Pro Climber Allison Vest Takes On One Of America’s First 5.14s—And Is The First Woman To Do So
Allison Vest takes on Throwin’ the Houlihan, an infamous Todd Skinner 5.14, and one of the first in the country
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“I’m having a motivational breakdown. I need to do something for myself,” Allison Vest texted me in early June. “I want to do something cool, something that feels like a big deal to me. Something proud. Even if it isn’t a big deal to other people.” Coming out of an unmotivated funk is something I’m extremely familiar with, as I’ve experienced many in my career. Something that helps is having a chosen and distinctly set goal, and Allison had a big one.
The 26-year-old Canadian comp crusher and three-time national champion (twice bouldering once lead) hadn’t spent much time on rock until she moved to Salt Lake a year ago. “I was so single-mindedly focused on competitions I just didn’t go out much,” she explained, having ticked only a few hard boulders in Canada like The Terminator V13/8B in Squamish, BC. “When I moved to Utah I just started going outside more. I found some awesome friends and climbing partners and fell in love with climbing outside. I realized it could be part of my life, boost my confidence, and complement my other training well.” Allison spent last fall and winter on an outdoor rampage, ticking off a list of some of the Wasatch’s bouldering testpieces with impressive haste, like The Muffler V12/8A+, Firestorm V13/8B, Until Further Notice V11/8A, and an impressive and gritty flash Maisch Roof V11/8A. But with this newfound psyche for outdoor climbing, Allison had yet to really test her skills on a rope. “I think I’m super psyched on Throwin’ the Houlihan. I want it to be my first 5.14. There’s so much history. I’m making myself train monos.”
Throwin’ the Houlihan resides in Wild Iris, a climbing mecca just outside Lander, Wyoming. Established by climbing legend Todd Skinner in 1991, Houlihan was one of the very first 5.14’s put up by an American, and the route would launch itself into becoming a stout benchmark for the grade, being described as “short and savage” by Skinner himself. Amy Skinner, wife to the late legend and a badass first ascentionist, reminisced about this historical route: “Those early days up at Wild Iris when Todd found and climbed Throwin the Houlihan were magic. He knew he had found something special. He was genuinely happy to know that people loved the whole scene at Wild Iris and he would be proud to see our sport progress.”
I was already planning a trip back to Lander for the International Climbers Festival in July, and I convinced Allison to join. She had previously been on Throwin’ the Houlihan one time, a few weeks earlier, and had worked out most of the moves successfully, leaving only two moves undone. The route tops out at fewer than twenty moves, with six clips to the chains, which gives insight to the massive and powerful spans between holds. One of the moves Allison had yet to complete was the notorious cross from a shallow right hand mono pocket; the move she’d been training for.
We decided to head to Lander a few days before the Festival started, so she could get a few good days on the proj. It was July 13th. I was on my way to pick Allison up and jet off to Wyoming when she texted, “I’m gonna send Houlihan. I’ve decided it.” I smiled at my phone and replied, “Fuck yeah! Stoked!”
The next day we rolled out to Wild Iris in the afternoon and headed up to the Erratic Wall, home to Throwin the Houlihan. Allison tied in, and quickly repeated all the moves she’d done previously, leaving the two undone moves to work. After receiving some critical beta from another climber for the mono move, she was able to unlock it in a few tries. The only move left was the second move, a low percentage, foot-cutting deadpoint off a crimp to a shallow right hand pocket, and probably the most physically difficult move on the route. Allison threw herself repeatedly at this move, growing frustrated. I cheekily suggested some probably-profanity-filled version of “just try harder.” She pulled on again. I watched her tense up, lurch her right hand up towards the pocket. Both feet swung out from the wall, a low grunt escaped from her throat and I prepared myself for the catch. But this time, I didn’t feel weight on the rope. “That was it!” I yelled as she climbed through to the next clip. I probably only felt a fraction of the excitement she felt when she stuck that move. The last piece of the puzzle fell into place. After a few solid linkups we pulled the chute to save some tendon gas in the tank for the next day. We headed into town and cruised down mainstreet for an obligatory pre-send dinner at the Cowfish Grill, live bluegrass jammed next door at the Lander Bar.
Riding the high from the previous day’s success, and riding the warmup from a morning of bouldering, the stage was set for success as we trudged up the switchbacks and across the meadow to the Erratic. Yellow wildflowers tickled our shins as we walked and chatted.
“I’m kinda nervous,” Allison said as we came to stand under the route. We stared up at the gently overhanging, seemingly blank white wall, save for the few generously-spaced pockets and dangling draws. “I’m nervous because I know I can do it.” A send breeze began to whistle through the branches around us, a perfect combatant for the summer heat. I flaked the rope as she did a few more pull-ups on her Flashboard. “Ready when you are,” I said.
