Last fall, the visiting New Zealander Mayan Smith-Gobat came within a yoyo’s worth of free climbing the Salathé Wall. Smith-Gobat has climbed over 105 5.13s and seven 5.14s, and has established long and short first ascents. But she started her athletic career on a horse. From age 7 until she began rock climbing at 16, Mayan rode horseback, competing to an advanced level in show-jumping, cross-country and the combined category, including dressage.
That was when she learned about “really controlling your emotions,” she says. “Staying really calm even if you’re quite worked up.
“The horses can pick up on any emotions that you have. Especially in competing. If I got nervous, my horse would also get nervous and then it all went to shit.”
Smith-Gobat, 30, born of a New Zealand mountain-guide father and a German mother (also an alpine climber), is a most impressive all-arounder. She has come to Yosemite twice to learn true crack climbing, and on this second visit redpointed all the individual pitches of the Salathé (5.13b) free until she fell on the route’s crux, the bouldery second Headwall pitch, and lowered to a hands-off rest rather than the belay because the sun was hitting the wall. Three weeks after first arriving in autumn 2009, Smith-Gobat onsighted the multipitch Astroman (5.11c), leading every pitch.
Elsewhere Smith-Gobat has climbed up to 5.14b with the sustained L’Academician, Céüse, France, and onsighted 5.13b with Coliseum, Rodellar, Spain. Her first ascents include an extension of The Giving Tree (5.14a), Little Babylon, the 1,600-foot Kiapo Wall (5.12b), and the first free ascent of the 1,000-foot route Shadowland (5.12d) in the alpine Darren Mountains, all New Zealand. She also won the Chill Series in big-mountain free skiing in New Zealand in 2000.
A high-energy person who has trouble doing nothing even for a few minutes, Smith-Gobat strings together a gypsy living through bits of sponsorship, guiding and routesetting, and by selling her artwork: oil paintings and metal mountainscapes. She is based in Christchurch, also home of her partner, Max Farr, a top climber as well, and periodically visits Omarama, New Zealand’s major gliding center (she is a glider pilot herself), where she is part owner of a café with her mother.
It was a ski crash that turned you into a climbing devotee. How did you start big-mountain skiing?
I just really enjoyed, well, launching myself off cliffs and going fast and those silly things. Then I started the extreme-skiing competitions for several years from about age 18. I followed winters so I’d spend a winter in New Zealand and then go over to Canada. I came to the States to Colorado, and got a job in Keystone. I was at Breckenridge when I hit a tree.
I’d just done a practice run for a skier-cross competition, and we were in a hurry to get back to the top because the comp was starting. I didn’t know the ski area and I was following a friend. He turned off one of the tracks onto another and then stopped, realizing it was the wrong way. I thought I could jump across the corner between the two tracks … I turned and flew straight off and there happened to be a very large pine tree right there, and I flew out 15 feet and hit the tree about 10 feet up. I ended up with a broken heel bone, fractured my other ankle and fractured my jawbone in two places. That was terrible—you feel quite violated having your mouth wired shut. So I’m just sitting there not being able to do much, no outlet. I couldn’t use my legs, and started using my arms. I started climbing while still in a cast, started really enjoying that movement on rock. And the exploration of physical strength, really.
Are you goal-oriented?
More like driven. If I am passionate about a project, I can be extremely single-minded and dedicated, to the point of being impatient and possibly appearing rather self-centered at times. However, I clearly understand myself and do not let these things, which I value as strengths, get in the way of my friendships, or the community around me.
Describe the café.
Omarama is a very small town. The normal population is about 400 people but over the summer months there’s a lot more. The café is on the airfield. I go down there and give my mother a break every now and then, and I run it. I bake muffins and cakes and bread and make lunches, and then we do a set-menu dinner, usually about three choices. When I’m there I generally work from early in the morning straight through until late at night.
Do you like it?
I like it for a day. After a few days I get pretty sick of it. [laughs] I enjoy cooking but find the work pretty hard, and it’s hard to balance that and climbing.
How often are you in New Zealand?
Last year I was only home for three or four months.
Will you stay, or live anywhere else?
I love New Zealand but as far as climbing it doesn’t have a lot to offer me anymore. I’m half German as well. I’m seriously considering moving to Europe.
To be the best I can be and get as close to my limits as possible. Sport climbing has predominantly been my focus. However, I have been really enjoying being up on big walls lately, and trad and crack climbing ... In March I will be establishing a new route on the tallest rock face in New Zealand, almost 4,000 feet. Then in fall I will be returning to Yosemite, to attempt the Salathé again, in one push from the ground.