Get Back on the Rock

I was six years old when I first saw Rat Rock in Central Park. This was back in the summer of 2007. I was at the playground with my friends, and when they ran toward the rock — a squat, circular chunk of bedrock that rises almost 30 feet above the ground near the southwest corner of the park — I followed. As we scurried around the base of the rock, I noticed groups of people on all sides trying to climb to the top.

They weren’t just scrambling up there, though. There seemed to be a method to their movements, almost like they were slowly dancing to the top of rock. When all my friends darted back to the playground, I stayed behind, hypnotized by this dance.

I had no idea what they were doing, but I knew I wanted to try.

Eddie Gianelloni Media/Aurora Photos

The next time I was in Central Park, I headed straight for the east face of the rock. One of the climbers suggested I try the climb (or problem, as it’s called in climbing) called Easy Overhang, since that was a V0, the easiest grade on the bouldering scale.

Most other parents probably would have told their six-year-old children to get away from the rock, but my parents were used to me doing crazy things. I would play on the monkey bars for three or four hours straight, sometimes until my hands bled. I’d try to skip bars with one swing or stand on top of them and jump from bar to bar instead of hanging vertically. So something like me wanting to climb a big rock was really nothing shocking for them. My dad was happy to watch.

I put my hands and feet on the face of the rock, just like I had seen the other climbers do, and just kind of went for it. I made it up a few holds, but my tennis shoes were sort of slippery, so I fell. It was only about two feet, and there were soft pads underneath me called crash pads. Still. Ow.

I came back to Easy Overhang the next day, and the next, and the next, and the next. Each time I got a little farther up the rock, but I was never able to finish the climb.

Olivier Renck / Aurora Photos

Six days after I had first attempted the problem, my parents took me to get climbing shoes. We didn’t really have enough money for luxuries, but they could tell that climbing was quickly becoming an obsession for me. I went back to the rock the next day, new shoes in hand.

I strapped on my shoes, placed my hands and feet on the wall, and raced up to the top.

After I climbed down, I ran up to my dad, pulled him close to the rock, and showed him how I climbed the problem. I’m pretty sure I showed him 20 more times. I was so proud of myself.

Two years later, when I won the American Bouldering Series Youth National Championship in the girls under-11 category, I became the youngest person to ever climb a V10 when I scaled the Power of Silence, an outdoor boulder problem at Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site, in Texas.

When I was 10, I started learning about fractions in school. I also became the youngest person ever to climb a V13.

That was when I noticed some articles popping up about me. All of a sudden publications like The Guardian, The New York Times and The New Yorker wanted to interview me.

People would come up to me at climbing competitions and ask me for my autograph. The first one I ever signed was on a fleece jacket. The woman didn’t just want my signature. She wanted an inspirational message.

Wait a second, I thought. I’m inspiring?

A lot of people think climbing is all about arm strength, but that’s not true. You need to use your entire body — your core, your shoulders, your fingers, your legs, your feet … pretty much everything. Beginning climbers will usually look for their next handhold on a problem, when in reality they’d be better served by looking for their next foothold, since that gives them better balance.

When you first approach a route or a problem, you have to consider how you’d climb it with your body, not how someone else did it or how you saw another person use their body to make the climb. That’s one of the things I love most about climbing: There isn’t just one ideal body type for it. I’m five-foot-one and 90 pounds, and there are just as many climbers who look like me as there are climbers with big, muscly arms.

Samantha Appleton

You have to be really graceful on the rock. And you have to use your brain. When you look at a climb, you have to assess the route as though it was a puzzle — I really enjoy the process of figuring a climb out. And if you fail, you have to evaluate it again and really understand how best to use your body to make it happen.

My dad was a big help early on. Even though he had never climbed, he was a professional dancer, and there are a lot of similarities between climbing and dancing.

He taught me how to be extremely focused and calm right before I get on the wall. You can’t be flustered when you’re trying to climb something that’s at the limit of your capabilities. You need to be in a certain mindset. Dancing is similar. You need to be really focused, with heightened concentration, and have a sense of nothingness to the point where you’re almost not even thinking at all.

You also have to know that you’re going to fall. A lot.

The challenge is to get back up after each fall, look at the climb and try to figure out how you’re gonna do it better next time. It’s like life. When you have a problem you’re trying to overcome, you can’t just sit there. You have to think about it and see if there’s a different way of attacking it. You have to try.

I didn’t really think much about falling as a little girl. Or, at least, it didn’t really phase me. When I fell, I just popped right back up and threw myself at the wall again. I wanted to keep climbing!

