New Zealand climber Mayan Smith-Gobat recently made the first ascent of the South-West Face of Mt Waddington's North-West summit in British Columbia, Canada alongside Ines Papert and Paul McSorley. The line consisted of 20 pitches graded up to 5.11+ WI3 M5 ED1 to reach the 4000m high North-West summit, situated 18 metres below the main summit.
Mayan is known primarily for her hard sport and trad ascents, but few people realise that her climbing roots originated from alpine climbing back home in the New Zealand alps. With sport routes up to 8c, trad routes up to 5.13c and ascents of V9 boulder problems, Mayan is a particularly well-rounded climbing athlete. On her Facebook page, she described her recent climb on Mt Waddington as "an amazing reintroduction to the alpine environment", so we were keen to ask Mayan what prompted her to go back to her alpine roots and find out what she's been up to....
Where are you from originally and where are you based just now?
I’m from New Zealand but I’m also half German - my mother’s side’s German so I grew up between the two countries. I’m based in Colorado now but also spend a lot of time in Germany so I’m kind of based between the two.
You are mainly known for hard sport and trad ascents around the world, but mentioned that the Waddington climb was a 'reintroduction' to the Alpine environment…when did you first try alpine and mixed climbing?
It’s kind of been in my blood - my dad was a mountain guide so I grew up in the mountains to start with but I didn’t really get into it myself until I was 16. At that point I took a summer job in the New Zealand alps, just working in a café but I took a mountaineering course there and so got into alpine climbing. The next summer the weather was really bad in the mountains and friends introduced me to rock climbing and I never really looked back!
So I started with alpine then I moved to rock, then focussed on bouldering for a while and then moved back to doing big walls. I hadn’t actually put on crampons for over 15 years until I went out to Waddington.
How did the Mt Waddington climb come about?
I was planning to go to Canada to climb with Ines Papert anyway. We were mainly planning to go to the Bugaboos to focus on rock, but a friend of hers - Paul McSorley - had always been wanting to get back into alpine climbing and was looking to go to Waddington. He really wanted to climb as a team of three and very last minute they wrote me an email asking if I wanted to come and join them. Within two days from climbing here in Colorado I was up on Waddington so it was really a spur of the moment thing!
Tell us a bit about the ascent. What was the hardest part of getting back into the alpine game?
The route we did was predominantly rock - about 800m of 5.11 climbing so it was about a low 7 in the French grading system and I felt pretty at home there. But the mountain itself kind of had the feel of the huge Patagonian mountains with big corniced ice mushrooms hanging over the tops and the environment was very different. Eventually we got near the top and there were 3 or 4 pitches of a really gnarly hairline ridge that was proper mixed climbing with snow that had been warmed all day. Snow was sloughing off and there was bulletproof ice underneath the loose rocks and just crazy exposure - that for me was when it was the most ‘out there.’
Do you think it will see a repeat anytime soon? It's a pretty remote location...
Waddington sees very little traffic altogether so I’d be very surprised to be honest, I think we’re the only ascent that happened this year altogether. It’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s very difficult to get to and the weather’s notoriously bad so we got really lucky that it all came together for us.
This is your first alpine route for a while - what have you been up to in the meantime?
Really focussing on rock climbing, trad big walls, right now I’m actually just coming back from shoulder surgery, I had that 7/8 months ago now. So I’m trying to get strong again!
In October last year you achieved the women's speed record for climbing The Nose of El Capitan in 4 hours and 43 minutes. Tell us a bit about that experience.
That was a several year mission for me really after climbing the Salathe, which was what I’d focussed on in the valley before that. I became kind of fascinated by it. It was just something that I couldn’t understand - how the guys could do it in two and a half hours, so I wanted to do it just to understand how you could climb that fast! So then I partnered up with several of my female friends and we slowly broke the record down. I think the first one was 7 and a half hours and we got it down to 4 hours 43. It’s a very different style of climbing and a lot about logistics and just getting your head together. It was a lot of fun - it was amazing just to be able to climb that distance that fast, it was supercool.
What changes have you noticed in female climbing over the years - more and more women seem to be attempting alpine and mixed/winter climbs than before. What has prompted this change?
I think in general across the board there just seems to be more and more females getting into it and it’s great to see. I assume it’s finally been around long enough that it’s getting well-known - it must just be one of those turning points where slowly it builds to a point and when there’s enough in the media and enough interest around then it becomes more accessible to the general population.
What's next for you?
My main goal is to get really fit and strong again and hopefully build my shoulder up to avoid further injuries. I’ve got lots of big plans for next year, or ideas, but this year’s really about building everything up right again. I’m hoping to get back to being stronger than I was before!