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Climbing The Walls After Four Years At The Top Of Her Sport, Robyn Erbesfield Is Climbing Down To Earth

Climbing champion Robyn Erbesfield demonstrates sport climbing techniques at Wild Walls in Spokane in 1996. (Rich Landers)
Climbing champion Robyn Erbesfield demonstrates sport climbing techniques at Wild Walls in Spokane in 1996. (Rich Landers)

She slips around the base of the Wild Walls monolith, studying each nook and cranny. One climber mistakes her for a maintenance worker.

Muscles of granite camouflaged under baggy black stretch pants and a black sweatshirt, she occasionally points a portable drill into the manmade rock and uses a wrench to move and reposition the adjustable hand-holds like a gardener planting a vertical plot of flowers.

No fanfare greeted her as she ducked through hanging ropes at Spokane’s indoor rock climbing gym. The petite blonde wasn’t looking for it, either. Acknowledging a reporter with a glance and a quick smile, she turned back to her work with rock-solid intensity.

The climbing clinic would start in 45 minutes. Even though she’d presented it more than a dozen times on her 16-city tour, every nit had yet to be picked at Wild Walls.

The interview would have to wait.

Robyn Erbesfield gave her parents little inication that she would be a world-class athlete.

“I did gymnastics, track and played on the church basketball team,” she said. “But I wasn’t a standout. I was never No. 1 at anything.”

Asked if there was any hint that she would some day become the best woman sport climber in the world, she said, “I had determination. Anyone could have seen that. I’ve always given 100 percent to whatever I decided to do.”

She also had a natural gift for a profession that hadn’t yet evolved when her high school boyfriend introduced her to rock climbing 14 years ago.

Growing up in Atlanta, she was not in the thick of climbing culture, although she points out “there’s a lot more rock climbing in the Southeast than most people know.”

For seven years, she honed her skills, never expecting a climb to bring her much more than a good view.

Her growing interest in “sport climbing” on man-made climbing walls was mostly a diversion from her business, a cleaning company called Dustbusters. Sport climbers, belayed by safety ropes, compete to scale progressively more difficult routes up simulated rock cliffs.

By a stroke of fate, Erbesfield’s talents gelled as world indoor climbing competitions were gaining steam and sponsorship.

In 1989, she went to England on a whim and entered her first world cup sport climbing event. The newcomer was unknown.

She turned out to be indomitable.

“Winning was a nice surprise,” said Erbesfield, who talks with the same smooth and wasteless precision she employs from hold to hold up a vertical wall.

Three weeks later, she won an international masters event.

“Life was a little easier with $15,000 in my pocket,” she said. “Being on top makes me tougher and even more determined.”

She quickly got backing from several companies, even though she had little competitive experience.

“I was just a kid and didn’t know what I was doing except that I was there to have fun. It wasn’t until I won those international events that I realized I had potential.”

After seven years on the world climbing circuit, and four years as world champion, Erbesfield is weaning from competition at the age of 32.

Competition was good to her, she said. The American expatriate met her husband, Didier Raboutou, a Frenchman ranked the number one sport climber in the world in 1987.

They live in the summit of a premier rock climbing area near Toulouse, France, and travel the world at the expense of PowerBar and other sponsors.

In Europe, Erbesfield is a celebrity in many circles. In the United States, her 5-foot-2 body can slip through most crowds unnoticed until she begins defying gravity, hauling her 100 pounds up overhangs with monkey-like ease.

Through the miracle of ESPN, a portly customs agent recognized her name last month on her most recent U.S. visit.

“He didn’t climb or anything,” she said. “I was amazed.”

But while there’s glory and money in being the best, there’s little rest.

“You have to live and breath it every day to compete at the world level,” she said. “I’ve been into heavy competition for four years. People who train so they can peak for one competition or another can kick off for a few months a year. But if your goal is to be No. 1, there’s no down time.”

Her competitive routine involved two days of on-the-wall workouts, 8- to 10-hours a day, followed by a “day off,” in which she would run, stretch, do sponsor work and demonstrations.

“I’d devote three weeks max to weight training,” she said. “From (ages) 20 to 25, I did a lot of weight training and got the basis. I don’t need it so much anymore.”

Nor does she need the competition “I’m ready to turn the page,” she said. Once again, her timing seems right.

When Erbesfield began climbing, there were no climbing gyms. “At last count there were 375 in the United States, with projections that there will be 1,500 in three years,” she said, noting that Wild Walls “is one of our favorites.”

Being a businesswoman, she recognizes this as a market. Being a world-class competitor, she’s pouring 100 percent into her transition.

Spokane was one of 22 stops she and Raboutou made during a 31-day, 16-city tour through the United States. Students paid $90 apiece for four hours of toe-hold tutelage from the masters.

To fit the schedule, the clinic at Wild Walls was scheduled from 7 p.m.-11 p.m. so the couple could fly the next morning to Portland.

Erbesfield spent a few minute with each student before heading into a no-frills, no-bull session on being a better climber.

“Don’t put your foot like this if you want it like this,” she said, making a small adjustment in the position of her toe on a nub in the wall.

“Put it right the first time. You can climb precise and fast.”

This is easy to say for a woman who wears out a pair of $150 climbing shoes every other month.

In the next phase of the clinic, the mission was “to be precise with rhythm.” There’s a place for hard training and gaining stamina, she said, “but to climb well, you have to progress through good technique.”

As one man struggled at the crux of a route high above, Erbesfield yelled, “Breathe!”

The man’s chest pulsed, and he continued up with much less effort.

“In many ways, this sport is very basic,” Erbesfield said. “But at the competitive level, it becomes mental. If you can’t see the route above, you have to be able to imagine it. The key is to look before you start, and remember. Instead of hanging on and looking at holds, you go for it.”

“Breathe!” yelled Raboutou from the other side of the monolith.

“It’s a common problem,” Erbesfield shrugged.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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