Climbing to the Top


ALLOW ME TO direct your attention,” says Erica Meister, “to The Devil’s Butthole.” She’s flipping through the pages of Red River Gorge North, one of the climbing books— yes, books about rock climbing— she keeps on the shelf above her desk. This one is an inch-thick collection of charts, a guidebook on special rock-climbing routes in Texas.

It’s 11 PM. Erica, wearing a lilac robe, bends over me in our shared dorm room to hold the book up to my face, her hair still wet from the shower. Climbers, apparently, are a colorful sort, and routes have names like Shit My Pants And Dance and Sex After Death. The ones she likes most she reads out loud in her deep alto voice, jabbing her finger at them with relish. “Hairy Butthole Pussy Potter. Miss Floppy Chops.” 

This guidebook spends its time on the shelf above her desk next to a motley crew of other unexpected books. They are not your average freshman fare. First, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, bound in gold and brown leather. Then The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe, four inches thick, bound in black and red. Next to those: her climbing books. Peak Performance: Mental Training Techniques of the World’s Greatest Athletes. The Rock Climber’s Training Manual. Altogether, there are six of them— maps, meditation manuals, exercise diagrams. When she opens them up and recites bits to me, it’s clear that this isn’t just light reading for her. She can point out specific dieting charts she’s used over the years, certain exercise plans and visualization techniques she’s abandoned in favor of other ones. These pages are as familiar to her as her older sister.

Which is maybe not so surprising. Erica Meister, after all, is an internationally-ranked rock climber. But what’s more unique is this: in the quest to trump international competitors, these six books are the only tools Erica has ever used.  Over the past seven years, she has hired no coach, no dietician, no personal trainer. In short, she has turned herself into the fastest female speed-climber in the country purely through old-fashioned library study.

There is a video of Erica Meister on YouTube, five feet and three inches of pale arm and leg, scrabbling spiderlike to the top of the 2015 USA Climbing Youth National Championship wall. It looks like Andrew Garfield and the Sears Tower, sans CGI. Her long braid arcs through the air like a whip, a blonde Lara Croft. She’s racing Grace McKeehan, the fastest female speed-climber in the U.S. Grace’s ponytail swings in tandem with Erica’s braid. 

In its upper echelons, speed climbing ceases to resemble climbing climbing -- the climbing we all know, laborious and slow, with picks and hammers and ropes. This is more like a full-body rage against gravity. There is something furious in the way national competitors scrabble for the next bit of rubber to hold, kick away at ledges, grab onto new holds only to discard them in the next split second. 

Back at the 2015 National Championship wall in Kennesaw, Georgia, Erica Meister is doing the same. She reaches the top of the wall milliseconds before Grace. She pounds the buzzer. And on the wall, between the two girls, a big red clock begins to blink: 9:56. 9:56. 9:56. Nine point five-six seconds, the new national record. Meaning the fastest female time ever recorded in the U.S.

This is not her first record, nor her last. Seven months earlier, in British Columbia, she had smashed the Open World Cup 15-meter women’s time. And again, in France, at the 2016 World Championship. These six books have carried her to climbing championships in Italy, Mexico City, British Columbia, Switzerland, Canada, New Caledonia--mere ink on paper.

Erica decided to “go rogue”— ditch a team and train herself— at fourteen. Her gym didn’t offer speed climbing on a competitive level. So she hit her own books, some suggested to her by friends at the gym, some gifted by family members. “There was something very satisfying about putting in the work and seeing a result,” she says. She wanted it, so she did it. She wanted it, and so it just was. 

Those who know Erica Meister are most likely not surprised by this. She is softness edged with iron. Her tiny frame -- five-foot-three -- supports a six pack and sinewy, muscle-rippled arms. She mutters devastatingly incisive quips so quietly they almost go unnoticed. Her hair is compacted daily into a tight, straight Dutch braid that stretches in one thin line down to her waist. The most fragile thing about her is her eyes, large and cornflower-blue. I wanted to, so I did it is a way of life for her. One night she pulled out a full-size woolen hoop skirt from her closet. It was sewn into a fifties-style cone shape reaching from hip to ankle, and spanned a two-foot radius on the floor. “I was sad last winter,” she said, “so I sewed this hoop skirt.” The silent follow-up: Because why the heck not? 

For her, speed-climbing is a long hard grind followed by ten hot seconds of catharsis. “You don’t consciously realize what you’re doing. You’re just relying on your body [to know] what to do. I remember very little [about races]. I remember starting and I remember finishing.” As a result, a considerable amount of self-trust is required. To think too hard is to choke -- to think too little is to become sloppy. “One of my biggest problems is my mental game. Speed climbing is very mental. It’s about being in the competition, being in the heat of the moment, and doing what you need to do. Which sounds very easy, but it isn’t.”

When she first began to train herself, she asked around her gym for advice. “[I was told] ‘You get out what you put in,’ and that is probably the single most important piece of advice I’ve ever received,” she says. At first she didn’t take the advice so seriously. When asked about her early climbing days, this is what she regrets. “I think if anything, I would have given up more,” she says. “When I was younger, I didn’t take climbing as seriously as I now wish I had.” Now, it’s obvious that she’s committed to putting it in. She’s joined the Stanford climbing team, but most of her training is still self-administered. She has brought two black weighted vests from home. Weekdays after class, you can find Erica trembling in plank position in one of those vests, or doing pull-ups from her lofted bed, waiting for the thirty-second timer on her phone to go off. The fridge is stocked full with celery, Tofurkey, and carrots. She wakes up at 8 AM to work out each day, and practices self-studied meditation in the hours before sleep. Erica is “putting it in”, hard. 

And she’s expecting results. “I certainly hope I’m not at the peak of what I can do,” she says. There’s a strong possibility she isn’t. For one, sport climbing has just been added to the 2020 Olympic roster as an exhibition sport, and Erica is a strong contender. “Right now, I’m on a path that is gonna take me to a lot of competitions and is going to keep the Olympics in the back of my mind,” she says. Then she backs up. “Obviously, a lot can change in four years… and there’s lots of opportunities here at Stanford that I want to explore.” 

Still, the future looks bright. No matter what, she’ll still be doing pushups on the dorm-room floor, staying up late for climbing practices and “putting it in” on the daily; no matter what, she’s excited to see where those six bedside books will take her. 

By: Annie Zheng
Photography: Ryder Kimball

PULSE is excited to welcome Annie and Ryder to the editorial team! Stay tuned for more work from our new members!

 

Comment