Robert “Piz” Pizem parked at the north end of Rifle Canyon a little before 10 a.m. Sunday. Two blond boys, ages 2 and nearly 4, spilled out of the car and began whizzing around the parking lot, one holding a red toy airplane. Pizem, a tall, thin man of 40 with curly red hair, remained unfazed and organized the family’s gear.
“We’ll see if I get to climb today,” he said to a friend before heading up-canyon, the boys zigzagging around him with their plastic toys, narrating their adventures with engine noises.
Pizem climbed one pitch. He spent the rest of his day playing along the creek with Rowan and Orson. At home that night, once the boys were asleep, he ran laps on his Treadwall.
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Pizem discovered climbing 20 years ago, while attending the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, and within a couple of years began establishing routes in the nearby Clear Creek Canyon.
“I bought a drill…and placed my first bolts with Gregg Purnell, the guy who taught me how to drop knee and climb 5.12,” Pizem recalled. “Other times I would see a roadside crack or something on a road trip, and we would just stop and climb the line and move on.” Over the years, Pizam developed 25 single and multi-pitch trad routes in Golden Gate Canyon alone.
Pizem also traveled the world, putting up first ascents in New Zealand, Europe, Canada and Mexico. He sought the experience of onsighting in what he calls “its most honest manner: no chalk, no ticks, no anything.”
At age 25, he began working as a high school science teacher, a job he still holds in Grand Junction, Colorado. When he wasn’t traveling abroad on school vacations, Pizem was, and still is, establishing lines in Utah’s Zion Nation Park, his favorite place to climb.
In 2007 he made the first free ascent of Arcturus (5.13+), a 20-pitch classic Royal Robbins aid route on Yosemite’s Half Dome, after breaking his back on the route the year before in an upside-down, 25-foot fall.
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Eight years ago Pizem married Jane Pizem, and four years later they had their first son, Rowan.
On his first climbing trip after Rowan’s birth, Pizem sought a new line in Unaweep Canyon, 45 minutes from his home.
“When I went to sleep that first night with rocks falling through our tent and a few hundred feet of rock already climbed, I felt like I was doing something wrong,” Pizem said. “Like I was not supposed to be climbing anymore and not supposed to be risking my life for my own inner pleasure and should be home with my month-old son. We may have even had three days set aside, but I recall coming back to my family late on day two because I was so torn.”
Despite leaving a day early, Pizem successfully established the six-pitch route, “That’s All I’m Asking For” (5.11) on the trip and began learning to balance family and climbing time, because, as he puts it: “Me without climbing is not good, but on the flip side, me with too much climbing, then I am not a husband or a dad.
“I eventually accepted that I need to climb and that my family needs to be with me and without me. That is how we grow and learn and love.”
The family now has system that allows Pizem to climb and his wife to run, her passion since her senior year of college, throughout the week. They plan their schedules six months in advance.
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Though he has limited time, Pizem is still always looking for the perfect route to establish, regardless of the grade. He has, however, changed the way he approaches each climb.
“I won’t risk hurting myself anymore,” he said. “Maybe there is an extra bolt on that bold route. I now choose more carefully and make sure that each one I climb has value to me and [is not for someone] else. Every route that exists is not worth doing.”
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In 2012, Pizem claimed the first free ascent of The Frank Zappa Appreciation Society (5.13+), a 60-foot overhanging crack testpiece and the hardest route in Escalante Canyon, Colorado. However, he said he has given up several first ascents to spend more time with his family.
“I left a route that I spent three years attempting at a crag I established on Mount Evans [Colorado],” Pizem recalled. “It is one of the most beautiful lines on overhanging granite that I have ever climbed on or even looked at. Ultimately I walked away due to the process of working out the time-management thing with my family. It still needs a first free ascent.
“I also walked from a roof crack in Utah. I gave it to [Canadian climber J.P. “Peewee” Oullete] who sent it a few years back. I was at the point of sending it at any time, but again the time versus cost of the route wasn’t adding up. Those were both first ascents of mine and were the hardest to walk from.”
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Pizem’s kids have begun exploring rocks on their own, playing on boulders their size on their weekly hikes with Dad.
Pizem says the best part about being a father who climbs “is taking my kids outside and hopefully transferring my love of the outdoors to them through positive experiences camping and playing in the most beautiful places on this planet.”