US climber Molly Mitchell recently ticked her long-term goal of climbing China Doll 5.14a (8b+) R in Boulder Canyon, Colorado - the 40 metre trad version of the 5.13c (8a+) granite crack sport line first climbed by Bob Horan in the mid 1990s, with Mike Patz's 10 metre traditionally protected extension on top. Both versions of the line have seen a lot of attention from local female climbers of late. Molly's ascent follows Heather Weidner's first female ascent on gear in 2016 and Sasha DiGiulian's 5.13c sport ascent this summer, while Nellie Milfeld ticked the sport line more recently in September.
Molly has quietly made her way to becoming only the seventh woman to climb 5.14a/8b+ trad (after Lynn Hill, Beth Rodden, Barbara Zangerl, Heather Weidner, Nadine Wallner and Maddy Cope). Based in Boulder, Colorado, Molly has plenty of quality crags on her doorstep and a wide range of top-level climbers who have tied in with and inspired her. Having dealt with anxiety throughout her life, she realised that her issue of never feeling 'good enough' was a major hurdle on the journey to ticking China Doll, which prompted breakthroughs in both her mental health and climbing. We sent Molly some questions to find out more about the process.
What attracted you to trying China Doll?
Last Spring I was a little lost with what direction I wanted to go in my climbing next - I had focused mainly on trad for 2015-2016, then sport climbing while I lived in Vegas from 2016-2018. I had moved back to Boulder in autumn of 2018 and wanted to get back into trad climbing. I had this idea that maybe it would be cool to take what I had learned from trad and the physical strength I had gained from sport climbing, and set a big goal of climbing 5.14 trad. China Doll seemed like a good one to try - I had previously belayed Heather Weidner a bunch while she worked on and sent it a few years ago, and I liked that there were steps to it. You can climb the 5.13c (first pitch) on bolts or gear. And then the second pitch (by itself is 5.13c/d) only goes on gear. The ultimate goal was to climb it all on gear as one long pitch - which goes at 5.14a R.
Did you always have the trad ascent in mind, even before completing the sport ascent?
I did. I talked to my trainer and one of my best friends, Tim Rose, about this dream back in late March. I was definitely insecure about whether I could even do it though, and I think it was nice to have those steps of climbing the 13c first on bolts, then placing gear, then the whole thing placing gear. It helped keep me not in my head as much and gave me confidence. I think the biggest step was climbing the 13c trad, because it's quite scary. It took me almost a month after I sent the sport 13c line to send the trad 13c line. The gear is bad down low, and I had to change a bit of my beta to account for placing pieces and not getting them in the way of hand placements.
You worked the line with Sasha DiGiulian. What did you learn from climbing together on the route and from climbing with Sasha generally?
I worked the sport 13c line with Sasha. It was fun because we are good friends. We were both were baffled by this route at first. It's such unique movement that at first seemed near impossible to us! But it gave me a love for the granite weirdness. It's full body climbing - my legs would get pumped from stemming so much, ha! It was cool to both learn the small subtleties and share with each other. And it was our time to catch up and chat as friends, too, so it was really just a comfortable, positive experience. I respect Sasha's determination and love for challenges - regardless of the grade!
Heather Weidner sent the trad route in 2016 and you belayed her. Did Heather play a role in your ascents?
Yes! I think it's really cool that it was a full circle story. I definitely was inspired by Heather's send years ago - I still get chills every single time I think or talk about it. It was one of the most impactful things for me to witness as a climber. But at the time, I never thought I would be good enough to achieve something like that. I honestly didn't believe I was good enough even when I was really close to sending. One day in late August, she came out to Dream Canyon and saw me climb on it. She told me I was very close - probably a couple weeks away. I chatted with her every time I went out after that. It was incredibly the amount of support she gave me, and it meant so much since I knew for a fact she had been there and dealt with all I was going through! And a couple weeks later, I sent!
You have spoken out about overcoming anxiety. How do you manage this when tackling a hard - and potentially dangerous - climbing project?
