The death this year of Roger Bannister, the first person to run a four-minute mile, prompted a reappraisal of his 1954 achievement. “It was as much of a psychological barrier as it was a physical barrier,” said the head of the International Association of Athletics Federations. “He made the impossible possible.”
Athletes only rarely confront that line, the place where possibility is supposed to end. But that was where Margo Hayes, a rock climber from Colorado, stood last year, then just 19 years old, looking up at a limestone cliff outside Barcelona.
If she got to the top, the line of possibility would be moved for good: she would become the first woman ever to climb a rock route with a difficulty rating of 5.15 (read “five-fifteen”) – the highest number grade.
“It was a route that I knew I wanted to climb,” Hayes told the Guardian in an interview this month in Washington DC, where she had joined an effort to advocate on behalf of public lands.
Before her decisive attempt on the Spanish route, called La Rambla, Hayes had gotten to know it by heart. She had practiced the moves, memorized the sequences. She had fallen asleep thinking about it and woken up planning for it. The challenge was to climb it from bottom to top in one go.
She had the talent to do it, hailing from a family of climbers, including a grandfather who led the first expedition to summit Mount Everest via the Kangshung face, in 1983, and a father who scaled the big walls of Yosemite Valley, California.
She had the training to do it, as a standout former junior gymnast, and the preparation: the year before, she had methodically sought out and climbed 14 routes just a tick less difficult, rated 5.14.
But in having the talent and the preparation and the training, Hayes was not unique among climbers. She was certainly not alone among women in hoping to be the first to climb 5.15,a grade only about 60 men in the world have climbed (in the French grading system, more familiar to climbers in Europe, the US grade of 5.15 translates to 9a+).
The celebrated climber Lynn Hill, whose unparalleled résumé includes the first 5.14 ascent by a woman, in 1990, was with Hayes last week in Washington. Hill, 57, said many top female climbers from around the world had their sights set on the 5.15 feat.
“There were women who were ex-competition climbers – that train, train, train indoors – who also were outdoor climbers who were interested in that, but for whatever reason, she [Hayes] beat them to it,” Hill told the Guardian.
“Well, the reason is in here, I think,” said Hill, tapping her temple.
Preparation and opportunity came together for Hayes one February afternoon. At the end of an all-out, half-hour attempt, La Rambla was hers. She clipped her rope to the anchor at the top, slapped her chalk-covered forehead and let the tears flow.
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“It was an incredible feeling,” she said. “When you do something in your head a million times, you can see it – it’s truly a visionary process. To really complete that is a surreal feeling. It’s almost like you need to pinch yourself.”
Video of Hayes climbing La Rambla captures her athletic ingenuity – the way she places her feet where hands might go; her precision – how she stabs with her fingertips at tiny holds at the limit of her reach; and her tenacity – how she grabs tiny holds and does not let go.
What the video cannot show is what is going on in Hayes’ head, behind her gritted teeth, lowered brow and preternaturally focused eyes. Perfect determination, but also detachment, are written there.
“You need that mind that says: ‘I can see this possibility, and I’m going to do it,’” said Hill. “And that’s what Margo has. She can see the possibility.”
Rebecca Williams, a clinical psychologist who coaches climbers, said that to break through a barrier such as 5.15, a climber must deal with “the pressure of your own expectations – wanting it without being too attached to the outcome (which is almost ‘zen’ for some people).
“In most elite climbers there is the trait of ‘tough-mindedness’ where there is self-belief, huge desire to succeed, resilience and a high focus on a goal (amongst other components),” said Williams in an email. “And I would guess Margo has this in spades.”
Hayes traces her origins as a climber to her gymnastics career, which she began at age six. “Gymnastics is my life and my life is gymnastics,” she wrote in an early diary, filmed for a recent movie about her exploits. “I am living for the Olympic team and gold.”
“I’ve always been a goal-setter,” Hayes said. “I like to be very organized. A lot of my goals – they’re written down somewhere a long time before I get them. Not all of them, though; some are more spontaneous.”
When she was 10, another passion began to take hold. Hayes started climbing at ABC Kids climbing gym in Boulder, Colorado, home base to one of the premier junior climbing teams in the country.
“What I really love about climbing, which was a change from gymnastics, was that all of a sudden I was training with boys and girls, and with people who were my age, people who were 10 years older, 20 years older, 30 years older than I am,” said Hayes, now 20.
It wasn’t long before the climbing world took notice. The North Face brand declared her a rising talent in 2013. In 2016, she won a Climbing magazine Golden Piton award and multiple golds in the World Youth Championships.
Outside of climbing, Hayes, who currently lives in Boulder, keeps bees and makes art, and she is starting college courses online.
After finishing La Rambla, Hayes turned her focus to a limestone cliff in southern France, where she climbed a second 5.15. But she was not alone for long. Two women, the Belgian Anak Verhoeven and the Austrian Angela Eiter, have since notched the grade. The follow-on pressure is indicative of the level of competition to be featured when climbing is included in the Olympics for the first time, in Tokyo 2020.
Hayes is coy about her Olympic dreams. Asked whether she hopes to compete in Japan, she does not say “yes”. She says: “The Olympics has been a dream of mine ever since I was a gymnast, since I was six years old.”
Hayes’ diplomatic nature, and her seriousness of purpose, come through in other ways. Asked about personal setbacks, Hayes replies that setbacks are opportunities to come back stronger.
Asked whether climbing benchmarks for women should be tracked separately from climbing benchmarks for men, Hayes deflects the question.
“I’m proud to be one of the many women who is pushing the sport forward, and if it weren’t for those women who came before us, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” she says.
“Believing in yourself, and persisting – it works.”