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Claire Buhrfeind’s Phenomenal Week in the Red River Gorge

Before last week Claire Buhrfeind's hardest send was 5.13d. Now she has sent two 5.14c's and a 5.14a.

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In 2012, then 13-year-old Texan Claire Buhrfeind sent Ultraperm, a 5.13d in the Red River Gorge, and her hardest climb to date. During the next five years she built a formidable reputation for herself as one of the leading American competition climbers, reaching a zenith this year when she won both the lead and bouldering competitions at the IFSC Youth World Championships. But her outdoor climbing plateaued.

“I used to joke that I peaked when I was 13, because I just haven’t really invested much time in my outdoor climbing since then,” Buhrfeind, now 19, tells Rock and Ice. But then, last week, she broke through that plateau, shattering her personal best of 5.13d, and proving that, far from having peaked, she is a climber to watch. On Monday, November 27, and Tuesday, November 28, Buhrfeind sent three 5.14s in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky: Lucifer (5.14c), Omaha Beach (5.14a) and Southern Smoke (5.14c).

First up, on Monday morning, was Lucifer, a route nearly a full number grade more difficult than her previous hardest send. “I didn’t expect my first 5.14 to be a 14c,” she says. After finding herself clipping the chains of Lucifer much sooner than she had expected in her trip, Buhrfeind next turned her attention to Omaha Beach, a 5.14a nemesis that had dogged her in previous trips. Wasting no time, she got straight on it that afternoon.

Buhrfeind had tried Omaha Beach several times in the preceding four years, always on oppressively hot summer trips to the Red with her climbing team.  “I’d just fall and fall on the same moves and it was a huge mental battle for me,” she says.

Not this time, though. She says, still which a hit of disbelief in her voice a few days on, “I sent Omaha Beach on my first try of the day.”

That she is capable of sending 5.14s in short should probably not be surprising: in 2016 she onsighted Face de Rat, an 8a+ (5.13c) in Céüse, France, and she has sent multiple V11s. The legitimately surprising thing is that she hadn’t sent 5.14a before this.

On Tuesday morning, Buhrfeind went to the Bob Marley crag with Red River Gorge climber and journeyman Dru Mack to try her luck on Southern Smoke (5.14c), one of the area’s ultra-classics in the 5.14+ range. She had previously attempted it last spring with Michaela Kiersch, but having the opposite problem she had with Omaha Beach, was stymied by the cold conditions.

This time around, with crisp sending temps, she sent the route with relative ease, taking it to the chains on just her third try of the day, her fourth overall burn including the one from last spring.

Asked what was different this trip from past ones, Buhrfeind says it’s a combination of the atmosphere and the mentality: “I definitely didn’t expect to do all this. I think that I came into this trip with no expectations. Wanted to enjoy myself and have fun. This was my first time being in the Red in the fall and it’s just so magical. I love it. Refreshing for sure.”

She’s still got two more days left in the Red—”I had to extend my trip because I got too excited”—and next on her list is The Golden Ticket (5.14c), at the Chocolate Factory crag. Time will tell if two days are enough to extend her streak of 5.14s, but if we had to put money on it, we definitely wouldn’t bet against her.

Buhrfeind’s success in the Red comes hot on the heels of American Dylan Barks’ own rampage in the Red, when he sent a 5.14d and 5.14c in consecutive days. To read more about Claire Buhrfeind—what makes her tick, her Olympic aspirations, and her competition accomplishments from the past several years (including titles such as the 2014 Psicobloc Masters)—check out the Snapshot column, in Rock and Ice issue 247 (January 2018), on newsstands now.

Also read Michaela Kiersch Sends Two 5.14c’s in One Weekend