Back in 2014-2015 I saw a psychiatrist and learned a form of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It focuses on defusing from thoughts, allowing uncomfortable feelings to exist, and knowing that the only thing you can directly control is your behaviour. When I went through this therapy, I was actually learning how to trad climb at the time, and I feel it helped a lot with the mental aspect that trad entails (as well as anxiety in everyday life!). It helped me a lot. But my anxiety was still driving a lot of my life - this past winter/spring that became very apparent to me. In early June, I started seeing a new psychologist, and I felt that a lot of what we were working on connected with what I was facing on this route. We discovered that a lot of my anxiety stems from the feeling of not being good enough and basing my value on what others perceive of me. I remember my psychologist asking me to rank my own values - and it was one of the most difficult things ever. I think the process of figuring out what I value helped me to embrace who I am more and believe in myself. We also figured out that I have a bit of a boundary problem when it comes to saying yes to everyone and putting myself second. Learning to take control of that helped me to focus on my goal with this route and own what I was working towards, and not get as distracted by things I am not responsible for. I still have trouble with this - but learning which responsibilities in life are mine and that I should not take on others' needs as my own was a huge realisation for me. All of these breakthroughs in my mental health seemed to parallel my successes on this route. I was also on a great training program that Tim Rose made for me specifically for working on this route. I think the combination of training and what I was learning for my mental health was what ultimately allowed me to achieve this goal.
What advice would you give to someone dealing with anxiety, in both climbing and life?
I would say that therapy is really important. It's helped me so much and everything translates between life and climbing. I also think it's important for me to have a support system for when I am having tremendous anxiety. My friends and family have been there for me a lot. Sometimes it helps to just get it out and talk about it - and for me it's been really helpful to have friends that will just tell you if something is an irrational anxious thought. It helps me come back to reality. My friends Lizzy Ellison, Tim, and my cousin, Nicole Kronauer, have been particularly good about this. They really help get me out of my head. I love being able to express to them how I am feeling immediately so that I can get it off my chest and let it go. But I also think that alone time has been really important to me lately and during the process of working this route. Just a little self reflection time can help clear my head a lot. I've learned that I value alone time a lot. It's a balance. Whatever you need, just make sure that you are taking time for yourself. And know that thoughts that seem overwhelming in the moment will pass, focus on what you value, believe in it and act on that.
It seems like there's a really strong and supportive female climbing scene in Boulder right now, has this always been the case? Who else do you climb with and what does climbing and training with women bring to your climbing?
There is! I am so stoked on the friends I have reconnected with and met since moving back. I am in a very different place in my life than I was when I left Boulder back in 2016. When I left Boulder in 2016, I felt I had an ego because of some early success I had with trad climbing. And I felt like I was not being 100% real to who I was... It didn't allow me to form the connections that I feel I have now. I am glad that I have let my ego go (which definitely stemmed from deep insecurities in myself), and now I live by what and who I love (one of the things I have learned about myself is I very much value authenticity). The more I learn about who I am and what I believe in, the more I've made amazing connections with people. I am so proud of who I am today and the amazing women I know who have significantly impacted my life. To name a few - Heather, Lizzy, Sasha, Nellie Milfeld, Nina Williams, Alex Puccio, Jenn Flemming, Laura Capps, Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou, Tara Kerzhner... SO many amazing women crushers in Boulder that are gems of people. I am surrounded by female inspiration. I love it. It's so motivating and psyche filled. I also worked on the trad 13c with my friend Zack Fisher for a bit, and he is working on the full 14a line now too. I wish him nothing but the best! I want to give him a shoutout - you got this Zack!
What's next for you?
Ah! You know, when I sent China Doll, I kind of had a withdrawal from projecting. I almost just didn't want that phase of my life to be over. I loved that route. I grew so much as a person throughout that process, so I was immediately searching for a new project. But now that the achievement has sunk in a bit, I kind of want to just climb some smaller scale projects for a bit until I find it is the right time to commit to something big again. But... I feel like next summer I'll probably be spending some time in Canada.
Watch a video of Molly projecting and talking about anxiety below:
Watch a video of Heather Weidner's journey to climbing China Doll: