Climbing 500 Outdoor Pitches in 2023

June 20, 2024 55 view(s)

Climbing 500 Outdoor Pitches in 2023

I’m a scientist by training, and I’ve always loved data, so it’s no surprise that’s impacted my approach to climbing. I’ve been climbing for 21 years, and the first half of my career was spent as a gym climber comp kid longing for real rock. I didn’t get to start truly exploring outdoor climbing until I went to college in Utah and expanded my list of crags exponentially. Ever since then, I’ve used Mountain Project as a convenient log to track my outdoor climbing pitches.

I noticed some interesting things when I looked at the overview of my climbing data, specifically the number of total pitches climbed each year. I climbed quite a bit from 2016-17, but then I fell ill for a couple of years with dysautonomia (POTS). In 2018-19, while my dysautonomia was undiagnosed and untreated (in addition to 3 ankle surgeries and a shoulder surgery), I hardly climbed at all, so those bars are virtually nonexistent on the graph. In 2020, I started to feel a bit better with proper treatment, so I dove back into climbing, and that’s reflected in the graph for 2020, 2021, and 2022 — hovering around 200 pitches each year.

I decided I wanted to make climbing outside a bigger part of my life, and see how climbing a high volume of routes would influence my performance. Enter my goal for 2023:  climbing 500 outdoor pitches, more than doubling the amount of climbing I’d ever done before in a single year. I knew it would fundamentally change my habits, but I didn’t realize just how revolutionary it was going to be for my life and my climbing.

"Electric Avenue" (5.12a) - Photo by Ben Herndon
"Bailface" (5.12d) - Photo by Alex Hepworth

The first thing I noticed was that I started to say ‘yes’ to climbing outside at every opportunity in order to stay on track for my goal. I got in the habit of climbing outside as much as possible. When I realized I was lagging behind schedule, or when I couldn’t find a partner, I top rope-soloed to get my pitches in. I tracked my progress on Mountain Project and also in another spreadsheet to make it easier to visualize (I even tracked my gym/indoor pitches too just so I could compare — I ended up doing 436 indoor pitches in addition to the 500 outside pitches). The biggest challenges to the goal were forced downtime due to injuries, sickness, bad weather, and working full-time as a science teacher.

My 2023 goal kicked off in January with a birthday trip to Joshua Tree to climb, where I was met with freezing temperatures that made climbing nearly impossible, and I hardly did any pitches. In February, I traveled to El Potrero Chico, Mexico, and was able to knock out a ton of climbs, including some classic multi-pitches. I returned home to St. George, Utah and immediately got a severe ankle sprain while trail running, which benched me for a couple months. I managed to climb a bit the rest of the spring locally and in Red Rock (Nevada), and I leaned into climbing photography as a way to stay involved as my ankle healed.

In May, as soon as I was done teaching, I embarked on a summer roadtrip. I went to City of Rocks, Idaho, and I was able to send my new hardest trad route ever, “Electric Avenue” (5.12a). It’s a famous and classic line that I really enjoyed and I was proud to redpoint on my third go. I also spent a lot of time in Logan, Utah, where I worked on a longtime project (“Paleface” 5.13a), and I ended up sending a variation of it called “Bailface” (5.12d), which was deeply rewarding. My efforts to maximize outdoor climbing were paying off with hard-for-me sends, and a feeling of confidence and mastery on the rock!

After being stranded in Logan for a while due to car troubles, in July I bought a new vehicle, threw together a car build-out with the help of a friend, and went to Ten Sleep, Wyoming. I climbed nearly every day, made a bunch of new friends, and managed to get some of my hardest onsights:  “Left El Shinto” and “Upernavik” (both 5.12b); “Drug of Choice” (5.12a/b); “Sharks with Lazers”, “Cocaine Rodeo”, and “Wu-Tang's Wild Shinto Ride” (all 5.12a). I also went to the International Climbers Festival in Lander, Wyoming for the first time.

Back home in the desert in the fall, I climbed locally, and did a quick trip back up to City of Rocks for one last hurrah for the season. Then I spent the entire month of October exploring Arizona on a big solo road trip — I had never climbed in Arizona, and I wanted to take advantage of my break from teaching for the semester. It was a treat to trail run and climb almost every day, making my way from Page to Tucson. I trail ran near Lake Powell and then in the Grand Canyon, climbed near Flagstaff and Phoenix, wandered Saguaro National Park, and ended up falling in love with the climbing on Mt Lemmon near Tucson. It was a wonderful trip, and a nice ‘reset’ from regular life.

"Cocaine Rodeo" (5.12a) - Photo by Adam Beebs
Mt. Lemmon, AZ - Photo by Todd Bukowski

In November and December, I was starting to feel the self-imposed pressure of meeting my goal, so I laid on the gas to get my pitches done. I was guiding climbing in addition to doing my own personal climbing, and my spreadsheet crept closer to 500. On December 27, I made the first female ascent of “Contact Tracing” (5.12, sent 2nd go) near Zion, which was an exciting finish to the year. In the last few days of 2023, I climbed even more to get to my goal, completing my 500th outdoor pitch in Snow Canyon State Park on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. 

The goal was never about the specific 500 number — it was about changing my lifestyle to make room for more outside climbing, increasing my mastery and confidence on real rock, and spending more time in nature. The memories and friends I made along the way at various crags were a nice bonus! Doing such a high volume of climbing in 2023 helped me achieve my hardest grades ever in climbing (hardest sport redpoint, trad redpoint, sport onsight, and sport flash) without doing any training whatsoever. It turns out that at some level, climbing a lot is still the best way to get better at climbing. 

With my disabilities, it is also important to me to keep pushing the envelope to see what my potential is in climbing, which is why I continued trying hard routes (even when it would have been faster to do ‘easy’ climbing to complete the goal). 

It felt incredible to achieve the goal, but I don’t think I’ll be aiming for a specific number of pitches in a year again. I like quality over quantity. I’ll continue to prioritize outdoor climbing, but I don’t see myself top rope soloing random routes just to meet a pitch goal again anytime in the future (though I am keeping track again in 2024 because I love data). I want to focus mostly on classic routes that truly inspire me. I learned a lot from this goal, experienced major breakthroughs in my climbing, and had a ton of fun doing it. I’m grateful I was able to see it through! 

"Contact Tracing" (5.12) (First Female Ascent) - Photo by Cameron Preston
"Drilling Fields" (5.11a) - Photo by Levi Call

Fallon Rowe is an ambassador for Cypher Climbing. Be sure to follow her on Instagram @fallonclimbs to keep up with all of her adventures!

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