Ryan Palo: To Bolt or Not to Be

posted by dpm on 02/05/2011

Twenty-seven year old climber Ryan Palo claims to be your average weekend warrior. He works at a desk in Bend, Oregon doing content aggregation for the legal industry and surfing Facebook. In 2004 , he started pimpin’ the bad pockets and small pebbles of central Oregon’s petrified mud. What he hasn’t told you about is the rampage of hard sport climbing he went on this past year. Ryan toured the country and came away with an impressive ticklist including over ten 5.14 routes in areas as diverse as Rifle, the Red River Gorge, and Smith Rock. Most impressive is his recent ascent of the iconic To Bolt or Not to Be, America’s first 5.14.

To Bolt or Not to Be.  Photo: Kris Taylor
DPM: Ryan you’ve had a killer year, tell me about the circuit you went on this past year. 

Ryan: I pretty much drove straight across the states from Central Oregon to Kentucky.  I stopped by Riggins ID; super fun steep limestone similar to Rifle’s Wicked Cave.  Then a bit of Pipedream action in Maple Canyon UT. I visited the OR trade show to do some fan schmoozin’ and shwaggin’.  Then a five week stint in Rifle, where I learned to kneebar and refine the art of 12- inch tickmarks.  I checked out RMNP and Boulder. Then I enjoyed the scenic corn vistas of Kansas on my way to spend the fall in the Red.
DPM: How’d you like Rifle?  Is the scene as bad as the rumors make it sound?
Ryan: I think this picture sums it up nicely:
The Rifle Scene: Kneepads, duct tape and shirtless men posing.
I also wrote a blog post about the Rifle scene. It didn’t live up to the rumors I’d heard of ‘fronting’, sandbagging, choss, and spraylords. People that haven’t visited tend to have a skewed perception.  
DPM: What makes Rifle such a special place?  
Ryan:  Forget all the variety, comfy jugs, interesting knee-bar gimmick routes, and endless spray.  What makes Rifle so great is the convenience.  Just drive two minutes from you campsite, throw your lawn -chair-rope bag down, crack a beer, and get climbing.
DPM: What about the Red?

Ryan:  There are so many good things to say about the Red.  The untapped potential alone is mind blowing.  I’ve walked by beautiful untouched walls, walls we’d kill each other to equip in Oregon.  The climbing is amazingly simplistic yet difficult in the best kind of way.  In my mind, the best part of the Red is the laid back supportive vibe.
Photo: Kris Taylor
DPM: And now you’re at Smith Rock and just sent the iconic route To Bolt or Not to Be. What drew you to that line?
Ryan:  I wanted to do something that didn’t really suite my strengths.  To Bolt has endless beta, little rests, awful holds and feet, poor clipping stances, and a serious mental factor.  In many ways it’s like defending your thesis in technical face climbing.  I guess I wanted to see if it was possible for me.
DPM: That route is on every hard sport climber’s life list but it sees few ascents, even from the pros. Why is that?
Ryan:  It’s such an iconic line in the US.  It truly marks the first time American and global standards met.  I think a lot of really strong people show up with aspirations of To Bolt only to find their home areas left them ill prepared for Smith.
Photo: Kris Taylor
DPM: What is the route like? I’ve heard people say it’s just a bunch of 5.11 moves for a long way. Is it straight endurance or do you have to bear down?

Ryan:  In its 120 feet, I’d say there’s probably only 15 feet of 5.11 climbing.  Most of it is in the mid 5.12 range, with 5.13 cruxes every other bolt.  The devil comes in the linkage and remembering which mirco smudge to back step.  You rarely have a good hold and foot at the same time.  Most of the time you’re doing an awkward high-step using a marginal sidepull.  The first real rest comes at the 80 foot mark where you get a sloping foot and 3/4 pad edge to catch your breath.  From there, it’s roughly 13a to the chains.  It’s still very beta intensive and you can fall just about anywhere.  What makes the top section really difficult is the feeling that the send might be possible. This makes the last few bolts even more nerve racking.
I actually fell on redpoint high up on the route because a ruffle on the wall half the size of a pinky nail obscured the smudge I needed.  I ended up rotating as I fell, catching my leg behind the rope, and landing on my left shoulder, hurting it pretty badly. On subsequent burns this made doing many of the gastons more painful.
DPM: What was the process of taking on this route from the first time you touched it to the send?

Ryan:  Even with perfect beta from entrenched Smith Rock beta librarians, it feels and looks so improbable.  It’s really hard to believe some of the feet actually work for the movement.  I kept thinking my foot was going to blow with every move (and it did).  After a couple tries I was able to remember some of the moves and even get some linkage.  The only difference between the send and my first time was remembering all the beta.  I still felt like I was going to fall on every move.
DPM:  The list of people that have sent To Bolt reads like a who’s who of elite climbing. How does it feel to finally be in that club?
Ryan:  Oh man, don’t go there.  I definitely don’t belong in that group.  I’ve repeated a lot of hard routes and put up some of my own, but I definitely do not have that kind of vision the very best climbers share. For JB Tribout to do this route in 1986 is outstanding.  It’s not like many of the new hard lines going up now.  Most of these routes are extensions and/or link ups or near existing routes.  To Bolt is surrounded by routes much easier than itself; it’s almost perfectly blank, and dead vertical.  It took a real visionary (equipper Alan Watts) to even consider it possible.
To answer your question, it’s a pretty novel feeling as Joe Schmo to stand on that ground.  More than anything, I’m just happy to be successful.
Photo: Kris Taylor 
DPM: Do you just climb to stay fit or do you train as well?

Ryan:  Yeah, as a working slob, I spend a fair amount of time training.  I’m a pretty average guy, I just work harder than most people.  Most days after work I run, lift, and do climbing specific training like weighted hangboarding and campusing.  Climbing here in Central Oregon tends to be a bit more powerful than your usual limestone area.  Cruxes require great contact strength and are usually separated by decent rests.
If I had my way I’d boulder in Hueco in the winter, Bishop in the early spring, sport climb and do longer routes in the spring and summer, and spend the fall out east of course.  Unfortunately, the real world calls and climbing remains just a dedicated hobby.

Ryan:  Hey man, he was just doing Ian and me a favor.  Do you have any idea how worn down my ultra lightweight balsawood-infused quickdraws get from a gentle breeze?  He just had my best interest in mind.
Ryan thanks his sponsors Metolius and La Sportiva. Thanks also to Kris Taylor for the excellent photos. Check out Kris’ website for more good climbing shots.