It’s February 2017 in Siurana, Spain, and 19-year-old Margo Hayes is climbing a notoriously difficult 135-foot route called La Rambla. She reaches her long arms and callused fingers from tiny hold to tiny hold and pulls herself skyward. At times, her foot nearly touches her head, locking onto a bump of granite and staying there, her five-foot-three-inch frame like a spider on a wall. La Rambla is rated 5.15a, and if Margo tops out she'll become the first woman in the world to climb a route of this difficulty, which is as hard as climbing gets.
Margo's brain wants to top out, but her fingers don’t. She's worn the tips of them bloody. About halfway up the route, she descends. Back on the ground, she contemplates taking the day off, letting her hands heal, and trying again tomorrow. But as she watches others climb on the same face, she thinks, “You know, I'm going to try it one more time.” Back on the wall, she bloodies more holds until she lunges her way to the top, and into history.
Since she began climbing competitively as a ten-year-old in Boulder, Colorado, Margo has out-climbed nearly everyone, man or woman, on the planet. Her big break came in 2013, when she earned The North Face Young Gun Award, which honors up-and-coming climbers. Three years later, she won three golds at the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s World Youth Championships. In the same calendar year, she sent a stunning fourteen 5.14s, a goal she made for herself, she said at the time, to learn as much as possible about climbing at that grade. Later she won Climbing Magazine’s Golden Piton award, for her “prolific and impressive 2016 tick-list.”
A few months after that, she climbed La Rambla with bloody fingers. And less than a year later, she climbed another 5.15a, Biographie, proving to the world that she deserves her ranking among the greatest climbers of all time. Lynn Hill, Margo’s mentor and the most famous big-wall climber in the world, says that when Margo became the first woman to climb 5.15a, “it gave me goosebumps,” because “Margo was the perfect person to do it.”
It’s been a heady ride, one that Margo handles with poise. Of her natural ability, she says, “I wouldn't consider myself a climbing prodigy. I was born with a high level of athleticism and talent, but I would attribute most of my success to my work ethic. I work hard, because that is something that I highly value, alongside integrity—and kindness.”
Scott Rennak, marketing director for The Spot climbing gym in Boulder, says Margo offers something most climbers in our social-media-entrenched age don't: she’s a graceful and impassioned athlete who climbs “real rock.” And she’s rising about as fast as a person can. But Hill, who shot to stardom at around the same age as Margo back in the 1980s, says that Margo would do well to take a measured approach to her fame. “Margo is the can-do girl who masters problems through hard work and patience,” says Hill. “As a result, she’s in a cycle of work and reward.” To do that in climbing, your focus must reach obsession levels. “But getting out of that mode,” inevitable as a climber ages, continues Hill, “is going to be a transition.” Hill cautions Margo to look toward the future even as she dominates the present.
Hill isn’t the only one interested in Margo’s future. The climbing community is watching closely, waiting and hoping for her to climb La Dura Dura—a 5.15c that’s rated the world’s hardest sport route. Only two people—Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra—have ever successfully navigated it.
Margo won’t say if La Dura Dura is in the offing. She keeps her projects close and when she’s not training or traveling, she spends her time painting, reading poetry, and mentoring younger climbers. But first ascents are in her blood. Her maternal grandfather, after all, is Dr. James Morrissey, who led the first successful ascent of Everest’s east face. She has winning DNA.
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