This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 240 (February 2017).
Friday evening hits, and Michaela Kiersch is on the road to the Red. Chicago’s lights fade in the mirror. By 3 a.m., nothing but Bluegrass State stars illuminate the sky
as she sets up camp.
Kiersch, 22, makes the seven-hour drive to the Red River Gorge, Kentucky, almost every weekend in the spring and fall for only a day and a half of climbing.
On Monday, she’s back in Chicago—where she was born and raised—and up for her 8 a.m. class. She’s a full-time student, a bioscience major
at DePaul University. When classes finish, five days a week, she’s off to First Ascent Climbing and Fitness,
where she’s the assistant head coach of the youth climbing team. After practice, she trains.
“I sometimes find it difficult to motivate myself after spending hours trying to motivate and train the kids,” Kiersch says, “but ultimately I draw a lot
of inspiration from them. They hustle in school all day just as I do, and at 5 p.m. we all end up in the gym together.”
Despite school, homework and a five-day-a-week job, Kiersch is climbing at her best. Over one weekend last spring, she redpointed both Pure Imagination (5.14c) and Thanatopsis (5.14b)—her first ascents at either grade—in the Red, and this past fall, she climbed Lucifer (5.14c), then Golden Ticket (5.14c) for its first female ascent.
Q&A with Michaela Kiersch
Who are your climbing heroes?
Oh, man, that’s a loaded question. When I was a kid, my heroes were climbers like Lynn Hill and Beth Rodden. Now, people I know personally, like Nina Williams
and Sasha DiGiulian, have become my heroes. Most of all, my heroes are people who respect the sport of climbing.
Between coaching, climbing and school, how do you manage it all?
Any time I’m not in the classroom or at the gym training or coaching, I spend my time on homework and sleeping. I climb outside on the weekends, which
helps me get through the week.
You climbed your first 5.14b and 5.14c this year. What led to the improvement?
Being really busy. It sounds weird, but when you have more time on your hands, you’re less likely to get things done. It gives you more excuses. But when
each day is so jam-packed, it’s easier to keep a schedule because time is so valuable.
What rules do you live by?
My mom always told me to climb like Michaela, because if I tried to climb like someone else, I would lose my own strengths. She would always say that to
me before big moments, like Nationals. She died in 2010, but I always remember it before big climbs.
She was sick [with lung cancer] from when I was around [age] 3 to when I was 15, when she passed. It was a dark time for a while. But other women in the
climbing community became moms to me. Kim Puccio, Alex’s mom, was one. Sarah Wood-Print was another. She’s the mother of two kids on the climbing team
I coach. She took me prom-dress shopping, went to my parent/ teacher conferences and doctor and dentist appointments. She came to my high school graduation.
We still talk almost every day.
I lost my mom, but found a lot of different women to help guide me.
Do you see a role-reversal between you and the kids on your climbing team?
Yes, I feel like more than a coach, a mentor as well. I’ve known some of these kids for five or six years now, so almost half their lives. They feel really
comfortable coming to me with any questions, questions they’re afraid to ask their parents.
Being a coach is not only about creating good climbers, it’s also about creating good people. We have to teach them how to act at the climbing gym [and]
while climbing outside, and how to be a part of the climbing community.
These are really good kids. I don’t know how I got so lucky. We have so much fun—now I sound like a mom rambling …
They also motivate me to push myself with my own goals. It’s more like a partnership.
What’s your proudest climbing achievement?
My last year of coaching, so the 2015 to 2016 season. I sent 16 kids to Youth Nationals.
- The Golden Ticket (5.14c), Lucifer (5.14c), Pure Imagination (5.14c) and Thanatopsis (5.14b), RRG.
- First place, Psicobloc Masters 2016.
- Third place, USAC Sport Open National Championship 2016.
- Fourth place, USAC Bouldering Open National Championship 2016.
- Has competed in six IFSC World Cups.
Watch Michaela Kiersch and The Golden Ticket (5.14c)