Denali. At 20,320 feet, it's North America’s tallest peak. Many climbers dream of summiting this impressive Alaskan mountain. Alas, not this climber.

Snowy and cold in Alaska.

I hate being cold. I turn into a humongous whiner when I’m cold, and I get cold very, very easily. I can’t even stand hearing my own whining. Seriously…so I’ve learned to just stay out of potentially finger-freezing climbing conditions, in order to keep both myself and my partners sane and psyched.

So while I actually did get to see Denali (and it was impressive, and that’s probably as close to it as I’ll ever get in my life), my glimpse of this legendary mountain came during a brief moment when the clouds cleared, while we were driving to the climate-controlled Alaska Rock Gym.

That’s where I spent most of my time during my recent visit to Anchorage. It was a whirlwind stay of six days involving setting routes, climbing those routes, judging a competition, a gorgeous morning of cross-country skiing, and lots of teaching and coaching, all while getting to know the amazingly awesome group of people who make up the indoor-climbing community at the gym.


At least once a year, the Alaska Rock Gym flies in a guest climber to help out with a competition and then stay on and teach clinics and lessons for a few days. It was my privilege to be that guest climber this past February.

The first half of the trip, I focused on helping to set routes for the competition and then judging the competition. I realized that in more than 20 years of climbing, I've never set an indoor route. Tons of boulder problems, yes, and I have bolted plenty of routes outside, but indoor routes set from extension ladders? Nope. Not that I can recall. The creativity and work that goes into route setting felt similar to bolting, though — I spent hours lost in my own little world while affixing holds to the wall.

On competition day, it was amazing to sit back, belay and judge, and watch competitors rise to the challenge. The redpoint competition featured six divisions: Youth Top Rope, Adult Top Rope, and Adult Lead, with males and females separated in each category. The Alaska Rock Gym has so many strong climbers of all ages; it was really cool to observe.

Stealing the show was a 17-year-old youth climbing team member named Julian, who, despite his relatively short stature, stunned the crowd with his 100-percent effort and incredible dynamic ability. (“He’s my hero!” commented a lady sitting next to me as we watched him tackle a route on the overhanging wave wall.) Though he didn’t win Men’s Open (I think he got fourth), this inspirational performance earned him the achievement award for the comp (a new rope). Nearly every other participant who stuck around for the awards ceremony received a prize, too, thanks in part to the generous contributions from three of my sponsors, Petzl, prAna and Scarpa.

Julian wowing everyone during his onsight effort on the finals route.

The morning after the comp, my gracious hosts—youth climbing-team coach Ted Phelps and his lovely wife Christa—took me out for a few hours of cross-country skiing at Girdwood followed by a delicious lunch out with the gym manager. Then it was back to the gym that evening to teach a clinic—the start of my teaching segment of the trip.

I taught and climbed for the next two days before catching my redeye flight back home. The climbers I worked with ranged from 10 to 70 years old—quite the spread! This was every bit as fun and awesome, if not more so, than the route-setting and competition part of the trip. I truly enjoy helping others learn to improve their climbing strength and skill, so they can enjoy climbing even more. It’s amazing to see the light go on for people. 

I left totally exhausted, of course! But I also departed with a tremendous sense of appreciation for and gratitude toward all the people I spent time with at the Alaska Rock Gym. They made my stay amazing!