HealthTraining & Performance

This 52-Year-Old Climbing Gym Founder Is Still Sending

One of the best boulderers of the 1990s is climbing into her fifties

Over the past three decades, Hilary Harris helped raise the bar for the female climbers of her generation and become a pioneer of the climbing-gym movement. (Photo: Kelsey Huffer/Poppy + Co.)
Over the past three decades, Hilary Harris helped raise the bar for the female climbers of her generation and become a pioneer of the climbing-gym movement.

Walk into any of the full-service Evo Rock and Fitness climbing gyms in Colorado or the Northeast and you’ll see a Wall of Evolution, detailing the notable ascents, gear developments, and significant contributors to the climbing world over roughly the last century. That history is important to 52-year-old Hilary Harris, Evo’s founder. Over the past three decades, she’s helped raise the bar for the female climbers of her generation and become a pioneer of the climbing gym movement. She was the second women to boulder a V9, when she sent the Undercling Traverse on Flagstaff Mountain in Colorado in 1998, and since then has bagged the first female ascent of boulders and sport routes throughout the U.S. and Europe, including Aire Lupus, a V8 in Morrison, Colorado, and Ira Atomica, a 5.13b route in Kochel, Germany. 

“Undercling Traverse was the hardest boulder problem of my life, and only one other woman in the country had climbed that grade at that time,” Harris says. “I was being egged on by a lot of guys I was climbing with, joking that a girl would never do that problem. So I had to do it.”

Harris lived the life of a semiprofessional climber in the nineties, stringing small sponsorships together and traveling the world to chase grades. Worried about the sustainability of a climbing career, however, she went to graduate school to become an architect, eventually moving to New Hampshire for work in the early 2000s. “Climbing changed for me after I went back to school,” she says. “I couldn’t do it as much, but I wanted to keep climbing hard, so I had to be more focused with my training.”

Soon Harris was facing the classic adventurer dilemma: figuring out how to balance work with play. On weekends she explored the Adirondack Mountains and Shawangunks in New York and found projects to keep herself entertained at her home crag of Rumney, New Hampshire. Twice a week, she would drive an hour and a half each way to the nearest climbing gym. That balance only became more precarious when she was laid off during the recession in 2008 and decided to open the first Evo gym, in Concord, New Hampshire. “If you want to be a good climber, don’t own a climbing gym,” Harris says. “Being an entrepreneur is all-encompassing. You can never leave work. When I started Evo, I was talking to bankers and lawyers and took my cell phone to the crag. I swore I would never do that.”

“I was being egged on by a lot of guys I was climbing with, joking that a girl would never do that problem. So I had to do it.”

Harris couldn’t climb or train for long chunks of time while building her first gym. And it’s been like that ever since. She experiences climbing droughts while spearheading each new location (there are currently four Evos in Colorado and New England, with another opening next year in the Denver suburb of Golden) or recovering from injuries that take her away from the crag for months at a time. When she can climb, she dedicates herself to hard routes that are just out of her reach. “There’s something about project climbing that hooks you,” Harris says. “The fact that you get on a climb and you can’t do all the moves on the first try. There’s a problem-solving aspect to it. And when you figure it out and put it all together, there’s a feeling of elation.”

Two years ago, at age 50, Harris scaled the Nose of El Capitan, the big-wall route in Yosemite that has become a quintessential rite of passage for climbers. Most tackle the Nose in three days, knocking out a dozen pitches each day. Harris and her team of four completed it in under 23 hours. It’s a feat that required more endurance than power. “I didn’t want to die without climbing the Nose,” Harris says. “I threw all my eggs in that basket. I had to learn how to crack-climb, which was incredibly difficult. I couldn’t get up a 5.8 crack route. I was a beginner again. I had to learn the technical side of big-wall climbing. I had to learn how to jug. I had to learn how to handle the ropes on a big wall. It was really complex.”

Leading up to her 23-hour Nose achievement, Harris worked with a trainer to improve her endurance, which included running often, knocking out high-intensity interval workouts, and doing laps on tall routes at the gym. And as she makes her way through her sixth decade, Harris is determined to continue to grow as a climber. For 2020, she has a new goal of climbing a 5.13 again, which will take more strength than endurance. “My trainer insists I can build muscle in my fifties,” Harris says. “We’re taking it slow and steady, training bigger muscle groups, like my lats, and doing a lot of core work. It’ll be interesting to gain the kind of strength and muscle I’ll need to climb those hard grades again.”

Harris doesn’t see her age as a limiting factor in her climbing, as long as she’s willing to approach each new phase with the dedication and precision she’s thrown into past projects. “The beauty of climbing is you can do it until you’re really old,” she says. “You don’t have to be climbing really hard grades if that’s not what you’re into. You can get out to these amazing places and have an experience, and you can do that for your entire life. It’s special. Climbing evolves constantly, no matter how old you are.”

Hilary’s Workout

Harris is working with Brendan Killian at Outdoor Athletics in Colorado to build full-body strength so she can continue to climb harder grades as she ages. Here are a few key exercises from her workout.

Pull-Up Isometric Holds

On a pull-up bar, start a pull-up, but stop halfway through the motion and hold your body static, your head even with the bar. Hold for ten seconds, rest, and repeat five times. 

Slow Suitcase Carry

Grab a heavy kettlebell, and hold it in one hand on the side of your body. Walk in slow motion for five steps, forcing your trunk to stabilize the weight at your side. Repeat with the weight in your other hand.

Static Step-Up

Start with a low bench or a stool, and slowly step onto the bench with your right foot. This is a slow, dramatic movement with intention. Exaggerate the hinge at the waist as you move your weight onto your right leg, and pause as your left leg leaves the ground, putting all of your weight on your right leg in a partial single-leg squat. Stand straight up, still balancing on your right foot, then reverse the motion, pausing in the same places on your way back down to the ground.

Our mission to inspire readers to get outside has never been more critical. In recent years, Outside Online has reported on groundbreaking research linking time in nature to improved mental and physical health, and we’ve kept you informed about the unprecedented threats to America’s public lands. Our rigorous coverage helps spark important debates about wellness and travel and adventure, and it provides readers an accessible gateway to new outdoor passions. Time outside is essential—and we can help you make the most of it. Making a financial contribution to Outside Online only takes a few minutes and will ensure we can continue supplying the trailblazing, informative journalism that readers like you depend on. We hope you’ll support us. Thank you.
Contribute to Outside
Filed To: ClimbingBoulderEl CapitanHealth and BeautyWellnessCoreExercises
Lead Photo: Kelsey Huffer/Poppy + Co.
More Health