Allison tied in, popped her heels into her shoes, and scrambled up the boulder from which the route begins. I clipped in to belay and took my place under the wall. She stared up at the route for a few seconds, took a deep breath, shook her arms out one last time, and stepped off the boulder.
AJ: Explain the send. What happened, what did it feel like, what was running through your mind?
AV: I remember when we got to the route that day, I told you I was nervous. I usually don’t get that feeling unless I know I can do something, so I must have known somewhere in my head that it was possible. And once I started climbing, a lot of things went wrong; I didn’t hit the holds properly, I was focused on other climbers chatting nearby, I struggled with the clips. But, somehow that allowed me to be solely focused on each individual move at a time. That mindfulness of going move by move and knowing that I had done all the moves before resulted in a very surprise send! It felt so good to be up at the chains but kind of hard to believe. Like a total “Oh, is it done?” moment. Definitely not a lot of build-up to that send, it just came out of nowhere.
AJ: Why this route? What initially drew you to Houlihan?
AV: I haven’t actually logged all that much time climbing outside on a rope and tend to be a huge wimp when it comes to long runout routes. I hadn’t climbed anywhere like Wild Iris before; it boasts some short, burly, powerful routes, which mimics bouldering. Plus all the clipping positions on Houlihan are comfortable, which steadied my fear. My boyfriend Palmer Larsen and his roommate Dalton Bunker both did Houlihan as their first 5.14 and whenever people hear that they go “damn that’s a savage first 5.14,” and honestly I got a little jealous and wanted to experience that reaction.
AJ: How did you “mono train?”
AV: To be completely transparent, my fingers are already strong. They are absolutely one of my biggest assets in climbing. So, when I talk about mono training I don’t necessarily mean getting my middle finger “stronger,” it’s more preparing the tendons to take on the load so I don’t get injured. That and neurological prep too, making my brain prepare my finger to take on that stress. The first time I tried the route I just didn’t want to pull on that mono at all. I consulted Tom Randall about mono training and his biggest advice was to train the ring finger alongside the middle because their anatomies are so connected. So, I did that as well.
AJ: Let’s talk beta. Some moves you did pretty differently than all the guys who sent before you. Describe that process. Did you watch any videos? Which one(s) helped the most?
AV: I watched Cameron Horst’s video a bunch before I went back to Lander after my first initial trip out. Palmer bumped off the mono to the next pocket, so for that move he wasn’t super helpful for beta. In fact, a lot of the moves taller people do with lower feet. Most people do the iconic Houlihan move with low feet and do it as a full-on dyno, but I was able to hike my feet up super high and do it more as a deadpoint. It was cool to figure out my own foot beta as I tried the route. I hadn’t really done much pocket climbing either, but apparently I should do more of it.
AJ: Honestly, you sewed this route up relatively quick in terms of “projecting.” (Three days?) Why do you think it took so long for an FFA?
AV: Yeah three days. I went draw-to-draw one time when I was in Wild Iris the first time. Went home and prepped my monos for a month and then went back. First day of the second trip I did the mono move for the first time and once that happened I really believed I could do it. The next day, we came back and I sent! I don’t know why it took so long for an FFA. It’s some pretty big moves on gross holds, so I think you have to mentally want it really bad. I guess I don’t know if anyone has seriously tried.
AJ: Were you motivated by getting the FFA?
AV: Hmmm, interesting question. I think I would say yes, but more so I was motivated to have my first 5.14 be something really unique, hard, and historical. This route doesn’t get that many repeats, let alone by women. It’s hardcore and painful and a huge mental challenge to want to grab the holds. But, that said, I always want to push myself to do life in a unique way, and to make sure I do my part to inspire the next generation of girls the way I had people to look up to when I was growing up. To be a good role model, for being decisive, doing what I think is right for me, and not what others tell me is right. So in that sense, the FFA was motivating. You, (Alex) inspired me to do that in a lot of ways as I grew up in climbing so, it also felt epic that you were there on the belay and for the send!
AJ: What’s next for you, short-term or long-term? What are your goals? What do you want?
AV: I want to climb more hard things outside. I think it would be cool to say I’ve done 5.14 and V14, so maybe it’d be cool to switch back into bouldering mode. I don’t think I’ve had enough of pockets yet, though, so I’m excited to go back to Wild Iris soon. I want to get more confident moving on a rope outside and see what my potential really is in outdoor sport climbing.
Hordes of people left congratulatory comments on Allison’s Instagram post after she sent. One of those congratulations, and possibly the most meaningful, came from Amy Skinner. “Todd would be so pleased to see Allison do this route so quickly,” Amy stated. “If he were here to congratulate you, he would squeeze your shoulder, look you in the eye and ask, ‘What’s next?!’ And then invite you to an antelope hunt. Huge congrats!”
Huge congrats, indeed.
Alex Johnson is an American boulderer, five-time US national champion, and two-time world cup gold medalist with over 125 outdoor sends V10 and harder. She can now add 5.14 belayer to her resume.
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