Climber Angie Payne Conquers Colorado’s Automator

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Above, Payne climbs Castaway. Click here to watch a video of Angie Payne's Automator climb.

Last week, Angie Payne pushed women’s bouldering to a new level when she made the first female ascent of The Automator (V13) in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. It was the first time a woman had climbed a consensus V13 problem, and the latest in a recent string of bar-raising sends by Payne and other top female climbers like Alex Puccio, Thomasina Pidgeon, and Alex Johnson.

Besides climbing, Payne puts in time at CU Boulder, where she’s studying to be a veterinarian. I got ahold of her by email to find out more about The Automator and where she thinks women’s climbing is headed.

–Adam Roy

In June, you were talking about V13 like it was a long way off – you called it “one of my ultimate goals.” Barely two months later, you've done it. What changed?
Right around the time of that interview, I started trying No More Greener Grasses at Mt. Evans. By climbing on this problem, I realized that I was feeling stronger than I ever had. Doing NMGG boosted my confidence and made me realize that V13 was not as far away as I had once thought, granted that I find the right V13 to try. As it turns out, my friend Flannery Shay-Nemirow had started climbing on the Automator and invited me to climb on it. It fit my style very well, so it felt within reach.

Describe The Automator to us. What was it about the problem that attracted you?
The Automator is a low 10-move problem that climbs a slightly upward-rising traverse across crimpy holds. It is not the most beautiful problem, but the holds on it are really neat and it is fun to climb on.

The crux of the problem is at the end, nine moves in. This move involves a cross off of a left-hand flat edge to a right-hand two-finger mini pinch/crimp. The move is a nice mix of power and technique, and the real crux of the problem is linking this move after climbing eight moves before it.

As I mentioned, I originally started trying the problem this year because my friend invited me to climb on it with her. She had done the moves and really opened the door to the possibility of this problem being climbed by a woman.

How long were you working on it?
I did the problem on my seventh day of trying it. I climbed on the problem mostly at night, because the temperatures during the day were too warm still, and because I often had school or work during the day.

Each evening that I went to the problem, I would stay up there until ten or eleven, which made for some late nights.

Tell us a little bit about how the send went down.
The day that I sent the problem was one of the few days that I got up there while it was still light. I was able to warm up and climb on it a bit in the light, before we had to set up all the headlamps and lanterns.

I actually climbed through the crux once and fell on the next move when my foot blew off. I was incredibly angry because I felt that I had climbed through the hardest part, and fallen where I shouldn’t have. The attempt also made me very tired, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to climb to the end again.

I knew that if I didn’t do the problem soon thereafter, it would become a real mental battle. I rested for about twenty minutes, tried again, and managed to do it. The top-out was a little bit more desperate than it should have been because I was exhausted at that point. But I did it nonetheless.

Female pro climbers have been pushing into harder and harder territory recently — Climbing Narc has been calling this the “Summer of the Woman.” Is it just coincidence that so many women are climbing so hard right now, or are we seeing the beginning of a bigger shift?
I think we are definitely seeing the beginning of a bigger shift. Women have been climbing V12 for a while now, and the group of women that have done so is growing at a faster rate every year. The number of women in the climbing world is also growing, so it’s inevitable that a similar progression will happen in women’s climbing as did in men’s climbing. Females climbing V12 and V13 will be a reality for young female climbers today as they grow up, just like females climbing V9 and V10 was a reality for me.

Progression will happen no matter what, and progression will accelerate so long as the motivation is there. And by the looks of it, there is no lack of motivation these days.

Some people have said that female climbers are overly sexualized. What do you think? Do you ever feel like you're being pigeonholed because of your gender?
I definitely think that females are more sexualized in the climbing world than males are, but I guess that is the case in a lot of sports. It is pretty uncommon for a male climber to get more attention from the climbing media for taking his shirt off despite his inability to climb at the cutting edge of the sport. Conversely, it seems that being sexy can get a female climber a significant amount of attention, even if she isn’t climbing at a high level.

Obviously, I’m speaking in generalizations, but it is often frustrating to me to see women getting more attention for their bodies than for their ability. Don’t get me wrong, women are beautiful, and sexuality is part of that beauty, but it doesn’t have to be the biggest part. I think that allowing the sport to go in that direction is doing a great disservice to both current and future generations.

Besides bouldering, you're also studying to be a veterinarian. How hard is it to balance your climbing and non-climbing lives?
Balancing these two lives is one of the greatest challenges I deal with. I jump between two worlds on a daily basis, but I am learning the juggling act that makes it all possible. I have always put a lot of pressure on myself to give 110% to everything I do, which often makes it difficult for me to find balance in my life.

I have found, however, that I do better all around when I have numerous things to shift focus between. For example, when I took time off school to climb, I found that my motivation was often lackluster, because climbing wasn’t a limited resource. I think having all the time in the world to climb actually hurt my ability to focus and get really psyched on climbing. When climbing is one part of my life, however, I have to make my climbing time really count, which seems to do wonders for my motivation and focus.

I haven’t mastered this balancing act yet, and might realistically be far from doing so. But right now, it seems like the coexistence of these two worlds in my life leads to more success than I find when I am just climbing or just going to school.

You're very Colorado-centric in your climbing – you've done a lot of your biggest climbs in places like Rocky Mountain National Park and Mt. Evans. What's your favorite crag in Colorado, and why?This is a question I go back and forth about. The Park is special to me because I spent the majority of my first few years in Colorado climbing there. Many of the problems in the Park play to my strengths, but I think that Mt. Evans has more to offer when it comes to aesthetics. I have done problems in both areas that are very important to me, but I guess right now the Park is winning two to one

Now that you've sent V13, what's your new “ultimate goal”?
Well, I could just say V14, but what’s life without a little dreaming? My new ultimate goal is V15. I have a lot of work ahead of me….Grades aside, my ultimate goal is probably to continue to do what I can to progress women’s bouldering, while also continuing to pursue my personal limit. If I could climb for the rest of my life and continue to find joy in the sport, I think I will have achieved a great goal.

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