on what I am working at the time. I keep them in a folder in case I need it for next time to look at them again and sometimes I mix them up and if I’m not really working on anything that’s what I do I may go back to the first week to try something different. I don’t really write problems but I write tasks, like do the systems board up and down, do the slopers, I try really hard to make the problems like the same ones as outdoors. So if it has some crimps then I may make up a crimpy problem in the gym. And if I’m going to a new place I normally have to look at a guidebook or something just so I know what’s there, so I know what I am going to do there.
Onsight Tell us about some of your favourite climbs that you have done?
Angie A really cool one was in America and that was called Golden Boy (5.13b, 29) it was quite difficult for me because again it was a reach problem, and it took me three days, I could get all of it but it was just the reach. Sometimes it can take all day just to figure out just one little move.
Onsight With that route did you think “Oh I really think that I can figure something out here?” Is that why you went back to it?
Angie Well I got really angry with it cause I couldn’t get it and I had a mental battle with it because I don’t like being short because it’s harder for me and I get annoyed with it a lot. So Mum and Dad had to convince me to come back cause they thought that I could do it. I thought I could do it as well but I didn’t have the right mood at first.
Onsight Can you tell us a bit more about your recent US trip? How did it come about? What did you do over there?
Angie I got bored of having to find different climbs here where I thought yep I really can do this but then not being able to get to the end of it because of a massive jump or whatever. We heard a lot of the things about America that it wasn’t reachy, we thought that we might try something different. I started off with a 26, that was the first day. The next day I found Skin Boat (5.13a, 28) that took me two days. I liked the climb because it felt really cool the way I did all the moves. My favourite bit was the middle bit — it was a pop move. Then we went to Ultra Perm (5.13d, 31) but I got scared on the crack at the start and I didn’t really like it that much so then we went to try Angry Birds (5.13c, 30) but (didn’t get on it because) it was wet. Then we went to the Gold Coast the same day because we had to do more climbing because it was a good day to climb. That’s when we tried God’s Own Stone (5.14a, 32). We only had a little time left, only a week and we had to choose something quickly and I needed time to work it. It was a very crimpy climb, I looked at it and I really liked it but I didn’t think I had enough time to work it; I needed more than one week. So then I got on Golden Boy (5.13b, 29) and did that in a few days.
Angie …then we looked for the Dark Side because we saw it in the book and we had heard lots of people talking about it and some climbers said maybe I should jump on Swingline (5.13d, 31). Then we tried it and the first day I said “Yeah, I think I can get this”. Because there was an easy bit up to the first crux, and another easy bit and another crux, but the main crux was the bottom crux, I had to find another way of getting that one because I couldn’t reach the jug and I had to use these really bad slopers to get it and then I had to do a really big rock over and then it was finished and then I had a couple more cruxes and I thought it was the perfect one.
Onsight Have other climbers been psyched about what you have done?
Angie Yes they have, they have all been very supportive about it and very nice about it.
Onsight A year ago you moved from Canberra up to the Blue Mountains. Why did you choose the mountains?
Claudia It was a number of reasons, we wanted to change our lifestyle and we looked at several different places in Australia. I’ve always liked the bush, Angie could come climbing and the mountains was the one that ticked all the boxes.
Onsight Obviously you’ve given up a lot to support Angie’s climbing, what’s in it for you?
Claudia Look at the life we live. It’s a nice life, it’s completely changed the way we look at things, it’s not materialistic… it’s about actually enjoying our life and more about the memories we make rather than how many cars we own, so that’s a big thing. The excitement that Angie gets from it is another big thing that we get out of it. Just watching her work something and battle with it and encourage her but not over power that either. Let her make her own decisions, we get so much enjoyment out of that. Watching the process and watching how she grows with that too. That to us, as a parent you know, is irreplaceable. The time that we spend with her, she’s our youngest, and to spend this much quality time is special, we weren’t able to do this with our other two children.
Onsight Do you think that climbing has been good for Angie?
Claudia Yes most definitely, with her personality, she needs something like climbing to keep her occupied.
Onsight If you could climb with anyone in the world who would it be?
Angie I would climb with… (pause)… I’d climb with Ashima [Shiraishi] because I’d like to see how she does things, it would be very interesting, and we could give each other beta.
Onsight Obviously you have a huge amount of natural talent for climbing. Is this something you see yourself doing in 10 years’ time?
Onsight Where would you like to be with your climbing?
Angie I’d like to be travelling a lot, and I’d like to be living somewhere where there is lots of climbing. Like Spain. I’d like to climb with lots of famous climbers and climb the popular climbs that I could possibly reach by then.
Onsight Awesome. Well congratulations again Angie on your climbing. And thanks Angie, Cladia and Tek for your time today.
Angie is sponsored by Climbing Anchors.