Phillip Schaal’s grandfather Eric was a master of detail, a Life magazine photographer who shot portraits of Robert Frost, Woody Guthrie and Salvador Dali. Phil’s father, Andi, was a ski racer on the junior Swiss team, and then a World Cup and Olympic coach whose athletes included Sandra Poulsen and Tyler Palmer, both racers in the 1972 Winter Games, Steve McKinney and Doug Woodcock.
You could say that Phil, age 28, combines his grandfather’s gift for distillation with his father’s athletic focus, in his case applied on boulders in his home region of Hartford, Connecticut, and during frequent stays in Colorado and Hueco Tanks, Texas.
“I think all of us Schaals have an obsession,” Phil says. “All of us chose to throw our lives into our passions.”
He met his reknowned grandfather twice. “He always wrote to me and I think I was special to him,” he says. “I remember he would lick my face—yeah, lick my face. I guess to show me how much he loved me. I was his only grandchild and he was very eccentric.”
Currently based in Boulder, Schaal was last seen trying Clear Creek Canyon’s Echale (V14), done only by Woods, Dave Graham and Paul Robinson. Schaal came on strong last year, climbing far harder than he had in 2008, which was proportionally harder than in 2007. Most notable was his ascent, the fifth, of Daniel Woods’ famous boulder problem Jade (V15) in Rocky Mountain National Park in August. The next month he ticked Ode to the Modern Man (V14) at Mount Evans. He had first raised eyebrows in February with the second ascent, after a gap of six years, of Dave Graham’s The Book of Bitter Aspects in Bradley, Connecticut, given V14. (See feature, this issue.)
“Since then it’s been downrated, but not by me,” Schaal says, with a muted smile. “Personally, I like numbers, but I’m not the kind of guy to downgrade or upgrade a route. For me it’s a consensus.”
His many standout, geographically diverse V13s have included Agent Orange in the Shawangunks, New York; The Chelsea Smile, Lincoln Woods, Rhode Island; Roses and Blue Jays, Great Barrington, Massachusetts; Nagual and El Techo, Hueco Tanks, Texas; and Top Notch, in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Schaal also climbs sport routes, authoring some up to 5.13c, and last year did two 5.14s in Rumney, New Hampshire, perhaps unsurprisingly finding the five-bolt Parallel Universe (5.14a) harder than the four-bolt Super Nova (5.14b). As he wrote on his blog, Parallel “starts with a V10 boulder problem into a very pumpy 13a/b. It was much harder for me … based on the pump factor.”
Schaal is soft-spoken and downright polite, quick to downplay or joke about what he has done. He generally travels with his climber girlfriend, Nikki Keeney, while other regular climbing partners include Ty Landman, Nick Sherman, Sander Pick, Jason Pinto and Marlon Campos.
His background is international on both sides: Phil’s mother Eloise Tencher, is a Chilean, who met his father at a summer ski camp at La Parva. A glamorous and firecracker personality, thrice-married, she lives in Middletown, Connecticut, running a café with her Austrian husband. Phil also has a brother through her: Billy, 16, whom he calls “an amazing guitar player.”
Did your father mind that you didn’t ski race?
No, because he had broken like 40 bones in his skiing career. He wanted me to do what I wanted to do. He introduced me to training and discipline.
What have been your breakthroughs?
Jade would be the most important, but there are others that I fought harder for, like Freaks of the Industry (V13+), over 12 days and I sent on my last day in [Rocky Mountain National Park] after I had kind of given up. I even announced, “This is my last try and it would be great if I did it.”
What do you do in your free time?
I love to cook, bake and eat. Lately I’ve been experimenting with doughnuts.
What is your style of climbing?
I like all styles and I believe that not having one style that you try over and over again is the key to success. I know what style fits me best, slightly overhanging on small crimps.
You seemed to do Jade awfully fast, in three days. You have spent some eight days on Echale, though intermittently, over three years. Is Echale maybe harder, or harder for you?
Yeah, Jade was perfect for me. I have been going to Echale a bit lately, almost sent it, falling on the last campus move, but then the weather got snowy or warm and it just never happened. And to top it off I am going to California tomorrow for a month to help my father after his knee replacement.
But it’s real hard for me since it’s not at all about finger strength. It’s all about core strength and power.
Or I may be going about it all wrong. I’m sure I will finish it—today, this spring or next fall. Once I’m determined to climb something I usually see it through.
What do you remember of your grandfather?
Well, he was like 5’5” with long hair, which was weird for me since I thought I was cool with my long hair at the time. He was skinny. He married a way younger woman that took good care of him.
Unfortunately, my grandfather’s treasures (Picassos, Dalis, priceless works) [went] to her family in New York. So I don’t have much from him. Just some pictures he took.
Who are your climbing heroes?
First were Ben Moon, Jerry Moffatt, Malcolm Smith. I grew up in New England and my friends and I were always saying how we had to do a move “British style,” usually a more powerful, direct way. Now my heroes are the climbers that are doing great things without any egos involved.