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Snapshot: Shanjean Lee | Doing It All

As a busy surgeon, Shanjean Lee doubted her ability to climb harder.

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Shanjean Lee has climbed V10 and 5.14. She led the laser-cut trad 5.13c City Park, at Index Rock, Washington, for its sixth ascent; has done long 5.12 and 5.13+ in the mountains. But as much a milestone as any was Darkness at Noon, 5.13a, at Smith Rock seven years ago.

[Also Read Climbers We Lost in 2020]

Lee, 36, formely of Portland, Oregon, and now in Reno, is an orthopedic surgeon. After four years in medical school, despite an interest in  orthopedics, she put two years into a different residency, in head and neck surgery, “because I didn’t think I could hack it in ortho,” and as a climber sought a schedule with a better work-life balance. Orthopedic surgery, she says, “is carpentry, putting things together, and the fact that it’s  predominantly male comes with a certain culture that was intimidating at first. But I kind of realized that no matter what I do … it’s hard work and a lot of responsibility.”

Then during the hardest part of her first residency, she did Darkness at Noon.

“That gave me confidence,” she says. “It was a concrete achievement at a really busy time. I realized that even at the busiest times, I can still make gains.” The climb played into her decision to switch into orthopedic surgery.

Q&A with Shanjean Lee

How did you start climbing?

In 2003 or so, at UCLA. My friend Zoe [Loftus-Farren] and I went with a group to Stoney Point.

I loved rock climbing, I just loved rock climbing … [Laughs] I grew up in a very Chinese American household. I didn’t know what climbing and camping were. … My parents sent us to swimming and tennis lessons.

Other major turning points?

I met Chris Bailey Speed [climber, nurse, photographer] in Australia, when I was doing research there for medical school. She was the first person I met who really had built her life around climbing. She convinced me of what is possible even if I wasn’t climbing full time. We both ended up—fortuitously—back in Portland and started training.

How did or do you find time to train?

You kind of fit it in when you have the time. My days change quite a bit but I have a general plan: like this week I need to get two hangboard workouts in and one day outside. What I did—was rest for three minutes between each hang. That was perfect for reading. I would study for my cases [prepare for surgeries] for the next day. Reading is boring and hangboarding is boring, but [laughs] switching between both is kind of exciting.

How did you start climbing in the mountains?

I met Mikey [Schaefer, partner and top all-around climber] in 2013. He’s taught me a lot about climbing, but the most important thing is to be more
flexible. … I was working on getting stronger but not resting adequately, which resulted in a bunch of overuse injuries. Mikey is less goal-driven and
better at climbing what makes the most sense at the time … That’s how we ended up climbing so much in Washington Pass—his brother lives in Winthrop and he wanted to spend summers there.

How far a drive was it for you from work?

Six and half hours.

That’s 13 hours a weekend. Were you cooked?

[Laughs] I think I was always cooked in residency. … Some of those years I was waking up at three in the morning to go to work. The actual driving part, sleeping in my car was, like, luxurious. Nobody’s going to page me tonight.

What was your involvement with “Free Solo” (Schaefer was director of photography)?

I was their “consulting medical physician,” the person they called with medical issues. I was able to make it to the Valley on and off and help out.

Anything you would like to express?

I felt like I was crazy for a long time … to want to do these things. I just want people to know it is possible.

What does climbing bring you?

If I go climbing, mentally I’m ready for the next week. Climbing forces you to be in the present like other things don’t, and that is a real reset.


— FA, A Dark Side ofLiberty (IV 5.13+), 1,100 feet, 10 pitches. Liberty Bell, WA, 2019.

Liberty Crack (IV 5.13), 1,100 feet. Liberty Bell, 2016.

Thin Red Line (IV 5.12), 1,100 feet, Liberty Bell, WA, 2015.

Mr. Yuk (5.14a), Smith Rock, OR, 2019.

Vicious Fish (5.13d), Smith Rock, 2019.

City Park (5.13+), Index, WA.

Beefcake (V10), Bishop, CA.

Soulslinger (V9), Bishop. “I remember watching people on it,
thinking that I would never be able to touch it.”

This interview with Shanjean Lee appeared in Rock and Ice issue 266 (November 2020).