When Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou was on vacation in El Salto, Mexico, last fall, she decided to knock out a different 5.13 every day. Just because she could. And therein lies the difference between the 55-year-old world-class climber and the rest of us: she’s never lost the confidence in her abilities that, for many of us, seems to diminish as we age.
“This is the problem with adults,” Erbesfield-Raboutou says. “Kids think they can do anything. Nothing is impossible for them. But adults are stuck in an ‘I can’t’ mindset. For adults, so many things seem impossible.”
And Erbesfield-Raboutou knows exactly what’s possible in the world of rock climbing. After discovering the sport at age 18, she soon turned her newfound passion into one of the most successful professional climbing careers in history. While winning four World Cup titles and five U.S. Championships in the eighties and nineties, she became just the third woman in the world to climb a 5.14a. In 1993, she went undefeated for 11 straight competitions. Soon after, she began coaching, eventually becoming the head coach for the U.S. Climbing Team.
In 2005, she created ABC Kids Climbing, a gym and training center in Boulder, Colorado, that has won seven national climbing-team championships and produced countless national and world champs, including Chris Sharma and Margo Hayes. Erbesfield-Raboutou’s own children are among her trainees and are setting the climbing world on fire right now. Her oldest, 20-year-old Shawn, ticks off some of the hardest climbs in the world, and her 17-year-old daughter, Brooke, is sending V13 boulders and 5.14c sport routes.
Although Erbesfield-Raboutou retired from professional climbing in 1996, she enters the occasional amateur competition. But because there isn’t a deep masters field in women’s competitive climbing, she ends up comparing her scores to women half her age. Still, she’s finding new endeavors to keep her motivated outside. “I’d like to go back to Mexico this year and find another 5.14 to send. I did a couple last season, and I’m psyched to try again,” she says. She trains five days a week when she’s working a project, using the hang board to foster strong arm tendons and fingers and doing weighted pull-ups to build strength. Climbing days alternate between sport routes in the gym, where she climbs well below her grade to build endurance and fine-tune rope management, and bouldering days, to build power and nail down certain movements.
Erbesfield-Raboutou says she’s learned the true value of rest as she’s gotten older, and she periodically takes a day (or two) off. But she’s still tenacious. If she’s working a sport climb outside, she’ll put in five to seven pitches a day. If she’s bouldering, she’ll work a project until there’s no daylight left. “I feel like my body is amazing,” Erbesfield-Raboutou says. “It responds to anything I ask it to do. I think if I wanted to be a full-time climber, I could reach a level similar to what I had when I was 27.”
Erbesfield-Raboutou’s experience coaching some of the best young climbers in the country has helped her hone this confidence. The first step, she says, is to align the mind with the body, whether that’s with meditation or visualization. Figure out where you are as a climber, define your goal, and start telling yourself that you can do it. “Yes, there is a physical change in a person’s body as they age. We have to come to terms with that,” Erbesfield-Raboutou says. “But what’s more important is your mindset. Are you motivated? Can you stay positive?”
Erbesfield-Raboutou has her students take a page out of faux motivational speaker Stuart Smalley’s book by repeating positive affirmations before and during a climb: “I can do this.” “I’m prepared.” “I’m ready for this climb.” The young athletes surround themselves with uplifting thoughts by affixing sticky notes around their houses with supportive statements and placing stones with messages written on them in their chalk bags. “For some odd reason, we are programmed to have negative thoughts. It’s just part of the human mind,” Erbesfield-Raboutou says. “What we try to do is block those negative thoughts and replace them with something positive. That’s where it all starts.” These tricks have helped her as well: recently, Erbesfield-Raboutou tackled a tricky 5.14a she couldn’t send when she was younger, and she attributes this success to a stronger mental game.
Pick a goal, convince yourself you can do it, and then put in the work. Any climber can adopt an intense training schedule, but the most important aspect of your training should be what exactly you want to accomplish, according to Erbesfield-Raboutou. “I’m sure we’re limited as we get into our seventies or eighties, but you’re gonna have to shoot me before I give climbing up,” she says. “Climbing is a lifelong sport. It’s something you can get stronger at as you age. I can get any adult to climb 12a in a certain amount of time. The door is pretty open.”