Margo Hayes: secrets to climbing 9a+

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 29/03/2019
Margo Hayes. Photo: George Bruce Wilson
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A couple of weeks ago, Margo Hayes redpointed her third 9a+, Papichulo at Oliana in Spain; this time belayed by her boyfriend Alex Megos. Back in 2017, a lot of talented and hardworking women were gunning to be the first to climb 9a+. Margo Hayes was not on anyone’s shortlist when she ticked La Rambla in Siurana, Spain that February. By September that same year she had climbed another 9a+, Biographie at Ceuse. Now she’s ticked her third. How does she do it?

Margo’s third 9a+, like her second, is a Chris Sharma test-piece. When she completed the route - and her trilogy of climbs - Megos commented: “It looked graceful and effortless as always.”

Big goals

Margo, dressed in a leotard with long brown hair in a bun, flings herself across floor mats performing a series of flips. She's just six years old in the video and already has her sights on some big goals. In the Red Bull film Break on Through, which follows Margo’s rise and her success on the first two 9a+s, we also glimpse one of her childhood notebooks. It's full of determined, pencil-scrawled goals. And not just ordinary goals: “Gymnastics is my life and my life is gymnastics. I am living for the Olympic team and gold.”

Watching Hayes climb La Rambla in the video below - then aged 19 - the benefits of her gymnastic background and her incredible energy and determination in pursuit of her goal are both evident. She can place her feet above her head and moves incredibly smoothly with huge focus in big, deep-thinking brown eyes.

Once the emotion of climbing La Rambla had faded, Margo immediately sat down with her back to the crag to write new goals in her notebook. She told the Guardian: “I’ve always been a goal-setter. I like to be very organised. A lot of my goals - they’re written down somewhere a long time before I get them. Not all of them, though; some are more spontaneous.”


WATCH: Margo send La Rambla


Starting young and coaching

It is possible to come to climbing later in life and be successful - take 8c-climber Maddy Cope for example, who discovered the sport as a teen - but a youth spent climbing certainly helps a great deal. Climbing runs in Margo’s family: her grandfather led the first expedition to summit Everest via the Kangshung Face in 1983; her father Tom, who is also a climber, started taking Margo and her sister Nola to the nearby Boulder Canyon when they were young.

As a playful, long-legged 10-year-old, Margo joined the ABC Kids Climbing team in Boulder Colorado, which happens to be home to one of America's premier junior climbing teams. At the climbing wall, she watched some big names training, including Lynn Hill, and was inspired. Her coaches were surprised to see such dedication in a young girl. She even cut her hair short, hoping it would make her lighter. By 13, Margo had given up gymnastics to focus on climbing. In 2013, the North Face declared the teen a rising talent; by 2016 she had climbed 9a and won multiple golds in World Youth Championships. She had, however, given up on the weight-saving hair idea.

Margo Hayes posted on Instagram after sending her third 9a+


Determination through injury

Most climbers will experience some form of injury at some time. Recovering is one thing - getting back to where you were before takes a huge amount of dedication and determination.

Margo’s childhood coach has revealed that she broke her feet seven times doing gymnastics. Once, during a competition, she guessed that it had happened again but didn’t want to say anything, as she wanted to carry on. Her coach wondered why she kept disappearing to the bathroom: it turned out she was cooling her foot in the toilet bowl! reported that, in 2014, Hayes bottomed out through the pads at the Pan American Championships in Mexico City and sustained a compression fracture in her vertebrae. She had to wear a body brace for two months and wasn’t allowed to move for another month after that. Following the injury Margo was careful to strengthen and engage her core to better support her spine. "Setbacks are opportunities to come back stronger," she told the Guardian.

The doubts of others

Stepping up to attempt a route like La Rambla requires confidence and courage. A lot of people were watching Margo climb and doubting that she could do it. Even her climbing partners out in Siurana - Matty Hong and Jon Cardwell - were doubtful that she was ready. One of them had been one of her coaches when she was a kid. Margo said: “When I sense others doubting what I can do it’s only motivating. My determination triples. If someone can climb La Rambla, I can.”

Methodology and vision

The year before climbing La Rambla, Margo had methodically sought out and climbed 14 routes just a tick less difficult. Before trying to redpoint La Rambla, she watched countless videos and visualised the moves. Her climbing partners said, “It was clear that Margo had done her homework.”

To work on Biographie, Margo essentially moved to France for a few months and spent as much time as possible working the route or at the climbing wall. She drew a diagram running up the wall at her French home, showing all the holds and the necessary moves in the right sequence. She would regularly stand and practice the moves so that she could visualise them all.

Margo's Instagram page reveals that she is a very artistic and bright young lady: her mum is an artist and art is her other passion. She brings this creativity to her climbing: “When you do something in your head a million times, you can see it – it’s truly a visionary process. To really complete that is a surreal feeling. It’s almost like you need to pinch yourself,” she told the Guardian.



“You need that mind that says: ‘I can see this possibility, and I’m going to do it,' Lynn Hill commented, following Margo's ascent of La Rambla. “And that’s what Margo has. She can see the possibility.'” 

When working Biographie, Margo drew the attention of French climber Arnaud Petit, who can see the Ceuse wall from his home and sometimes watches climbers with binoculars. Frequently he zoomed in on Margo and was very inspired by her limitless determination.

Her climbing partners noted that immediately after falling Margo would start hauling herself back up the rope. Her fingers could be bleeding, rain could be dripping down the wall, but still she seemed to have psyche. Sometimes, worried that she was going to injure herself, they would 'pull rank' and lower her for a rest.

What's her next goal?

The Guardian reported that Hayes was coy about her Olympic dreams. "Asked whether she hopes to compete in Japan, she does not say 'yes'. She says: 'The Olympics has been a dream of mine ever since I was a gymnast, since I was six years old.''

Margo seems to prefer keeping big goals to herself. Her climbing partners had no idea that La Rambla was her ambition out in Siurana until they got to the crag and she put her harness on at the foot of it.

But we can make some guesses as to her future goals. Planetmountain pointed out: "It’s worth noting that Sharma freed Papichulo a decade ago in preparation for his mammoth 9b Jumbo Love at Clark Mountain. Given Hayes’ talent, preparation and dedication, it doesn’t seem too farfetched to imagine her soon matching the track record of Angela Eiter, currently the only woman to have sent 9b." 

Eiter, who climbed 9b last year, is just one of the women at the top of their game and hot on Margo's heels. This is indicative of the level of competition that we will see when climbing is included in the Olympics for the first time next year. We look forward to seeing what Margo does next.

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