As I’ve grown older, frustrations from other parts of my life sometimes start to creep into my thoughts when I’m on a wall. So now there are times when I’m climbing something really hard and I just want to give up. I don’t though. I take a deep breath and tell myself that anything is possible if I try hard enough.

The attention that came my way wasn’t all positive. Some people started saying really nasty things about my gender, my parents, even my heritage.

She was probably lifted up to those holds.

She’s pretty good … for a girl!

She’s only good because she’s Asian.

She doesn’t even love climbing. Her parents are just forcing her to do it.

I kind of expected the first two, even though they’re totally idiotic. Gender doesn’t matter in climbing, and women can be just as good as men. I’ve climbed routes and problems some grown men can’t even do.

I’m a 15 year-old-girl who just happens to climb a lot.
I’m a 15 year-old-girl who just happens to climb a lot. /

Those other comments, though….

I usually keep a level head, but sometimes, it really pisses me off when people talk about me being Asian or my parents. How does me being Asian matter at all? What difference does it make when it comes to how I scale a wall or rock face?

As for my parents, I couldn’t be more grateful to them. I found climbing on my own, and they encouraged me to follow that path. The assumption that they forced me into it couldn’t be more wrong or hurtful.

I could have lashed out at the trolls on social media. But like I said, with climbing you have to be able to clear your mind at a moment’s notice. So I took that approach when it came to all the haters. I just forgot about them, and kept setting records.

I won ABS nationals five times in a row, and three years ago I became the youngest to send (or complete) a V14.

In December 2014, I went to Mount Hiei near Miyazaki, Japan, to climb a V15 named Horizon.

It was unlike any problem I’d ever tried before. You basically start the problem upside down, and there are some parts where the holds are so small that you have to hang on with your feet. Unlike most problems, there’s no point that allows you to rest and recover, so your entire body is engaged the whole time. Most boulder problems have eight moves at most, maybe a few more. Horizon had 30, most of them either inverted or on a really steep angle. The crux, or the hardest part of the problem, was at the very end. I spent each day of the trip just piecing together the problem, working through the tricks and holds.

Samantha Appleton

On my last day there, I finally got to the crux. All I needed to do was get past that and I’d be the second person ever to ascend Horizon — and the youngest.

I fell.

I tried again. I reached the last move. I fell once more.

No one puts more pressure on me than myself. My fear is never about falling. It’s actually about failing. I’m stubborn, and when I can’t do something I think I’m capable of doing, I get really mad.

I knew I could climb this problem. My body was aching, my fingers were shot, but I had to do it. I got back on the rock and started climbing. I inched along, my fingers squeezing in between the wet cracks, my feet trying to find whatever purchase they could. It seemed to take forever. But finally, just like I had twice before that day, I reached the crux.

This was it. Just one last move. One last pull. I reached, gave it everything I had … and fell.

I just couldn’t do it.

After that last attempt, my body was finished. There was no getting back on the wall. It was time for me to go back home to New York.

I cried so hard that night. I begged my dad to postpone our flight so that I could stay until I was able to climb Horizon. It wasn’t meant to be, though.

I was really upset, but I also knew it wasn’t the end of the world. I knew there would be a next time.

If climbing was the only thing that mattered, failing to ascend Horizon might have destroyed me. Or maybe I would have burned out long before I even attempted Horizon. But climbing isn’t the only thing that defines me. I love cooking, going to fashion shows, shopping for shoes. When I’m with my friends, we don’t really talk about climbing at all. We talk about what normal school kids talk about. I’m a 15 year-old-girl who just happens to climb a lot.

Samantha Appleton

I returned to Mount Hiei in the spring of 2015. This time I had 12 days to climb the problem, so there was already a lot less pressure. When I didn’t make it on either of the first two days, I didn’t panic because I knew I had more time.

On the third day, something just clicked. I felt a perfect sense of nothingness as I worked my way through the problem, totally in tune with my body. My fingers and feet dug in between the crack running up the rock.

Finally, I reached the crux of the problem.

This time, I didn’t fall.

I had put so much of myself into the climb, and now I was the first female and the youngest person ever to send it.

I’m just 15, and I know that I’m going to face all sorts of challenges, personally and professionally. I’ll probably even fail at some of them. But climbing has taught me that failure isn’t always an ending, it’s a chance to learn. It’s a chance to step back, look at the problem in front of me in a different way, breathe, and then get back on the wall.