Why I’ve Been a 5.11 Climber as Long as I Can Remember.

Words:: Samantha Schonewille

Photos:: Adam Gilbert

I discovered rock climbing because my boyfriend’s sister was a climber. She used metal things to make her way up rocky cliffs. I imagined steel hands inserted into holes, expanding by mechanized magic–that was my vision of rock climbing.

It seemed like a logistical nightmare. How could metal cling to rock, wouldn’t it fall out? And how could you physically climb a wall? Surely climbing required brawn and ferocious toughness that only elite athletes possess. For some reason, my mind imagined cliffs as polished rock or a chaotic mess of black obsidian. I never imagined rock could be grippy or graspable in any way. At the time Squamish seemed like a place where you stopped to buy coffee.

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So I decided to try gym climbing. Colourful plastic holds ironically seemed more “realistic” in the realms of possibility. I signed up for a top rope course and discovered pulling on plastic wet my appetite for adventure.


Samantha Schonewille climbing in the Squamish Gym
Getting on some plastic holds in the Squamish Gym

A few weeks went by and I was hauled up my first 5.11 route. Instantaneously I became a 5.11 rock climber.

Before writing this I asked a friend about the most difficult part of rock guiding, he told me it was establishing comfort levels. For many climbers, grades get lost in translation and people assume their indoor skills carry over to climbing outside, on lead, with trad gear. In hindsight, I was naive.

When people told me about their outdoor accomplishments I kept a mental tally comparing my plastic assents. Most routes up the Stawamus Chief were well within my 5.11 grade, that meant the Chief was attainable.

…And then I tried climbing outdoors.


Sport climbing in Vantage Washington
Sport climbing in Vantage Washington

Like most new climbers I ventured to the Smoke Bluffs in Squamish, set up a top rope and quite literally hung out on the wall. After a solid one day outdoors my next step was to top rope Yosemite. I know some of you must be cringing, what a sacrilege. But I was new and to me, top roping was the most exciting thing in the world.

My goal was to climb a 5.11 route and solidify my climbing status. We found a climb that looked doable, it was a chalk-covered zig-zagging crack with plenty of face features around it. After an hour of working the route, it went, and I had a new profile picture to prove it. I admitted to myself this was different than the gym, but clearly, now I was a 5.11 climber.


First 5.11 top rope climb
First 5.11 top rope climb

After I familiarized myself with the legends and discovered Reel Rock, I was inspired to give lead climbing a shot. It turns out falling on the sharp end complicated things a bit.


Leading out the second to last pitch on Skywalker in Squamish
Leading out the second to last pitch on Skywalker in Squamish

That year my eyes began to open; I moved to Squamish, discovered I could only lead 5.9’s and acquiesced to the fact that the Squamish climbing gym was significantly more difficult than my previous gym. But I had climbed a 5.11 in Yosemite so it was fine.


On top of the Chief in Squamish
On top of the Chief in Squamish

After a year of living in Squamish, my climbing has circled back to its inspiration. I climb mountains and insert metal cams as protection. I don’t so much care about the grade of the climb, but the experience. Clenching a hold, exposed and dangling from a face of granite, that is what motivates me. The plastic routes at the gym pale in comparison to the lines in the rock that surround my house. I am a rock climber and grades do not define me.


Samantha Schonewille is a Mountain Life Ambassador and continues to find motivation for her climbing in everything but grades.