Fresh off the first Female Ascent of Australia’s iconic Punks in the Gym, the world’s first 5.14, Mayan Smith-Gobat headed to Smith Rock State Park, Oregon. While most people would have contentedly rested on their laurels and enjoyed a few well-deserved rest days, Mayan battled freezing temperatures and snow to check out Just Do It, another world-class test piece with no female ascents. With most of the locals ducking the cold conditions by heading to warmer climes like Kentucky’s Red River Gorge or the local Bend Rock Gym, Mayan’s love of the sport and of a new challenges enticed her to spend three days looking at the route—a project she’ll likely return to this spring.
Where were you born?
In Christchurch, New Zealand. I lived my first five years in Mount Cook Village, in the middle of the South Island. My dad was a mountain guide, and mom worked in the office for Alpine Guides. Dad is a Kiwi, and my mother is from Germany, originally from the eastern corner of Germany, East Prussia, that’s now a part of Russia. They walked to Koln during WWII, my grandmother and five kids. My grandfather, a physician, was already in a POW camp.
How did your father get into guiding?
My dad was also born in Christchurch. He was one of those troubled asthmatic kids, left high school before graduating, found the mountains—he’d started climbing in hills around Christchurch, and then moved to the West Coast of Australia and started Glacier guiding. Then he got picked up by Alpine Guides. He guided until I was about five.
What was your first memory of climbing?
When I was about three, my family has a story about us going hiking up the valley towards Mt. Cook. I don’t have any memory of the event, but the story goes that everyone decided to turn back but I sat down and told them I wanted to stay there and spend more time with the mountains. It was a wide, easy path, so they went ahead and I guess I stayed a quarter of an hour or so, and then followed them back to the car. My first real memories though, are of hiking/skiing, when I was five, we moved to Ruapehu where we spent a lot of time hiking around the volcanoes.
When did you start technical rock climbing?
I started mountaineering at the age of 15 or 16, and did that for about a year, while still in school on the North Island. I had a summer job at Mt. Cook and there I learned to love the mountains. One summer it was bad weather in the hills, so I took up rock climbing. The next year, I got really into extreme skiing, so I put climbing on hold. I did Big Mountain comps and followed winters around the world for a couple of years. Then I had a major crash in Breckinridge, Colorado, and broke both my feet and jaw. It was at the end of 2000, I flew off a run, and hit a tree, mid-air. Fortunately I was able to get my feet in front of me, hence the broken feet and broken jaw. Thank God I was wearing a helmet--I was enrolled in a Skier Cross and was training. While I was healing, I went back to climbing to keep myself sane for the following six months when I couldn’t use my feet. I started training my upper body and climbing one footed, as soon as I could kind of use one foot.
When did you realize you had what it takes to become a professional climber?
It was slow and gradual, not a distinct turning point. At the end of that year (a year after my ski accident), some friends convinced me to join the New Zealand Bouldering series. And to my surprise - I won the series, and it dawned on me that I could actually be good at this. That spurred me to keep pursuing it and to do more effort into it.
From there it has just been a gradual thing… I loved climbing and pored all my energy into it. Being a professional climber was always a dream, but it was only a couple years ago that I realized that it could actually become a reality!
You’ve been climbing hard for more than a decade. What are some of the accomplishments you are most proud of?
Climbing L’academicien in Ceuse, France in 2009. It’s a 14b. It was my first of that grade. I managed to climb it relatively quickly. Ceuse is one of my favorite places to climb, and it was one of those moments where I surprised myself and exceeded my expectations.
Climbing the Salathe in 2011 was a lifetime goal. For as long as I can remember, I’d always wanted to climb El Cap free. Also, the headwall pitch is one of the best pitches in the world. It has a fantastic location, is a stunningly beautiful line, and the climbing is sustained, technical and powerful. It is a super long pitch with the crux at the very end. When I finally climbed the Salathe in one push, I had a great partner, Sean Villanueva, so the camaraderie was good as well… And made for an amazingly rewarding experience overall!
Most recently, I succeeded in making the first female ascent of Punks in the Gym. This was the first 5.14 in the world and in the Southern Hemisphere; it is the most famous route – One you really “have” to do! Add to that the fact that it was established in 1985 by Wolfgang Gullich, whose climbs have always held a lot of fascination to me – He was the master of sport climbing--and it is located at the crag where I had my first real climbing trip. Arapiles is a place with a lot of meaning to me, in addition to the historic nature of the route—and it hadn’t seen a female ascent and is still considered a world-class test piece. It’s a route that I always dreamed of climbing, yet that I never really believed I could achieve.
What were your challenges on Punks and how did you overcome them?
All the crux moves are quite reach dependent, which worried me, until I came up with a new sequence, a more direct way to do it, which cut out part of the reachy-ness of the route. However it also cut out an almost hands-free rest – making the route much more sustained. I also had a lot of mental challenges to deal with. It is one of those routes where less is more, so I had to learn to be patient--not something I am very good at! Also, there was another woman who was working the route at the same time, who was very competitive. I’m not the type to get competitive with another person for a route, so I had to make sure that I didn’t get distracted- because I really believe that this was my own challenge. And, with the route being in Australia, there was the time-pressure of being in another country.
Now that you’ve dispatched Punks, do you have any upcoming plans?
Lots! It felt really strange to not have any unfinished projects. It was the first time in a long time that I didn’t have something I was working on. It is really cool to have an empty slate. I’ve had a little time to play on Just Do It at Smith Rock, and I’m keen to work more on it. Next week I’m heading to Argentina for the Petzl Rock Trip, so I’ll have a chance to climb with great people and have an adventure at an amazing area, and then I’m heading to Chile for an adidas trip - deep water soloing. Next year I have some time in the Valley in the spring to see whether I can work out the crux pitches on the Nose. Those are a few of my ideas—but there are so many possibilities it is crazy.
You’ve been a Five Ten Elite athlete for a few years, and this year signed with adidas. Any advice for those who aspire to become professional climbers?
Only do it for the love of the sport and work really hard.
By: Nancy Bouchard