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The Rock Jester

Tiffany Hensley on juggling limes and throwing down

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Tiff on Pumping Monzonite (V8), in Joshua Tree.

Tiffany Hensley looks back on what she says was a split-second decision. She was 15 and attending the 2006 Youth Worlds in Austria, finishing with speed climbing, the event held after the difficulty portion in which she had placed an excellent second.

“I could tell this Russian girl was trying her hardest,” Tiffany says. “The Russian team is very competitive. She wanted so badly to win, and I didn’t care … Second in difficulty was good enough.”

When Tiffany reached the top of the speed wall, she inverted, and hit the buzzer with her shoe, for second place.

It was the last thing any attending coaches expected. Her own coaches just called her a knucklehead, and laughed it off. Hensley, now 17, goes her own way.

This is the person whose long and creative introduction on describes herself as a “philosophical boulderess, builderer, wise-ass” and “low-level jester.” She does perform circus tricks—juggling, unicycling, and walking on her hands—and calls them “great for two reasons: they’ll start a conversation, and they’ll stop a conversation.”

On rock, Hensley’s sends extend to Beefcake (V10), Soul Slinger (V9) and Nicole’s Overhang (V8) at Bishop, and Pumping Monzonite (V8) and Relic (V9) in Joshua Tree.

In December, Tiffany won the Adult Open at the Continental Championships in Montreal, Canada. Also in 2008 were an outstanding fourth at the adult Bouldering World Cup in Vail, and, early in the year, a then-surprise third (changed to fourth after an appeal) at Tiffany’s first adult Nationals. In junior events, she took her fourth win in the Youth Sport Climbing Series (SCS) Nationals, and finished sixth at the Youth World Championship in Sydney, Australia, after only she and Johanna Ernst, the eventual winner, topped out on the semifinal route.

“But my personal greatest achievement is realizing how little all these placings matter,” she tells us.

Tiffany seems thoughtful and subdued, or as one fellow member at her gym puts it, “demure.” She more generally calls herself “socially awkward and all that jazz.” But, especially in writing (she was interviewed both in person and by e-mail), she is a playful and original, challenging thinker.

She will graduate from high school next spring. Meanwhile, her next event is the American Bouldering Series Nationals in February.

See video clips on

Why are you called Crash?

Everyone calls me Tiff. But when they think of me, they remember the crazy 7-year-old girl bouncing off the walls of a climbing gym: the quiet little cannonball who couldn’t tell the difference between a short fall and a 20-foot head-dive, which often ended in missing the mat. I’m recovering.


What is your family like?

We aren’t the typical nuclear family. I live with my mom in a redwood forest, and my father lives on a military base. My stepsisters are both older than I am.

You hold a job. Where?

In a public library, carrying and shelving books by the cartloads.

How did you learn to juggle?

I was 13 years old, in Pacific Edge, self-consciously working a blue-taped problem in front of Chris Sharma, when something, a disc in my spine, I think, tweaked out of place. They had to carry me to the car. In an hour I couldn’t even stand. I was bedridden for two weeks, unable to move. I was angry. I was frustrated. What if I died, never having learned things like how to juggle? When I finally hobbled out of bed, it started with two limes, then three. I trained three to four hours a day for three weeks straight.

Tell us about philosophy.

I love talking about philosophy. I’ve stayed up three days writing a 12-page essay arguing that our human existence is just a hoax, and just as many hours sitting in trees with passing strangers, conversing heatedly over everything from Holmes to Kantian theory to why a girl shouldn’t eat the flowers her date gives her on Valentine’s Day. Pesticides.

What are your next comps?

I’m planning to move beyond the youth scene to start hitting only major bouldering and sport-climbing competitions; specifically, the World Cup series. But until senior year ends, it’s the Triple Crown, SCS and ABS. I’ll be missing the first Triple Crown for an SAT test.

How’s school?

I’m a senior, luckily. I don’t think I would last another year. … I’m taking four advanced classes and two languages, and every day I go to train I’m putting off an essay or physics packet. My life is school and training—nothing else. Not even sleep. If I do sleep, I’m up two hours before school, in a café, finishing my homework. Then: physics, politics, and English literature, followed by either work or homework and, if there’s time, an intense, butt-kicking 10-mile run to the climbing gym for a quick session (and another espresso to stay awake). It’s very grueling. And very satisfying.

Why a cafÉ?

Home has a dial-up connection. I can’t access or watch SoILL clips. But it’s also a good change in atmosphere. Home for me is lonely, isolated, and these days I miss the interaction of climbers more than anything else.

You plan on college. Have your climbing peers influenced you?

If I were influenced by the hippies down at the crags, I’d be running away to Monaco or Font. After high school, I’ll travel to Europe. Then I’m planning to major in sociology, literature and languages.

Europe for a summer or a year?

A year. Considering what I’m putting myself through now, it would kill me not to.